How do I avoid a cliché goal for my antagonist?

Question: I love good villains, but I usually don't love them because of what they stand for. I like them because of what they look like, because of how they speak, and because of the presence and weight they can bring to a scene. I especially like the big menacing types like Darth Vader, or the more cunning and intense ones like Darth Sidious and Voldemort.


I feel like I'm liking them for the wrong reasons, however, and now that I've been trying to delve deeper into my villain's head I can't understand why my villain's motivations cannot go beyond the shallowness of "I want more power!" Or "I need to rule the land!" Or "Revenge!"

I looked at my favorite villains for inspiration: Palpatine wanted power while Voldemort wanted to take over the wizarding world. Isn't that a little too shallow? Is this as far as I can go? Does the extent of a villain's intrigue lie in the way they carry themselves rather than on their goals?

My question is, is there any way to make my antagonist's goals not cliché without sacrificing their functionality in my story? I'd like to love him for everything he is, not for only half of what he is, or it will be hard for me to get into him, and therefore write him effectively.

Answer: You have hit upon one of the reasons some people grow to dislike genre fiction in favour of literary fiction.

In some genres, characters can be more archetypal. Villains are more like cardboard cutouts. They look awesome, but there's little depth. That's okay, because truly three-dimensional characters would take away from the adventure, which is the source of much of the reader's enjoyment. It's also true that a big villain makes the hero look more heroic for defeating him, so a little hyperbole helps the story.

Other readers want stories that emphasis depth of character at
the expense of plot twists and thrills.

And some readers want the sweet spot -- stories in which the characters have authenticity and originality, and the plot is an emotional roller coaster as well.

The situation is also similar to what actors face when they're handed the role of a very cardboard villain. The great actors find a way to add depth and authenticity to their performance while still delivering the big evil presence.

If the character acts big and does big things, the feelings, drives, thoughts, pain, daring, etc. that underlie the character must be equally big to justify the actions.

For instance, it may take a lot of pain and anger to drive someone to commit murder. It may take huge feelings of inadequacy and ego to give someone the desire to take over the world as compensation.

This is, I suspect, why Rowling went to such lengths to show Voldemort as the product of a traumatized mother who never felt loved, and to show that Voldemort was never loved as a child either. For that matter, Voldemort's grandfather was also a damaged person who took out his frustrations on others. His uncle seems psychopathic. So there were multiple generations of inherited damage.

On the other hand, Palpatine seems more cartoonish because we do not know the source of his thirst for power. His desire for the Sith to avenge themselves against the Jedi might suggest that he had a childhood in which he felt unfairly cheated out of some status, but that's just a guess.

(Psychologists say that psychopaths are born with a lack of empathy, but sociopaths become that way through childhood trauma.)

It can be helpful to keep asking "why" your characters do what they do until you find reasons that make sense, even if those reasons never appear in the story. Making the character more real in your mind makes it easier to write about them.

Comments for How do I avoid a cliché goal for my antagonist?

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Jul 25, 2016
Example of 3d antagonists
by: Thomas

Hi,

I believe it is perfectly possible to have genre fiction with credible villains.

A good example of this is Tigana, by Guy Gavriel Kay. Without any spoilers, in this story, two "evil" sorcerers occupy the homeland of the heroes who, in turn, fight against the occupants and their minions.

While they play essentially the same role, the sorcerers' motivation, psychology, modus operandi, and even raison d'être are completely different.

In GGK's works, perhaps with the exception of his first trilogy, The Fionavar Tapestry, where his antagonist is a big elemental evil Sauron type of entity, most major characters have great depth and coherence. I highly recomment them all (I'm a big fan!)

Good luck,
Thomas

Oct 06, 2018
Well rounded Villainy
by: Duncan

One of my favorite villains of all time is Gul Dukat from DS9. He is charismatic, brave, intelligent, and is willing to sacrifice himself for his people. however, he is also ambitious, cunning, and ruthless. His patriotism and unquestionable belief in his people's superiority drive him to do evil acts. He constantly feels compelled to rationalize and explain himself to the good guys, however eventually he can't reconcile the things he has done, and coupled with the death of his beloved daughter, goes insane.

I think it's a good idea to mix heroic and villainous qualities in any character, Gul Dukat doesn't control his soldiers through fear (at first) but through inspiration and competent leadership, and leading by example.

Another example of a great villain is Macbeth, who is a good man, until ambition corrupts him. while he is completely irredeemable by the end of the play, he is too prideful to surrender even though he realizes he is fated to die very soon, declaring "Damned be he who first cries hold" and fights to the end. He even refuses to fight Macduff at first, due to guilt he feels for killing Macduff's family.

There are plenty of awesome villains out there that are great because they are mysterious, menacing, and powerful, like Voldemort, Darth Vader, Sauron, and anyone else named "Dark Lord" but if your villain shows mercy, bravery, respect, or humility, you can make them much more believable, and even open up the path for redemption. if you dont want that, then they can at least die with dignity, instead of dying bitter and revengeful.

Revenge is character motivation that can make great stories, (The Count Of Monte Christo anyone?) but most of the time it falls flat, and the villain pursues it way beyond any reasonable extreme. Sometimes, the protagonist really did do something terrible to the villain, maybe someone the villain cared about got caught in the crossfire of their previous battle, maybe the hero used to be a complete monster and burned down the villains village years ago, before repenting and dedicating their life to atoning for their mistakes. But when a villain tries to kill a hero's loved ones out of revenge, even though it is obvious the hero is a good guy now, it's just annoying. (Angel season 3)

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