So why take the road of villainy?
Well at first glance that’s a stupid question, because it really can be for anything a character wants. But, while specifics will vary from case to case, there are three broad categories of villainous motivation and each brings with it natural hang-ups that can drive conflict with heroes. It’s important to nail down these motives ahead of time, both because it will help you work out the plot of your story and because knowing a villain’s motivation helps you line up their resistance to the high road with your audience’s, which is an important part of villain building.
The most common villainous motivation is Power. For the purposes of the discussion we’re having from here on out that term refers to the ability to cause physical or, if you prefer, material changes in the world. Blowing something up, killing a person or even more neutral things like spaceflight or cheap, clean energy are examples of power. Another way to think of power as a motivation is the ability to control circumstances.
Yzma, Bill Cypher, Louis Renault and Brigid O’Shaughnessy all seek to control the world around them to some extent, whether by obtaining and keeping high office as with Yzma and Louis, plain getting rich and buying off those around her as with Brigid, or just making it into the world as we know it to wreak havoc as Bill tried to do.
Of course the biggest power villain on the list is Klaus, who hammers every problem in his empire with his iron fist. It’s not that Klaus doesn’t recognize subtlety, he just only uses it when he has to. Most of the time Klaus just tells people what he wants to happen and they make it happen. If they can’t, Klaus builds something that will make it happen. Maintaining this status quo is very important to Klaus, in fact it seems to be the most important thing in his life, and while that’s not always admirable it is understandable.
Power villains cause conflict when the circumstances they want don’t match those of the hero, when the cost of pursuing those circumstances hurts the hero or the costs just become outright reprehensible. While there may be other ways to solve a villain’s problems, power often seems like the safest or most certain route, which is why they tend to ignore more heroic options.
In contrast to power, Influence is a motivation that has nothing to do with circumstance and everything to do with perception. A villain seeking influence cares most about how people will see the world and, usually, the villain in relation to it. Consider Maleficent, for example. She didn’t want anything more than to be recognized as being of equal importance to her peers in the fairy realm. The circumstances of Aurora’s parents aren’t important to her, neither is ensuring her own position, which she no doubt views as perfectly secure. She just wants her due respect.
Darth Vader is also a villain seeking influence. He has as much physical and political power as a person could ever want. But in A New Hope he can’t get his teacher to acknowledge him. In the following two films, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, Vader is trying to get his son to change sides and work with him. Vader is not spending his power on mastery over his circumstances, he’s using it to try and change the way others look at him.
The last example is an outlier in that Legato Bluesummers wasn’t particularly trying to change the way Vash looked at him. Rather, Legato’s main concern was with Vash’s philosophy. Legato hated the human race and reveled in causing it misery and he apparently couldn’t coexist in a world with a man who treasured humanity. His entire purpose in life and death is to force Vash to abandoned his world view. Legato wanted influence over Vash’s mind but in regards to general outlook, rather than specifics.
Influence villains basically only clash with heroes when they have to apply some kind of coercion to make people share their views or their views are somehow directly harmful to others. They typically try and change other people’s minds because the alternative would be to make deep, difficult changes to themselves and they’d rather not indulge in the introspection or emotional pain that entails.
Finally, the lure of Immortality is the main driving force for many villains, although it’s probably the rarest. While rarely the first priority for most villains the idea of legacy, a kind of immortality, is certainly in the minds of many. But there are those villains that are driven purely by the desire to live forever.
Whether it’s immortality through longevity or legacy, most villains who seek immortality run in to trouble when their means to immortality is inherently unethical or has unexpected consequences.
Dio likes the power being a vampire gets him, bit mostly because it gives him the chance to live forever. Likewise, he comes into conflict with most of his opposition because he must kill to stay alive. It’s unlikely that Joseph and Jotaro would ever have fought Dio if he hadn’t stolen the body of their ancestor but Dio could never have survived to the modern era if he hadn’t. Thus, as Joseph said, their conflict was essentially inevitable.
Slade Wilson is an example of a villain motivated by legacy as a form of immortality. He wants Robin to take over his position as an underworld kingpin, even if he has to twist Robin’s mind to do it. Later, when Robin turns him down, Slade finds another potential successor and finally goes whole hog and makes a deal with a pseudo devil to, you guessed it, live forever.
And Klaus, while not driven primarily by immortality, still wants a stable succession to what he’s built and for people to maintain positive images of his friends, the Heterodynes.
For the villain who wants immortality, the fear of death or concern for the things they’ve built override all other concerns, and so they simply have no regard for the harm their actions cause. This is probably the hardest argument for straying from the path of righteousness to swallow for most people. So, like Slade or Dio, we tend to find immortality villains warped when we first find them but only driven to the point of villainy when they get some fleeting glimpse of potential immortality. Klaus is the other possible approach – portraying a character who doesn’t fully see the consequences of his pursuit of immortality and thus doesn’t realize they are more harmful than the perceived evils he is putting off.
What you may have already gathered is that there is nothing inherently evil about what motivates great villains. That’s to be expected, since villains are supposed to be represent the audience in some way so they have to be motivated by things the audience can understand. Consider a man who robs banks. If he does it just for the sake of having money few people will relate. But if it’s for the purposes of buying off loan sharks, a kind of power, that’s something most people will understand. Same for someone needing money to make a good impression, which is influence, or someone trying to finance a computer that will store their mind after their body dies.
Sadly, many villains today are shown as driven entirely by immediate goals – money for the sake of money, hatred for the sake of hatred. Rather than having clear, understandable goals they’re driven by monomania or barely comprehensible philosophies. This is not the way to great villains.
What I think happens frequently is that a villain’s methods are confused with their goals. We need to talk more about villainous goals but first we need to dive into a villain’s impact, a catch-all term for their presence, their memorable actions and their important lines. That seems to be where many villains focus – which makes sense since that is what’s memorable about them. Then we’ll step back and look at the synthesis of desire and impact and how it makes villains great. See you next week.