The origins of imaginary people: Motive.

Last time I ranted a bit about stereotypes and humanity. This time I’ll try to get into the weeds of what makes a villain a good villain.

I don’t mean they just have a dark backstory, or a motive that can be twisted into a thing we don’t hate. When I read that the villain is a villain because he was bound to a demon at birth, and then his parents died, and then his lover was murdered, I do the eyeroll. It’s an immature attempt to heap up reasons for being a villain, while ignoring the truth of what villains are.

In the real world, most people don’t wake up and think: today I will be an even bigger jerk than I was yesterday. No, we (generally?) want to see ourselves as the good guys of our own stories. But it’s also a given that truly awful things happen anyway.

So, let’s look at that disconnect. Interesting things happen in the gap.

Mining the Gap

What truth do I see in generational power shifts?

When I was young, the old people had all of the power. They teased kids for the way they were raised … by the generation in between. Children were soft, spoiled, undisciplined.

Side note: which generation am I talking about? Am I talking about being a Millennial? An anti-Vietnam protester? A punk rock revolutionary? Isn’t that something. Pick a decade, any decade. I’ll say it again: this is the dumbest conflict we’ve ever invented. Same shit, different decade. Anyway…

Someday I will leave middle age and be “old”. It will feel unfair to be the young generation’s villain based on something I cannot control. Ah, now we’re pulling on feelings shared by communities of color and caste. There is a lot of potential here.

Now I want to take all of those feelings and jam them into my villain. I need to be able to agree with the bad guy, to see myself in them… and still root for them to fall. Why?

It’s hard to explain – and maybe that’s the root of its appeal. By seeing this part of ourselves in a villain, and seeing it be defeated, it can feel like we’re squashing the part of ourselves we find undesirable. We’ve changed during the story – made ourselves into a better version via the protagonist’s actions. Because, for this to work, we fully identify with both sides of the fight.

So, phew. That’s hard to pull off. Too far in one direction and I’ve insulted the reader. Too far in the other and he’s a cartoon nemesis.


So, let’s play with that disconnect between what my villain thinks of himself, and what other people think of him. What “good” does he think he is up to that is now being threatened by this energetic whippersnapper?

Like most of us, my villain has built a life for himself. He’s worked hard, and sacrificed, and finally feels like what he has is sturdy and safe. This life he’s created is his baby, and he will protect it as fiercely as any parent would.

Now, let’s give him a goal. If everything is perfect, he’s not a real person.

Let’s say he’s a little bored. A little tired. He’s ready to do turn his attention to something new and recognizes that, on some level, he’s going to have to give up some control over his creation. He’s decided to retire. Not fully. Not now. But someday, if the right person comes along, he will hand them the reigns.

The problem is, no one is qualified to inherit his baby. The ones he has considered are just too … young. Their lack of experience will surely destroy what he has painstakingly built.

Now the evil twist …

Sure, he was young and inexperienced when he started. He made plenty of mistakes. That’s why he knows how important it is to find just the right person to inherit his creation – someone he can carefully train to do exactly what he wants them to do. Someone who will respect the goals he wants achieved.

Aha. I like that. Now we have a villain with a bit of depth. He’s not evil – he’s just careful. But he’s also requiring that his replacement has to be something super-human. Something impossible to attain. Something he didn’t even have himself. He wants his ward to embrace his dreams, and only his. It is not possible for his successor to possess the kind of skill, experience, and goals that he wants, so he can never be replaced.

Our villain might want to do something new, but he can’t. Giving up control is also giving up his sense of relevance – of importance. He does not want to fade into obscurity. He doesn’t want to be unnecessary. Unloved.

He’s a little afraid, too, though he will never admit it to us. What if he does find this perfect person? This imaginary person who makes no mistakes. Then … won’t they do a better job than he did? What if they don’t just replace him – they expose his dirty secret: that when he’s alone with his own thoughts, he sometimes admits that he isn’t as amazing as he’s made people believe. He is, at his core, only human, with human insecurities and fears.

And there. Beyond the stereotype, swimming in the gap, I’ve found my villain.

What do you think?