A character’s motivation tells us why they’re doing what they’re doing. A hero wants to end oppression, so they join a rebellion against the evil empire. A villain wants to enrich themself, so they strip-mine a vital wildlife preserve. If a character’s motivation doesn’t fit their actions, audiences will be confused and then frustrated as the character acts counter to their established traits.*
While this can certainly happen to heroes, it’s a bigger issue with villains. Realistic evil is often disappointingly banal, so it can be hard to explain why our bad guys would commit the kind of dramatic villainy needed for a good story. Let’s cover five examples and see what that looks like.
1. The Tsurani: Magician: Apprentice
Somewhere around the one-quarter mark, Magician: Apprentice veers off its extremely generic fantasy rails and introduces invaders from another dimension: the Tsurani. Granted, the Tsurani are still a pretty generic evil empire, but it’s something!*
Unlike most villains, the Tsurani don’t actually need a specific motivation. They’re a militaristic empire: conquering is what they do. There are any number of reasons they’d want to gobble up new territory, from securing natural resources to enslaving the local population for cheap labor. Heck, if the Tsurani work like later European empires, they might be searching for subservient markets to buy their manufactured goods.
But instead, we’re given a very specific motivation: metal. Apparently the Tsurani don’t have any metal, so they’ve crossed dimensions to get some. Now hang on, you might be asking, how are the Tsurani such a military threat if they don’t have metal? The good guys have a medieval tech level, which should be more than enough to deal with weapons made from stone, wood, or bone.
Fear not, there’s an explanation: the Tsurani have a substitute material that seems to work just as well as steel. Sometimes it’s described as “much stronger than anything [the good guys] know,” and sometimes “for all its lightness, it is nearly as strong as our best steel.” So it’s either stronger than steel or nearly as strong but much lighter. I don’t know why the book has that inconsistency,* but regardless, this material is clearly getting the job done.
So… why do the Tsurani want metal? More specifically, why are they incurring the huge costs of an interdimensional war to get it? I have no idea. Not only do they seem to have plenty of their substitute material, but it doesn’t seem like they could even use metal very well. As you may be surprised to learn, metal doesn’t dig itself out of the ground pre-forged into swords and armor. The technology to mine and shape metal took millenia to develop in the real world, which is a pretty distant return on investment for this invasion.
Assuming the Tsurani skip a few steps, perhaps by employing smiths from the conquered territories, building an iron or steel industry from the ground up will take decades if not longer. They’d need to train entire professions of miners and smiths, to say nothing of the countless other skills that are required to produce steel tools from raw ore. During this process, the empire would undergo massive economic disruption as its substitute material industry is upended.
Frankly, I’m skeptical that whichever families control the substitute material’s production* would even let this war happen. I’m even more skeptical that the empire’s leaders would commit so many of their resources to a war with such miniscule gains. This is one of those times when the bad guys’ motivation should have been left mysterious.
2. The Son’a: Star Trek: Insurrection
In TNG’s third appearance on the big screen, our villains are the stretchy-faced Son’a. At first, their motivation is fairly straightforward: they want to harvest a special anti-aging radiation from a special planet because it will extend their lives and also create lucrative business opportunities in the galactic pharmaceutical market. Sure, the harvesting process will displace the Baku, a group of about 600 people who live on the planet and never age, but that’s a price the Son’a are willing to pay. And since the Baku are pacifists who’ve rejected all modern technology, displacing them shouldn’t be too difficult.
But then we get into the surprise backstory, and it’s much weirder. It turns out that the Son’a are actually Baku themselves. We’re told that they “wanted to follow the ways of the offlanders,” which could mean using advanced technology, or it could just mean leaving the planet. We’re then told that the pro-tech rebels tried to take over Baku society and failed. I’m guessing that means the Baku practiced passive resistance, since I’m not sure how else you fail to take over a low-tech society that’s sworn off violence.
If this wasn’t complicated enough, we then learn that the Son’a were somehow exiled after their failed coup. Um. How? The Baku are pacifists with no advanced technology. Did they all agree to give constant dirty looks until it was too awkward and the Son’a flagged down a passing freighter? Or am I supposed to believe that they built a spaceship with handsaws and a flower mill?
Logical issues aside, this backstory introduces the Son’a’s big motivation problems. First, why bother trying to take over Baku society? If they wanted to use advanced tech, the nonviolent Baku couldn’t stop them. Maybe they needed the Baku to provide labor for building replicators and warp cores, but the movie doesn’t mention anything about that. At the same time, Star Trek technology is pretty low effort to build. Once you get a replicator, you can get just about anything else.
Second, why would the Son’a actually leave the planet? In the future, they’re no longer immortal because they were forced to leave, but couldn’t they just settle down on another continent, out of stink-eye range? Again, there’s only about 600 Baku and the planet appears to be roughly the size of Earth. The Son’a could have moved less than an hour’s drive away and never seen any Baku again. Unless, of course, leaving the planet was the Son’a’s goal all along, in which case mission accomplished? But they could still come back to de-age for a few years whenever they start to show wrinkles.
3. The Meduse: Binti
In this incredibly dark scifi novella, a group of aliens called the Meduse hijack a human spacecraft full of high school graduates and immediately slaughter nearly everyone aboard. No one on the ship is armed as far as I can tell, nor is there an active conflict between the Meduse and humans. There used to be, but the book is very clear that the two species now have a treaty. This isn’t even a hostage taking gone wrong, as the Meduse make no effort to take anyone alive. Instead, they proceed directly to brutally murdering teenagers, and the protagonist is only spared because she has some advanced tech that can kill Meduse who get too close.
So at this point, it seems pretty clear that the Meduse are entirely evil. They’re either Cthulhu-style eldritch horrors that have no concept of life as we know it, or these particular individuals are the alien KKK, terrorists whose main goal is to hurt their perceived enemy through any means at their disposal.
Nope, it’s neither of those things! Instead, the protagonist slowly gets to know the Meduse and learns that they’re not so different. The book goes on about how the Meduse are super honorable, they definitely understand what death means, and unlike us dirty humans, they “don’t kill for sport or even for gain. Only for purpose.” Granted, it’s the Meduse saying this, but the protagonist and later other characters completely accept it, so it seems to have authorial endorsement. Don’t ask me how killing unarmed teenagers is honorable; I haven’t figured that out yet.
So, what possible purpose could be big enough to convince these honorable aliens to massacre first and ask questions later? Were the dead kids carrying a virus that threatened to wipe out all life? Or maybe everyone except the protagonist was secretly following the cult of an elder god? No, it’s that a nearby university-planet has the Meduse hijacker’s stinger on display like it’s an unknown artifact.
Now, it’s totally reasonable that the Meduse would want that back. But jumping to child murder seems like just the tiniest bit of a stretch. If the Meduse are really that inherently violent, it’s hard to imagine them having a cohesive enough society to support space travel. It’s a cartoonishly extreme reaction, even after exhausting all diplomatic options… which the Meduse also didn’t do. They never even asked for the stinger back. When the protagonist finally convinces them to ask, the university gives it back without any argument, explaining that it was presented to them under false pretenses. No one at the university seems to care about the dead kids.
I am genuinely unsure what’s going on in this story. My best guess is that the author wanted scary murder-villains in the beginning, and then later switched to wanting sympathetic, understandable villains. Both kinds of villains are doable in a story like this, but they would need drastically different motivations to do what the Meduse do.
4. General Kirigan: Shadow and Bone
Netflix’s latest hit show has been making the rounds for several reasons, not least of which is that its villain looks like he walked off the pages of Evil Is Hot Magazine. This is General Kirigan. He dresses in all black, rides in a carriage, and has the carriage pulled by a team of black horses. I guess him being the villain is technically a reveal, but I think we all had an inkling.
Kirigan’s big evil plan is to take control of a spooky magical darkness called the Fold, which currently divides Fantasy Russia in half. When he controls the Fold, Kirigan will be able to open pathways through it to help his allies and also expand it to swallow his enemies. Seems legit. His motivation is that he wants to be powerful enough to end the mistreatment of this setting’s poor oppressed mages. Sigh.
Look, my issues with oppressed mages aside, this is a pretty good motivation. The mages in this world certainly need help, and no one else is stepping up. Plus the current leadership of Fantasy Russia is terrible, so why not get a little coup going on the side? Unfortunately, Kirigan then wrecks his motivation by destroying a major city in the country he just finished taking over.
Why does he do this? I have no idea. If Kirigan has any special dislike for this city, it’s never established. One of his political enemies does use the city as a base, but he’s not even in the city when Kirigan nukes it.* The reason Kirigan states is as a demonstration of his power, but the country he just took over is at war. He has plenty of opportunities to demonstrate his power without blowing up his own stuff.
Of course, he really did it because the show needed a big reason for protagonist Alina to oppose Kirigan. Until then, while Kirigan had been cruel to Alina personally, his political goals mostly aligned with hers. She certainly didn’t have any attachment to the Fantasy Tsar,* and she also didn’t want the setting’s mages to be oppressed. If Kirigan hadn’t engaged in a bit of light mass murder, it might have made more sense for Alina to go along with his plan.
This is a common problem with sympathetic villains. Writers make their motivation so reasonable that there’s actually nothing for them and the hero to fight over. Then the villain has to hang a bag of kittens over a cliff to set the stage for a final battle. I don’t know if Kirigan has the same problem in the book, or if this is something the show added, but it makes for an unsatisfying ending either way.
5. Meredith Walker and Peter Hale: Teen Wolf
I saved this one for last because it’s a two-for-one deal. It’s also really complicated, as a lot of Teen Wolf’s villain plans tend to be. The first thing you have to know is that in the show’s backstory, a werewolf named Peter Hale was put into a long coma when anti-werewolf hunters burned down his house. When he gets out of the coma, he goes on a bloody quest for vengeance to become top dog of the local supernatural community. This turns him into season one’s big bad, and it works just fine.
Fast forward a few seasons and we meet Meredith Walker, a banshee whose main purpose is delivering cryptic warnings and showing us how spooky the local mental healthcare facility is. That’s more than a little ableist, but there aren’t any motivational issues yet. Then in season four, our main villain is “the Benefactor,” a mysterious figure who’s paying assassins to go after any supernatural beings in the area.
The Benefactor’s identity is season four’s main mystery, and it’s a real doozy. The Benefactor has a deep web of secrets protecting their identity, including a subplot where they’re somehow sending out online instructions to their assassins via magnetic tape computers from the 70s. I’m not sure those are compatible with modern internet architecture, but whatever, our heroes finally unlock the Benefactor’s identity, and it’s – drumroll… Meredith! Who’d have thought?
Certainly not me, because Meredith has no reason to want the local supernaturals dead, let alone the connections or technical skills to put such an elaborate plan together. So why and how did she do this? Drumroll #2, please… she was in the hospital at the same time Peter was in his coma, and she somehow overheard his bizarrely detailed plan for revenge, then decided to execute it but waited until the fourth season for reasons.
I have some questions. First, how did she overhear his thoughts? That’s not a power banshees are established to have, nor will any of the banshee characters ever use it again. The only explanation we get is some magicbabble about how “they’d somehow found the same wavelength.” My second question is why Meredith would do any of this. She has no animosity with any of the victims, nor does she have any kind of relationship to Peter. So she’s not doing it for herself, and there’s no reason she’d want to do it for someone else either. Maybe there’s a magical compulsion involved, but if so the show never mentions it.
Just as important, why does comatose Peter want to do this? The explanation given is that he thinks the local supernaturals have gotten weak and need to be culled so he can start over. But it’s difficult to believe that would be the first thing on his mind rather than, say, revenge on the people who burned him. And indeed, when he finally recovers from his coma, he goes for the much more obvious revenge plan rather than this “murder everyone” idea. Apparently he forgot ever thinking about it, which might be how werewolf comas work – who knows?
The only explanation the show offers is the implied – but never stated – idea that both villains were entirely irrational due to trauma or mental illness, so what they do doesn’t have to make sense. There’s ableism there as well, but the more immediate issue is that if the two characters really are that irrational, there’s no way they could put together and then execute such a demanding and complicated plan. Coma-Peter wouldn’t have got past the angry screaming phase, and Meredith’s participation would have ended when she tried to install Firefox on computers from the disco age.
There’s no single motivation that works for every villain.* The key is to match the motivation with what you need them to do, which you can come at from either direction. Maybe you write out the villain’s plan ahead of time, then reverse engineer what’s driving them. Or you can give a villain their motivation first, then decide on actions that suit it. Whichever way you choose, it’s important to make sure the two sides of your villain match; otherwise, your story is in for a bad time.
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