It seems to have become some kind of common wisdom that great villains are often much cooler and more interesting than the heroes of their stories because they have actual goals and plans, and working towards accomplishing something. In contrast, the heroes tend to simply try to prevent that plan from succeeding. This is true both in fiction and in roleplaying games, where people seem to frequently have trouble with coming up with adventures and campaigns in which the players can be more proactive.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot these days, and I think it’s essentially correct, but also missing some quite important things. The appearance that villains act while heroes react is to a great deal caused by an overuse of the Heroes Journey and typical action movie plots, where the action hero is called in to deal with a criminal in 120 minutes or less.
But I think if a story spends some time on characterizing the villain and giving him motives, he actually is also simply reacting and not actually that proactive at all. My claim here is, that all characters ary trying to “reastablish the status quo” or “return things to normal”. For heroes this seems obvious and easy to see: Something went really bad and the hero now has to fix it so everything can go back to the way it should be. A villain who has a motive other than some quick money usually seems to believe that he has been wronged in some way and that his actions only serve to give him what he believes to be deserving all along. To the villain, the current state of things seems unfair and he is denied something that should be rightfully his. There are countless great villains who believe that they have been robbed of their legacy if they come from a rich and powerful background; or that society has denied them their share of a good life if they come from poverty. Very rarely do you see villains who want to rule the world or the kingdom simply because they think that would be pretty sweet. Instead they feel that they have to. And heroes motivations are usually very similar. A hero isn’t normally looking for trouble, but ends up in a situation where he’s the only one who can do something, whether he likes it or not.