Writing motive for minor antagonists

Something I’ve been struggling with lately is motive. Not for my main characters or antagonists but rather the minor antagonists. Petty thugs, thieves, gangsters, drug lords, weapons smugglers, you get the idea.

When writing a story, one of the most important things to have is motive.

In fact, motive is probably the most important thing you need to have in a story.

Motive is what drives your characters and your characters are what drive the plot.

Now you can have a series of unfortunate events happen to a character and create a plot out of that. However, it seems in my honest opinion that the stories that stick and resonate with people are ones where the character is actively pursuing their motive. Do you want to read about a guy who stands around and has his house topple on top of him? Or do you want to read about a guy trying to flip a house and then causes it to topple of top of him. There’s a difference.

So what’s the problem I’m running into? Well, when you write a superhero story, you need criminals for the hero to fight. Can you throw your villain at your hero right at the beginning? Sure, but every hero must face some minor obstacles before facing the big bad again. It’s kind of like setting off your biggest firework display and then finishing off with little ones. You just don’t do it that way. A criminal must want something whether it’d be power, wealth, or material things. Then you must figure out HOW the criminal will get what he wants. This in turn will lead your criminal into a confrontation with your hero.

If you want to create interesting criminals that aren’t just cannon fodder for your hero. You need to create an ecology of crime.

  1. How do you gain power as a criminal?
  2. What are the benefits to capturing territory?
  3. What is the end goal for the criminal and his gang?
  4. What heists will they commit to achieve their goals?

Your “heist” must be in line with how much power your criminal has. If he’s a lowly gang member, he won’t have access to high end gear (unless it’s stolen). Then figure out where the heist is taking place. If there is going to be a robbery in the financial district of downtown Manhattan, how quickly will the police respond? How can they get all their tools in position so as not to set off alarms too early?

You need to think like a criminal mastermind in order to create interesting situations for your hero to battle in.

The heist can be written with a variety of outcomes that could lead to an interesting conflict. If the burglars are well organized and well equipped, you can show the intricacy of their plan and have it be a success until your hero shows up to ruin the day. Or you can have the heist be a failure and it has now escalated to a violent shootout that has people screaming for cover. Regardless of where you take the heist, it will summon your hero(ine) to the rescue.

Also remember that the location of your heist will affect the suspension of disbelief (whether an imaginary world or real world) and needs to be taken into careful consideration. You can’t just say that a tank rolled downtown and crashed through the walls of a bank to let criminals in. How is a tank going to get into NYC? It won’t, unless it’s smuggled in through some very elaborate planning.

My writing problem at the moment is figuring out a motive that makes sense for my minor antagonist. The easy way out is to say that they want money or power.

However, if you want a compelling narrative, you need to know WHY they want money or power.

I want money because . . . it will buy me favors and influence with other gangs. I want power because . . . it will give me the ability to do whatever I want without impunity.

I want to have a scene where a gang is undergoing an elaborate heist that requires ziplines, a crane, and a helicopter. If a gang has that kind of equipment, why the heck would they want to steal something as boring as money? It also doesn’t make sense for a team to zipline from another rooftop to an adjacent building in order to steal money stashed away in the basement.

Sure you can change things to suit your purposes. If you decide that a bank vault should be on a rooftop, be ready to have a damn good explanation as to why. Otherwise you will risk losing believability if too many elements seem too far fetched. Which leads into another but related topic.

All fiction creates a set of rules in the world. People will believe that a man can fly, but say that he can breathe in space, suddenly it’s unrealistic.

For my second book the audience could believe that a woman could become invulnerable with a hair thin nanosuit. Yet as soon as I had her bleed a little in the end, suddenly it was far-fetched. Hey, I don’t blame them but these are the types of things you will encounter as an author. Create the rules of your world then follow them.

Also and I know it’s a real pain in the ass, but you need to write out the motives of all your minor antagonists too. The motive can be extremely simple but the actions of your characters or factions need to be compelling. It doesn’t matter if the motive never gets written into your book just as long as you (the author) know where the actions are coming from. If a character is going to steal from another character for your hero to save the day. Know why he/she is doing it. Whether it’s to get money to feed an addiction or a part of a gang initiation, you must know why this is happening and see if you can show it in your world and not by exposition. If a character is hanging out in the slums, it would make sense that they’d get mugged.

Just know that if you decide to create a scene that will showcase how your character will respond during extreme situations. People will question why the situation happened in the first place. Expect things like, “If those dudes have that kind of equipment, why rob a bank? They could hold the government hostage.”

So don’t be lazy. If you’re going through the trouble of writing a book then take your time and do a lot of research. Know your world, know your characters, know your motives. A character with the right motive will take your plot to places you never even dreamed of. So do it right.

Wilmar Luna