How To Motivate Your Villains

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Motivating Villains, The Table Read Writing Advice
Dr Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog

Written by JJ Barnes

When you’re writing a story, it’s obviously important to make sure your Protagonist is well motivated. However, if your Antagonist isn’t motivated equally, and exists solely to disrupt life for your Protagonist, your story will lack depth.

      Considering your Antagonist to be the Protagonist in their own story will mean you make your Antagonist an interesting and complex character, which in turn will improve the quality of your story. I’ll explain techniques for motivating villains, and give examples from Dr Horrible’s Sing Along Blog.

Antagonists are Still Human

Depending on the kind of story you’re writing, your Antagonist could be motivated to come between your Protagonist and their love interest, or to blow up the world, but whatever it is that makes them the villain of your story, make sure you motivate their behaviour on a human level, make it something real and understandable.

To find the human motivation at the core of even the dastardliest villainous crimes, you should be able to journey back in time to the base of their motivation which can come from a place of good. That good can, over time, become warped and twisted as the villain makes bad decisions and becomes corrupted, but at the very base of their crimes is a desire to improve something either in their life or their world.

I’m referring to the Antagonist and the villain of your story as if they’re the same person here, and for the most part that’s likely to be the case. However, it’s not necessarily true. The Antagonist is whoever, or whatever, is set against your Protagonist, whereas the villain is someone who wants to do villainous things

Motivating Villains Such As Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog

A great example to check out for how to do this well is in Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. The reason it’s such a great example is because the villain is actually the Protagonist, which is very unusual, but works very well.

Motivating Villains, The Table Read Writing Advice
Dr Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog

      Because Dr. Horrible is the Protagonist, the writers Joss, Jed and Zack Whedon, and Maurissa Tancharoen, have made sure you sympathise with him and want good things for him. You cannot sympathise with a villain if their motivation isn’t understandable and doesn’t come from somewhere good. The Antagonist, Captain Hammer, is actually the hero.

Dr. Horrible wants to do evil things, and this is made clear immediately. There’s no confusion over the fact he’s a villain. He wants to join the “Evil League of Evil”, admission to which is dependent on his willingness to commit murder; and he wants to use his Freeze Ray to freeze people and disrupt the progress of society.

On the surface, his doesn’t sound like a character you should find endearing or root for, which makes him a challenging Protagonist. Partly this works because of the natural charm that Neil Patrick Harris brings to the role, and that shouldn’t be overlooked; however, with the writing of that character, Tancharoen and the Whedon brothers give him humanity and vulnerability.

Give Your Villain Things They Care About

Motivating Villains, The Table Read Writing Advice
Dr Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog

To make his motivations come from a place of good, Dr. Horrible is shown despairing over the negative parts of our society and he is driven to improve our world. This sounds like a noble and honest pursuit. He talks about wanting to change the problem of homelessness from the root rather than by just patching it by raising money with Penny, the love interest. However, his efforts are ultimately broken by his own characters flaws, and it’s his devotion and love for Penny which both brings the optimism for the character to have a happy ending, and his ultimate downfall.

Giving your villain things that they care about and things that they love, such as Dr. Horrible’s love for Penny, demonstrates their humanity and the fact they’re driven by more than just villainy. Make sure that their desire to do evil or disrupt the good guy’s life is just one aspect of a rich and developed personality.

Find the Humanity When Motivating Villains

Even the most terrible villains have come from somewhere; even the most violent of criminals have passions and interests, and most bad guys have been corrupted and twisted into doing bad things rather than setting out initially to be bad. Representing that in your story will make it a richer experience, and also show a better understanding of humanity that your audience will connect

More From JJ Barnes:

I am an author, filmmaker, artist and youtuber, and I am the creator and editor of The Table Read.

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