This Is NOT Antagonism We’re Talking About Here
There are few stories that don’t involve some form of conflict. It isn’t always necessarily a case of good versus evil but the key to a captivating story is ensuring that the journey has obstacles for the protagonist to overcome, particularly an antagonist.
They’re often the ultimate obstacle between the protagonist and whatever goal he/she is working to achieve… Or they can just be a hilariously bad obstacle and provide a small hindrance to the protagonist with a big comic relief to the readers.
The antagonist is often considered as “the bad guy” or “the villain” but that isn’t necessarily true. A protagonist is the main character and the antagonist is the character that antagonizes them. They’re characters that are in direct conflict with each other but that doesn’t define which one is in the right. There are many stories that cover protagonists with questionable morals who are opposed by characters that we typically consider as “the good guys.”
So rather than trying to get inside the mind of an antagonist – a character group that could involve just about anyone – I’d like to focus on someone we sometimes have trouble relating to in stories: The villains.
Why Would Anyone Find This Difficult?
Everybody loves a good villain and the best of them come in many shapes and forms. However, sometimes it can be tough to understand them. After all, the hero in a story usually possesses positive traits that we aspire to display ourselves such as bravery, kindness, a strong sense of justice and so on. We don’t just love our heroes because we admire them, we love them because we empathize with them.
Villains, on the other hand, aren’t just in conflict with the heroes, they’re in conflict with the very traits that we find appealing in our fellow human beings. They can be brutal, merciless, deceptive or just generally chaotic. How do we even begin to understand a person like that?
Unless you yourself are a writer by day, villain by night then chances are you won’t have a perfect insight into the way your favorite villains tick while still taking the time to read this article. For everyone else, all I can offer a list of some of the things I consider when developing a villain and trying to understand their motivations.
They Weren’t Always A Villain
You may never write about your villain’s childhood but you shouldn’t forget that they once had one.
We all know of the evil acts that Adolf Hitler committed during World War II but did you know that he used to work as a casual laborer and painter? Hitler’s life wasn’t a particularly happy one before he became the ruler of Nazi Germany. His mother died of breast cancer when he was 18 and he was forced to live in homeless shelters for a time. This was during a time when his hometown was a hotbed of racial prejudice and anti-semitism. He was temporarily blinded by mustard gas and was caught in a shell explosion during World War I.
Being brought up in a society of racism would make it pretty easy to blame your misfortunes on a race of people. Being granted the power to do something with that blame can make it far too easy to become the villain.
There are no excuses for evil acts to be performed but there is always reasoning, even if it’s wrong. If the world’s most hated national leader was once a painter, who knows what your villain could have been? It’s up to you to work out what drove them down this path.
Everybody starts off with a blank slate in life, what dirtied it?
Some Things Can Be Out Of A Villain’s Control
That being said, not every slate starts out quite right and not every human brain functions the way it’s supposed to. To understand this part, you may want to research a little on psychology. I have a big book on my bookshelf but I’ve cleared thirty pages of it at best so I’ll try to keep this part brief.
Among what we consider our normal society, there are a LOT of anomalies. We have psychopaths, we have sociopaths, we have people with multiple personalities, mass paranoia and schizophrenia. There are mental impairments, serious hormone imbalances and post-traumatic stress disorders.
I imagine that the worst thing about suffering from one of these is the lack of understanding normal society has for them. Psychopaths aren’t always criminals, sociopaths lack empathy but still feel a need for stimulation. A disorder or illness doesn’t stop that person being a human being.
If you decide to write about a villain that suffers from one of these issues, do your homework and try to understand what that means. These kinds of people still have compulsions, desires, things they want in life. Did they seek those out by regular means before? Did they have the choice to, or was the compulsion there from the start?
If so, work out how they discovered that compulsion and what it meant to them to feed it.
A Villain Always Has A Goal
No matter what kind of background a villain has, they always have one thing in common: An ambition.
It doesn’t need to be grand, it doesn’t need to be planned but there is always something motivating them to make the choices they do. Those intentions can even be inherently good-natured.
Look at Magneto as he’s portrayed in the X-Men movies. He is a mutant who is always at odds with his fellow mutants the X-Men and regularly at war with humanity. Why? Does he feel a need to kill? Is he out for total rule of the world? Actually, he just wants to protect his people and have them live in peace. He doesn’t believe that humanity will ever allow for that and when you look at our track record (see Hitler above), is that really such a surprising judgement?
There can be good intentions behind evil actions. A villain can lose sight of their goal and take things too far in their quest to achieve it. Their reasoning can be misguided by their limited experiences, their mental state or perhaps they tried to achieve it in a better way before but failed.
There are too many examples to list but my point is that nothing a villain does seems pointless to them. A murderer never kills for no reason; They may have a bad reason (They wanted to know what it was like, they feel pleasure when killing, an act of passion, etc) but that doesn’t seem like a bad reason to them. Anything can inspire their motive; revenge, love, religion, health, a lust for power, lust in general, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that there is always a thing and you need to work out what it is.
I guess the entire point really is that a villain is still a human. If your villain isn’t human then you’ve read this far because their mind still works like a human’s. If it doesn’t, then I have no idea how you got this far.
Oh God! Are you a hero who discovered my night job?