Why does a villain do what they do - why be evil? This week’s posts are all about exploring the motivations of villains, and hopefully by the end of it you’ll have a good answer to both those questions! We’re going to start by covering the foundation of any interesting villain: they think of themselves as a hero. Said another way, every villain has goals to achieve, desires to fulfill, and fears to avoid. For various reasons, they can’t meet these needs through socially acceptable means, so they have to act outside of the law and the best interests of the many, thus making them evil. Sure, sometimes the villain is Skeletor and he just cackles madly for 75% of his interactions with the heroes, but we can do better. Let’s go over a few reasons that a villain might act outside social norms. We’ll cover knowledge, power, justice, love, freedom, and order.
Knowledge is up first because it’s a simple motivation that many of us can relate to: the desire to learn more about something. Most of us don’t go to extremes of stealing or killing to achieve our goals, but when someone desires knowledge about a forbidden topic, they might have to. Fiction is full of examples of heroes breaking the rules for a good reason, maybe your villain wants to learn about the process of becoming a lich because they’re dedicated to destroying them. As they get older, they find themselves tempted to use that same process to prolong their life and continue their goals. Performing the ritual costs them their friends and allies, so they turn to necromancy, and soon a war between undead factions has broken out, with the living of the world caught in the crossfire.
What about power? Power is a classic motivation, and it generally stems from a desire to control something in the world. A villain might seek power to guarantee a better life for themselves or for their family, and if your nation lacks a democratic process for gaining power, you might feel like your only option is to kill the king and take the throne by force. Growing up in a society that punishes the physically deformed could lead someone who was born that way to seek power so they can change their world, and if they feel no sympathy for current leaders, there’s little reason to make it a peaceful transition. Violence gets results.
Justice is commonly used as a reason for good people to do apparently evil things, typically killing the ‘bad guys’ or stealing something they need. It’s an appeal to a greater sense of right and wrong, and a reason to right past wrongs. It’s also deeply subjective, making it an excellent reason for a villain to take action. Perhaps their family’s land was taken by the royal court when they were young, and their parents worked themselves to death trying to keep the family afloat. Killing every member of the royal court is only fair. Revenge is similar to justice, but comes from a personal perspective, and is usually about finding relief from anger or shame, rather than appealing to any sense of morality or making amends.
Love is a big, big topic, and it can motivate a villain in many different ways. They would be willing to kill to protect a loved one, or perhaps they have an obsession with a noble, and intend to marry them (or kidnap them) because the thought of them with anyone else is unbearable. Or, for a less personal love, if their home country lost a war and became the vassal of a larger nation, perhaps the villain turns to terrorism and sabotage to bring down the nation that conquered their homeland. Maybe the villain put the people of an entire nation into stasis until the world is safe for them, but the stasis is imperfect and they are slowly aging. Or a non-human villain might try to transform the climate of the world to suit their species, making it toxic to most humanoids in the process. In general, love as a motivation comes down to either protecting and preserving a beloved person, place, or idea, or obtaining an out of reach person, place, or idea.
A villain motivated by freedom might seek to destroy a caste system, eliminate the idea of monarchy passing through bloodlines, or redistribute the wealth of the rich. Robin Hood, from the perspective of the rich, is a villain. It’s all a matter of perspective. Taken to extremes, freedom becomes anarchy. Such a villain would stage a prison break just because the idea of anyone being imprisoned is wrong, or they assassinate leaders because no one has the right to order another person around.
Order is the opposite side of the coin from freedom. Villains motivated by order might unify surrounding groups through conquest (like Genghis Khan), or impose strict laws and regulations on the citizenry to reduce crime and keep the peace. They will sacrifice the freedoms of others to guarantee their security. Taken to extremes, order is slavery. A villain that embodies extremes of order would seek to control everything, creating what they view as the perfect society on whatever scale fits your campaign, perhaps making a small “utopia” in the wilderness, or trying to reshape an entire nation (or several) to fit their designs.
This list is not exhaustive by any means, there are many other reasons a villain might go outside typical boundaries and do things that are considered evil. We won’t go into detail on them right now, but here are a few other motivations that might inspire you: destiny, hunger, challenge, wealth, and tranquility. The motivations here are all very human desires, and non-human villains may differ, but it’s still a good idea to stick to these basic principles, because you want your players to be able to relate and understand. If, on some level, they think that the villain is justified in their actions, you know you’ve created a very compelling antagonist.
Tomorrow’s post will take this list of goals and explore why it might motivate someone to want to rule the world, or even a part of the world, because it’s usually more trouble than it’s worth.
Steven Gordon - 2CGaming Team