Wednesday, July 18, 2012

It's all about revenge

by Jenny Hilborne

What is your motive? For me, it's all about revenge.

Every day, I plot murder. I fantasize about the evil things I, I mean my characters, would do to their victims if given the chance. I plot how they’ll get away with it, at least for a while. During this process, I noticed a trend, which caused me to examine my own personality.

In real life, I’m not the type to hold a grudge. At least, I don’t think so. However, in my fictional world, almost all my motives seem to revolve around revenge. I gravitate towards it. Quite frankly, I find it the purest and most satisfying kind of motive, both to write and to read. Characters driven by revenge are obsessed and determined, with a single-minded goal. They must settle the score at all costs, and their conduct shocks me the most.

Other motives seem weaker in comparison and more difficult to understand, especially in mysteries and thrillers. A villain bent on revenge is exciting to follow; his target, or someone close to that target has already hurt him, and we want to know how he’ll retaliate. Is the punishment deserved? Unless the villain is entirely bad, with no redeeming qualities, I’d say quite often it is. I love a villain who provokes empathy in me as a reader. This compassion adds to the drama and conflict going on inside me as I read. It raises questions in my mind about fairness, and righteousness, the validity of his actions, and how he should be handled when he’s caught.   

Other popular motives for pre-meditated murder include jealousy, robbery, and crimes of passion. More unusual motives might include boredom, or for fun (thrill kills). With these types of plotlines, I find I have less empathy for the villain and more for the victim, which seems more conventional, and; therefore, the stories don’t move me as much. The unconventional is more interesting and more troubling because deviant behaviour defies societal norms. It makes us question our own character. Is it normal to side with the villain? What would we do under the same circumstances?

Which motive do you find the strongest and the most satisfying, and what does our choice reveal about our own personality?


  1. A magazine reporter asked me this question just a few days ago, so I've thought about it recently. Motive is the most fascinating aspect of reading and writing crime fiction, and I gravitate toward greed and fear, but mostly fear. And fear covers a lot of territory: fear of losing what you have (status, money, love) to fear of getting caught (and going to jail) to fear for a loved one.

    What does that say about me? I'm not sure. Some days, I feel fearless. Other times, I worry about everything. So fear is something I think about and have internal conflict about. Thanks for a thoughtful post.

  2. I like to spread my motivation around. In my first book, it was a strange psychosis. In the one I'm finishing up now, it's greed. The one I'm just flushing out is a strange combination of power, fear, revenge, and redemption.

    I don't even want to think what these might mean about my personality.

    A very intriguing post, Jenny. Thanks.

  3. Great post, Jenny! I don't really like to side with the villain. I like the hero to prevail over evil and make the world a better place. That helps alleviate some of my own fears and gives me a sense of satisfaction when I finish the book. But of course both the villain and hero need to be conflicted, multifaceted, complex characters to make the story interesting. And the villain needs to be worthy of the hero, and vice-versa, so they're evenly matched.

    So yes, make the villain complex, with motives that he can justify to himself, but if a novel is glorifying the villain, justifying his deranged behavior, making him an anti-hero to admire, I'll put it down in disgust.

  4. Good post Jenny, I tend to side with Jodie in that I don't like to read books "justifying" a killer's motives. HOWEVER, I love being challenged as a reader to explore my own perceptions and thoughts about crime which is why I created the two killers in my book. One preys on "innocent" victims while the other targets petty criminals. I think the role of the "victim" naturally gets evaluated in our processing of this information and is quite normal. As a CSI I often investigated crimes where the "victim" was a pretty hard core criminal. That challenges you. How do you feel about the murder of a murderer compared to that of a child? Obviously that affects our perception as readers and authors and I like it when a novel forces me to examine the boundaries of my morality.

  5. Jenny,

    Great post. I watched The Patriot with Mel Gibson last night and when his son was killed I wanted revenge as badly as he did. I think the desire for revenge is something we can all identify with.

    Great comment Tom. I have similar thoughts about killing killers and others who do harm in our world.

  6. I don't think a crime could happen without a motive, although it might be irrational or even psychotic. Fitting an appropriate motive to the right personality, and making it work in a story is challenging.

  7. Good post, Jen! Personally, I love a good sociopath - they look so normal, but when they have a problem, it doesn't occur to them to resolve it without hurting people. I also like the villains of opportunity - if the money hadn't been out in the open, they wouldn't have taken it. If they hadn't have taken it, they wouldn't have fought over it, killing someone else, etc. In a way, they're time bombs. As long as they're not detonated, they're harmless.

  8. I love a good sociopath, too, Gayle. I enjoy the psychology behind it. Your first line made me laugh out loud, and of course, I was in a busy office at the time and had to explain myself. No one got it, at least not like we do.

  9. A thought provoking post, Jen. Motivation is such a complex concept, and yet so important. It's what drives our stories and our characters to the finish line. I tend to side with my protagonists. Hard as it may be to believe, I don't actually like murders and violence. What I do like is seeing my good guy succeed in defeating evil and making things right again; that's my motivation when writing. As for the bad guy? The sky's the limit and very dependent on the story line.

  10. I know this is terrible, and I wish I could figure out how to get it here exactly, but I just shared a photo on my Facebook page of an earnest looking dog. The caption is: If you love something, pee on it." I'm thinking I like that simple motivation.


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