Having gone through the villain’s introductory elements in detail, we now turn more to the nitty-gritty of the villain’s character. And perhaps nothing is more important for villains than their goal and motivation in the story.
As with many things I’m talking about, this is Story-Telling 101 and Characterisation 101, and it applies to all and sundry: heroes, supporting characters, everybody. Kurt Vonnegut put it best in his rules for writing: “Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.” Or to put it my way:
Goal/Motivation – The villain must have a goal, or a motivation for their actions, which is clear, believable to the audience, and something that this character obviously wants, enough that he/she is willing to do the things that they do to achieve it.
Many will rightfully point out that “goal” and “motivation” can be very different things: a goal is a tangible endpoint, and a motivation can be a feeling, a drive, that is intangible. To put it another way, the goal is in the future, the motivation is in the past. But this doesn’t always hold true, and I find that the terms can be used interchangeably when it comes to many antagonists. In terms of defining a character, most of what can be said for goals can also be said for motivations, so rather than repeat myself…
Let’s go through this and what is expected in a bit more detail, through the lens of what, why, and want .
The goal or motivation must be clear: that is, it must be understandable to the audience. The con-man wants to cheat a sweet old lady out of her savings for financial gain, the supervillain wants to take over the world for powers sake, whatever it is, big or small, it has to be something that the viewer can grasp. You can play around a bit with the specifics of it: maybe the con-man’s nominal goal is to cheat the old lady, as part of a larger motivation of amassing enough capital for some kind of criminal empire. Maybe the supervillain’s goal in the story being told is to find enough plutonium to build a Doomsday device in order to take over the world. In other words, the goal/motivation can have layers that the story can explore. But it still has to be clear. This is not an absolute – some stories may be based around trying to uncover what the villain is up to, wherein their goal/motivation might be deliberately vague and mysterious for much of the narrative – but it is a generality that stands up to scrutiny. This is the what.
The goal or motivation must be believable: that is, it must be something that the audience can buy in terms of the character being presented. Our aforementioned con-man trying to take over the world would be a bit much; similarly, the supervillain trying to con the old lady would be difficult to swallow. When this goes wrong its usually on a different, more subtle scale, but it does happen, wherein antagonist characters are portrayed as reaching for something that should, in the world of the story being told, be completely out of their reach (or below their notice). This is the why.
The goal or motivation must be demonstrable: that is, the villain must show, early on preferably, that the goal or motivation is something they need, or something that is driving them. That desire must be plain, even in stories wherein the final goal is a mystery. The con-man has to be seen to be driven to cheat the old lady, the supervillain must express a desire to rule the world (and why, ideally). And their actions must be tied to this. The con-man must be willing to get into the old lady’s good books through subterfuge, the supervillain must be willing to blow up a few cities here and there. This is the want (and, to an extent, the how as well).
Lastly, I want to note that it is my belief that it is especially important for antagonist characters to define their goal/motivation in these terms, because their actions, in pursuit of their goals or whatever is motivating them, is generally the inciting incident of the plot. The plucky hero will never get the chance to be so if he doesn’t have a bad guy to overcome, or to frustrate in their designs. In many ways, stories are based as much or more around what the antagonist is doing or seeking as it around the protagonist(s), because how would their be a story otherwise?
Lets look at a few examples, good and bad.
In Episode IV, Vader’s goal is to find the Death Star plans that were stolen by the Rebel Alliance. This is clear: the opening crawl outlines this reality, and one of Vader’s first lines is “What have you done with those plans?”. The goal is believable: the new superweapon is supposed to be a game changer that will insure the Empire’s galactic dominance forever, and the chance that a weakness in it will be discovered has to be stamped out. The goal is demonstrable: Vader sacrifices a platoon of troops just to get onto the Tantive IV, then chokes a man to death in an interrogation shortly after. And that’s just for starters: later he’ll let Tarkin blow up a planet to find out where the plans are. And Vader’s goal defines the story and where it goes: the search for the droids leading to the deaths of Luke’s aunt and uncle leading to him leaving Tatooine to become a Jedi and join the Rebel Alliance leading to Obi-Wan’s death and the attack on the Daeth Star and so on and so forth.
Even poor maligned and mocked Darth Maul, my favourite punching bag, gets things half-right. His goal in Episode I is clear: to re-capture Queen Amidala for his master. His goal is understandable (if a bit daft for a Star Wars movie): Darth Sidious needs Padme in hand to order to justify his invasion of Naboo, and we can buy that a Sith apprentice like Maul would undertake whatever nefarious deeds his master would ask of him. Where it falls down is with the want: what exactly is Maul getting out of the task that defines his character in some way? Aside from a vague “At last we will have revenge”? Where Maul also falls down is the how, at least in the conclusion, when he seems to forget about the Queen entirely in order to have a triple threat match with Qui Gon and Obi-Wan. His goal also does not incite or define the plot, it’s just an addendum to it really.
In the world of comic books, let’s look at The Dark Knight and the Joker again. Many may cry foul here and claim that Heath Ledger’s role is the antithesis of my argument, as the Joker in that film was an “agent of chaos”, a character with no real discernable goal or motivation for the panic and hysteria he inflicts on Gotham. I’d argue against that, with my primary point being that the Joker is lying somewhat when he declares “Do I really look like a guy with a plan?”. He’s gaslighting Batman, Dent and everyone else when he says this: of course he has a plan. It’s just that his goal is somewhat obtuse: he’s a traumatized and mentally damaged figure who wants to justify his own existence by proving that everybody else is just as bad as he is (The Killing Joke covers similar territory with the same character, in a more obvious manner). It’s fair to say this goal isn’t very clear, at least not until the latter part of the film, and requires you to acknowledge that the Joker himself can’t be trusted in his dialogue. This apparent deficiency, in my mind, is offset by the depth of the character and the story being told, that he requires you to do some thinking to fget to the right point. Perhaps the goal isn’t believable to a certain extent, though it becomes more-so when you realise the depths to which the Joker has been, however he got his scars. But we can certainly believe the want and get hooked in by the how, as exhibited throughout the running time of the film. The Joker wants to fight and win a battle for Gotham’s soul, and in an ideological battle like that gunning down bank-robbers and planting bombs is very buyable.
My negative example here is from a character I otherwise enjoy, Obadiah “Ironmonger” Stane in Iron Man, who is my pick from a long list of MCU villains who don’t measure up on this checkmark. Stane’s goal is remarkably unclear, especially as it is only properly clarified in the morase of the last act: he wants to control Stark Industries and use Tony’s designs to deliver a new generation of weapons to the world for…profit? Power? The grandeur of America? It’s hard to get on-board with such a motivation as the film devolves and Stane starts acting like a madman in terms of his actions, especially when he gets found out by S.H.I.E.L.D and proceeds, instead of running, to fight Tony in a mechsuit battle. And Stane’s actions in pursuit of this goal are all over the place: an assassination plot turns to corporate intrigue turns to industrial espionage turns to aforementioned mechsuit battle. Only in the last part of the film do Stane’s action begin dictating the actions of the hero (Stane is responsible for Tony’s capture early on, but this only comes to light by the end). Ronin, Kaecilius, Cross, the MCU keeps coming up with bad guys who fall flat on this score. I can’t even tell you who their next villain, for Guardians Of The Galaxy, Volume 2, even is.
Another good compare and contrast comes from alternate versions of The Magnificent Seven. In the 1960 film, the villain is the bandit leader Calvera, who periodically plunders a defenseless Mexican border village. Calvera’s goal is clear, and is suitably introduced and then elaborated upon later: he wants to keep plundering the village, because his men will starve to death if they don’t do so. The goal is believable: as a fearsome bandit we can buy Calvera preying on the village, and as a leader with men to feed we can buy him taking food by force. And the want and the how are clearcut too: Calvera and his men need to eat – and exert their dominance over the “sheep” – and will take on the titular seven, directly and through subterfuge, to satisfy their motivation. It’s simple stuff, but it doesn’t have to be complicated to be good.
Then take robber baron Bartholomew Bogue in the lamentable 2016 version of the same story. Bogue’s goal is to take over a quiet frontier western town so he can…have the land? His motivation isn’t believable: he’s already a rich and powerful man, and from the first scene goes to overly-dramatic extremes to threaten the townsfolk, murdering them willy-nilly when they voice the barest of opposition (before vanishing from the film for an hour). And sure, we can see that Bogue wants the land, but we don’t adequately understand why, so we can’t adequately accept how he goes about getting it. Calvera is a deserate man taking on the role of a hoodlum in order to seem powerful and feed his fellow outlaws. He is both a threat and interesting. Bogue is a maniac, and maniac’s without anything else to them are dull.
How about stories where the villain’s goal and motivation are fixated upon an individual instead of a prize? Take The Terminator as a positive example. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s robot assassin has a clear goal: to kill Sarah Connor in order to negate her effect on the timeline. He has a belivable goal: the machines striking at John Connor in this manner is easy to grasp, once the films time travel “rules” have been established. The want is not applicable to an extent, as the Terminator’s emotionless intensity is what defines him, he’s just following his programming, and the how is connected to this: it fits such a character, whose actions resonate with the audience due to how aggressive and persistent they are.
Then take a somewhat different film I re-watched very recently: 1997’s Anastasia, where the villain is a very anachronistic Gregori Rasputin, voiced by the irrepressible Christopher Lloyd. His goal is somewhat clear: he wants revenge against the Romanov family that exiled him from court and decides to focus on the last surviving member of the family. This is fairly believable: while Rasputin is undoubtedly evil, we can buy that he could form a twisted obsession with vengeance over those he perceives as having wronged him. The problem comes in with the last part of the equation. The want is fine: sometimes revenge is perfectly acceptable as a villain’s motivation (see Skyfall’s Silva as great example we’ve previously discussed). It’s the how where things come a cropper, as Rasputin doesn’t confront Anastasia directly until the final five minutes of the film – always a bad call, as I’ll go into more detail on in a later entry – resorting to supernatural means of distance targeting instead, when, as the third act makes clear, he’s always in a position to go after her directly if he wants to. Rasputin becomes a distant, cut-away figure in the larger narrative then, because he isn’t actively pursuing his goal to the extent that he should.
So, that’s goal and motivation. But, just like any other character, there is a flip-side to that coin that must also be part and parcel of the antagonist: the element of risk. And that is what we will talk about next time.