“It was in keeping with the practice of mankind for us to accept an empire that was offered to us, and if we refused to give it up under the pressure of three of the strongest motives, fear, honor, and self-interest.
Thucydides: History of the Peloponnesian War 1.76
|And then . . . THE UNIVERSE!|
Villains, enemies, allies and friends should all act with motivation. This is easy for writers to tap into with “good guys”, but it becomes trickier with protagonists. This largely stems from the fact that we don’t really want to sympathize with the Big Bad. They’re “evil” and their soul is blacker than pitch, forged in the fires of Hell, and here only to enjoy pain and suffering.
That’s the end of it.
To be fair, there are certainly those people out there. They’re largely boring. As a writer, Black Hats are nice and all, but to truly engage readers, the main antagonist—whether one individual, a small group or an entire “people”—should act rationally with an end state in mind. Even heroes may justify their means in light of the good to be found at the end—but it’s the lines that get crossed which can define “good guys” from “bad guys”. To aid this, focus on the Thucydides quote above—the motivation for one nation to attack another is largely based on one, two or all three elements of “fear, honor, and self-interest”. There are be other, more nuanced motivations, but in general, if your villain (and your protagonist’s allies) stem from these, you’ll naturally end up with a more nuanced and believable story.
Let’s quickly pick these apart.
|I Sherlocked before Sherlocking was cool!|
It’s primal. It’s easy. It’s something all readers can understand.
Whether we’ve been faced with a bully, or that moment when a friend, child, or loved-one appears to be in danger, fear is a basic and key emotion. Flight or fight is a natural response brought on by our immediate sensation of fear.
Think of any murder-mystery series, and in at least one (if not many) episodes, the antagonist who done did the murder will have been motivated out of sheer fear. These are the culprits that we can all sympathize with, even rationalize and forgive for their crime. The “victim” wasn’t really victim, and used their own power and influence in such a way that the “killer” killed out of hasty action, or during a struggle for their very life. For a wonderful example of this, read the Sherlock Holmes short story, “The Adventure of the Abbey Grange.” The conclusion of the story is well worth the price of admission.
|There ain't no party like a Viking Party, |
because Viking Party raids, pillages and plunders!
Fictional author, Joan Wilder gave her heroine the motivation to kill through a quick list of evil deeds, “The man who killed my father, raped and murdered my sister, burned my ranch, shot my dog, and stole my Bible!” If the villain has thrown down with insult, or even the pretense of insult, motivation for response is clear. Throughout history, religion has been a quick and easy “honor” motivation for any number of actions, and depending on which side your characters sit, the actions are either villainous or heroic. Consider Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Stories, where the hero, Uhtred, finds himself at odds with his adoptive people, the Danes, and his own folk, the Saxons of a fledgling England. The English (who don’t know they’re English yet) have banded together against the Danes not just out of joint heritage, but also because they’re Christian. They’ve established the narrative of the Danes as heathens and heretics which, in some cases, works to their advantage with the powerful Saxons lords who otherwise wouldn’t give each other the time of day. Other measures of honor play plot points throughout the series, especially when Uhtred gives his word, which binds him stronger than his desire for vengeance (honor), gold, or lands and titles (interest).
|I say "Pompey" you say "Magnus"—POMPEY!|
This could also be called “power” or “stability” if you’d like. Although the motivation can also be for wealth, whether directly, through the taking of goods, slaves, and treasures, or indirectly, through agriculturally wealthy lands, trade rights, trade routes, etc. Rome, historically, seized Egypt not only for its great wealth, but also for its bountiful surplus of food. The grain ships that travelled between the Italian peninsula and Egypt were so important that in the 1st Century BCE, when the Cilician pirates grew bold enough to attack the ships and Roman towns, Rome responded. First, Publius Servilius Vatia Isauricus and later by Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, also known simply as Pompey, who succeeded in stomping them flat. It should be noted that Pompey’s story itself shows how his own self-interest was served by taking on the Cilician pirates. Of course, the man was something of a military genius, well-regarded at the time. He saw how he could solve the problem, and at the same time was granted extraordinary powers to tap into the strength and great wealth of Rome, to accomplish this goal. He was able to finish off the pirates, who had plagued Rome for nearly a decade, in about three months.
Whatever the goals of your villains and your heroes, they’re ring more believable if their motivations are based on something other than WORLD DOMINATION. It’s a fine goal, to be certain, but once you’ve slain all the elves, burned down all the forests, enslaved all the humans, and set the dwarves to work in your forges, you’re left with an empire that is orcs and trolls and goblins—great for a party, or a fight, but not much good when it comes to the better things in life.