Musings On The Nature of Power

This is a post on villains. Think about the villains you’ve been exposed to over the years: The Purple Man, Khan Noonian Singh (bet you didn’t know he had a full name, did you?), Ramsay Bolton, Donald Trump – all the people we love to hate because they do awful things and get away with it.


Not a bad guy, just misunderstood.

We love to watch a villain fall, but in order for us to love to watch them fall, we have to hate them enough that their eventual demise fulfills some part of us that demands they pay for their misdeeds. The Purple Man gets caught and thrown in a cage. Khan nukes himself with the Genesis Device. Ramsay Bolton gets eaten by his own dogs. Trump? Well, who knows? I like to think he’ll get his on November 8, 2016, but time will tell.

There’s a very specific reason we love to hate those people and it deals with how they manage to get away with all the horrible things they do. It really all comes down to power. Who’s got it, who wants it, who’s willing to abuse it. Bear with me for a moment and I’ll explain.

Ask the average person on the street what they want and you’ll likely get a varied response. Money, fame, beauty, tacos, more Legos, a fast car, etc., etc. While none of those are anything to scoff at, especially tacos, they’re not the real thing people want. The problem is you’re asking the wrong question.

Or, at the very least, you need to ask a supplementary question: Why? Why do you want those things?

This little bit of question and answer time serves a very valuable purpose. Namely to get to the bottom of what people really want. Money, fame, beauty, tacos, and all those other things we like to think we want are nothing more than smokescreens for the real motivator in the world: power.


Hey, you try finding a good image for power.

Power is a very abstract thing. It can be fleeting or decade spanning. It can allow absolute control of the world or only the ability to catch someone’s eye from across the room. Some people amass political power, others physical power. For some, power stems from allies and is derived from a lifetime of hard work. Other people are born with it.


Not quite born with it, but acquired it pretty young.

Some people view sex as power, others value only smarts. Some people think the fastest car, or the biggest collection of Legos, or the most tacos means power.

With all these disparate ways of amassing power, what the heck could power actually be. Surely it’s not just looks or tacos or cars, right? Absolutely correct. Those are the trappings of power, not power itself.

Power, in a nutshell, is the ability to get your way.

Surely there’s nothing wrong with wanting to get your way, right? Everyone likes to get their way and there’s really nothing wrong with that. If we never got our way we’d be miserable little critters. What separates the villains of the story from the heroes is how they get their power and what they do with their power.

Whether you like to admit it or not, life is a game. It’s a game we all play and we’ve all agreed on the rules. Even if the rules aren’t exactly articulated, we all know them and we all play by them. You can’t practice your stabbing in crowded supermarkets. You can’t drive as fast as you want all the time. You can’t take what you want without paying for it. You can’t fish off the back of a giraffe.

Don't do anything under penalty of law

Don’t do anything under penalty of law

On and on and on. The rules of the game are usually understood by everyone playing it, even if we don’t always agree with the rules. Power is based on those rules of the game. Senators and industrialists have great power – the kind of power that warps minds – but someone who refuses to play by their rules can undermine that power easily.

Some people don’t follow the rules. They lie. They kill and speed through school zones and fish off the backs of giraffes and generally go out of their way to do the wrong things. These are the villains of our stories and we need them if we’re going let the reader really engage in their two minutes hate.

Granted, it’s a matter of degrees and impact. Take over the world or plot to get rid of Congress and you’re a super villain. Steal some Twizzlers and you’re just a punk. Villains need to be big villains. The Joker wouldn’t be worth Batman’s time if all he did was walk out with paying for his waffles.

What does all this talk about crime have to do with power? I was watching the season finale of Game of Thrones this week and had a bit of an epiphany. When the High Sparrow aims to put Cersei on trial, he’s playing by the rules he and his cronies have agreed on. She’s supposed to show up and stand trial and everyone will have a jolly good time murdering her. When Cersei nukes the Sept (and everyone in it), she has decided to ignore his rules in favor of her own – and demonstrate one way of how to separate Church and State. That creates a shift in power. In the end, to paraphrase Ice-T, she got the power.


Felt the burn

That’s what power is and that’s where good villains should come from. Villains always want power of some sort or another and are quite willing to do anything to get it. Heroes and villains are both playing the same game: acquire power. But villains refuse to play by the rules and once they get the power, they immediately set about abusing it in really big ways.

And that’s what sets the heroes apart from the villains. Heroes can be incredibly powerful, but they’re stuck with the current rule book. Villains can be just as powerful, but they get to make up their own rules.

In the final analysis, all the machinations of power revolve around changing the rules. The bad guys do something horrific; something that changes the basic order of things, and get away with it. We hate that because they’re bad guys and we see changing the rules as cheating. But the mantra of every decent villain should be:

If you’re not cheating, you’re not trying hard enough.

The good guys are stuck playing by the rules. That’s what makes them the good guys. They’re trying to maintain the social order, or prevent horrors, or save the girl from the oncoming train and they have to do it by the book. The bad guys don’t have those restrictions. Bad guys are trying to get power, but they’re not all hung up on rules. Rules, in their eyes, are for suckers.

In writing terms, what this means is your villains have to have a goal, a power grab of some sort or another. They have to want what they want and have no compunctions about breaking the rules to get it. If they followed the rules they wouldn’t be villains; they’d be bootstrappy and we’d praise them for their ingenuity. Since they’re kidnapping maidens or amassing occult power or stealing all the tacos they’re obviously bad guys.

Power + broken rules = good villain.

Power + followed rules = good hero.

Who are some of your favorite villains?