Villains’ motivations in fiction: reason or “justification”?

I could have called this reblog “Sometimes, he shares a post saying what he’s wanted to say for years but hasn’t been able to express succinctly.”

From “Stop Fondling Evil,” by Sarah A. Hoyt:

“When I was a very young writer, knee high to a novella, I read the stuff about giving your villains a motive. This is good advice up to a point.  The point is that at which, instead of giving your villains a motivation, you give them a justification, then you make them into tragic victims, then you feel sorry for them, then you are no longer sure who is the villain and who the good guy.  And then next thing you know, your characters are running around in a grey and uninteresting fog and the reader feels like he’s trudging through soup.  Amoral soup. […] Yes, everyone has a reason.  Having a reason doesn’t make what they do justified, only understandable (sometimes.)”

I want to know what a story villain’s motivation is. (“It’s a rock monster! It doesn’t have a motivation!” Yep, Weaver has a movie quote for just about everything…) I do not want the author to tell me that I should feel sorry for the villain, that he’s only evil because his mom once denied him ice cream when he was a young child, which hurt his feeling and caused him to grow up to be a violent sociopath, so the reader and the characters in the story should all just let him do whatever he wants because it isn’t his fault… Even when there is some sort of eventual redemption for the bad guy, I don’t want to be told that means all his past actions suddenly never happened.

I’m sure much of the problem is wrapped up in writers (and readers) not knowing the difference between an antagonist and a villain (remember, kids, you can have Good vs. Good as your conflict, as in Captain America: Civil War), which is probably where all that ‘No one is bad because everyone is the hero of their own story’ comes from. No, everyone is the protagonist of their own story — d’uh! — because of course every person is the main/viewpoint character in the story seen through their own eyes. How could it be otherwise? That doesn’t mean everyone is a hero or even just a not-bad person. And as for the notion that everyone is good because people never see themselves as bad… Bullshit. For one thing, humans tend to have an amazing capacity for self-deception; if nothing else, current politics should have made that clear. (How else can you explain Orange Thing describing himself as “a very stable genius”?) Also, a lot of people do see themselves as bad, even some of the ones who aren’t.

Sometimes it seems that, in overreaction to the concept of Pure Good versus Pure Evil, some writing guru somewhere started the idea that fictional people must be entirely amoral, or rather, that fiction writers must be entirely amoral and have no opinions on some actions/attitudes being, y’know, bad. Or even worse, in my opinion, the idea that, ‘Nobody is perfect, so everyone is evil.’ That worldview looks a lot like a writer trying to justify their own bad behaviors or attitudes by saying, ‘Yeah, well, everyone does it, so there!’ or ‘I bet you talked back to your mother once when you were little, so you’re no better than the serial murderer in this story!’

Don’t be that writer.



About Thomas Weaver

For several years, I’ve been putting my uncanny knack for grammar and punctuation, along with an eclectic mental collection of facts, to good use as a Wielder of the Red Pen of Doom (editor). I'm physically disabled, and I currently live with my smugly good-looking twin Paul, who writes military science fiction and refuses to talk about his military service because he can’t. Sometimes Paul and I collaborate on stories, and sometimes I just edit whatever he writes. It's worked out rather well so far. My list of non-writing-related jobs from the past includes librarian, art model, high school teacher, science lab gofer… Although I have no spouse or offspring to tell you about, I do have eight cats. I currently spend my time blogging, reading, editing, and fending off cats who like my desk better than my twin’s.
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