Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Villainy Part 2: Motivation

Wanted: A non-clichéd antagonist for novel. Must have conviction, guts, and brains. Special skills or knowledge a plus. Motivational, innovative, and charismatic individuals need only apply.

Motivation may seem like an easy ingredient when making an antagonist, but putting some thought into the antagonist of your story can have an enormous payoff. Why does that bully at school like to pick on your protagonist in particular? Why has the serial killer honed in on the protag or someone the protagonist knows? What drives the quiet woman to become a murderer? Why must the antagonist win that competition no matter what? Why is this ruler bent on destroying his neighbors and conquering the world? What does the antagonist have to gain? Was it easy for them to make the decision to follow this path or do they struggle with it? Is someone else forcing their hand? Is there another antagonist behind the main antagonist of the novel?

Why does the antagonist see themselves as the protagonist, especially if their ways-to-a-means is illegal or ethically wrong? What redeeming or good points are there to the antagonist's plan? How do they see their path as helping themselves or others?

To really get to the heart of a villain's motivation is to dig deep as a writer and get to know your antagonist as well as your protagonist. Maybe their motivations are rooted from something in their backstory. Maybe they've had an inciting event before your protagonist which gets everything in motion. Maybe the antagonist is ready for a change and opportunity has come knocking. Maybe they've been planning this for a long time and feel ready to make their move.

All kinds of things can be used as a motivation: religion, politics, social behaviors, abuse, neglect, wealth, power, love, hate, rejection, justice, acceptance, insanity, obsession, etc. Figuring out what that core motivation is will help develop a good antagonist in all writing elements: plot, character, dialogue, quirks, and conflict.

An antagonist's motivation also needs to be realistic. Here the writer needs to graduate from the motivations seen in their childhood, such as in cartoons and comic books (not that all villains in these are clichéd or canned) and really check to make sure readers aren’t going to close the book with a frown or a sarcastic “yeah, right.” Yes, it does mean more work and time on the part of the writer. Plots and conflict become so much stronger when you take that time. Nothing kills a story like a bad or generalized motivation on the part of the antagonist. Their job is to be a genuine challenge for the protagonist. The greater the challenge, the stronger the protagonist becomes (and so does the story.)

So if you haven't invested time in your antagonist yet, take a few minutes and really look at their motivation(s) for what they do, say, and feel. It's a great way to crack writer's block, ramp up a boring scene, and identify key turning points in the manuscript.

Question for you: What sorts of poor motivations will make you close a book or hate a movie? Either for the antagonist or the protagonist. Are there any motivations you feel are overdone these days? Any specific motivations you'd like to see more of?

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