Friday, January 25, 2013

Plausible Villainy

I think I just learned what's been bothering me for a while about Professor Moriarty in the BBC Sherlock and also The Master in Dr. Who. As well as several other stories you'd find immediately recognizable. The problem is that I find their villainy implausible.

I have a high tolerance for implausible. If my family suffered and died at the hands of some criminal, I might seek vigilante justice in a manner that resembles Charles Bronson in the Death Wish movies. Nevertheless I don't begrudge Batman or Spiderman their spandex.

And I don't begrudge the Riddler his question-marked spandex, because I understand his motivation. He wants to rob a bank or something. Nothing wrong with ill-gotten gain as a motive for villainy--unless you scale up the size of the payday too high. Does a thief ever steal more money than he can possibly spend in a lifetime? I'd expect a big-time thief to use the lolly to fund some hard-to-hide legitimate enterprise/purchase. And that will point the finger of blame at him. "Where did you get the money to buy Microsoft, Mr. Penguin?"

An interesting story is generally a contest of equals. If you create a super-detective Holmes, you need a super-villain Moriarty. And if you create a super-villain Moriarty, you have to give him an understandable motivation for his villainy. Money works, but only at the beginning of the villain's career. I suppose you can use the "thrill kill" motive, but that's hard to do believably.

I recently started reading a story about an asteroid-mining operation that comes under attack by some Greenpeace-like environmentalist nuts. (No, Greenpeace isn't filled with nuts. The story was fiction and the bad-guys' organization said things that reminded me of Greenpeace.) There's a satisfying space-battle with good guys and bad guys shooting it up in and around a moon-base. And the bad-guys manage to steal a space-ship--the flagship of the asteroid-mining company's fleet.

I quit reading.

I can imagine a nation-state summoning the resources to put men on the moon. Same goes for Google, Apple, or Microsoft. I can't see Greenpeace doing this. Same goes for Al Qaeda. It is just not plausible to me. Yes, those sorts of people can hijack airliners, or operate pirate ships on the high seas, but they are just too small an organization to have a space program.

And if their malevolent design is to crash an asteroid into the Earth, why not use whatever means they used to insinuate their agents onto the moon base. Suppose you smash the Earth with an asteroid, you kill a bunch of people, and you destroy civilization. What's the payday in that? Oh, but humanity is despoiling Gaia and must be punished. Dude, you're going to despoil Gaia a lot more with your asteroid.

I don't buy it. It's not plausible. I jumped off the train.

So, I've uncovered another Writing Mantra just now: the villain must be plausible with a plausible motivation.


  1. Some very good points here, and I am with you when it comes to giving up on books if characters' goals and motivations are not credible. Stories need to be coherent and make sense. The new version of Battlestar Galactica was scuppered by that - you couldn't run an artists' co-operative in California the way they ran the human race's last surviving battleship!

    Though as to whether a thief ever steals more money than he can spend in a lifetime - well, plenty of people go on making money long after their first million, or even billion. Sometimes mere greed is plausible.

  2. I really love that line "you couldn't run an artists' co-op in California"

    Maybe I don't understand the criminal mind as well as I ought, but I'd figure that once a crook makes a score, he spends his days spending the loot, not going after more.

  3. I love watching BBC's Sherlock, but I agree with you about Moriarty. I never could quite figure out why he became the villain he is. I think those kinds of stories, following the villain, are the most fascinating!
    You articulate very well how important a motive is in a story. Why should the villain be short changed? Motives are so central to how people operate daily!
    When I write, I tend to imagine someone and then backtrack to see how he or she became this present person. Otherwise, as you say, it's not plausible. Great post!

    1. I figure that determining a character's backstory is one of those elements of writing that nobody sees (or should see) that I call "scaffolding."


Those more worthy than I: