Kurt Vonnegut’s rules for writing good short stories state that all characters “should want something, even if it is only a glass of water”.[*] Vonnegut’s levity aside, considering what fictional characters desire is useful because such explorations often reveals their underlying motivation, particularly when we write about antagonists. Antagonists represent individuals who oppose protagonists in some fashion. With exceptions such as monsters or forces of nature, most antagonists have reasons for their opposition. When writers understand what motivates their antagonist’s decisions to block the protagonist, we can root their subsequent actions within that frame of reference, thus giving their behavior an explicable context.
Villainous Pathos and Madness
When discussing antagonists, we often think of outright villains. It’s often easy to discover what motivates these villains to thwart a (presumably) plucky protagonist. The criminal masterminds and “take over the world types”, for example, have clear goals. Further insight into the motivations of some villains, however, can be the crucial difference between producing a caricature and a badly flawed individual. Consider J. K. Rowling’s Voldemort, whose snake-like appearance and (temporarily) undying nature makes him monstrous, more embodiment of evil than wicked wizard. As we discover in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Voldemort fears death and considers it to be a shameful weakness. Because he desires immortality, Voldemort chooses to undergo dangerous, immoral magical rituals.[†] Discovering that Voldemort’s behavior is motivated by his boyhood fears, initially stemming from the mistaken belief that his mother couldn’t be magical because she died and left him alone, both explains his reprehensible choices and humanizes him. Thus, learning Voldemort’s motivations provokes a twinge of pity for the person he might’ve become under different circumstances.
With other villains, gaining an understanding of what motivates these villains not only explains why these characters act as they do but also assists protagonists in overcoming the obstacles the villains set and/or defeat them. In Stephen King’s novel Misery, a seriously injured Paul Sheldon is held captive by Annie Wilkes. Understanding both Annie’s volatile mental status[‡] and her obsession with his Misery Chastain novels, he concocts a desperate plan to escape before she kills them both. Once he completes the Misery novel that Wilkes forced him to write, he ignites it instead of letting her read it. Caught off guard and desperate to save the book, she approaches close enough for Sheldon to attack and then lock himself away while he waits for the police.
Law and Laughs: Adversaries and Friendly Obstructionists
Many antagonists, however, lack a villainous streak. Victor Hugo’s indefatigable policeman from Les Miserables spends his time enforcing the law he when isn’t attempting to recapture fugitive petty thief and protagonist, Jean Valjean. Javert’s relentless pursuit of Valjean seems excessive when considering the nature of crimes Valjean committed (bread theft). However, Javert is not interested in the unfairness of human law (or its sentencing) so much as he is passionate about enforcing it. He possesses a rigid worldview that despises challenges to authority and social order; he also does not believe lawbreakers like Valjean are capable of reform. Compelled to set affronts to order right, Javert also derives immense pleasure from doing so. Understanding Javert’s code explains both his conduct and prepares us for his fate. Although forced to flee Javert for years, Jean Valjean saves his long-time nemesis’s life—something which Javert finds incomprehensible. Once confident in his role in the world, Javert’s value system is upturned, prompting him to do something that otherwise would be unthinkable for such a man: he commits suicide.
In other instances, the non-villainous antagonist are less adversaries and more well-meaning sorts who nonetheless creates difficulties for protagonists. Agatha Christie has a beloved family member juggle the roles of benefactor and antagonist in her short story “Strange Jest.” Recently deceased Uncle Matthew hid a fortune for his two heirs to find. Despite their diligent searching, they find nothing. Frustrated, they agree to let Miss Marple assist them. Miss Marple seems to be an unlikely sleuth but soon proves to be adept at recognizing types of people and what motivates them. Not long after poking around the deceased’s home, Miss Marple forms the opinion that Matthew is like her own Uncle Henry, a bachelor unaccustomed to children but who enjoyed teasing them. This combination means that he’s likely to go a bit far with his little jokes. As such, the fortune he left is not the gold bullion he suggested burying in the yard instead of placing in a bank (a decoy, according to Miss M), but rare stamps on envelopes accompanying fake love letters that Uncle Matthew likely laughed over while penning—the sort of letters his nephew might’ve burned out of gentlemanly respect for his uncle’s privacy! Understanding that Uncle Matthew couldn’t resist one last joke, however, saved the inheritance.
Part of creating a believable character can involve providing them with motivation (rational or not) for what they do. Motivation, working as a component of character behavior, makes characters more realistic. While gaining an understanding of what an antagonist wants might not make them beloved, it does make them relatable and occasionally worthy of readerly sympathy. After all, we all possess aspirations, even ignoble ones.
What motivates your favorite fictional characters? Share in the comment section below! Also, sign up to the Sequence newsletter to stay current with the latest posts.
[*] As mentioned in my post on writing advice, Vonnegut’s list represents specific writing advice that’s helpful to consider as needed.
[†] Undergoing these rituals also cause the radical alteration in his appearance from handsome man to snake-like, thus suggesting his wicked deeds in some way lessen his humanity.
[‡] During previous escape attempts, he discovers that she’s killed in the past (Annie likely has Munchhausen by Proxy syndrome) in addition to murdering a sheriff looking for him.