Anonymous asked: I think you can give a villain a motive and still have them be truly evil. Some good evil motives would be greed or thirst for power.

(I believe this message is in response to thewritershelpers' article titled Truly Evil Villains.)

Yes. However, I think there is something doubly terrifying in villains who have no motive, who, like the Joker in The Dark Knight, just want to watch the world burn. We can’t understand them because we have reasons and excuses and rationalizations for our actions. We can give you a Because for every Why.

But to ask, “Why?” and have a villain look you in the eye and reply, “Why? There is no why!that is truly heinous, truly terrifying, and wholly unknowable. 

Villains who know they’re evil and relish it are also frightening. They need no motive, or else their motive is simply to do and be evil and that is all. Take Aaron from Titus Andronicus for example, an exceptional villain worthy of the word and probably my favorite villain of all time.

Aaron has a few quotes that drive home the “I’m evil and I know it” character arc. Here are my favorites:

"…I have done a thousand dreadful things
As willingly as one would kill a fly;
And nothing grieves me heartily indeed
But that I cannot do ten thousand more.” (x)

And 

If one good deed in all my life I did,
I do repent it from my very soul.” (x)

How can you confront a villainy like this? How can you reason with it? How can you sympathize with it? 

Hopefully you cannot sympathize. And there is no reasoning with evil—not pure evil like that. You can only kill it, hang it and shoot it full of holes and bury it in the desert to die of thirst or be eaten by some hungry beast. Villains like Aaron are poison; they are remorseless, incapable of reason. Unknowable.  

Villains who have no motive or whose only motive is evil are so jarring and scary because they are unfathomable. We cannot grasp their motives, maybe because they have none, maybe because their motives are a skosh beyond the understanding of sane human beings. 

The unknown is a major root of fear. Nearly all of our nightmares, everything we point to as a source of fear in our lives, can be traced back to the unknown. As Albus Dumbledore so wisely puts it in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, “It is the unknown we fear when we look upon death and darkness, nothing more.” He’s right. There is nothing scary about death and darkness; it is what comes after death, what we cannot see in the darkness—those are the things that truly scare us. 

We cannot know the emptiness and loneliness of evil, the vacuum of it, the nothingness it champions. We cannot know the Why, and the Why is what sustains us. To see a villain thrive without the Why, even in disdain if the Why, is terrifying. 

So yes, a villain can be very nasty and hateful and murderous and still have a motive—greed, pride, lust, etc.—but the really evil villains are the ones with no motive or the simple motive of evil, who know they’re evil and don’t care. The unknown and unknowable; the known but unfathomable. The Other taken to the furthest degree. The inhuman. Evil.

This type of villain isn’t easy. There is no shortcut here, and no justification like, “Well, he’s just evil,” will work when it comes to this villain. It takes an enormous amount of skill and effort to write villains without motives or with a motive of evil, and there is a real possibility that it will still come off as flat.

But if you succeed, if you write that type of villain well, and you’ll have written the horror and the nightmare at the core of every one of us. Those are the villains that stick with you, who haunt you, who let all of your Whys echo unanswered in the dark.

-C


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