WHY REALISTIC MOTIVES ALONE DON’T CREATE BELIEVABLE VILLAINS

February 20, 2020

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As long as a villain has a reason for his wicked behavior, he’ll seem real. Right? Or will he?

Shoppers grow hungry but don’t steal. Bank tellers get angry but don’t beat up customers. Hardships tempt people to commit crimes daily, but they control themselves. Laws and social norms form part of their restraint, but their sense of morality is what truly separates them from thieves and thugs.

However, moral codes crumble when starving shoppers and miffed tellers argue with their consciences. Stealing is a felony, but what if the store is overcharging? Surely no one will notice one missing granola bar. And violence won’t solve a bank customer’s issues, but he would never get away with complaining so vehemently somewhere else, such as in the military. So the man deserves a slap in the face. The shopper and teller’s impulses are wrong, but because they convince themselves otherwise, they don’t feel guilty.

What do these scenarios reveal? That an individual needs motivation as well as justification to deliberately sin. A combination of both transforms a hero (or even an average joe) into a bad guy. That’s when he starts twirling his mustache, adjusting his monocle, and stroking his snow-white cat. All he has to do is habitually twist the truth in three areas.

Justification Tactic #1: Depreciating Human Life

Pretend you have a favorite teddy bear that you want to save for your future children. You hide him in a box or on a shelf to keep him away from the teeth of your overeager dog. But as you’re rummaging in your closet, that cheap plush animal you bought on a whim tumbles onto the floor, and you don’t flinch when you notice a trail of stuffing the next day.

How we treat objects reflects how we treat people. If we value a person, we’ll care about her wellbeing. If we don’t, we’re unconcerned. We may even give ourselves permission to snub or abuse her.

Any soul unfortunate enough to work in customer service is familiar with this concept. A shopper demands the price on a sale sign that’s expired but hasn’t been removed. When a struggling cook finishes an order late, the customer slanders her in front of her manager. People feel they have license to throw fits because they’ve suffered an unfairness that neither they nor the employee can control. But they forget that a worker’s humanity matters more than their personal schedules.

Villains wreak havoc because they view humanity as worthless, and they’re masters of adjusting this belief to fit their agendas. For instance, in Loki’s mind, people are chaotic beings meant to be ruled. He disregards their freedom in the first Avengers film by manipulating their wills and killing those standing in his way.

Wicked leaders rationalize mass oppression because they believe certain races or religious groups are superior to others. Our world is full of horrific examples of this. Hitler slaughtered Jews, colonizers subjugated the Congolese, European settlers banished Native Americans, and white Americans enslaved Africans. Villains who follow this logic are merely imitating history.

In Genesis, God created Adam and Eve after His own image. All humans, regardless of their differences, are made in His likeness. When a villain harms another person, his conscience naturally rebels. To inflict bodily injury, he must dehumanize his victims, and to spread slander, he must demonize his enemies.

In politics, Republicans and Democrats rail against each other’s flaws until the other party becomes the sum of their faults, leaving no room for understanding. In battles, soldiers sometimes reduce the enemy’s humanity so they don’t hesitate to pull the trigger. In shopping districts, pedestrians stereotype panhandlers as lazy druggies to avoid handing them money. Motivations vary, but the result is the same. The opposition ceases to be anything except an obstacle to destroy.

Though villains wield multiple weapons in their war against their consciences, devaluing others is the most common. You can’t apply the next two points, however vital, without including this one.

Justification Tactic #2: The Ends Justify the Means

This mentality emphasizes the outcome of an action. If a villain thinks he’s championing a moral cause, he can excuse any transgression. The “good” he ultimately accomplishes redeems all his misdeeds.

In Avengers: Infinity War, Thanos obliterates half the universe because he believes the current population can’t survive on the available resources. He separates friends, spouses, and children from their parents but retires in peace, silencing his conscience with the conviction that he’s lessened mankind’s suffering.

Scripture contains another example. In 1 Samuel 15, God commanded Saul to destroy the city of Amalek. Instead, his men persuaded him to let them keep the best livestock and spare the king. He then tried to cover up his disobedience by sacrificing some of the spoils to God.

When characters like Thanos and Saul fall into this ideology, they place themselves on equal ground with God. They fear they’ll never achieve their goals, so they take drastic measures or cover up their mistakes afterward.

The Bible tells of faithful men and women who refused to bow to idols, prayed despite persecution, and trusted in God for their salvation even though scorning Him would have posed less danger. No matter how bleak the circumstances, they didn’t break God’s law to protect themselves. When people sin for an “honorable” cause, it still violates their consciences. Evil can’t be condoned because of a positive outcome.

Justification Tactic #3: Denying Responsibility

This mindset is far more subtle and involves the villain looking out for his own interests at someone else’s expense. To absolve himself, he casts blame onto others.

In the heavy BBC film An Inspector Calls, an angel disguised as an inspector confronts a rich Victorian family about the suicide of a pregnant woman. The audience slowly learns that each member had a hand in bringing crippling pain into this young woman’s life. Instead of acknowledging that their actions were unjust, half the family insists that her poor character lead to her misfortune. Like them, villains will push responsibility onto anyone but themselves.

People do this to avoid the obligation to extend compassion. If someone else could welcome that newcomer to church or offer cash to a homeless man, it no longer feels like a duty. Both the New and Old Testaments, however, demonstrate that individuals are accountable to God for their actions. By shifting the blame, villains ignore how God designed reality.

Showing Truth through Dark Minds

Justification helps readers believe in a villain. Moreover, it disturbs them. Inside a villain’s shady character is a piece of all of us. We have all sinned against God and attempted to alleviate our consciences with excuses.

But the story doesn’t end there. Though we’re sinners, we’re also redeemed truth-seekers. A villain won’t get away with rationalizing his problems. He, like the hero, will come face to face with reality. Using his blackened soul as a contrast, we can sharpen the beauty of truth.


A long time ago on a hill not so far away, Gabrielle Pollack fell in love. Not with ice cream or cats (though those things are never far from her side) but with storytelling. Since then, she’s been glued to a keyboard and is always in the midst of a writing project, whether a story, blog post, or book. She was a reader before becoming a writer, however, and believes paradise should include thick novels, hot cocoa, a warm fire, and “Do Not Disturb” signs. Her favorite stories include Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn saga and Nadine Brandes’s Out of Time trilogy.

As those who know her will confess, Gabby is a whole lot of weirdness packed into one INFP. Sharp objects, storms, and trees are her friends, along with stubborn characters and, on occasion, actual people. When she’s not writing, she’s shooting arrows through thickets and subsequently missing her target, jamming on the piano, and pushing her cat off her keyboard. She hopes to infuse her fiction with honesty, victory, and hope, and create stories that grip readers from the first page to the last. Her other goals include saving the world and mastering a strange concept called adulthood.

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