Motivation in Fact and Fiction
As you know by now, I am a huge true crime fan. I've read books by FBI profilers and crime historians, am addicted to the Investigation Discovery channel, and have even attended a semester of my local police departments "citizens police academy". This is a professional as well as a personal interest, given that I am currently outlining a mystery WIP set in an alternate version of our world. Thus, I want to understand crime investigation, different types of evidence, and, of course, motive. It's this last one—the motivation behind a villain's acts—that many authors, not just those who write mystery—concern themselves with. And, after examining hundreds of real-life crimes, I'm here to tell you that it's not that important.
Ok, it's a little important, in that a villain needs a motive, but it's not important that it be extremely groundbreaking, or extremely relatable, or extremely anything. Motives tend to be common place, not extreme, no matter how shocking the other aspects of a crime.
For example, the excellent book The Father of Forensics: The Groundbreaking Cases of Sir Bernard Spilsbury and the Beginnings of Modern CSI, which I raved about previously, contains a number of sensational cases where the bodies were either hideously mutilated or, conversely, found without any scratch on them. To add intrigue to injury, the murders happened in the early days of forensics, when procedures for dealing with evidence were still being worked out and when more modern investigative tools like AFIS, DNA testing, and psychological profiling were still decades away. Every case was fascinating in its details and in its eventual solution. Almost every case had, as a motive, either money or getting out of an unwanted relationship. That was it. The oddities of the bodies were the killers' attempts at not being caught, but the reasons for there being bodies in the first place were as average as could be.
In fact, the three main motives, according to Lt. Joe Kenda, of ID channel fame, are money, revenge, and sex. The more headline-catching serial-killer crimes happen, it seems, due to a desire for power or a thrill. I would say these five motives sum up most murders, maybe even most crimes. Once you cut away the mystery and the gore, all you're left with are some pretty average human desires: money/stuff, vengeance/justice, sex, power/control, and thrill/excitement. When people talk about the banality of evil, this is what they mean.
Take the motive of "money". We're all familiar with the idea, in real and fictional crime, of robbing banks or killing someone for their life insurance. Writers seem to find this an acceptable plot point: villain wants a lot of money and thus does very bad things. Yet, if you watch enough crime TV, you will know that real murders happen for sums as low as $400 or even $40. There was an episode of Homicide Hunter: Lt. Joe Kenda where a man was shot and almost killed over an argument about 25 cents!
It also needn't be money, but material possessions. In one of the citizen's police academy classes, we learned about a local case where three teenagers broke into a man's house and stole, among other things, his corncob pipe. This pipe was the item he was most upset about, and often discussed in subsequent weeks. So the man lured one of the teenagers out to the woods and shot him execution-style. He was planning to do the same to the other two, and blame the whole crime on his teenaged lover. So that was one life ruined—and it would have been three others, had he not been caught—with the motive of revenge for a lost corncob pipe!
The Gap Between Good and Evil
I thus wonder why it is that we, as writers, tend to overlook such commonplace motivations. There's an unspoken assumption that the motivation of a villain must scale with their actions, so while sub-bosses or henchmen might get away with being in it for the money or the thrill, the Big Bad needs a more exciting or deep motivation. There's also a more recent idea being bandied about in internet circles that the villain should think he's the hero. I think both of these concepts are flawed, but let's take them one at a time.
Although I personally love "True Believer" villains that really do believe they are doing what is right, I don't think it's fair to say that all villains must be this way. After all, a great many real-life villains don't think they're doing something good; they just don't care. They want what they want and do what they can to get it without worrying about morality. I think the reason that this second sort of villain--the thrill-killer, the evil sorcerer, the bully--get a bad rap is that people (both readers and writers), don't understand evil. Yes, a villain who only desires evil is unrealistic, because, in fact, it's impossible to desire evil. But maybe I'm getting ahead of myself.
In the Catholic tradition, we hold that evil doesn't exist; it has no metaphysical reality. Evil is a privation, or absence, of good, similar to how a shadow doesn't exist, but is a privation, or absence, of light. Thus, a person cannot desire evil in and of itself, because they would be desiring nothing. Every evil act is done because someone is desiring something good, but disproportionately, or in a way that removes part of the good from that thing. Again, look at the five motives for murder. Each of those is a good, in and of themselves, but none justifies violating another person.
And thus we come to the other assumption about villains, that their actions must scale with their motives. I think, in fact, the opposite tends to make a more interesting villain. The motive can be something small--wanting revenge for some slight, or a peaceful life, or to be like everyone else. These might even be the same goods that the hero desires. What makes the villain villainous, and what can make them even more interesting, is what they are willing to do to fulfill these desires. Who or what are they willing to throw away? What rules are they willing to break? That distance, between what they want and how they get it is what separates them from the hero.
Types of Villains
This principle, that a villain must desire a good, but desire it disproportionately, can work for any type of villain.
Take the True Believer types: those that believe they are doing what's right. In this category, I would put people like Thanos (Avengers: Infinity War), as well as A.I.s like Agent Smith (The Matrix), VIKI (iRobot), and the Terminators (Terminator... obviously). Thanos is widely lauded as one of Marvel's best villains because he really does think he's doing the right thing. He is willing to throw away half of all sapient beings, plus the one person who he actually cares about, in order to save the other half. What he wants--peace and prosperity--is understandable, but while the gap between that and his genocidal actions is mathematically non-existent, it is morally huge. Similarly, the three A.I.s I mentioned are trying to save either robot-kind or human-kind, but are willing to murder thousands or even billions of humans in order to do it. Essentially, these villains are doing the classic Utilitarian trolley problem, but on a massive scale. They think they are the heroes, and truly do desire a good outcome, but the actions taken to bring that about are inexcusably evil.
Similar to the True Believers are a type of villain I will call the Desperate. These people are also trying to bring about good, but know that what they are doing is wrong. Mr. Freeze (Batman) is a classic example, as he commits crimes to get money and technology to save his wife. Actually, there are a whole slew of villains, mostly in anime and JRPGs, whose entire motivation is to save or resurrect a dead wife or girlfriend. They're trying to save someone they love, but they rarely brand themselves as saviors or heroes; Desperate types hold no such illusions. Sebastian, in my own series, is such a villain, in that he is willing to betray his friends and ally himself to bad people in order to save Chiaroscuro and make up for his past sins. He's willing to do evil that good may come of it, and actually uses the "I'm a bad person anyway" excuse as a justification for his actions.
On the flip side are those who don't care about whether or not they're doing good, which I will divide into three types: Dark Lords, Thrill Killers, and Egoists.
Dark Lords, obviously, include literal Dark Lords, such as Sauron and Voldemort, but I'm also going to throw in your average serial killer into this category. Why? Because they all want the same thing: power. The books I've read by FBI profilers chronicle the most gruesome crimes with motives ranging from rage to lust, but there is an ever present need of the killers to control, whether that's controlling their victims, the situation, or the police and firefighters (in the case of arsonists). Control is related to power, and power, in and of itself, is a good. This, in fact, is why it's wrong for these villains to take away the power or freedom of their victims. While a True Believer like Thanos sought balance, Dark Lords seek an imbalance, and want everything for themselves in an attempt to prove to themselves that they are more powerful, and thus better, than everyone else. These types of villains are, sadly, very realistic, but don't lend themselves to stories requiring a strong interpersonal conflict between hero and villain. They tend to act as a force of nature the hero must work against--whether in a fantasy against a Dark Lord or in a thriller against a serial murderer--and thus don't do much in the way of interpersonal conflict.
Better, in my opinion, are the Thrill Killer types, who see the world as a game, and are willing to do whatever it takes to have fun. Example of this are The Joker (Batman) and Mr. Sato (Ajin). Though The Joker is a bank-robbing thug, he's mostly in it for the laughs, and cares very deeply about whether or not things are funny. That doesn't make him any less abusive or violent, but the gap between his humor and his barbarity is what make him an interesting character. Mr. Sato, similarly, sees the world like one huge videogame, in which he has been given extra lives. Fun and games are a normal and natural good, but his villainy stems from what he is willing to do in this "game". Mr. Sato has absolutely no concern for human life, even his own, and kills hundreds of people (including himself, on multiple occasions!). The interest in this type of villain comes from watching their crazy schemes and then trying to figure out how the hero can possibly beat them. These villains are similar to Dark Lords in that they are something like a force of nature, but different in that the hero usually has to face off against them personally, outwit them, and deal with them as an individual person.
Finally, there are those who want something personally good, but have no regard for others. Technically, this could also describe Dark Lords and Thrill Killers, but here I mean really personal, as in specific to that person. Rather than something big like power or a crazy thrill, they tend to desire the utterly ordinary. Take the robot in Ex Machina. I'm not sure everyone would classify her as a villain, though she certainly did some evil things (it's up to interpretation whether she understands good and evil, though). What was her motivation? She wanted to go watch a crowd. She was, essentially, created to gather information, so that's what she went to go do. It makes sense that that's what she wants, but it doesn't justify what she did to the main character (even if he was kind of a doofus). Or Rezo the Red Priest (Slayers), who, in my opinion, has one of the best motivations of any villain ever. He was born blind and wanted to see. That's a totally understandable motivation. But he's willing to sacrifice the entire world to a demon lord in order to get that wish. Now that is a heckofa gap between a good desire and an evil action! And yet, is it really all that different from the sort of selfishness present in a man who would murder three teenagers over a corncob pipe? Real evil motivations are banal, and real evil actions are completely disproportionate to those motivations. Art, in the case of these last villains, is simply imitating life.
Asking What the Villains Want
Obviously, there are a million different ways of combining these villain type and motivations. Some villains want money so they can save a dying loved one. Some villains desire revenge because they truly believe they have been wronged. A Thrill Killer might find excitement in killing criminals. There is no one right way to write a villain, and there is no one motivation that is the only interesting kind. To anyone trying to write a villain, I suggest reading about or watching shows on real life criminals, from the Big Bads like Hitler, Stalin, and Mao to famous killers like Jack the Ripper and Ted Bundy to run of the mill criminals in your local newspaper. People don't become mass murderers or even petty thieves for no reason, but they also don't just do evil because it's the evil thing to do. Even the most gruesome atrocities were rooted in the desire for misplaced revenge, or disproportionate control, or a false belief in some so-called greater good. Then, I suggest reading and watching your favorite stories and asking what makes these villains tick. Is it the same as in real life? Is it different? What makes a great villain so great? You'll may just find that it's simply a matter of proportion.