The first rule of writing in villains: never let the villain be the one to reveal his or her own motive for being a meanie beanie jerkface.
Why? Because that’s what we expect a stereotypical villain to do. And while there are ways to twist around clichés to make them useable and just as enjoyable to read, you still have to thrust your own creativity into overdrive anyway, so why not go all in?
There is always a motive. And where there’s a motive, there’s both a character determined to figure it out and a reader hoping it’s not exactly what they predicted when the story first began (we’re talking to you, Pretty Little Liars fans).
Here are three strategies for revealing your villain’s motive that will both surprise your characters and satisfy your reader (your motive for writing in the first place, isn’t it?).
Surprise—the villain is actually a bigger “bad guy”’s minion
A satisfying story—one that draws the reader in and manipulates their emotions as they turn the pages (that sounds darker than it should)—has layers. Not everyone is who we think they are. Enter “minion”—not the Despicable Me minions, come on, focus here—the real villain’s forefront, the one who does all the dirty work, probably for really crappy pay and no benefits. Your characters definitely don’t want to mess with her, unless they can persuade her to hand over classified information.
She probably won’t do it without putting up a fight—literally? On the plus side, though, he or she happens to know a thing or two about why the boss is so moody. Maybe the menace your hero thought they were fighting is just someone doing what they were told to do. But as we all know, with the dark side comes disloyalty, and there’s nothing better than two dark lords betraying each other and still losing in the end.
Have your “heroes” find the answers themselves
Sure, it’s convenient when there just so happens to be an all-knowing creature willing to share their knowledge with your MC, but convenience doesn’t always sell. Motives are a form of mystery within any kind of story, and the easier you make it for your character to find the answers to the questions, the less satisfied your reader—and probably you—will be.
Uncovering a motive should play out like a treasure hunt. As the story progresses, have the characters find bits and pieces of the overlying mystery. Especially if the motive isn’t the main plot point, you don’t want to build up mounds of suspense only to have the answers spill over all at once like an erupting falling action volcano.
And on that note, here’s a fun challenge: come up with a villain that doesn’t have a motive. They have no freaking idea why they’re evil. It’s a mystery within a mystery. Don’t have too much fun with that one. On second thought, please do.
Image courtesy of Universal Pictures and Illumination Entertainment.