How to Write a Suspense Novel: Overlapping Motivations
Updated: Feb 24
I've discussed villain and hero motives before, but as I've been editing through my current work in progress and getting feedback from beta readers, I realized another key part of motives:
The villain has to have a strong reason for every interaction they have with the hero.
Even if the villain is aiming most of their attacks at one protagonist, and their main goal has to do with that particular protagonist, they need to have as strong of a motive for every act they commit outside of the relationship with that one protagonist.
For example, say our villain wanted Bob, our main hero, to do something. In order to convince Bob to act, the villain bombs Bob's house.
This is a fine motive because Bob is directly affected by his house being bombed.
If, instead, the villain kidnapped Bob's son Jimmy, we may run into a problem. Why? Because kidnapping Bob's son was an act against Bob and Jimmy. If our villain ends up beating Jimmy, those actions must either be in direct response to something Bob did, or the villain must want something in particular from Jimmy.
Actions taken directly against a second protagonist must have as strong as if not a stronger motive than the initial motive against the first protagonist.
If, in order to get what the villain wants from Jimmy, the villain must also rob a bank, the villain better have a secondary reason to rob the bank that warrants the risk of getting caught.
But, here's the other thing that makes this so complicated: everything the villain does, even the secondary motivations, should be moving Bob toward the action the villain wants him to take.
Yes. This means that if our villain robs a bank in order to affect Jimmy, robbing that bank must also affect Bob, and also be worth the risk to the villain.
This is the tricky part of creating overlapping motivations. They create intrigue in the story, but if the motives aren't well founded and explained in such a way that the numerous horrible acts by a villain can be understood from as close to the beginning as possible, that aspect of the story will fall flat. And if one aspect of the story falls flat, the whole story is weaker.
No one wants a weak story. No one wants something they wrote to fall flat. So, think through the motives for your antagonist against any other character they interact with, since those actions will have a direct impact on the believability of your villain.
For more information on this and other topics related to successfully weaving suspense into a novel, see the posts in the How to Write a Suspense Novel section of my blog.
In the end, there are two rules to remember when crafting your villain's motivation in order to best build suspense and not confuse readers:
1. The story should ultimately be a battle between one protagonist and one antagonist.
2. Everything the antagonist does, no matter how many layers deep, should be focused against that protagonist.
Following those rules will maintain suspense and believability in your novel.
Until next time,
I'll see you then. ;)
J. J. Hanna graduated from Taylor University with a degree in Professional Writing. She's currently working with literary agent Cyle Young, learning to be a literary agent, and working as a freelance writer and editor. To hire her for editing, writing, speaking, or consulting, see the services tab. In her free time, she can be found cuddling with a cat, reading the latest suspense novel, or filming YouTube videos about the publishing industry.
This week's YouTube video was a reflection on the trip I recently took to New York City: