I think we are all painfully familiar with the motivation-less villian. I’m not talking about the ones with weak motivation. I mean the cardboard cut-out that exists to make the hero look heroic. The mustache twirling cardboard cut-out.
The first draft of The Star of Time was plagued with this. He showed up when it was convenient and caused trouble. The heroine overcame his dastardly plan (and looked heroic) and then he ran away only to show up later and try again. It was empty and flat.
It took awhile, but I eventually did round him out.
I tell you that because since that personal experience I now pay a LOT more attention to the villains in the books I read. Especially the ones I loathe.
And I just read a really good one – Mistress of Rome, by Kate Quinn.
A Brief Aside – It was a tantalizing breath of fresh air to find a historical fiction book set in something other than World War 2.
Anyway! If you haven’t read it – THERE BE SPOILERS AHEAD, TURN AWAY
Mistress of Rome is a multiple POV book that covers the rule of Emperor Domitian from start to finish.
The main players are Thea (a slave girl/woman), Arius (a gladiator), and Lepida Pollia (the villain and also a member of the middle-upper class). There are other great characters, but these three are the POVs.
Ah, Lepida. Poor Lepida.
Now, you need to know that my favorite thing to do after finishing a book I enjoyed is to go read the one-star reviews on GoodReads. Often, these are the reviews that make me think critically about what I just read. Doing this has opened my eyes to problematic tropes, institutional racism, and a bunch of other problems that show up in fiction. It doesn’t affect my feelings towards the book itself, but it has helped me become a more critical reader. (And all our favorites are problematic)
It was the one-star reviews of this book that drove me to write this, not as a rebuttal, but more of a character exercise. See, a lot of criticism was directed at Lepida for being a motivation less villian, and I didn’t read her that way.
SPOILERS AHEAD – YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!
We start the book with Thea and Lepida and build out from there. Thea is a slave in Rome, and serves Lepida. They are the same age – 15. Emperor Domitian has just ascended. We learn early on that Lepida has a bit of a sadistic streak – she loves figuring out what will make people squirm and then weaponizing that. And she hates Thea, because she can’t find that pain point in her own slave. Thea isn’t scared of Lepida.
Lepida needs to feel superior in every room she occupies and anytime Thea is around she feels inferior. Thea speaks multiple languages and is literate. Lepida is darn near illiterate, and Thea takes several opportunities to tweak her master about this.
But sadism isn’t Lepida’s motivation. It’s a tool she uses to achieve her real aim – social climbing.
Raised by a social climber, Lepida follows closely in her Father’s footsteps. Meaning she won’t move unless it’s to climb another rung. And in true well-rounded villian fashion, she is the hero in her own head and can never understand why she loses (always to Thea). Her deep-seated need to feel superior is at the heart of every decision Lepida makes.
Why? Why is she so driven? I would ask, do we really need to know? Is that truly a question that can be answered?
Listen. I’ve known plenty of Lepida’s in my life. They’re horrid people. And quite frankly, very little of their back story would make them sympathetic. But, if you really want to know what I think the answer is here – it’s her father.
See, Daddy Pollia uses Thea as a sexual outlet. The book isn’t necessarily explicit (def not Game of Thrones anyway) so you don’t get a rapey play-by-play, but you know Thea doesn’t consent and she can’t anyway. She’s a slave.
But still. It’s the first time we see Thea chosen over Lepida. Now, Lepida doesn’t come out and say that she wishes her father would choose her in that way over Thea, but she does spend time wondering what anyone sees in Thea – Lepida is far more beautiful. From there we see a rivalry blossom and Lepida constantly frustrated that Thea is chosen over her at nearly every turn.
Lepida wants to win. She wants to best everyone and be better than everyone. She weaponizes her sexuality. She manipulates everyone around her. Nobody in Lepida’s world is anymore than a rung on the ladder to climb to the heights of power.
And that is what makes her fall from the heights so spectacular and such a payoff.
Not every villian needs a McGuffin to seek and compete with the hero. Sometimes the motivation really is just hatred and personality faults.
On the other hand, it’s hard to not feel a little sorry for Lepida, too. Because as her female foils show, even in a society that devalues women to a substantial degree, youthful sexuality isn’t the only way to get what you want.
Lepida’s no cardboard cutout. She’s visceral and looms large even as Thea diminishes her.
Disagree? Please tell me about it in the comments. There’s a LOT to learn here (for me anyway!).