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A common mistake in creative writing is to create a villain without a clear motivation for their actions. Every villain should have a reason for their behavior, even if it is not a justifiable one. There is, however, no clear guideline that tells you when it is too late or too early to reveal the motivation of a villain character.

I am guessing the beginning is too early, and the ending is too late, but I am wondering exactly when or preceding or following what event of the story it would be considered too late or too early.

Could you give me some guidelines or insights?

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    Like the current answer says, it totally depends. If you're writing a whodunnit mystery, you probably can't reveal your villain's "motive" until the very end. So even saying "the ending is too late" isn't exactly true.
    – jtb
    Mar 12, 2023 at 3:43
  • What were Iago's motivations?
    – fectin
    Mar 13, 2023 at 1:30
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    @fectin Othello was promoted over me and I really want his job, so I will ruin his life, get him kicked from office, and get promoted to his job. Alternatively: Jafar's shoulder makes the best perch, so I will make sure I am useful to him so he doesn't kick me off of my favorite perch (more direct, he's a sycophant.).
    – hszmv
    Mar 13, 2023 at 12:23
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    @fectin Iago was clearly motivated by his hatred of Othello. Whether Othello was deserving of that hatred is never explored, but it drives Iago's every action. Similar, Montressor in "The Cask of Amontillado" takes this into a first-person style, and openly claims that he entombed Fortunato alive over some unspecified transgression in the past, though Fortunato's actions as described seem to suggest Fortunato didn't think their relationship had devolved to the point of murderous revenge.+
    – hszmv
    Mar 13, 2023 at 13:05
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    @fectin +. The point of the story is that Montressor, the narrator, is admitting to murder but is not forthcoming with the story behind his justification, other than he truly believes that he was so injured by Fortunato's actions, that he was justified in the actions he freely admits too. However, there is clear evidence in the story that call us to doubt Montressor as an unreliable narrator. It doesn't invalidate his stated motives but call into question the validity of his story and if we believe Montressor is lying about the murder, what could he be hiding, given that this is his lie.
    – hszmv
    Mar 13, 2023 at 13:12

4 Answers 4

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Unfortunately, this entirely depends on what serves the story.

It is, indeed, perfectly possible to write a good story where the motive is concealed entirely from both all the point-of-view characters, in particular the heroes, and also from the reading audience, thus leaving both wondering what caused it all.

Revealing the motive to the audience before (or instead of) the characters will create dramatic irony.

Revealing the motive to the characters and the audience very late will create mystery and give more difficulties to overcome, since it's harder for the characters to deduce what the villain will do next.

Revealing to both early will, if the motive is properly selected, sharpen the conflict and point up the contrast between the hero and the villain.

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    For an example of the motive being revealed to the audience early, see every episode of Columbo. We always start out with the killer and their victim and see the murder occur at the start, and the tension isn't about "who done it?" because we already know that. It's about how our hero will figure it out and prove it. Even Columbo seems to always "know" who the killer is from the very start. There are no red herrings. You never see him waste any time pursuing the wrong suspect before figuring it out. It's always just a matter of proving it. Mar 13, 2023 at 19:52
  • @Darrel, even though I've never seen Columbo, your exposition in that comment was perfectly clear and it wasn't necessary to have watched it first-hand. Bravo! Mar 14, 2023 at 14:12
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As Mary says (+1), it depends.

If you are writing a Sherlockian Mystery (super-detective gets a tough case), the motive is often hidden until the finale. Figuring out Why the victim was murdered is the entire story.

In the Sherlockian series House (super-detective but jerk doctor), the "villain" is whatever disease is afflicting the patient, and House must figure out what it is before it kills the patient (to sustain suspense, sometimes House fails, or a bad guess kills the patient).

And then in some of these stories, our Sherlock is certain they know who the killer is and what their motive is (e.g. to inherit $millions) but the story is not a "whodunnit" bu a "howdunnit". They have a rock solid alibi!

In other kinds of stories, it is great if you can reveal the motive early. It is interesting when two forces collide in conflict and both of them have good understandable motives. A "scarce resources" story.

In real life, countries fight wars over water resources, both of them need the river to irrigate their crops and drink, the flow is down, and one side must go without. Which will result in untold deaths. Who wins? Should they win?

In post-apocalyptic stories the motives are often clear; both sides have clear and understandable motives we can relate to. They love their families, they love their kids, and their survival depends upon food and shelter -- the same food and shelter the other side needs to survive. A zero-sum game.

In fact there are no "villains", we recognize the dilemma immediately. With only half the resources, we don't survive. We all starve anyway. If half of us don't die, we all die.

The story is not harmed at all by the reader understanding these motives.

Those are extremes. Ultimately the question is, how much interest will be lost in the story if the audience knows the motives of the antagonist?

In a Sherlockian Mystery, the answer is nearly all of it.

In a play about a hero struggling with intentionally harming other innocent people to keep her own children alive, almost none of the suspense is lost.

There is one more type of story in which the villain can have clear motives from the beginning; a "dark side" villain. A sociopathic dictator that is bent on acquiring personal power and ruling with an iron fist.

Her motives are clear. In this case, the story is often "David vs. Goliath", the basis of many "007" stories. Agent 007 knows from the beginning exactly who the villain is and what their motives are (world domination, insane riches), but the story is partly a mystery about how 007 can stop this seemingly unstoppable force.

Again the motives are clear from the start, and knowing that greed and megalomania drive the villain doesn't hurt the story. The story is more about how one lone fearless genius hero (David) with great skills and a few gadgets can stop a villain commanding an army and enormous resources.

Figure out what type of story you are telling, and how early you can reveal the villain's motive without destroying the suspense of the story.

If revealing the villain's motive early doesn't make a lot of difference to your hero (the hero doesn't care why the villain is doing it, the hero will do what she intended to do anyway), then reveal it early, or make it an early dramatic discovery for the hero. For example, in the currently running series La Brea, about time travel, the villain's motive is revealed fairly early -- he invented time travel to correct a mistake he made in his past that cost him his wife and son. And the villain doesn't care that changing that will rewrite a hundred years of the past, including vanishing the hero, the hero's children, and making many others non-existent. The villain believes none of that timeline should have happened anyway!

The villain is motivated by love and heartbreak, the hero is outgunned but motivated by love for his family. In this case knowing the villain's motive doesn't reduce audience interest, it actually makes the story more compelling. It's a "resource" story! Only one of the two timelines can prevail; thus only one side can "survive".

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    A counterpoint to Sherlock Holmes is the TV series Columbo. In every episode there is a murder, and only one suspect. In general, the audience is even shown the murder as a prologue to the episode, so there is really no doubt at all that this one suspect is the villain. Columbo spends the episode "duelling" with the suspect, mostly verbally.
    – Stef
    Mar 12, 2023 at 14:02
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    @Stef Definitely so. However, the mystery in Columbo which is not revealed until the end is "How does Columbo prove it?" That entire series is not a "whodunnit" but "how do they get caught?" You're right, we know the killer from the opening scene. Columbo usually seems to know whodunnit from the first meeting. But the audience has no clue whatsoever how Columbo is going to catch the killer, it looks impossible. Even as Columbo finds the clues, we still cannot figure out how they fit together! I loved that series.
    – Amadeus
    Mar 12, 2023 at 14:51
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    A great example of an early reveal and having both colliding sides be understood is Law Abiding Citizen. If you take away the first scene of the movie, which sets up the (incredibly visceral and reprehensible) injustice that is inflicted on the villain; the movie would be reduced to an incredibly shallow "good guy vs bad guy" flick. Instead, the viewer now understands that the villain himself is battling something that he considered to be the greatest villain (in his story). This creates a lot of conflict in the viewer's observations, as the villain is both clearly a villain and a victim.
    – Flater
    Mar 13, 2023 at 23:23
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As others have said, it depends. One device is to wait until near the end, and then reveal that one of the secondary heroes, the good guy who always saves the hero, is the real villain; the apparent villain is just a hired hand. The Da Vinci Code uses this device.

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If you happen to be writing a five-act story, then you might consider Discordian five-act narrative structure. The motivations of the antagonists are explored in the second act, and the true nature or effect of the villain is revealed in the fourth act. Note that the antagonists need not be the villain.

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    What's your source for the "Discordian five-act narrative structure"? You've linked to the Wikipedia page for the Discordian calendar, which is no more relevant here than the Gregorian one.
    – Laurel
    Mar 12, 2023 at 18:26
  • @Laurel: The structure was explained recursively in Illuminatus!, which is a five-act narrative containing a smaller five-act story near the midpoint. The linked WP page documents the structure itself, without any extraneous Discordian memes; it turns out to look exactly like a calendar, because Discordian narrative is necessarily circular. (It would have been quite funny to leave a messy wall of 23, fnord, etc. but not helpful to new writers.)
    – Corbin
    Mar 13, 2023 at 0:55
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    The link to Wikipedia's page about the calendar is likewise not helpful; I see nothing on that page documenting any kind of story structure. Is the structure really explained in Illuminatus!, or is it merely exemplified there?
    – kaya3
    Mar 13, 2023 at 3:30
  • @kaya3: Discordians like to use memes instead of communicating directly. I didn't want to ask folks to read hundreds of pages of Discordian literature, especially the parts that might not exist. In Illuminatus!, a supporting protagonist (Hagbard) explicitly explains this structure to the reader's protagonist, along with metaphysical claims and spoilers which I've elided.
    – Corbin
    Mar 13, 2023 at 15:00
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    In five fragments: Introduce protagonists, contrast them with antagonists, let the protagonists make progress, reveal the true nature of the villain, and finally resolve differences in a way that leaves the reader confused. It is a very stark template, but it does happen to answer the original question. Hope this helps!
    – Corbin
    Mar 13, 2023 at 15:01

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