The Momentum Blog

‘But What’s My Motivation?’ Maleficent and Creating Believable Backstory

Posted January 8, 2015 by Eve Merrier

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The following post contains spoilers about Maleficent. It’s a pretty good film, though, so if you haven’t seen it go and watch it now, then come back and resume. We’ll wait here. Everybody done yet? Great. Then I’ll begin.

The Stanislavski method of acting encourages the player to ask that now-familiar question, ‘what’s my motivation?’ in order to understand just what the character is thinking and feeling, and how they should react. As you write each scene of a story or novel, each piece of dialogue, imagine your character is asking you the same thing. Actions without motivation seem random and pointless. Readers don’t love that.

evilThe most common thing that some authors do is make evil characters evil just because they’re evil. This is rather uninspiring, and I don’t think it’s very realistic. The 1959 Disney Sleeping Beauty seems to be premised upon the most extraordinary overreaction to not being invited to a party. Maleficent, when not invited to the christening, crashes it, (like Kanye West at someone else’s acceptance speech) and curses the baby. Who even wants to go to a christening? They’re full of mumbling priests, screaming damp babies and inferior snacks.

angAside from Angelina Jolie’s cheekbones, the best thing about Maleficent is that it redresses this lack of motivation rather well by creating a proper back story. King Stefan, whom maleficent had once loved, cut off her wings while she was unconscious. This massively cruel dismemberment warrants her extreme reaction. His motivation was ambition; hers is revenge.


There are multiple factors that motivate human behaviour. Here’s a list of things to consider in terms of your characters:

Relationships: All significant relationships should be considered, including their family and friends, and romantic relationships. Have these been loving and successful or has some damage been caused?
Fear: Everyone’s afraid of something. What’s your character’s fear? It doesn’t have to be a literal phobia of spiders or some such; perhaps they’re afraid of failure, or of being found out.
Cultural influences: Think about the society they grew up in.
Needs and wants: Are they acting to meet their basic needs for money, food and shelter, or trying to fulfil a more abstract need for approval or a childhood dream?
Obligation: Who are they accountable to?
Past experiences: This can include past wrongs, causing a desire for revenge (or justice), or circumstances that have led to their current situation.
Beliefs and worldview: Whether philosophical or religious, everyone has a way of seeing the world and of understanding human nature. What do they think of others? What do they think the meaning of life is?

Let’s apply these concepts to Maleficent.

Maleficent’s key relationship was with the young Stefan, who let her down badly, leaving her believing that there is no such thing as true love. She rarely shows fear, but seems afraid that she cannot reverse the curse when she tries to, and that it might come true. Before this, she is afraid of becoming attached to the child and tries to keep a distance. Her cultural influences come from the peaceful kingdom she grew up in. It’s essentially an anarcho-communalist state where all the magical creatures work together and there is no one leader. This explains how loathsome and extraordinary she finds Stefan’s ambition and the neighbouring state’s warring ways. What she needs and wants changes throughout the story. She wants peace, to begin with, then revenge, then redemption. She initially has a strong obligation to the people of her land, to protect them from invaders. Later this protective instinct is transferred to Aurora. jolThe key past experience of her relationship with Stefan and his attack clearly influence her actions, but we’re told a few other things about her past too. For example, we learn that her parents died, which perhaps informs her instinct to care for Aurora: a child who is functionally parentless. We’ve also seen the importance of flying to her and how much her wings mattered. Losing them and becoming earthbound figuratively and literally changed her perspective. Maleficent believes that there is no such thing as true love, that she cannot function without wings (hence the adoption of the bird-friend), and she believes in some sort of justice, though the form that this should take varies. She was hurt, badly, physically and psychologically, so she went to the dark place, but over time, she was brought back. However fantastical the story, that arc feels real to me.


It may not be the most complex of films, or even the best of motivations, but it’s unarguably stronger than ‘I really wanted to come to a christening but no one asked me’ or even ‘I do things just because I’m a villain and therefore arbitrarily ruthless’. Well-developed characters often have multiple motivations and authentic reasons for their actions. Humans can be fallible, impulsive and changeable. Characters should be too.


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The greatest villains in cinema

Posted May 30, 2014 by Craig Hildebrand-Burke

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A while back I did a post on villains, the different types they can be, and their function in a story. So, in the spirit of villainy, I’ve compiled a list of the greatest villains to appear in film. By no means conclusive, there’s an aim for diversity though, with a few caveats.

First, monsters are out. The nature of a monster in a story is not to be the villain, rather they are an aspect of the plot. So, no Alien. No Predator. No T-1000.  And sadly for me, no Frank Booth from Blue Velvet.

Secondly, the villain must be the villain. Which leaves out Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs (though not in Hannibal, but let’s face it, that film isn’t going on any lists). No Bane in The Dark Knight Rises. No Gmork from The Neverending Story.

Lastly, the villain needs to not just be bad for the sake of it. They can’t just be an aimless foil for the hero. They need to have a reason, a drive, beyond just endless destruction and chaos. The villain needs to think they’re doing good. So, no Joker. No Stansfield from The Professional. No Voldemort.

Why the caveats? Well, why not? The list would be enormous otherwise, it was hard enough just settling on the following dirty dozen, presented here chronologically.

Hans Beckert in M

The film and the role that pushed both director Fritz Lang and actor Peter Lorre into international recognition, after both had emerged from the silent era of film in Germany. Lorre’s Beckert is the height of creepiness, whistling In The Hall of the Mountain King as he preys on small children. His final plea to the citizens is utterly awful and yet highly applicable eighty years after it was made.


HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey

There have been many imitators and debtors to the legacy of HAL, but nothing surpasses the demonstrably evil computer that wishes to be a real boy, and is prepared to kill everyone by lipreading just to prove its point. The monotone and the silence encapsulates HAL’s villainy perfectly, and is one of Kubrick’s greatest cinematic achievements.


Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Just pure evil. And evil that comes cloaked in the pretense of goodwill and therapeutic aid. Nurse Ratched is so successful as a villain, she’s practically become an archetype that extends beyond fiction and into real-life.


Noah Cross in Chinatown

Oh god, it’s just impossible to watch John Huston and not be terrified of him in this. Without revealing anything of a plot that benefits from not being revealed, Huston’s Cross is a hideous portrayal of a villain who’s not just bad, they’re bad in all the ways a person can be bad.


Antonio Salieri in Amadeus

An odd villain in that he narrates his villainy to us wholesale, acknowledging how he is the one doing all the bad things to his rival Mozart, but F.Murray Abraham plays Salieri with such conflict glee, destroying that which he loves because he hates himself. It’s a masterclass of characterisation, showing how we can all be the bad guy, when faced with our own insecurities.


Michael Corleone in The Godfather Parts 1 & 2

Similar to Salieri, in that we’re with Michael all the way – from his innocent soldier boy to his isolated and lonely conclusion – but his story is one that documents the steps a character takes into becoming the villain of the piece. One could look at any number of the scenes where Michael navigates his way through the the criminal underworld, but really it’s in his scenes with Kay and how he treats his family that the character is most horrific.


Annie Wilkes in Misery

Mark and I went on about how great Kathy Bates was as Annie Wilkes the other day, and she’s probably my favourite villain in this list. Other than the imprisonment and psychological torture, and despite the hobbling scene, the thing that makes her quite possibly the scariest one of the lot is that she’s a villain who just loves books. That’s all. She just wants more books. Give her books, or else.


The Grand High Witch in The Witches

It’s a hard balance to get a villain terrifying in a story made for children, and not have it tip over into cartoonish and camp. This particular character gets bonus points from a lot of places. First, she comes with the source material, which is one of the more terrifying childhood reads going around. Secondly, she is terrifying both in disguise and out of it. Thirdly, Angelica Huston portrays the witch, which means the character is literally the daughter of the villain from Chinatown. Jesus.


Keyer Soze in The Usual Suspects

The bad guy that all the other bad guys are afraid of. A bad guy we barely even know, and can only glimpse at how far his evilness reaches, but you have to credit the villain who is able to sacrifice everything for his mission. Too many antagonists are brought down by their pride, or their sentimental weakness, but not Soze.

Also, how long is the statute of limitations on The Usual Suspects? Can we talk about it yet?


Little Bill Daggett in Unforgiven

This is how villains should be written. Absolutely committed to his self-belief that he is the hero, he is the good guy in this story, Little Bill is completely staggered at the final realisation that the laws of narrative don’t work the way he thoughts they did. And what did he want? A house. He wanted to build a house. Such a good bad guy.


Max Cady in Cape Fear

A strangely forgotten Scorcese film, despite the fact that it launched an entire sequence of Simpsons episodes. De Niro’s Cady is the supreme villain, god-like in his ability to turn up at the right places, escape every possible block Nick Nolte attempts, and in the end becomes the absolute manifestation of repressed guilt and fear. And he speaks in tongues, too.


Anton Chigurh in No Country For Old Men

A story that is essentially reflecting on the moral culpability of society that has too many villains, the Coen brothers really only needed to adapt Cormac McCarthy’s novel faithfully and they’d have a really good bad guy. Casting Javier Bardem however gave them one of the most iconic representations of evil that we’ve ever had on screen, from the haircut to the speech pattern, to the belligerent questioning way he has with every single character in the story.



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The wonderful world of villains

Posted February 11, 2014 by Craig Hildebrand-Burke

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It is often said that a hero is only ever as good as the villain. And while it’s not wholly successful to reduce all stories down to a good-guy-bad-guy dichotomy (or even good-girl-bad-girl), for those stories that do require the presence and actions of a villain, it’s prudent to consider how they can affect the story, and influence the actions of the protagonist.

Furthermore, it’s interesting to note how an under-developed antagonist, or one that perhaps lessens the final impact of what might otherwise be a resoundingly great story.

So, make the villains good, in the bad way. Whatever type of villain they may be.

The all-conquering villain

This is the one who basically wants entire eradication of the good side. They’ll wage wars (The Lord of the Rings), consume everything in their path (The Matrix), and traverse the galaxy in order to hunt and destroy everything that opposes them and doesn’t dress in dark clothing (Star Wars et al). Basically, they have one, shark-like psychology: to head forwards and destroy. Kill at all costs. Be bad, look bad while doing so, and oppose the ‘good’ forces at every turn.

The problem here is that these villains don’t seem to have thought things through. In a sense, they only exist for the duration of the story, which usually ends with their vanquishing. If the story considered the reality of these villains’ agendas, it would become apparent that villainous victory would be hollow and fruitless. There is no real victory, because they want to destroy everything. They champion enslavement and brutality, but after victory, who can they enslave? What do they actually want? Voldemort in Harry Potter tries to circumvent this problem, but ultimately it’s hard to imagine how this character could operate once entirely in power. (And yes I know they’re villains and therefore mentally unhinged and thus they don’t think things through properly, but that’s not the point.)

I suspect victory would result in a fairly lonely existence for these villains. They are the schoolyard bullies whose being is only validated by having someone to bully.

The psychopathic villain

A lot of fun can be had with this, because the villain here is basically a manifestation of whatever internal struggles the hero is processing. Similar to the all-conquering villain, they only exist as foil to the hero, but in a different way.

They have no agenda, they are not here with some master plan, they are the uninhibited id that haunts our hero running rampant all over the scenery. This accounts for just a hell of a lot of comic book villains (Spiderman, The Dark Knight, to begin with), made most famous in the recent Joker incarnation. Also a lot of monster stories (Alien, Jurassic Park) work with this in mind, the best example being Jaws, wonderfully sent up by The Onion here.

Additionally, they can be found as byproducts of other, larger problems. They are the mutated chemical waste of societal ills and moral corruption (IT, The Stand, a lot of Stephen King to be honest), the end-result of human folly and ill-advised endeavour (2001: A Space Odyssey, The Matrix again,Terminator).

The best example of this, knowingly so, is in No Country for Old Men, with Anton Chigurh chaotically destroying his way through a narrative on nothing but the whims of a coin toss and the echoes of a cattle gun.

Great fun, but in some sense they’re ultimately more of an embellished plot device than a fully realised character.

The secret villain

Here you find a lot of accidental villains. Villains who got caught up in the thrill of the bad thing, for a large portion of the story can appear to be sympathetic ‘good’ characters, only to be revealed at the end as working for the other side.

Many crime thrillers and spy novels operate with this dynamic (Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy for instance), as does a lot of J.K. Rowling’s early Harry Potter books, and the villain appears to be one that relies a lot on mystery and the surprise reveal. They often come encumbered with hastily included exposition at the end, so that the reader is completely aware of the reasons and machinations behind the mysterious plot. But while it can benefit rereads for a spot-the-clue type game, it also reveals how the author has a bit too overtly manipulated the reader.

The sympathetic villain

Not really sympathetic, but understandable. I think it was Gary Oldman – among others – who said that really great villains don’t think they’re villainous, they actually think they’re doing good (interesting given his career playing psychopathic villains). There’s something to be learned here, in that all characters – good or bad – should be written as characters, as real people with real motivations, and not just as foil for the main guy strutting about on his white pony.

Some of the great villains of literature and cinema reside here, questioning just how ‘good’ the good guy is, how pure their motivations are, and how normal the world is with them residing in it. We find Hannibal Lecter, and Nurse Ratched, Michael Corleone and Travis Bickle, and with them a legion of classic characters that carve out their own piece of the story, rather than remaining bit-parts.



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9 Special Ops Secrets for Seeing in the Dark – part II

Posted May 3, 2012 by Nathan M Farrugia

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For part I of this post, see here.

6. Does eating sugar cubes improve your night vision?

In Soviet Russia, bath takes you

The myth goes that Soviet soldiers would eat sugar cubes, claiming that sugar feeds the optic nerves, and then expose themselves to red light for ten minutes. Um, yeah. Red light is a means to minimize loss of night vision, but it certainly won’t improve it.

Vitamin B1 is actually a nutrition source of the optic nerves. If you eat a bowl of candy, the body uses up Vitamin B1 and voila – Vitamin B1 deficiency. This gives you eye fatigue and messes with the function of your optic nerves. Which could explain why 60% of Americans wear prescription glasses

7. Check yourself before you wreck yourself

I just wanted a cool way to say “check if you’re being followed”. That’s the best I could think of

Photo by Dylan Kitchener

  • Can you see the shadow of the person behind you? Under streetlights a person’s shadow can run ten meters long.
  • Know a house with a dog that barks at passers by? Good, walk past it. Then listen out to see if it barks again.
  • Walk out of step on purpose. If someone is trained to follow you they’ll synchronize their footsteps with you.
  • If you look at your suspected tracker/stalker/ex-boyfriend and they immediately stop walking or change direction, they are a) following you and b) also an idiot.
  • Use distance to protect yourself. This is pretty obvious. As soon as you’re out of sight, get some distance between you and your tracker.
  • Look for shine on their skin, this is an excellent way to identify someone in darkness.
  • Is your suspected tracker walking at the same pace as you? This is usually a key giveaway.
  • When trying to identify someone in the dark who may or may not be there, your brain will try to recognize a face first, then it will attempt to recognize a human-shaped body. If it fails at this, it can often make shit up.
  • If you can’t see the tracker following you and you don’t want to arouse suspicion, purposely drop something and almost walk past it. This gives you an excuse to turn around and crouch to pick it up. While crouched, your tracker can be more easily identified if they are backlit by a street light or the moon. Remember, your night vision works on shapes and outlines, not color or detail.

8. Survive an attack at night

  • If you’re walking on a footpath and someone ahead of you is standing near the curb to force you in towards the shop fronts, don’t. Cross the street or walk around them on the curb. You do not want to be boxed in and set up for an ambush.
  • A valuable tool to carry with you is a torch. You can use it to shine in your attacker’s face and blind them. It will take your attacker at least ten seconds to gain enough vision back in order to chase you, let alone see you. Use those ten seconds wisely. Either escape or disable them.
  • Don’t run if you can’t see in the darkness. The last thing you need is to run head-first into a brick wall and knock yourself unconscious. You’ve just made a mugger’s job somewhat easier.

9. How to Walk While Blind (Not the Drunk Kind)

  • Hold one palm out at waist height and keep it there.
  • Wave your other hand up and down in front of you, brushing from head to waist height. It might look like a slightly deformed swan dance, but it works.
  • Take short, slow strides. This is the only time you should be walking with the heel (as most people do anyway). Test each step with the heel before committing. Keep your weight on your back foot. This is handy if you encounter a flight of stairs and don’t want to break your neck.


Okay now you’ve absorbed all that, get on over here and learn some more survival skills. Just in case you ever find yourself in the situation where you wake up and discover you’re a deniable operative.


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Top 5 Hottest NSFW Fictional Villains

Posted April 27, 2012 by Anne

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Anne’s Picks

The White WitchChronicles of Narnia, CS Lewis

Furs, Turkish Delight, the ability to turn her enemies into stone – what’s not to love?


Vicomte de ValmontLes Liaisons Dangereuses, Choderlos de Laclos

Admittedly the original player, but also the best. Hate the game, not Valmont.


Alec d’UbervilleTess of the d’Ubervilles, Thomas Hardy

Rape or seduction? Hardly seems like an appropriate question to ask these days, but thanks to Alec d’Uberville it’s a historically apt one.


Rupert Campbell-BlackPolo, Jilly Cooper

Rich men behaving badly. I can’t explain why this was a turn-on to my fifteen year old self, it just was. Okay? Okay.


Tom RipleyThe Talented Mr Ripley, Patricia Highsmith

Sociopathic, evil and the ultimate epicurean, willing to do anything to enjoy the good life. Motive that I can get on board with.

NB would have had Patrick Bateman AGAIN but he’s not a villain he is actually a hero. Or an anti-hero. But not a villain.


Mark’s Picks

Cersei LannisterA Song of Ice and Fire, George R.R. Martin

Although her hotness is pretty much undone by the fact that she’s a fundamentally horrible person.


Mara JadeThe Thrawn Trilogy, Timothy Zahn

These Star Wars expanded universe novels feature a foxy redhead Jedi who wants to kill Luke Skywalker.


HAL 90002001: A Space Odyssey, Arthur C. Clarke

Let’s face it, we all find technology a little bit sexy.


Lady MacbethMacbeth, William Shakespeare

Hmmm, I do seem to have a type.


Grendel’s MotherBeowulf

Because she was played by Angelina Jolie in the movie.


Joel’s Picks

Christian Grey50 Shades of Grey, EL James

Eric NorthmanSookie Stackhouse series, Charlaine Harris

VictoriaTwilight, Stephanie Meyer

Effie TrinketHunger Games, Suzanne Collins

Chopper ReadFrom the Inside, Mark “Chopper” Read

The TriffidsThe Day of the Triffids, John Wyndham

Plants are hot. I’m not weird for thinking it.

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