Writers are encouraged to dig into their hero or heroine’s past to understand what factors (including wounding events) are steering their behavior and motivation in the story. By doing this we can ensure our protagonist’s goal align with the unmet need driving them, tailor challenges that will force them to face specific fears, and raise their awareness of destructive emotional shielding (flaws, biases, dysfunctional behaviors) that is holding them back. Internal growth, after all, is what character arc is all about!
Putting time into backstory is a no-brainer for the protagonist…but there’s another character often overlooked who also needs this type of development: the villain.
The villain (if your story has one) plays a crucial role. He’s the main source of conflict, making the hero’s success that much more difficult to achieve.
Few things disappoint readers more than a cardboard villain who is “evil for evil’s sake.” Yet, we see this portrayal countless times, which steals the power from an otherwise incredible tale.
Compelling characters have real motivations…villains included.
Just like the protagonist, we should always know what is driving the villain in the story. Here are three key areas to brainstorm to help you build a credible antagonist that readers will love to hate.
All characters enter the story with a suitcase of past pain, including your villain. The fear of being hurt again motivates him just as it does the protagonist, but how this manifests through behavior will be darker. Uncovering the wounds of the past is a must because to write the villain’s dysfunctional behavior well, we need to know what caused it.
To find the wound, ask yourself, who hurt him, and how? What negative life lessons did other people or circumstances teach him that led to his current jaded worldview? Someone, or something, caused him to become the person he is now, and his past trauma, whether it involved a significant loss, a humiliation that can’t be forgotten, or a betrayal that locked his emotional shielding into place, is at the root of it.
Another area to examine is the villain’s moral center. Core beliefs shape our actions, but in fiction, the villain’s code of conduct will change significantly due to the skewed way he views the world.
Imagine two people who suffer the same devastating circumstance—say, one of their children dying in a hit-and-run accident. Though they end up with the same missing need of safety and security, depending on personality, support system, mental state, and a slew of other factors, they could go about filling this need in different ways. One might pursue a career in law enforcement, seek to change the law regarding drunk-driving offenses, or open a rehab center to make it easier for alcoholics to receive treatment. Goals like these are inherently positive pursuits and make sense for someone seeking security.
Another person could go a completely different direction: stalking and ultimately murdering his child’s killer or going on an arson spree and burning down bars around town. He thinks that eradicating the responsible person or establishments from his neighborhood will make the world safer. But because he refuses to work through grief and instead allows fear to dictate his behavior, these goals are ultimately dissatisfying, leading him to commit bigger offenses in a desperate effort to find peace.
Morality is often the biggest difference between protagonists and villains. His do-not-cross line, if he has one at all, is set much farther back than the protagonist’s, enabling him to do unthinkable things to get what he wants.
Unmet needs are also the result of a wounding event. Being hurt in such a deep, psychological way leaves the character in a protective state: he’d rather go without something (love, pursuing a dream, freedom, etc.) than risk having it stolen from him again. The longer this need goes unsatisfied though, the unhappier a person becomes. In a change arc story, the protagonist will eventually reach a tipping point where he’s no longer willing to live without his unmet need, but the villain doesn’t always get to this place. Why is that?
One possibility is that the antagonist once made an attempt to work through his wounding experience and that attempt was unsuccessful, reinforcing the same pain he first felt. As a result, he became hardened and unwilling to risk that kind of hurt again.
Another likelihood is that the villain refuses to revisit the wound and heal because it’s too painful and so simply muffles the gnawing void by pursuing whatever temporarily eases the hurt. This may result in him rejecting his emotions so he feels nothing for himself or anyone else, thereby enabling him to seek revenge (Howard Payne, Speed) or do truly horrific things without remorse (Jigsaw, Saw franchise).
Or maybe the villain’s dysfunctional behavior is personally satisfying to the extent that he’s not willing to give it up. Vices are ultimately destructive, but on a base level they’re enjoyable; for someone who is in denial or is mentally imbalanced, these activities can act as motivators that make it difficult to sacrifice them in favor of lifelong changes for the better. Understanding how your villain copes with his unmet need will help you write his actions in a way that rings true.
A villain’s motives will have deep roots.
Villains are products of their past, just like everyone else. Genetics and anomalies can play a part, but the overwhelming majority of deranged individuals are that way because of the negative people and events they were exposed to. Knowing what’s driving him and why he’s chosen his particular goal helps you to portray a villain who is credible. If you need help with this, pull out your book, or visit One Stop for Writers’ vast collection of emotional wounds.
What’s your villain’s motivation in the story? Let me know in the comments!
Angela Ackerman is a writing coach, international speaker, and co-author of the bestselling book, , as well as five others. Her books are available in six languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. Angela is also the co-founder of the popular site Writers Helping Writers, as well as One Stop for Writers, an innovative online library built to help writers elevate their storytelling. Find her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.