In previous posts, I talked about villains being useful in stories and about their need to have a reason for their villainy. It’s a cliché to say that villains consider themselves the heroes of their own stories, but it’s pretty much true—even villains who know they’re terrible people still tell themselves they’re justified in what they do. Their excuses are the same ones we all use: “I didn’t have a choice” or “Everyone else does it too.”
Essentially, villains try to fulfill their desires and allay their fears, just like we all do. This brings us to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, as shown in the picture above. It’s a useful model for thinking about human drives.
At the bottom of the hierarchy are basic physiological needs: food, water, air, etc. Villains driven by such needs are just trying to survive. In science fiction and fantasy, we mostly see such villains in very desperate situations, e.g. post-apocalyptic wastelands where people have to fight over everything. In such contexts, villains are easy to understand; perhaps too easy. Who can blame them for wanting to live? And if everyone is fighting for scraps of food, distinguishing heroes from villains is a characterization challenge. The usual writing technique is to show that there’s enough for all if everyone works together. Heroes are the people who play nice; villains are the ones who try to take it all.
The next level of the hierarchy is safety. Perhaps you’ve eaten enough today, but what about tomorrow? And what if there are active threats to your life? A classic example of villains in need of safety are people who want to kill anyone they perceive as a danger. “You know too much, so I can’t let you live.” “I’ll never be safe as long as there’s still a legitimate heir to the throne.” The wonderful thing about such villains (at least from a writer’s standpoint) is that their fears never end. There’s always one more person they have to kill before they feel safe. The villains can keep on driving the plot until the heroes stop them.
Next up is love and belonging. Doing bad things to win someone’s love is a time-honored tradition in stories. The villain is in love (or lust) with someone, and kills all potential rivals, or carries out some scheme to force the beloved to give in. Once upon a time, this may have even had overtones of romance. These days, however, readers are much more sensitive about anything that smells of sexual coercion. Today, a villain who kills for food may still be sympathetic, but a villain who kills for “love” almost certainly won’t be.
Then we come to esteem. Ego. Prestige. Status. These are standard motivations for villains in positions of privilege. Rich people never have to worry about starving, but they may have a desperate need to outdo their neighbors. I have a feeling that more villains fall into this category than any of the others—in a story context, such people have the power and resources to be dangerous to almost any type of hero. Often, they’re also “villains you love to hate”: people who have almost everything, but do despicable things to get even more. It’s satisfying when such villains get stomped…which is why writers use them so often.
At the top of the hierarchy is self-actualization: becoming the most you can be. Occasionally, you see villains with this motivation, but it’s rare. Self-actualization is a little too spiritual and abstract to produce much villainy. A few characters in fiction do bad things for purely aesthetic reasons—Thanos comes to mind—but it takes a lot of work for a writer to pull this off. More commonly, a villain may claim to be acting from such motives but is actually driven by something lower down the pyramid.
So those are some useful possibilities for why villains do what they do. Next time, I’ll write about how this all shakes down in writing an actual story.