Saturday, May 24, 2014

The Psychology of Writing: Villain Motivation and the CANE Model: A Guest Post by Casey Lynn Covel

I'm so sorry this post is late! I've been at MomoCon all this weekend, and it's been exhausting. Posts will be at their regular times next week I promise. My good friend Casey Lynn Covel who I met at the Florida Christian Writers Conference is guest posting this week! She is another aspiring writer. You can find her on Facebook, Tumblr, and her own blog Meek Geek. ^ ^ Thank you, Casey!

A good, solid villain can make a story soar. But a simplified, clichéd villain merely fills an otherwise empty hole in the plot.

One of the keys to crafting a well-rounded villain is to give them a proper motivation for doing what they do. Let’s face it: we’ve heard the “conquer the entire world” and “destroy the planet” and “fill the land with darkness” motives a hundred times. And while these goals are totally workable for a villain, they feel empty unless there’s a genuinely believable drive behind them.

So, today let’s take a look at properly motivating your villain from a psychological perspective. We’ll be using the CANE model as a sort of checklist as we do so. If you’re not familiar with the CANE model, that’s alright. We’ll discuss it as we go.

The CANE model has five steps: efficacy, agency, affect, task value, and choice/persistence. All five of these criteria must be met in some way. Otherwise, the villain’s motivation will, realistically, disappear. Fulfilling all five requirements provides a more believable schema for your antagonist.

1.) Efficacy: Is your Villain able to accomplish the goal? -The absolute first question you need to ask yourself is this: “Is my villain personally able to do what he/she wants to do?” 

Let’s look at the “conquer the earth” cliché, for instance. If your villain wants to take over the world, does he/she have the means to do it? Are they a genius mastermind with an IQ of 300, capable of influencing the world through mind-altering gamma rays? Maybe they can’t do much physically, but they have the technical prowess to create an army of cyborgs to do their bidding.

 If your villain constantly makes threats about conquering the planet (or the universe or the galaxy or whatever it is that they’re after) then readers should feel that the villain is worthy of his/her claim. A villain who plans to govern the world with an army of alien invaders, but can’t even create a translator in order to speak to them, might be lacking in the credibility department. Unless your villain doubles as your satirical comedy relief, make certain that you give them the brains, brawn, skills, or capabilities to act out their goals. Motivation dies if this can’t be achieved.

This is one reason why you hear writers stressing the fact that you should make your villain just as strong as your hero (if not stronger). Readers must believe that the villain is more than capable of achieving their goal, whether that be through resources, mental prowess, physical strength, magical powers, an army of servants, or something else. The key word here is able. Is your villain personally able to achieve the goal that they want?

2. Agency: Is anything preventing the villain from accomplishing the goal? - I know what you’re thinking, “Of course something’s preventing the villain from accomplishing the goal! It’s called ‘the hero’!”

Well, pardon the cliché, but “hold your horses” for a second. You’re right, the hero should be the villain’s greatest opposition, but that’s not quite what agency means here.

While efficacy is an internal barrier, agency is an external one. The villain must feel that they are “allowed” to pursue the goal. Of course, most villains don’t play along with the laws and rules that govern everyone else, so it’s unlikely that they’ll wait for permission to do what they want. What’s more likely to destroy their goal is an external circumstance that neither they, nor anyone else, can control.

For example, if the villain seeks a great power hidden in the depths of an underground city, but the air in that location is poisonous and impassable, then the villain is more likely to not pursue that goal. Of course, if the villain believes that they can create something (like a special breathing apparatus) to survive the toxin, then the motivation won’t die. But if (for example’s sake) there is absolutely no way to survive the toxin, then the villain is most likely going to forget about that particular goal and choose another, more attainable one.

Another common external factor is time. Does the villain have enough time to accomplish their goal? Can the villain really collect all seven pieces of the shattered artifact in three days? Can the immortality elixir be produced before the lunar eclipse occurs? And so on. Time is one of the greatest external factors that can shatter a villain’s motivation.

External factors can be anything outside of the villain’s person that directly hinders his or her goals. Examples of external factors are: weather, legal laws/rules, resources, individuals in higher power, universal laws (gravity, inertia, etc.), time, and nature.

3. Affect: How does the Villain Feel about the Goal? - There are two factors that emotionally affect the villain’s goal—emotions and moods.

Moods are long-term feelings that stay with the villain over time. A lot of this has to do with the villain’s personality. A royal antagonist, for example, may have a continuous mood of superiority and a “higher-than-thou” attitude. Their goals will reflect their personal feelings. Whatever they are out to achieve will tie in to their feelings. Attacking and conquering a neighboring kingdom, in this instance, would be directly influenced by the mood of superiority.

Revenge is heavily influenced by mood. The antagonist feels a certain way towards a character (bitter, humiliated, wronged, etc.) and their mood remains constant towards that character. This provides a stable mentality for the villain to operate from. The mood towards the goal should stay the same. If the villain “doesn’t feel like it” then they aren’t going to go through with it.

Emotions, on the other hand, are quick, fleeting, and triggered by specific events. These are more likely to motivate a villain for a short-term goal, or perhaps a smaller goal on the way to their grand one. Traditional “mad scientist” and “insane” villain types are heavily swayed by emotions, rather than moods. They act on fleeting emotions triggered by small, random events. This makes them unpredictable and unstable. Without a long-term mood to guide them, these villain types sometimes lack a believable, solid motivation.

4. Task Value: How is the goal Important to the Villain? - This is the key to establishing a strong motivation—particularly in a villain. How is the ultimate goal important to who the villain is? How does accomplishing the goal benefit the villain and his/her self-image?

Villains have selfish goals; therefore, the goals will ultimately be self-serving in some way (even when they’re disguised as a benevolent cause). More importantly, these goals must fulfill some aspect of the villain’s self-image—how they view themselves and how they want others to view them (powerful, religious, god-like, honorable, malicious, a savior, a mighty warrior, an undisputed monarch, a rebel, etc.).

 In The Legend of Korra, for example, Amon (the antagonist) seeks to rid the world of bending and put all citizens on “equal grounds.” He blames bending for all the world’s wrongs—starting wars, causing unbalance, and forcing those without bending abilities into a position of societal disadvantage.

At first glance, this appears to be a benevolent cause, but take a deeper look and you’ll find that Amon’s motivation is almost completely self-serving. He blames bending, and the Avatar (bending master), for all of the wrongs that have happened in his life (ruining his father, among other thing). As a result, he seeks revenge in order to fulfill a part of who he is to the world—an avenger to the benders and a savior to the world of non-bending. Ultimately, Amon turns to violent and malicious methods in order to accomplish his goals.

To a villain, a goal should have two purposes: (1) to gain something that the villain wants and (2) to fulfill some part of the villain’s self-image. Villains should never do things simply “because they’re evil.” They should have something significant to gain from their actions—both materially and individually.

5. Choice/Persistence: Will the Villain continue to pursue the same Goal, even when given other Options? - The final ingredients to motivation are persistence and choice. Does the villain continue to pursue the same goal, through the same antagonistic means, even when other options are presented to him/her?

If the answer is “yes,” then the villain is highly motivated and unlikely to waver.

A great example of this is Loki from the MARVEL films. After being unknowingly adopted by Odin, ruler of Asgard, Loki seeks the throne, even though he knows his older brother Thor is entitled to it. Loki’s goal is to become king of Asgard (and wherever else he might rule), and he lets nothing dissuade him from that goal.

Loki engages in open treason, using violent means towards gaining the throne. Even so, his brother Thor offers him several chances to return to Asgard and be forgiven. Loki pretends to accept Thor’s offers, but only when they further his own goals. He never repents of his wrongs and lets nothing move him away from his ultimate goal. Loki’s motivation is solid. He consistently chooses to continue pursuing the throne, even when given other alternatives.

Villains have strong motivations when they continue to make the same choice about a goal, even when given other options towards reaching that goal (such as in Loki’s case).

A Final Note about Motivation

When designing your villain’s motivation and ultimate goal, keep the following questions in mind:
·         Is my villain personally capable of pursuing the goal? Does he/she have the physical/mental capabilities and/or resources required?
·         Is my villain “allowed” to pursue their goal? Are there any external factors that would realistically put an end to his/her goal (weather, resources, time, rules/laws, physics, nature, other individuals of high power, etc.)?
·         What is my villain’s over-all mood toward the goal? How does this mood tie into the goal itself?
·         How is the goal important to the villain? Ask yourself the two most important questions: (1) what does the villain get out of the goal and (2) how does achieving the goal fulfill or enhance the villain’s self-image?
·         Will the villain continue to pursue the same goal, even when given other options towards achieving that goal?

Remember, it’s not enough to have a villain continuously pursue a goal blindly, just to fulfill the “continue to pursue” requirement. All five criteria must be met. Otherwise, readers are likely to tap into the fact that something seems unrealistic or “off” about your villain’s motivation and goals. Focus especially on the “importance to the villain” factor when developing motivation, but don’t overlook the other requirements. They are the smaller building blocks that uphold the larger structure of “importance.”

What is your villains goal? Is he capable of pursuing it? Is he allowed to pursue it? How does he feel about it? Is it important to him? Will he see it through to the end?

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  1. Thanks for the feature Victoria :)

    1. You're totally welcome. Thanks for the post. ^ ^ So cool to have you on here.

  2. Great post! I think I'm pretty good at having my villain motivated, but it's always good to read up on it.

    1. Thank you. I'm glad you enjoyed it. I love Casey's psychology based posts. :)