How to Properly Motivate Your Bad Guy

How to Properly Motivate Your Bad Guy

No character is more misunderstood than the bad guy. Even today, it’s far too easy for authors to slip into the remnants of the old melodrama stereotype—black cape, twirled mustache, trick laugh. He’s the bad guy just because… well, he’s bad. Isn’t that enough?

Definitely not enough.

Next to your protagonist, your antagonist is the single most important character in your story. Skimp on him, and the entire story—including the protagonist—will suffer as a result.

Now, it’s true not every story will require a “bad” guy. An antagonist doesn’t have to be bad.

Doesn’t even have to be human, come to that.

The antagonistic force is nothing more or less than an obstacle between your protagonist and his story goal.

But, as often as not, this character will be bad. He may be aligned only a little to the moral south of your protagonist, or he may be a dyed-in-the-wool, raving, slasher-scary psychotic killer.

Either way, it’s your job to make sure he’s still dimensional human being. This may or may not mean he’ll end up being sympathetic to readers in some way. What it does mean is that your bad guy must have realistic motivations for his actions.

Let’s take a quick look at how to motivate your bad guy—and how not to.

Why the Bad-Just-to-Be-Bad Antagonist Doesn’t Work

Bad guys are often conceived simply to give the protagonist someone to overcome—someone to run from or fight against. As archetypal black-hat figures, bad guys don’t always have to be complicated, but be wary of oversimplifying them.

When you create a bad guy who has no clear goal other than kill the good guy, and no clear motive other than just because I’m bad, several not-so-great things happen:

  • Your antagonist turns into a one-dimensional cardboard cutout.
  • Your antagonist lacks realism.
  • Your conflict lacks realism.

In short, you may think that in making your villain as evil as possible “just because,” you’re making him all the scarier and more impressive. But the result is exactly the opposite. The entire story and its thematic argument weakens.

Consider Gavin O’Connor’s western Jane Got a Gun, in which Ewan McGregor chews through the scenery as John Bishop, the villainous leader of a ruthless outlaw gang—who is dead-set on annihilating protagonist Jane and her husband Bill Hammond.

Ewan McGregory John Bishop Jane Got a Gun

Ewan McGregor squints devilishly, huffs cigar smoke at everybody, and twirls his period mustache–but the writers forgot the most important thing: you must motivate your bad guy.

On the surface, he has a nominal motivation: after he tried to force Jane and her daughter into prostitution, one of his men, the kindly Hammond, rescued Jane, shooting up Bishop’s brothel and killing several of his men in the process. Granted, such a thing would be a little galling to a businessman such as Bishop, but is it logically enough to cause him to obsessively hunt down Jane and Ham for the next six years?

The character is introduced in a supremely evil characteristic moment—garroting an innocent man to death, while trying to extract info about Jane.


But… why?

Ewan McGregory John Bishop Jane Got a Gun

He’s even got a reward out on these people. Putting his money where his mouth is but… why?

Why is he so obsessively, and ultimately self-destructively, determined to exact revenge on two people who were, at best, minor annoyances in his overall scheme?

Any number of suitable motivations might have been created to account for Bishop’s obsessive evil. Any one of them would have made him a far more compelling antagonist, and the conflict itself far more meaningful and realistic.

As it stands, he becomes a one-dimensional stereotype—a bad guy who is present in the story for no other reason than to simply be as bad as possible.

How to Properly Motivate Your Bad Guy

People never do things without reason. Good people can have bad reasons for their actions, just as bad people can have good reasons. At the very least, even the most wicked of men committing the most wicked of actions will almost always believe they are justified, on some level, for their deeds.

Your antagonist needs to have a motivation every bit as strong and compelling as your protagonist.

Ask yourself:

  • What’s your antagonist’s backstory?
  • What good reason does he have to initially engage in the conflict with the protagonist?
  • What good reason does he have to continue to engage in the conflict with the protagonist?

Hatred, vengeance, lust, and any other number of dark emotions are good qualifiers for your antagonist. But, alone, they are not enough to motivate his story goals.

It’s not enough for your antagonist to hate your protagonist just because. Dig deeper than that. The deeper you go, the more rounded a character your antagonist will become—and the better your protagonist will also have to become in order to face this impressive bad guy you’ve constructed for him.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! What humanizing reason are you using to motivate your bad guy? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.


  1. My antagonist in my co-author book is Ruben an evil sea deity. His eyes are blood-orange.

    Flash back

    Once he was a good man. His family was good people and ruled their kingdom with kindness and fairness. All was good and happy in the kingdom. Ruben was an only child and was pampered and spoiled by his doting parents. Then one day the king fell and injured his leg, he had to stay in bed to heal. He was very depressed and so his loyal subjects brought him all kinds of gifts to cheer him. Alas, none really worked. Until one day a peasant from Hope Island brought the king a beautiful yellow bird. The bird would sing to the grumpy king, making him laugh and cheerful.”
    “Once again the kingdom was happy. Ruben was off on an adventure as he was a young healthy man. All was well until the king became ill, the royal healers could not understand what was wrong.” Cara paused for a moment, remembering. Zane leaned closer to hear more. Then she continued, “the queen also became very ill, the palace was in an up roar. Nothing the healers or priestess’ did had any effect of the very ill couple. The only thing the king wanted was his yellow bird she was placed beside his bed where she sang to the king. Then one day she stopped signing, the king got weaker as did the queen. the king was upset but nothing could induce the little bird and then she died. The king died soon after as did the queen, but before they died something strange happened to their bodies.

    Ruben wants revenge because his parents got the yellow death/fever and was mad the his whole kingdom died except for an old woman.

    He was a prince before he became a sea deity who is evil. He was once Zane’s old friend from long ago. So Ruben wants to destroy the descendent of the old man called Raphael, he thought Leilani was but the old mans descendant is Lucia who is a mermaid.

    So Leilani will have to fight him when she becomes an immortal.

  2. I mentioned this here several years ago, and I have been fiddling with the concept, trying to make it work in my mind and on paper off and on ever since. I am ashamed to admit it, but forcing myself to sit through my sister’s Twilight movie inspired me. The idea is that a vampire needs human blood to survive, and captures an immortal person in order to keep from killing people, thus making the process as humane as possible. The Immortal and Vampire would be the main characters.

    I’m about to go at it again, and though I could have said this a hundred other times, I really think I found the issue with the concept. The immortal character has to be free, but threatened rather than captured already (, which might be part of the plot or a subplot). Either that, or she has to be reduced to a minor character and replaced with a different main character, which I fear would jeopardize the effect I’m going for.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      What does the Immortal need from the Vampire? If both characters want something from the other, which the other does not wish to give, that creates a really nice web of give and take in the conflict.

  3. My antagonist is a bitter old hag who was forced to be one by her mother, who wanted to make herself look better than the rest if her family so people would feel bad for her. This then lead my antagonist to be forced to house a colony of goblins who treat humans like pets or slaves. They made a deal that if the hag imprisions many humans, she would give the people to them and they would her food and wealth. My protagonist is captured, but she then escapes and end the antagonist’s deeds, which makes antagonist question whether she should fight my protagonist or keep the deal with the goblin colony and have money and food. Out of her selfishness, she decides to fight the protagonist, at the end finally confessing that she was not meant to do all of her deeds, and the antagonist and protagonist become friends.

  4. directornoah says

    I have a question. If the antagonist is the Devil, how would you approach making this character more rounded and three dimensional? I’m thinking of including him in my novel, and his main objective is to manipulate and deceive the MC, in order to gain her soul.
    Considering his motivation is nothing more than pure evil and the thrill of a challenge, do I need to add something else to his character, to stop him just becoming a plot device for the story?

    P.S, Satan normally uses his ‘Trick or Treat’ ploy in most fiction, but in the current scenario I’ve thought of, he doesn’t tempt the MC with anything, but instead tricks and manipulates her into getting what he wants.
    By leaving out the tempting aspect of the Devil, am I creating a misrepresentation of his nature and the way he operates?
    Any advice will be much appreciated.
    Thanks! ☺

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Honestly, this is why I feel the devil rarely works as a really good bad guy. Ironically. :p The trick to a really dimensional bad guy is that there’s always a hint, however small, of the possibility for redemption.

      • directornoah says

        Very good point. Bearing in mind however, that Stephen King used the Devil as a villian in his book Needful Things, where he opened a shop selling trinkets in exchange for people’s souls.
        What would you say King did differently there, to successfully pull the devil off as a bad guy in the story?

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          I’m not familiar with the book, so couldn’t say for sure. Humor, possibly? Irony, certainly.

          • directornoah says

            What about if the devil had a double identity and personality in a story?

            For instance, the character could appear and come across as totally normal, perhaps a little mysterious, with his own past, motivation, goals, desires, that are completely average and seperate from anything evil.
            In short, he is a typical person like anybody else, except at the end, he reveals himself to be the Devil, with malevolent ulterior motives, and has been secretly manipulating the MC all along.
            Do you think that would work, the Devil being the hidden antogonist behind everything happening?

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

            I think it *can* work, but it’s problematic too, in that the more you humanize the devil, the less he becomes archetypal “absolute evil”–which robs him of some of his teeth.

    • Robert Billing says

      Have you ever read CS Lewis’s “The Screwtape Letters”? They are a collection of letters from a senior devil to a junior one advising on the best ways to tempt mankind. However Screwtape himself, despite being a devil, evokes quite a lot of sympathy.

      • Joe Long says

        This is what I was thinking. If he’s not “absolute evil” then he’s not really the devil – or why is there the need for the character to be the devil? As an alternative, go with a lesser demon who may have the possibility of being redeemed. Also reminded me of a somewhat lesser work of fiction – Adam Sandler in “Little Nicky”

        • directornoah says

          The point is, the devil is absolute evil in my story. He only pretends to be a human, he nevers takes on any emotions or becomes human. His agenda is still pure evil, but his true identity is not made obvious to the reader at first. He conceals his dark nature, but still maintains a brooding presence in the story as the hidden antagonist, until he reveals himself at the end.
          Also, my novel is not a comedy, it’s a supernatural mystery, and I thought it might make a stunning, dramatic twist at the end of the story, to finally discover it’s Satan himself, who has been behind the strange events that’ve occurred in the novel.

  5. directornoah says

    True, but I was thinking more along the lines of his ordinary ‘human’ persona is an act and performance, and that he created a totally fictional profile of a past, desire, motivation, etc, to make it appear he was a normal person, when in fact, his intentions were wicked all along.
    He hid behind the mask of a human, purely to deceive and trick the MC into doing what he wanted. He always remained his true evil self through it all.
    If no one knows who he is, he can work his devilish will undetected!
    Any good?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Again: can definitely be done. However, my major concern would be that this might easily turning into a scenario of “tricking” the reader. The question is always: Will they be more pleased or less pleased when the misdirection is replaced by the truth? On the surface of this instance, I’d say less, simply because the nuanced facade is more interesting than the pure-evil reality.

      It’s a Catch-22 really. A dimensional devil is more interesting, but… not the devil. :p

      • directornoah says

        What if I foreshadowed his true evil character and gave hints throughout parts of the story, that he’s not what appears?
        I was intending on having a character mention to MC, that the devil’s ‘human’ self, was suspected of having done violent deeds over his fictional lifetime, and had gone insane. Ironically, that same character turns out to be working for the devil, and that they both enjoy tormenting and playing mind games with the MC.

        My main point is, if I show hints of the truth, that the character might have done bad things in the past, will the reveal of him being the devil at the end, lessen my misdirection to the readers, if they already had a suspicion he was a bit sinister and different to what he seemed, but still make it a good surprise twist?

        Thanks for all your advice on this! ?

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          Yes, it’s all about artful foreshadowing. Pull that off, and readers will be prepared to follow wherever you want them to go.

          • directornoah says

            Thank you very much for your patience. I will put your advice into practice when I write the first draft.
            Many thanks again. ?

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

            Glad to be of help!

  6. Robert Billing says

    I think I see where you are going. If I can recommend another book by CSL there is a passage in “Perelandra” (“Voyage to Venus” in some editions) where Ransom realises at the end that there is nothing to the devil except hate. The intelligence shown earlier was a means to an end, the end is just spite.

  7. Great post, K.M.!

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