Why It’s Wrong to Motivate Your Villain

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Female Villains and The Impossibilty of Motive

(A note: there are mild Star Wars spoilers contained in this post. For those of you who haven’t seen it yet, but still care enough about Star Wars to be upset with me: don’t read. Also, quit breathing. Are we supposed to not talk about the damned movie for an entire month while you get your shit together?)

So it was around June or so that I started hearing rumors about the new Star Wars movie–interesting rumors. I was trying to go rumor-free until I saw it, but that proved pretty difficult: if you touched the Internet, the Internet told you something about Star Wars. I’m telling you this to explain how I heard this rumor and then didn’t unhear it shortly after. That’s important, you see, for the story.

Anyway, the rumor I heard, and then cherished, and then never unheard until I set foot in the theatre:

Kylo Ren is going to be a girl.

I felt a warm flush of pride deep in my bloated old-woman craw. What a victory, really, for those of us who grew up wanting the red lightsaber.

That rumor stuck with me for a while. Mostly because, at first, I couldn’t see why I found it so fascinating.

Of course, when I finally saw Star Wars, I was horribly disappointed. We traded the possibility of that for Anakin Lite?

I liked the idea of Kylo Ren a lot better when that masked and looming figure was female. Just because you don’t see it much–a woman villain, power-hungry, under a mask. Not wearing a low-cut lady outfit, not flirting. The sort of villain even boys want to be, because they could be that villain.

The hard truth of it is, it’s tough to find a good female villain. And when you do find one, she usually has one of these motivations:

1) A tragic love affair (in love with the man villain, hero did her wrong, etc.)
2) Revenge (someone wronged her–often sexually–and she goes too far to the other side taking revenge.)
3) A Devastating Trauma (family killed, kids killed, husband killed, etc.)
4) Life Is Just Too Hard As a Woman (so she has to go to the Dark Side to gain ‘freedom’.)

Nothing wrong with these motivations. They’re perfectly decent motivations. It’s just–they all depend on the actions or lives of somebody else. It weakens the perception of a villain, to start with this sort of backstory. And it doesn’t half explain away the evil.

The had truth of it is, as much as you see the advice ‘give your villain motivation’ spattered about online, you can over-motivate a villain. We tend to do this with women especially, since you don’t usually see a girl when you picture a power-mad despot taking over a small South American country. What could lead to that? What made her go from painting her nails with those cute Bonne Bell tiny nail polishes and dreaming about prom to military dictatorship?

It’s tough for us to grasp that a woman could be doing both (or not be into painting her nails in the first place, even weirder). So we overcompensate–we make out Evil Empress a great haughty beauty, we put her in a slinky dress, we make her a good person deep down, no really. (Don’t worry, I’m guilty of this too. It’s a hard taboo to break).

The thing is. Any villain, male or female, has one motivation for being a villain: being a shitty human being.

You might start down the path to the Dark Side because you’re frightened, or lonely, or angry. And there should be a starting point, and you should know what it is. But that’s not what takes you all the way. The one thing that makes you truly evil is being truly evil. Whether you’re a woman or a man, girl or boy, you don’t reach the point where you’re killing every elf in the city because your ex was an elf. You reach that point because you’re a despicable, genocidal person. You do other things that aren’t nice, too: obviously, you’re racist, but you probably also don’t tip. You probably have an inflated sense of your own importance (after all, you’re human, so you’ve got to be pretty decent, right?) and you’ve probably never held the door for one of those awful elves in your life. Actually, you probably make a stink when they walk down the same side of the street as you do. You won’t eat something if elf hands have touched it. When your sister moved into a house near the Elf Quarter, you probably said, horrified: but elves might have lived there. You probably made her move, because you’re also a domineering and forceful person. Or: you burned her house down and made it look like an accident. It’s okay, it’s better for her in the end anyway.

It’s hard, I think, for us to see women in this light. I don’t know why we like to see women as better people in stories (or, at worst, as ineffectual bitches), but we do. Maybe it’s the residual effects of Coventry Patmore and all the rest of those Victorian moralizers, but it’s not a good thing. Women can be shitty people too. We know that from our personal lives–we just have trouble carrying it over into fiction without stereotyping.

And a good villain is a shitty person. That’s what makes him or her a villain in the first place. There might be a tragic story (loss of a loved one, etc) that acts as impetus for the villain’s transformation, but this is not motive. A villain’s motives are hard for a good person to understand, and you want them to be.

Because this is your villain. This isn’t Barney the Purple Dinosaur, it isn’t that chick from your book club, and it isn’t your sister. This is Hitler. This is Stalin. This is Pol Pot. This is an awful goddamned human being. This is someone you want your audience to loathe.

And we don’t understand the people we loathe. When we do–and maybe this in and of itself is a part of your story–when we do, they cease to become villains.

Hitler had to take a dump every once in a while. He was vegetarian. He had a girlfriend, whom he probably loved. He probably had bad hair days, trouble tying his tie right, socks with holes in them, all the things that make us human. Maybe he loved skiing, dogs, relaxing evenings at home reading a book.

We all have these things.

But Hitler was also a genocidal maniac. We can understand why he did the things he did, inasmuch as we can see the logical train from reason to result. But we can’t understand why why. We’re decent people, so there is no great burning truth to us for Hitler’s motivations. It simply doesn’t exist, and the fact that it doesn’t should be immensely reassuring.

Long story short: let women be shitty, too. Shitty, occasionally, without sex and beauty (because sex and beauty don’t make someone shitty, nor do they cover up an innately shitty soul). Remember that your villain is a villain, and make them, regardless of sex, act like villains. A power-mad despot doesn’t have a lot of time for longing after old loves. It’s hard to take over the world when part of your brain is always focused on your dead children. Just let her be shitty. For women everywhere: let her.

A Note: For an excellent example of a villain who is ‘humanized’ without ever once becoming less of a villain, check out John Fowles’s The Collector. This book is one of the great exercises in point-of-view, rotating as it does between the collector and his collected. Read it all the way through, and then read Part I again. Trust me.

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9 thoughts on “Why It’s Wrong to Motivate Your Villain

  1. Hear hear!
    I made the leading folk of my three “sides” all female. Partly this was because I wouldn’t have to deal with the undertones of sexism that technically shouldn’t exist in my fantasy world. But I also really wanted to show women doing things you don’t see them doing in the media. Leading stuff, first off. Doing really messed up things “for the cause”, or just for themselves.

    The only woman I can think of who does really messed up stuff is the queen in that awful Snow White retelling with Bella Swan. And she’s doing it to retain her youth and beauty, which is OBVIOUSLY the only thing women ever want.

    1. Duh! I have my children and husband to think of, I can’t be old and ugly. It would reflect poorly on them. 😛

      A friend on facebook posted an interesting article in response to this blog. The argument he was forwarding, was, basically, that women need to come off the literary pedestal to be seen as good villains (or even, really, heroines) in fiction. Basically, that a female character can’t be a good villain until women can be viewed in fiction as ugly, as shitty human beings, as failures. And he’s right: there’s some sort of unspoken cultural taboo against that now.

      It’s funny: this friend is anything but a feminist, yet that argument was one of the most female-positive I’ve seen on the subject. ‘The pedestal’ isn’t a vaunted, golden place: it’s restrictive, poisonous, damning. And it keeps female characters from being three-dimensional people.

      Sometimes our failures and flaws are the things that make us powerful. Sounds like you’re going for that, and more power to you. 🙂

  2. Dude, a female Kylo Ren would have been AWESOME. He’s not purely evil, though. That part no one’s allowed to talk about was more about convincing himself which side he’s on than being despicable, I think.

    I love this article. My book has caught some grief because of who ends up being the antagonist. I hadn’t considered this kind of sexist (and possibly ageist) stereotyping could be at play. Sometimes shit happens and that leads to people being shitty. Makes me wonder if my book would be catching the same grief if it was an old man defending his family’s honor instead.

    1. Oh, I agree Kylo Ren isn’t pure evil. But those first few pictures–oh, man. And imagining that was a girl? Fantastic. I had visions of Vader,pre-prequels. A brooding, mysterious figure. Willingly Dark Side.

      It’s funny, how society doesn’t give women much credit for understanding honor. In a way, we’re still stuck in the Victorian Era view of womanhood–emotional, flighty, protective rather than assertive, assumed ignorant of grand social concepts like honor, justice, focused on the personal.

      Your villain gets due respect from me. Older ladies can be just as shitty as the rest of us–sometimes more, since they have more years of experience. 😛

  3. This is a great analysis. To drill into a single point (sexy female villain) I think the problem is that our cultural expectations- hell our whole cultural context, really, get in the way of writing our female villains in the manner your describing. The one I’m working on now, what your describing -sexy villain- is a major part of the story. One of the ways you can tell you’ve got a female villain on your hands is how she’s dressed, it’s a central theme really, but the concept came from what I see around me more than what I’d want to see. In some ways, I’m highlighting this whole idea 1 because it makes me laugh and 2 because, again there are cultural elements to it. Never go to a store and check out the gals who are dolled up and showing more leg and cleavage than necessary, look at all of the woman on the periphery of that scene. You’ll observe the ‘bitch stare’ most women are going to give her the up and down with the eyes and maybe a fleeting dirty look. I think that’s why we’re so stuck on this concept of sexy villain. All that said – could you imagine if Ben were really a female and they kept it under wraps till movie 2? Wow! Of course the character couldn’t have been a whiny little shit. More Darth less young Luke/Anakin.

    1. Man, I remember my first halter top. It was basically a handkerchief with some strings on it. My mother, who was otherwise pretty easygoing when it came to what I wore, put her foot down on that one–I was, I think, thirteen. I can’t say I blame her, but at the same time it was the first occasion that concept–what would other people think of me for something I was wearing–really entered my consciousness. Girls are taught from an early age that they don’t want to look like hookers. As a result, you’re left with the lingering feeling that there’s something powerful about such clothing: sexual power, I suppose.

      I mention that because I agree with you–I think that’s where the concept comes from, in tandem with all the usual blah blah blah about hyperfeminization of what might otherwise be seen as ‘unfeminine’ forwardness. The first time you sneak out of the house in a crop top, you feel powerful. You feel good. Villains operate, naturally, somewhat outside of the moral constructs of society–it’s only natural that a female villain might feel that power and not understand the other side of the coin.

      I get it, I just feel like it’s been overdone, you know? Not talking about your lady, of course, just media in general. There are other paths to power for a woman, and I’d like to see some of those recognized too.

  4. Mm. Interesting. Villains. I’m concerned the comment box might not be big enough for my reply, so perhaps keep an eye out on my blog for an article in response to yours.

    Top and bottom is, I don’t like creating opposites like good/bad, heroes and villains. The real world isn’t like that, and ambiguity is more interesting. I know readers are not supposed to like the villain, which is why I go out of my way to do the opposite and give the reader a moral dilemma: ‘I love this despicable bastard.’

    There’s always a motivation for everything, which can be found if you dig deep enough and have the ability to untangle several social/political/psychological and evolutionary strands of behaviour. But bad behavour will always be relative, not absolute. I’ve said it before: countries get the dictators they’re prepared to tolerate.

    See, I’m running out of space and I haven’t even begun to mention female villains, nihilism, psychopaths, and why readers should be given a tough time…

    1. I might actually need to do a refutation of my own post–generally, I agree with you. And maybe it’s not top-to-bottom evil I’m talking about, when I talk about villains having no recognizable motives. A villain DOES have motives, and on the outside, they’re perfectly recognizable. I mean, f’rinstance, Hitler wanted to make Germany a better place. That’s recognizable. That’s understandable. It’s more–his way of going about it wasn’t the right way.

      So, basically, we understand WHY a villain wants to do something–just not how he justifies doing it. A woman who kills an opponent in fair battle for a cause is a hero, perhaps. A woman who massacres an entire sleeping village for the same endgame–not so much. You might like her–you might even root for her on occasion. But you don’t want her to win the war.

      There are certainly moral grey areas, but for me, a shitty human being is a shitty human being. Now, it’s possible to make just about anyone sympathetic–such is the glory of fiction–but if someone is sympathetic, someone else on the other side is not.

      So yes, good and bad might not be absolutes, but in the course of a story, right and wrong are. If not to the writer, than to the reader–the reader always has someone he’s rooting for, someone he isn’t. It’s the nature of narrative framing, and it happens when we have to be inside SOMEONE’s head. We understand WHY Hitler wanted to make Germany better, just not why he chose to do it the way he did. If Hitler had put government money into building roads instead of killing people, we’d probably have a much better idea of him.

      Likewise, Man in the High Castle style–if Germany had won the war, we’d probably all be singing a different tune.

      However, we’re writing the stories. And, since we’re writing the stories–he’s a monster.

      1. I can see the point you’re making about the seperation between good/bad person and good/bad behaviour. I wouldn’t disagree with that; it’s important to make sure there’s a clarity surrounding acts of good and bad behaviour.; but for me that’s only a vehicle used to create a moral dilemma for the reader.

        You might wonder why I’m determined to do this? I think it allows a better set of questions to be answered, avoiding the usual ‘will the goody defeat the baddie,’ and lead to a richer cast of characters, after all its characters that make the story. I’ve read too many books and seen too much film and television where the adversary was nothing more substantial than a locked door or a deep hole; a human obstacle to be overcome, and we know as sure as night follows day, the goodie will win out at the end. If it’s unclear who the goodies and baddies are you avoid that simplistic outcome. (I don’t think every secondary character should be treated like this otherwise you’d end up with a ten thousand page novel; just the principle players, the ones who carry the book’s theme.)

        However, I’m conscious of one thing here. I prefer to write character-led stories, rather than event-led stories. My characters have to be doing something, they can’t all be sat in rooms talking, but I’m not into contriving situations in order to test a character’s moral code or their intelligence. Perhaps if I wrote out and out thrillers I might have to alter that way of thinking. But even then, the adversary, the antagonist, must be more than the final obstacle of an assault course. After all, who is more memorable: the albino killer in The Da Vinci Code or Hannibal Lector?

        And on the subject of Hitler, there are a number of villainous issues to remember. He did spend government money on building roads. Most of them are still there, they were so well constructed, and public spending on infrastructure was one reason for Germany’s economic recovery after World War 1. Ironically, the first stirrings of genocide and mass murder were botched, shambolic and hopelessly disorganised until Himmler, Eichmann and Heydrich came up with the Final Solution and the construction of the death camps. Hitler’s actions were supported by a cast of equally sadistic murderers that complicate the perception of ‘one man’s evil.’ It’s never simple, but you’re dead right about Man in the High Castle: if the Nazi’s had won the war we’d be reading very different history books. It’s one reason why you can walk down the street wearing a Stalin tee-shirt and be, wrongly, considered a bit of a maverick; wear a Hitler tee shirt and you’d be, rightly, beaten to a pulp! Good and bad is relative.

        (And look, the comment replies are getting narrower. They do go down to one-word width; I know this because I’ve tested it.)

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