Saturday, 31 December 2016

Motivating heroes and villains

Every major character in your story should have an agenda, a reason for what they do. Technically, every character should have a reason for their actions, but it’s not necessary to present a compelling reason for why the merchant at the corner sells the hero an apple. Although - perhaps the merchant has lost his own son, because the boy was on a quest and ran out of food, so he sold everything, bought a magic cart, and is now always travelling to where a hero needs something to eat. (Good idea for a story, actually.)

Motivation for the hero and the villain (or the protagonist and the antagonist, if you want to put it less extremely) is especially important, though. A story needs tension and that tension usually is created, because both the protagonist and the antagonist have an agenda and neither of them can complete it if the other one does. Two examples:
In my post about violence, I mentioned the hero who got beaten up by the men of his possible girlfriend’s father, who happens to be a mob boss. In this case, the nameless hero I mentioned is, of course, the protagonist, and the mob boss is the antagonist. The hero wants to be with the woman he loves, that’s his agenda. The mob boss, for reasons of his own, doesn’t want them to be together. Perhaps the hero is a goody-two-shoes or a police officer or the mob boss wants his daughter to marry one of his lieutenants, so that man can become his successor one day. Obviously, both men can’t complete their agenda at the same time here.
In the manga and anime series “Cat’s Eye,” the protagonists are three sisters who steal pieces of art which once belonged to their father, because they believe once they have the collection together again, they will be able to find their father - or find out what happened to him, at any rate. (With heist stories as a such, you should give a better reason than ‘to get rich quickly’ for the crimes committed.) The antagonists are the police inspectors who are tasked with finding cat burglar ‘Cat’s Eye.’ To complicate matters, the middle sister (who usually does the breaking in) is in a love relationship with one of the police inspectors on the trio’s trail. He wants to catch the thieves before asking her to marry him - making it a clear lose-lose situation. If he catches the trio, his love interest will go to jail. If he doesn’t catch the trio (as the audience hopes, because the sisters are very nice people), they will never get married. Of course, ‘staying free and finding their father’ and ‘catching the thieves’ also are two opposite outcomes which can never occur at the same time.

What kind of motivation the protagonist and the antagonist have, is up to your story and to the genre you’re working in. In a romance story, both might have the same love interest and only one can win. In a mystery story, the protagonist wants to solve the crime and the antagonist wants for it to remain unsolved. In a superhero story, the hero wants for mankind to be free and the villain wants to rule the world. (The truth is mankind craves submission, of course, since Loki is always right.)

It’s in the nature of the story that the hero will win in the end - although the victory might be a pyrrhic one. The villain’s plans will be thwarted and everything will be well - at least for a little time. Still, the motivation and agenda for the antagonist need to be as well-rounded and understandable as those of the protagonist. The audience doesn’t need to agree with the antagonist, but they need to be able to understand why they do what they do.

Usually, the antagonist wields more power throughout the story, too. In our examples above, the mob boss has his organisation which is at his beck and call. The police inspectors have the whole police force behind them, they can put a hundred police officers on guard around a piece of art the trio wants to steal. The protagonist is a protagonist, because they overcome the challenge which comes with the unbalanced power. They come through despite how much power the other side wields. In a romance story, the protagonist might be closer to the love interest’s heart, but the antagonist might be the one chosen for the love interest by their family. In a mystery story, the protagonist might be the single P.I. who tries his best to see through the case while the antagonist has money and influence to keep the police from looking at things or even have them harass the protagonist. The supervillain in the comic has a whole organisation and strong powers, whereas the hero has just received their powers, has no allies, and has no experience with that kind of life. Think Death Star vs. X-Wing fighter.

The motivation doesn’t have to be visible from the beginning, though. Often, it will be a good idea to keep it hidden from the audience for a bit - especially the motivation and agenda of the antagonist. Perhaps your protagonist doesn’t really know what they want at the beginning, perhaps they just want to live in peace instead of going on a long, dangerous quest for little recompense. Part of the hero’s journey is to understand why they need to be heroic. Perhaps the antagonist will appear helpful and supportive at the beginning and the audience and the protagonist only realize slowly that they are led astray that way.

There’s a lot of motivation needed to write a story. Most of it is needed by the writer who has to spend hours upon hours typing in the words, but the characters do need quite a bit of it, too.

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