Motivation and emotion/Book/2016/Villain motivations

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Villain motivations:
To what extent are villains’ motivations realistic portrayals of criminal motivations?

Overview[edit | edit source]

Figure 1. A comical villain.

In realistic fiction, horror, speculative fiction and superhero movies, villains are almost always present. They are characters created to evoke fear and oppose the protagonist, helping to create an interesting plot. Villains are often cruel individuals who murder, rape, deceive, steal or abuse. If they lived in our world, they would be criminals. One of the aspects that can make fiction great is realistic characters. But, are typically depicted villains realistic? Most people would not consider Voldemort in Harry Potter or The Joker in Batman to be "realistic," however when looking at the idea of what is "real" or not, what is really important is the core of the character and whether they act with human-like motivations. This chapter examines villains' motivations from a psychological point of view.

What constitutes a villain?[edit | edit source]

Villains, as we know and love them in our movies and books, are best when complex, usually terrible and at least a little understandable, too. Is a villain the same as a criminal? Maybe. The word "villain" outside of fictional context has a stronger, richer meaning than the word "criminal". Calling someone a villain implies crime, but it also labels them as potentially evil, sick, twisted, or disturbed. This then opens up a common aspect of villains, that they are mentally ill. Many villains are described as having voices in their head, which is a symptom of psychotic disorders (e.g., Harley Quinn - Batman), narcissistic tendencies (e.g., Geoffry - Game of Thrones), or as being just outright psychopathic (e.g., Patrick Bateman - American Psycho). Having a mental illness does not make someone a villain, however is does make them more likely to commit a crime, as roughly half of prison inmates are mentally ill ("Department of Justice Study," 2006.), and yet the mentally ill make up less than 20% of the population (Bekiempis, 2014).

Does villain = antagonist?
Villains are often the opposing force to the main character or hero, but is this always the case? Creative writing has the power to break rules and norms by placing villains in different character roles and subverting expectations. Patrick Bateman, for example, in American Psycho is the villain and definitely a criminal, but also the protagonist (Ellis, 1991). Switching these traditional roles around can not only make for a more interesting story, but also a more realistic one. Real life does not set out black and white roles for everyone and some of the best pieces of fiction push the boundaries of character.

Can you tell whether a fictional villain or real-life criminal said this quote?

"I want you to look at me when I kill you. I want to see the light leave your eyes."


Criminal motivation - nature or nurture?[edit | edit source]

"Individuals are not inherently criminal, nor do they suddenly become homicidal maniacs." (Fishbein, 1990, p. 32)

[Provide more detail]

Biological perspective[edit | edit source]

Figure 2. An animated image of a DNA strand.

The biological perspective in crime studies and psychology has been criticised and ignored in a long and controversial debate between experts. According to Marsh (2007) there are two main reasons for this.

  1. Psychology largely rejected any biological basis for human behaviour or motivation for the majority of the twentieth century.
  2. The biological perspective has a history of being used by those in power to justify immoral or criminal acts.

This also ties into an evolutionary perspective in what was labelled Social Darwinism, where those with privilege legitimised the suffering of others with the objective reasons provided by Charles Darwin (Marsh, 2007)[explain?]. While it is clear how these assumptions can get out of hand (e.g., World War 2), it is not the fault of the biological perspective, but rather of those who misuse it to further their own prejudice or privilege.

According to Marsh (2007), a common approach in the biological perspective is called reductionism. This is where someone would look at all the biological aspects: the parts of the brain involved, the neural activity, the brain chemistry and chemical communication, and the genes. Taking all of these into account assists one in simplifying the behaviourist perspective. Biologists generally understand that somebody's genes or brain functions aren't going to be the sole reason as to why they commit a crime, and they acknowledge the importance and validity of environmental factors setting off and greatly contributing to biological predispositions.

What about the brain?[edit | edit source]

Different crimes call upon different emotions, motivations and thoughts. Therefore it can be very difficult to pinpoint which singular parts of the brain are most responsible for criminal behaviour. Birbuamer and Flor (2000) outline the areas of the brain associated with aggression and sexual behaviour, two of the main types of behaviour involved in crime.

Figure 3. Location of the hypothalamus, a brain location involved with aggression and sex.
Aggressive behaviour[edit | edit source]
  • The amygdala: while prominently activated due to fear, can be due to aggression and anger as well.
  • Lateral hypothalamus: responsible for the kind of aggression that arouses in a hunter/prey situation.
  • Medial hypothalamus: works with the emotional side of aggression.
  • Dorsal hypothalamus: specifically engages with fight or flight
Sexual behaviour[edit | edit source]
  • Hypothalamus: sensory and motor control in the genitals.
  • Limbic system: holds a high amount of sex hormones.
  • Anterior hypothalamus: controls sex-related reflexes and skills.

It has also been speculated that as psychopaths lack fear they may have deficiencies in both the orbitofrontal cortex and the amygdala (Birbuamer & Flor, 2000).

Can you tell whether a fictional villain or real-life criminal said this quote?

"The first good-looking girl I see tonight is going to die."


Figure 4. Sigmund Freud.

Psychodynamic perspective[edit | edit source]

As many crimes, especially the worst crimes that villains often commit, are violent, aggressive, or sexual in nature, Freud and his fellow psychoanalysts would have seen criminals as being controlled by their Id, without their Ego keeping them in check. The psychoanalytic approach says that we all have the desire to steal, murder, abuse and rape within us, but when the ego, superego and id are in balance - we control these desires and keep them out of conscious awareness.

While these ideas are rather radical, they are reminiscent of the beginning of control theory, or, more specifically, self-control theory (Andrews & Bonta, 2010), which we'll get to later.

The psychoanalytic perspective has been widely criticised for its lack of recognition of the conscious awareness and what people actively choose to do (Bandura, 1971). Although the psychoanalytic contribution in psychology is grand, it has received a never-ending stream of critique on the lack of testable concepts that the perspective provides.

Behaviourist/social learning perspective[edit | edit source]

The behaviourist perspective in crime psychology is arguably one of the most important perspectives as it is accepted that a lot of criminal tendencies are learnt behaviours. This perspective draws on the idea that human motivation and behaviour comes from what is learnt from others and the environment.

Operant conditioning - learning voluntary behaviours through punishment and reinforcement - forms the basis of the behaviourist perspective when looking at crime.

Eysenck, as described by Evans and Wilson (2016), found that psychopathic rats were not affected by negative stimuli (punishment) when trying to teach them a behaviour. As some criminals, especially those that commit very extreme crimes, are psychopathic or have some psychopathic aspects, this finding implies that psychopaths do not react to pain in an expected or appropriate way - hence the ability to do terrible things without learning from the consequences.

Figure 5. A very basic image of crime.

The behaviourist perspective is very important in criminology, however many of the theories below have a behaviourism basis and more information can be found there in relation to learning.

Some singular motives behind crime
  • Sex: an obvious motive for rape, however it is speculated as to whether sex is a drive for murder, too (Myers, Husted, Safarik & O'Toole, 2006).
  • Prejudice: grounded in fear, prejudice ignites a deep disgust or hatred of those who are different.
  • Revenge: criminals can be provoked into their crimes via being hurt by their victim (jealousy-induced murder).
  • Sensation-seeking: some people get a thrill out of committing crime, whether it be minor theft or murder.
  • Necessity: a lot of crimes are committed out of need - e.g. stealing food, water, or money for survival.

The theories[edit | edit source]

[Provide more detail]

Self-control theory[edit | edit source]

This first theory rests upon the assumption that crime is the quick/easy/free way for someone to get what they want, i.e. - sexual pleasure, money, someone they don't like suffering or dying etc (Burt & Simons, 2013). In addition to this assumption, the theory also presumes that all people see and understand the value of a crime's end reward. With this in mind, self-control theory tries to explain criminal behaviour by claiming that criminals have less self control than others.

While self-control theory is a simple and easy way of looking at criminal motivation, it solely focuses on the outcome of the crime - the potential reward. As others have pointed out, this is problematic when attempting to understand crime in a more holistic sense, as a criminal is inherently and purposely taking a risk in carrying out the criminal act. As Burt and Simons (2013) explained, they must not only think about how much they want or cannot resist what they want, but also about the moral, societal, emotional, mental and physical risks involved with attaining what they want.

Social disorganisation theory[edit | edit source]

The social disorganisation theory has a larger focus on housing, environment and population. Developed by Shaw and McKay, the social disorganisation theory claims that crime is not a problem of the individual, but of the situation. Low socio-economic status, high mixing of cultures and ethnicities, and lack of housing stability were the three main contributors to crime that Shaw and McKay discovered and thoroughly tested throughout the United States (Bond, 2015; Sampson & Groves, 1989). Through their major study, Shaw and McKay noticed that in the residential areas with the lowest economic status, even when people moved out and new people moved in, those that lived in these areas were much more likely to be involved in crime (Shaw and McKay, 1942).

Figure 6. Low socioeconomic area.

Sampson and Groves (1989) later replicated and furthered the original study in England and Wales. Their findings added to the theory, showing that large distances between friends, unsupervised teenage groups and lack of organised community activity greatly contributed to crime rates in these areas. Veysey and Wessner (1999) acknowledged the great contribution that Sampson and Groves made to the theory, however they also criticised both the original and the replication as having poor forms of measurement, and that their findings might actually point more towards the validity of other theories and ideas.

Object relations theory[edit | edit source]

From the psychodynamic perspective we have object relations theory, one that, through its many reimaginings, focuses on childhood relationships and how they affect adult life and relations (Cashdan, 1988). The central idea to object relations theory is that during youth people have relationships with other people (objects) and these types of relationships form the basis of how the person will interact with people throughout adult life. While this theory is often used to understand victims and their behaviour and motivation, it can be applied to criminals too, as criminals can also be victims. In fact, children who undergo abuse or trauma are significantly more likely to be involved in criminal behaviour, including violent crime (Widom, 1992). For example, a child might be physically abused and later in adulthood might either enter into relationships with aggressive or violent people to fulfil their childhood role of being the victim, or learn that violence and abuse is how they relate to others and they might carry on the cycle of abuse and hit their partner children.

Social learning theory[edit | edit source]

"In the social learning system, new patterns of behaviour can be acquired through direct experience or by observing the behaviour of others." (Bandura, 1970, p. 3)

In day-to-day life we are faced with new situations where we act in what we believe to be the appropriate way, and are in turn either rewarded or punished for our actions. This is what the above quote means when referencing 'direct experience.' Bandura (1970) points out that while direct experience is common, it would be very difficult to get through life if we did not view, copy, and learn from others. Social learning, also often referred to as social modelling, is an efficient way of gaining skills by watching or listening to others perform the desired ability.

When looking at criminals, social learning theory is based on the idea that crime begins and is sustained due to imitation, modelling, and desensitisation (Jensen & Akers, 2007). The social learning models can be parents, other family members, friends, fictional characters, celebrities, teachers or other role models.

Can you tell whether a fictional villain or real-life criminal said this quote?

"I'm a killer, a murdering bastard. And there are consequences to breaking the heart of a murdering bastard."


Case studies - do the villains hold up?[edit | edit source]

[Provide more detail]

Voldemort[edit | edit source]

Figure 7. Model of Lord Voldemort from Harry Potter.

The central villain to the widely known and loved Harry Potter series[grammar?]. Voldemort appears in almost all of the novels and is the main antagonising force who opposes Harry. Tom (his name before he became Voldemort) was born to a single mother, abandoned by his father before he was born and soon after his birth, his mother died. Alone, Tom grew up in an orphanage. Tom's mother had a life of abuse and mistreatment before she fell pregnant, she likely suffered from depression, anxiety or any number of other disorders from her difficult life. Both parental psychopathy and environmental disturbances are biological antecedents to criminal or anti-social conduct (Fishbein, 1990). Tom displayed early signs of anti-social behaviour such as bullying, stealing, killing animals and hurting other children. In psychology, these are the early signs to look out for and try and combat before the child grows into a potential criminal.

In adolescence, Tom changes. He becomes very good at covering his tracks, and very, very charismatic. Throughout these teenage years he was obsessed with understanding and finding out more about his family. As only a young boy of probably sixteen or so, Tom murders his father, two of his grandparents, and frames his uncle for the crime.

After years of gathering a following and learning more about evil magic he begins murdering witches and wizards with non-magical parents. Harry's parents, and others, formed a resistance against Voldemort, but he killed them and left Harry with his famous scar.

Firstly, social disorganisation theory could explain some of the early signs of criminal behaviour - growing up in an orphanage with the knowledge of his mother's death and father's abandonment.

An obvious drive for Voldemort in his hatred and criminal behaviour is prejudice. He mentions his disgust at muggle-born wizards (those without magical parents) and in his reign kills them and anyone that stands up for them. While this seems like quite a fantastical ideal (magical and non-magical prejudice), it actually parallels many issues of the real world with sexism, racism, homophobia, and others, which are all common fear-based motives for criminals.

Voldemort is quite a radical villain, so ruthless and cruel in his crimes. However, this is not necessarily unrealistic as there have been many criminals throughout history who committed large-scale crimes (e.g., Hitler).

Main source: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (Rowling, 2005)

The Joker[edit | edit source]

Probably one of the most famous villains of all time is the central Batman antagonist, The Joker. As this almighty supervillain has been portrayed in almost every possible way, this analysis will attempt to cover the most canonically valid version of his past and character. His most widely-recognised backstory comes from The Killing Joke (Moore, 1988), where The Joker joins a group of criminals to break into the chemical plant, seemingly to steal from there. Before going through with the crime, The Joker finds out his wife and unborn baby have been killed in a household accident and tries to back out of it. The criminals force him to come along, but once they get into the plant they're immediately caught and the criminals are shot and killed. The Joker tries to escape, but - with Batman in pursuit behind him - he frantically jumps over a fence and into a vat of chemical waste. From it he emerges pale, green-haired and with a new personality.

Figure 8. The Joker.

There are probably hundreds of accounts of The Joker's criminal acts and life events throughout movies, comics, and books, so rather than describe any of them, it appears most appropriate to treat him as a criminal with a long, varied criminal record. He is depicted as a psychopath who wears a maniacal grin throughout his murdering, torturing, abusing, and stealing.

In a 2012 study by Gawda, psychopaths were instructed to write a story based on an image of two people hugging, they were asked to write about love. It is a common misconception that psychopaths do not feel love, rather they place themselves as the centre of the situation and the loving scenario is very self-based. This study confirmed these ideas and that the parts of the brain that deal with love are damaged or do not function properly in psychopaths. While The Joker mostly seems to use Harley Quinn (his long term romantic interest) for his own benefit and assistance, there are glimpses of the story where he actually shows great affection for her. Whenever these feelings of love towards her surface, The Joker usually tries to kill her. While the literature around psychopaths and love suggests that although dysfunctional, love is very important to them, The Joker appears very out of touch and closed off towards the idea of love. This does make sense, however, considering that the loss of his wife played a considerable part in his personality shift and the development of psychopathy.

It is hard to apply the common criminology theories to The Joker - especially as we don't know anything about his childhood - but as described above he is not a regular criminal. While his actions as a criminal can be justified through being a traumatised psychopath, it is highly unlikely that a criminal in real-life would turn "evil" in such a short period of time - even with the help of toxic waste.

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

There is a wealth of information about real-world criminality that could be compared to fictional villainy. From what the psychological theory on criminal motivations tells us, villains are often quite realistic. However, even the most life-like villain tend to be embellished with unrealistic quirks, actions, or motives in order to create drama and elicit tension in the audience. Some villains are just evil for the sake of being evil, their motivations are either unclear or unrealistic, and they are only there to pose a threatening opposition to the protagonist. On the other hand, some villains are explored as the protagonist themselves and given a rich and realistic backstory that completely explains their villainous ways. As there are so many different villains, try apply these ideas to the next movie you see or book you read to see realistically the r villain fares.

Despite creative liberties an author might take, villains are usually realistic enough for us to imagine and understand. Why are they motivated to commit crimes? After analysing the psychology of crime - the literature explains the "why?" of everyone's favourite villains in even more depth and detail than what the writers give us.

Many people might see this chapter as unnecessary and not benefiting others with its content and evaluation. Knowing about villains and what motivates them might not help anyone get fit, control their wild emotions, or be better informed about making serious decisions. However, understanding and strongly engaging with art is one of our great pleasures as humans, and using this information to analyse and better relate to or empathise with the "bad guys" in literature and media is something that is can be of great interest and value.

Quiz quote sources[edit | edit source]

  1. Quote from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 1 (Heyman, Barron & Rowling, & Yates, 2011)
  2. Quote from Edmund Kemper (Moore, 2014)
  3. Quote from Kill Bill: Volume 2 (Bender & Tarantino, 2004)

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

Akers, R. L & Jensen, G. F. (2011). Social learning theory and the explanation of crime. Retrieved from:

Andrews, D. A. & Bonta, J. (2010). The psychology of criminal conduct. Retrieved from:

Bandura, A. & Walters, R. H. (1977). Social learning theory. Retrieved from:

Bekiempis, V. (2014). Nearly 1 in 5 Americans suffers from mental illness each year. Retrieved from NewsWeek website:

Bender, L. (Producer), & Tarantino, Q. (Director). (2004). Kill bill: Volume 2 {Motion Picture]. United States: Miramax.

Birbaumer, N. & Flor, H. (1998). Psychobiology. Comprehensive clinical psychology, 1. 115-172. doi:10.1016/B0080-4270(73)00218-2

Bond, M. (2015). Criminology: Scoial disorganisation theory explained. Retrieved from

Burt, C. H. & Simons, R. L. (2013). Self-control, thrill seeking, and crime. Criminal Justice and Behaviour, 40. 1326-1348. doi:10.1177/0093854813485575

Department of justice study: Mental illness of prison inmates worse than past estimates. (2006). Retrieved from the National Alliance on Mental Illness website:

Fishbein, D. H. (1990). Biological perspectives in criminology. Criminology, 28. 27-72. Retrieved from:

Gawda, B. (2012). Dysfunctional love in psychopathic criminals: The neural basis. Neuroquantology, 10. 725-732. doi:10.14704/nq.2012.10.4.620

Heyman, D., Barron, D. & Rowling, J. K. (Producers), & Yates, D. (Director). (2011). Harry potter and the deathly hallows - Part 2 [Motion Picture]. United Kingdom: Warner Bros. Pictures.

Lucies, C. & Yick, A. G. (2007). Images of gay men's experiences with antigay abuse: Object relations theory reconceptualized. Journal of Theory Construction & Testing, 11. 55-62. Retrieved from:

Marsh, I. (2007). Theories of crime. Retrieved from:

Moore, A. (1988). The killing joke. United States: DC Comics.

Moore, P. H. (2014). Top 51 distrubing quotes from 19 disturbed serial killers. Retrieved from All Things Crime website:

Myers, W. C., Husted, D. S., Safarik, M. E., & O'Toole, M. E. (2006). The motivation behind serial sexual homicide: Is it sex, power, and control, or anger? Journal of Forensic Sciences, 50. 900-907. doi:- 10.1111/j.1556-4029.2006.00168.x

Rowling, J. K. (2005). Harry potter and the half-blood prince. Great Britain: Bloomsbury.

Sampson, R. J. & Groves, W. B. (1989). Community structure and crime: Testing social-disorganisation theory. American Journal of Sociology, 94. 774-802. Retrieved from:

Shaw, C. R. & McKay, H. D. (2014). Juvenile delinquency and urban areas. In Anderson, T. L. Understanding deviance: Connecting classical and contemporary perspectives. (pp. 106-127). Retrieved from:

Veysey, B. M. & Messner, S. F. (1999). Further testing of social disorganisation theory: An elaboration of Sampon and Grove's "community structure and crime." Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 36. 156-174. doi:10.1177/0022427899036002002

Widom, C. S. (1992). The cycle of violence. Retrieved from: