story craft #3 Bad Guy Motives

Mike Grist Stories, Story Craft Leave a Comment

Last week I talked about character motivation– filling in the gaps between what characters want and why. It`s a fundamental part of story architecture- that the good guy wants something and will fight to get it. But probably more important than what the good guy wants is what the bad guy wants.

That`s what I was thinking about when I started this latest round of Dawn redrafts *. What do bad guys want? It`s the keystone of story architecture, because the bad guy-

– drives the story

– creates the conflict

– causes the wrongs the good guy has to right.

If we don`t believe in them, the whole endeavour is damaged. Sherlock Holmes without Moriarty is still a great detective, but a shallow one. To be truly great, we need the push-pull of an antagonistic relationship. The good guy and the bad guy make each other greater.

So I thought about motives. I made a list of some of the villains I most like, and tried to draw a line through them to some common threads. Here`s what I came up with:


This is probably the biggest driving force in fiction and life for bad guys. They just want more; more land, more money, more power, and they won`t be stopped by morality to get it from other people. They will subjugate, enslave, and slaughter to get what they need. I could list off most of history and fiction as support for this thesis, but instead I`ll go for the bigger more recent ones.

Avatar– Humans want more unobtainium. Pandorans live on top of it. Clash.

Moon– Earth needs more power, cheaply. Clone slaves are cheap and reliable. Clash.

Jaws/Alien– They`re hungry for more food. We are food. Clash.

The Road– Humans need more food. Humans are food. Clash.

1984/Animal Farm- They want more power and more control. Our will to freedom gets in the way. Clash.

Toy Story 3- Lotso wants more love and security. Other toys threaten to take that from him. Clash.

This is a simple way to look at it, but the core is simple. More for me. It`s a natural human drive we can all understand, because we all have it. Acquisition is hard-wired into us as a survival trait. Bad guys just take it one step further, are willing to do that much more to get more for themselves. It could be called the will to power.

What each bad guy wants may be different, but again it`s all much the same. For this we can look at Maslowe`s hierarchy of needs-

(Don`t worry, I studied Psychology, I know what I`m doing invoking Maslow.)

Many bad guys are motivated by the lower rungs- a need for food/resources in Avatar, Moon, Jaws, etc..

Lotso is driven by a higher need, for love, but that is clearly also tied to his lower rung needs. Without the higher rungs, he`ll lose the lower.

A movie like `Falling Down` shows us what happens when we lose the lower rungs. My favorite line from that movie, as Michael Douglas realizes what he has become-

“I`m the bad guy?”

This motivator is all about security and safety of self. Look at Magneto. They did great work in X-men 2 showing us a flash to his childhood, being herded about by Nazi soldiers and separated from his parents. He knows what loss and powerlessness is like, and has decided he never wants to feel that way again. His powers allow him to break societies rules to ensure he never has to.

Ok, that`s all very well. But what about other motivators? Many of them would probably tie into this uber-theory, more for me, but of course there must be some that don`t, or are only tangentially related to it.


We could argue that any psycho with perverse wiring is simply seeking out a need that to them is as important as any rung of Maslow`s pyramid. Some people may derive comfort and security in the pain and suffering of others. Others may just enjoy it so much they`re addicted.

Reservoir Dogs– Mr. Orange craves entertainment. The cop is tied up and noisy. Clash.

Silence of the Lambs- Hannibal is just incredibly bored. Everything is his plaything. Clash.

The Lovely Bones– The paedophile killer needs to feel special. Killing children gives him that feeling. Clash.

Dexter– He needs to kill to feel safe. Killing only other killers allows him to feel righteous. Clash.

Blue Velvet– Dennis Hopper wants power over everyone. Anyone in his way is fair game. Clash.

Alright, so Perverse Wiring is just a variant of more for me. Is there anything that is not?

What about Love Stories? Well, that`s easy, though there`s rarely a `bad guy` in those stories. The people are seeking emotional comfort. So how about Revenge stories?


Kill Bill– Bill wanted to be all-powerful. Uma went against his will somehow. Clash.

Moby Dick– He wants to feel like a man. The whale that took his hand prevents that. Clash.

Then what about some other villains, like the Nothing in Never-Ending Story, or the Joker in Dark Knight?


The Nothing– It`s not sentient. It`s just a force of nature, and so can want nothing. Like tornadoes in Twister, apocalypse in 2012, or the storm in A Perfect Storm.

The Joker– A tough one. He`s just a psycho. One could argue that he wants revenge of some sort on a world he considers to be a lie. He wants to unmask people as the evil creatures he thinks they all are. Is this is a more for me approach? He does want to be proved right, by having the people on the boat blow each other up, by pulling Batman down to his level. That would bring him great satisfaction. But largely, he`s a different breed of villain, because he`s suicidal. He wants to die, and wants to bring as many people down with him as he can.

The terrorists in 24 season 2– These were terrifying, and as suicidal as the Joker. What did they want? The final scene, where the white woman is telling her sister- `you aren`t safe out there, there`s more of us, and they want to kill you` is just so creepy, because it`s hard to see why. Why are they so angry?


To sum up, it`s mostly about more for me. The interest then has to come from what the thing is that the bad guy craves, and why it means something to them.

These factors are endlessly variable, of course, and entirely dependant on the bad guy`s back-story. Any weird desire could be viable, with a strong enough causal back-story. We are after all only human tubes, with a slot in the top for our programming to go into. Program us well, and we come out alright. Program us badly, and you`ve unleashed an unstable psychopath willing to crumple others beneath their feet to get what they need.

Writing Blog #1 the Dungeon Master`s screen

Writing Blog #2 filling in the motivation gaps

* There`s a lot of bad guys in my Dawn books. There`s the over-arc bad guy, who spans all 5 books in the series, then there`s lots of littler `henchmen` bad guys in each book. In this it resembles Harry Potter- each book is a complete arc in itself, while also adding to the bigger narrative.

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