Follow TV Tropes


Motive Misidentification

Go To

O'Brien: You understand well enough how the Party maintains itself in power. Now tell me why we cling to power. What is our motive? Why should we want power?
Winston: You are ruling us for our own good. You believe that human beings are not fit to govern themselves, and therefore—
[O'Brien tortures Winston for his wrong answer]
O'Brien: That was stupid, Winston, stupid! You should know better than to say a thing like that.... The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power.

Basically, this trope is when a character comes to an erroneous conclusion about a villain's motives based on the villain's actions. While the Big Bad is certainly still a villain, how they truly intend to go about it or why they are going about it in the first place turns out to be something for which everyone else's suspicions were way off the mark.

Sometimes the motivation might be different but just as twisted. And sometimes, the evil scheme isn't actually an evil scheme at all. In either case, the Big Bad didn't try to fool the hero, or leave a false trail, or otherwise trick them in any way. No, with this trope, the heroes were fooling themselves all along. This happens a lot when your hero is either too eager... or simply an Idiot Hero. Sometimes though, it's because the heroes only bore witness to certain pieces of information without access to the remaining pieces.

Sometimes the result of paying attention to the Red Herring. Compare Hidden Agenda Villain (the villain is concealing their true intentions) and Falsely Reformed Villain (the villain tricks the hero into mistaking legitimate activites for nefarious ones in order to make the hero look bad and make themself look like an innocent victim). Contrast Evil Plan for a more obvious motive (though this trope still might occur), and Disappointed by the Motive, when the reaction of the heroes to this trope (and on those examples it's because the motive is a lot more petty and/or mundane than the plot probably hinted at so far) is pretty much them going "huh?". See also Not Me This Time and Minor Crime Reveals Major Plot. Compare Right for the Wrong Reasons.

This is an Ending Trope, so expect UNMARKED SPOILERS.


    open/close all folders 

    Anime & Manga 
  • Dragon Ball Super: During the events of the Future Trunks Saga, after meeting an incarnation of Zamasu helping Goku Black wipe out humanity in Future Trunks' Alternate Timeline, Goku and co., with help from Beerus and Whis, initially think that Zamasu will use the Super Dragon Balls to wish for Complete Immortality, then create an Evil Knockoff of Goku to help him wipe out all mortal life. As it turns out, Goku Black is in fact an Alternate Self of Zamasu who used the Super Dragon Balls to pull off a Grand Theft Me on Goku; the immortal Zamasu who was helping him is actually Zamasu's counterpart from Trunks' timeline, who Black convinced to aid him.
  • Happens in Fullmetal Alchemist, when Dr. Marcoh asks Envy if they're planning to use Amestris to create a gigantic Philosopher's Stone. Envy responds: "Oooh, so close. But that's not it." It turns out their plan is to use the people of Amestris to create a gigantic gateway to the afterlife (or whatever regulates all Alchemy) so that Father can usurp God's power.
  • In Monster Rancher, when Moo captured Holly and claimed the Magic Stone she possessed, it was initially believed that it was for the same reason Naga mentioned when he attacked Holly's village years ago, namely to seek out more Mystery Disks in order to increase his army. However, Moo reveals that the Magic Stone can find more than just Mystery Disks, which he demonstrates when he uses it to learn the location of his original body from ancient times.
  • Moriarty the Patriot: One of the earliest fractures in William's plan was assuming Sherlock did not kill Hope because he wasn't willing to do "anything" for his own purposes (in this case, to be told who the Lord of Crime was), rather than Sherlock didn't actually want someone to tell him the answer in the first place.
  • Negima! Magister Negi Magi: The heroes assume Tsukuyomi is a mercenary motivated by money. She eventually reveals she's just a psycho who just likes to kill people and spread suffering.
    Tsukuyomi: ...Do you truly believe I am doing this for money?... Ahahah you are such a child. There is no meaning in this world, I seek naught but blood and carnage.
  • Neon Genesis Evangelion sees Gendo Ikari being on the receiving end of this by his erstwhile Mysterious Backers, Keel Lorenz and SEELE, as their relationship begin to fracture in the latter half of the show. SEELE come to believe that his motivation for betraying them is a hunger for power and that he wants to take control over Instrumentality for himself and use it to become a god. In reality, Gendo's true motivation is love; all he really wants is to use Instrumentality to be reunited with his beloved wife, Yui.
  • In Puella Magi Madoka Magica, Sayaka realizes that Homura is trying to stop Madoka from becoming a magical girl. However, due to her dislike of Homura and ignorance of the true nature of magical girls, she assumes that Homura is jealous of Madoka's magical potential. In reality, Homura is only trying to save Madoka's life...but isn't willing or capable of explaining this to Sayaka.
  • Played for Laughs in Ranma ½. Pantyhose Tarō arrives with a grudge against Happōsai. The audience believes this grudge is his One-Winged Angel cursed form given to him because of Happōsai, however he actually enjoys its enhanced power; the real reason for the grudge is his Embarrassing First Name, which Happōsai also gave him.
  • Spy X Family: Nightfall is a female spy from Twilight's organization who is trying to steal the "wife" role in the operation. She is an Ice Queen who everyone in the organization disparages as a Glory Hound trying to muscle her way into an in-progress operation for her own prestige. When Anya hears this, she is worried, and reads Nightfall's mind to discover the truth: She's in love with Twilight. We are treated to several pages of her imagining a sappy schoolgirl romance ending with her and Twilight getting married for real in a ridiculously over-the-top ceremony. Anya can't do anything but stare.

    Comic Books 
  • Batman:
    • Professor Hugo Strange is firmly convinced that Batman fights crime out of insecurity and a desire to be powerful. In truth, that's Strange's own motive and he's projecting his issues onto Batman.
    • Upon realizing childhood friend Tommy Eliott is the murderous Hush, Batman assumes Tommy hates Bruce Wayne because Thomas Wayne failed to save the life of Tommy's father after a car crash. As it turns out, Eliott isn't angry Thomas couldn't save his dad...he's angry he did save Tommy's mom because Tommy arranged for his parent's "accident" so he could inherit their fortune as a kid. Instead, he had to spend decades taking care of his mentally damaged mother before she finally passed on from cancer to let him get the money he wanted.
    • Batman/Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Early on, Raphael believes that Batman is just a "selfish little rich kid" who puts on a costume and fights bad guys purely for the thrills and fun of it. Though to be fair, he and his brothers do have a colleague (Casey Jones) who is that sort of person, just minus the rich part. That is until Raph finally blows up at the Dark Knight, prompting Batman to take him to Crime Alley, where he watched his parents die, and explains that it's that loss that motivates him to be a hero.
  • Fantastic Four: Mister Fantastic makes this mistake with Doctor Doom all the freaking time.
  • Justice League: In JLA (1997), a series of wild events are causing reality to warp which includes Batman vanishing because Bruce Wayne's parents were never murdered. When Oracle takes herself offline for a while, she's confronted by an angry Martian Manhunter who assumes Barbara Gordon is taking advantage of all this to find a way to change history so she was never shot and put in a wheelchair. A shocked Barbara responds she never once considered that; rather, she's trying to find some way to get reality reset yet still make sure the Waynes live and Bruce free of being Batman. Apologizing, the Manhunter relates that Barbara can't just play God like this and, like it or not, reality still needs Batman to endure that tragedy.
  • In Sleeper (WildStorm), TAO's motives are completely unknown to the characters, and the readers are led to believe he's running an incredibly complex Gambit Roulette to try to Take Over the World. It turns out he's planning on setting off World War III For the Evulz.
  • Spider-Man once tracked down Doctor Octopus through various thefts, only for Doc Ock to give up once his experiment failed. The real motive wasn't criminal; Doc Ock wanted to create a cure for cancer to save an old flame.
  • In Watchmen, Rorschach is convinced that someone is trying to take out all the former vigilantes when the Comedian is found dead. His killer's true motives are different, and he's invoking the trope to draw attention away from him.
  • Wonder Woman (1987): While it's true that Ares aligns himself with Athena because it gives him the opportunity to take down his hated father, she and Diana are blindsided by his more pressing motivation; to gain the ability to enter Themyscira where his daughter Lyta is being raised out of his reach. When he shows up and takes Lyta no one was expecting it.

    Fan Works 
  • In The Darkness Series, Voldemort isn't really trying to wipe out the Muggles because he knows they're going to destroy themselves anyway. He merely used the Pureblood agenda to build his political powerbase.
  • Star Wars vs Warhammer 40K:
    • When the Imperium of Man intervenes during the Battle of Anaxes and seizes Admiral Trench's flagship, the Jedi assume that the Imperials want control of the planet-cracking bomb that Trench planted on Anaxes, which can be remotely activated from his ship. In reality, the Imperials only wanted Trench's flagship so they could study it due to the ship's technology being so different from their own.
    • During the Imperium's surprise attack on Raxus Secundus, the Separatist admiral in charge of Raxus's defense assumes that the Imperials have come to conquer the planet given its importance as the Separatist capital world. When the admiral defiantly proclaims to the Space Marine Chapter Master leading the attack that their planetary occupation will be short-lived, the Chapter Master bursts out laughing before nonchalantly executing the admiral and telling his fleet to proceed with their orders to destroy Raxus Secundus via Orbital Bombardment.

    Films — Animation 
  • Batman: Under the Red Hood: Batman thinks Red Hood's actions are revenge for failing to save him from the Joker. However, Red Hood admits he's long since forgiven him for what happened. What he's angry about is the fact that Batman didn't drop his "no killing" policy after the event and kill The Joker.
  • Done twice in Operation: Z.E.R.O., the Big Damn Movie to Codename: Kids Next Door:
    • After learning that the villains had stolen the re-commissioning module, and that it was operational, the operatives at first think they plan to use it to restore erased memories of adult decommissioned members, allowing them to learn KND's secrets. Turns out that Father had a much darker goal, namely using the module to restore Grandfather's memories and powers.
    • Grandfather, who literally survived the plummet of "a gazillion tons of red hot metal and duct tape", mocks Numbuh Zero for thinking it could actually crush him. Zero retort that they actually weren't trying to crush him. They only wanted to get him into the now-crashed room where they house the decommissioning chamber. Grandfather is only able to make a "Facing the Bullets" One-Liner before the chamber wipes his memory again.
  • Randall in Monsters, Inc.. Mike (and most of the audience) thinks he's trying to cheat his way to the all-time scream record, when he's really up to something much worse...
    Randall: [chuckles darkly] You still think this is about that stupid scare record?
    Mike: Well... I did. Right up until... you chuckled like that, and now I'm thinkin' I should just get outta here.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • In Austin Powers in Goldmember, Austin arrives at his apartment to find Mini-Me with what looks like a knife, and concludes that Mini-Me is here to assassinate him, sparking a fight. Actually, the "knife" is a letter opener (Mini-Me was trying to open an envelope that the mole gave him), and Mini-Me's real reason for being at Austin's apartment is to defect to his side.
  • Batman Begins: In the climax, when Ra's Al Ghul uses the Gotham tram to vaporize all the toxin-laced water and infect the city, Batman boards the train to fight him while the train speeds towards Gotham Tower where the water pressure will reach critical. When Ra's pins Batman to the ground, he comments that he couldn't stop the train because he didn't have what it takes do what needed to be done. Batman retorts "Who said anything about stopping it?". Sure enough, during the fight, Batman had damaged the controls, causing the train to speed out of control, while at the same time, he had Gordon use the Batmobile to take out the supports of the train track.
  • Die Hard:
  • Don't Breathe: The burglars think that the Blind Man is fighting back to protect his money. What he's really defending, however, is his kidnapped hostage in the basement, carrying his child.
  • In Hot Fuzz, Nicholas Angel believes the murders in Sandford were happening as part of a very lucrative property swindle. In reality, the fact that all the murders that occurred since he arrivednote  in Sandford were tangentially connected to a land swindle was a coincidence. They were really taking place because the victims were a threat to the town's title of "Village of the Year"....and they had been going on for years, with scores and scores of victims, and an entire conspiracy of murderers. Note that many of the movie's deleted scenes would have served to further expand on that Red Herring and explain how it was going on.
  • James Bond:
  • Marvel Cinematic Universe:
    • In Thor, Thor's friends are right to suspect that Loki is behind the Frost Giants' attack on Asgard. However, their pre-existing distrust of him, combined with his acting ability and tendency to keep his motives to himself, have the effect of convincing them that his motives are a mad quest for power. In truth, he wants to exterminate the Frost Giants because he thinks Odin will approve. Whether that's better or worse probably depends on your view of the Frost Giants. In subsequent films, his motives are a simple quest for power.
    • In Iron Man 3, Tony, Pepper, and Rhodey come to believe that Aldrich Killian is selling his Extremis regeneration technology to The Mandarin to cause terrorist attacks. It turns out that the "attacks" are unplanned and a result of the faulty regeneration technology; Killian uses this to his benefit by pinning the explosions on a fictional version of The Mandarin played by actor Trevor Slattery, and uses the fear surrounding them as a way to become more powerful.
    • The Maximoff twins misidentify Ultron's motives, as well as his plan, in Avengers: Age of Ultron at first, much to their regret.
    • In Captain America: Civil War, Steve Rogers and the rest of Team Captain America, and later Tony Stark once he gets aware that the evidence against Bucky Barnes was faked, believe that Helmut Zemo is looking for the remnants of the Winter Soldier program to revive it and use the five remaining Super Soldiers for some nefarious plot. In truth Zemo never cared for the Winter Soldiers except as bait, and the first thing he does on finding them is killing them all in cryosleep. What he wants all along is to bring a wedge between the Avengers so that they'd fight and destroy each other, and for this he needs the report of Bucky's involvement with the murder of the Starks that is hidden in the Siberian HYDRA facility.
  • A Nightmare on Elm Street: As part of his revamped backstory, Freddy Krueger was burned to death by the parents of his victims after hearing things that sounded like he was abusing the children at the daycare where he worked. Upon learning this, Quintin comes to believe that the kids had told made up stories, and that Freddy was a Tragic Monster who had been had been the victim of an unfair Vigilante Execution. In the climax, he and Nancy discover the lair he had in life, along with proof that he was a pedophile. Quintin realizes this means that Freddy wasn't after them for lying, he was after them because they told the truth.
  • In Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, everyone assumes that the Spanish are racing towards the Fountain of Youth in order to attain immortality. In fact, the Catholics hate the idea of immortality achieved via pagan means as opposed to faith in God and wish to destroy the Fountain before anyone can use it. Which makes them arguably the only people with good intentions aside from Phillip in the film, as everyone else is out for personal gain or vengeance.
  • In Psycho when Marion's sister and fiancée become convinced that both Marion and the Private Detective they hired were both killed at the Bates Hotel, they're sure that Norman Bates robbed Marion and then covered it up. In reality, of course, Norman is just crazy and never even knew about the money that Marion had.
  • In The Shawshank Redemption, after Andy has been pushed too far by the Warden and starts talking like he won't be around the prison anymore, his friends become worried he plans to kill himself, especially since he went down to the loading dock to get a rope. Turns out he was going to escape, with the rope needed to bring along a bag full of evidence of the Warden's corruption.
  • In Sky High (2005), Will believed that Big Bad Royal Pain/Gwen Grayson's motive for deaging everyone at the homecoming dance and destroying the titular school was out of revenge for his parents destroying her mother, the original Royal Pain, years ago. Gwen then set him straight: Royal Pain hadn't been destroyed in that battle, the Pacifier had caused her to revert to a baby, with her loyal henchman raising her back up to her teen years when she could return to Sky High. In other words, Gwen wasn't Royal Pain's daughter, she was Royal Pain herself.
  • X-Men: Wolverine and Rogue have been chased and attacked several times by Magneto's band of mutants. The X-Men come to the conclusion that Magneto's after Wolverine, possibly due to his self-regeneration abilities. Then Magneto corners the pair in a train station and has Wolvie completely at his mercy...
    Wolverine: What the hell do you want with me?
    Magneto: You? My dear boy, whoever said I wanted you? [turns to look at Rogue]

  • The Death and the Compass, a Genre Deconstruction of the Detective Fiction by Jorge Luis Borges
    "Scharlach, are you looking for the Secret Name?" asked Erik Lönnrot.
    Scharlach remained standing, indifferent. He had not participated in the brief struggle, and he scarcely extended his hand to receive Lönnrot's revolver. He spoke; Lönnrot noted in his voice a fatigued triumph, a hatred the size of the universe, a sadness not less than that hatred.
    "No," said Scharlach. "I am seeking something more ephemeral and perishable, I am seeking Erik Lönnrot."
  • Happens numerous times in Agatha Christie. Most notably, in The ABC Murders, the police and Hercule Poirot believe a series of murders are the work of a mad killer and have to figure his next target. As it turns out, it's a man killing his brother for his inheritance and committing the other murders to cover it up.
  • Harry Potter:
    • Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone: Played with a bit in this case. Harry is correct that the motive for stealing the Philosopher's Stone is to bring Voldemort back to life, however, he's completely wrong about which character actually has that motive.
    • Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets: Harry and most likely everyone else assumes the heir of Slytherin has reopened the Chamber to carry out Salazar Slytherin's mission to purge Hogwarts of Muggle-borns. When Harry meets the Heir of Slytherin, Tom Riddle a.k.a. Voldemort, he explains that his target all along has been Harry. All the near-killings were bait (though since it's Voldemort, had any of the Muggle-borns died he would've considered that an added plus).
    • Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban: Everyone believes that the reason Sirius Black escaped from Azkaban prison and traveled to Hogwarts is to kill Harry. It turns out he actually broke out to protect Harry because he discovered that Peter Pettigrew, the one who actually sold Harry's parents to Voldemort and framed Sirius for it, has disguised himself as Ron's pet rat Scabbers, waiting for the right moment to bring Harry to Voldemort.
    • Also in Goblet of Fire, the heroes initially suspect that someone entered Harry's name in the Triwizard tournament in order to get him killed while competing. The truth is quite the opposite: Barty Crouch Jr. intends for Harry to win the tournament and claim the trophy in the center of the maze which has been transformed into a Portkey, sending him into a trap so his blood can be used to resurrect Voldemort, without anyone being any the wiser as to where he's gone.
    • In Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, when Snape kills Dumbledore, it's easy to assume that he did it because he's been Evil All Along. The fact that he's acting on Dumbledore's orders never occurs to anybody, though this is largely because he needs to look like Voldemort's loyal servant rather than the Double Reverse Quadruple Agent he really is.
  • A posthumous one occurs in-story in the Honor Harrington series when it's discovered that Arnold Giancola forged diplomatic documents that resulted in a resumption of the war between Manticore and Haven, and then he dies in a legitimate car accident before he can be questioned. The Grand Alliance leadership later assume he did it at the behest of the Mesan Alignment in order to further weaken Manticore and Haven, who then killed him to silence him. In fact, he did it for personal gain to be seen as the hero who would step in at the last minute to stop the war, and the Mesans had nothing to do with it.
  • The Name of the Rose: Contains a Shout-Out to the Borges example above. As William investigates the deaths at the abbey, he starts to believe they are patterned after the Book of Revelation. Turns out to be a complete coincidence, but the villain chalks it up to God's design and rolls with it anyway.
  • In Please Don't Tell My Parents I'm a Supervillain, everyone assumes there's an elaborate plan behind everything The Inscrutable Machine does, assuming they're professionally trained criminal masterminds instead of just a couple of kids who happened to get lucky.
  • In the Red Dwarf novel Last Human, the crew encounter a GELF civilization that regularly arrests people for crimes they haven't yet committed. Kryten immediately dismisses this justice system as an excuse to get rid of people the government doesn't like, which is true to an extent but isn't the main reason behind the corruption. The whole thing's part of a scam: the GELF State needs explicitly innocent volunteers in order to create a gestalt entity for their terraforming program, and have arranged a system in which they can be convicted of imaginary crimes and coerced into signing away their lives. Faced with a choice between sacrificing themselves and going back to Cyberia, most inmates agree to participate.
  • Sam the Cat: Detective: In The Big Catnap, Sam initially thinks that feline actor Sandy was kidnapped by the owner of his identical "understudy" Felix so Felix can take over Sandy's lucrative commercial gig. While Felix is an important character and his (past) owner isn't completely innocent, the kidnapping is being done strictly for ransom money and not to get Felix Sandy's job. Felix and Sandy are brothers whose original owner left them to her niece and nephew. Felix's former owner—his ex-fiancée currently has the cat—reluctantly got involved in an attempt to kidnap Sandy to get back at his sister for not sharing any of her monetary inheritance.
  • Sherlock Holmes: In The Adventure of the Yellow Face, Sherlock Holmes misidentifies his client's suspicious wife's motive, and is for once proven wrong. It turns out that there was nothing villainous about the wife's true motive.
  • Star Trek: In the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine expanded universe novel "The Siege" the Ferengi Grav decides to take revenge on Quark for cheating him in earlier business dealings but can't openly do so due to Ferengi law. In order to get around Ferengi law regarding unprofitable revenge, Grav hires a shapeshifter assassin named Meta and has him board DS9 to kill a few people, kill Quark, and then kill a few more people in a manner that made it look like the work of a serial killer. Meta fails to kill Quark and Odo soon determines what was going on.
  • Wet Desert: Tracking Down a Terrorist on the Colorado River: After excluding Islamic terrorism, the investigators at first think that the bomber may have had a vendetta against boaters or the like, until the Colorado River Aqueduct is bombed.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer:
    • In the episode "Earshot", Buffy finds Jonathan in the school bell-tower with a high-powered rifle and immediately assumes he's out to perpetrate a student massacre, and gives him a whole speech condemning it. A confused Jonathan replies that he came up there to kill himself.
    • In the episode "Forever", the episode after the death of Buffy's mother, Spike shows up with a bouquet of flowers, only to be stopped by Willow and Xander, who believe that he's trying to take advantage of the situation to score points with Buffy. Spike insists that he wants to pay his respects to Joyce, since she was the only one of their "lot" that was ever nice to him. When it becomes clear that Xander won't be swayed, Spike gives in, throws the bouquet down, and storms off; immediately afterwards, Willow and Xander examine the bouquet and discover that Spike didn't include a card with the flowers, which forces them to acknowledge that Spike really was trying to pay his respects.
    • Also in "Forever", when Spike agrees to help Dawn get the ingredients needed to resurrect Joyce, she also believes it's an attempt to get in good with Buffy. Spike makes it clear that Buffy is not to know of his involvement at all.
      Spike: I just don't like to see Summers women take it so hard on the chin, is all.
  • Cold Case:
    • In one episode, a wife is suspected of murdering her terminally ill husband because he was a Jerkass to her (and pretty much everyone else). It eventually comes out that she did do it, but not out of hate; they made their peace with each other, and then he asked her to Mercy Kill him and she did.
    • In "The Good Soldier", The detectives think that the killer killed Army recruiter Mike Donley for wanting to turn her in to the authorities for a robbery. Actually, the killer was ashamed about the robbery and was willing to turn herself in, but then felt betrayed and abandoned upon hearing that Mike was about to leave on another overseas tour leading to A Tragedy of Impulsiveness murder.
  • On CSI: Miami, the team figure they have a straight-up robbery of a diamond store. They're thus confused when they find the thieves' hideout and nearly a million dollars of diamonds literally scattered on the ground. It turns out the crooks were never after the diamonds (which can be easily traced), but their solid gold holdings, which are far easier to melt down, smuggle out and then sell for a bigger price than the diamonds were worth.
  • In the CSI: NY episode "The Dove Commission", the Chief Investigator of the titular commission is murdered at a party on the eve of the publication of their annual report on corruption within the NYPD. However, it turns out the crime had nothing to do with the report. The killer was a member of Internal Affairs who was furious that the victim "stole" his girlfriend and bragged to him about it.
  • On Graceland, Agent Badillo thinks that Briggs is stealing drugs because he's working for the Caza cartel. Briggs is really Odin Rossi, an unaffiliated drug supplier whom the Caza cartel is trying to assassinate. Badillo's plan to confront Briggs disguised as a Caza assassin goes very badly for all concerned.
  • On Hawaii Five-0, a friend of Jerry's is killed after coming across evidence of a meeting in 1963 that she believed proved members of JFK's cabinet and the military were behind his assassination. After various leads, the team discover she was right, there was a conspiracy between these men... to plan the assassination of Fidel Castro. Kennedy's death happening at that time was a total coincidence that derailed their own plans.
  • In the two-part season 3 premiere of Knight Rider, scientist David Halston gets an expert electrical whiz and safecracker to aid him in a plan which appears to be using tunnels to break into the San Francisco Federal Reserve for the millions of dollars that go through it. It's when they're close to breaking through that the underlings double-check the map and realize they're digging in the wrong place. At which point, Halston shows up to kill them both. It turns out he's actually having them break into the vault of a weapons company. Halston had designed a groundbreaking weapon for them, only to have them steal it out from under him and refuse to give him credit. Halston is getting back his invention to sell to the highest bidder, less for the money and more so everyone knows what he created.
  • Occurs from time to time in Law & Order: In "Doped", the prosecutors assumed the defendant spiked the victim's nasal spray (which caused her to have a car accident that killed herself and seven others) to try and discredit her whistleblower testimony and protect his employers. Turns out, he was actually in on the whistleblowing, but turned on her over a disagreement about what to do with the reward money they'd get from a successful action against their employer (a pharmaceutical company pushing an expensive, but near-useless cancer drug with false advertising); she wanted to donate it to charity, and he was livid because he felt he deserved to keep a cut for himself.
  • Happens from time to time in Leverage. In their Christmas episode, they believe that the plot at the local mall is to steal everyone's credit card numbers for massive identity fraud. So they shut down the power in the whole area. Then it turns out that the Magnificent Bastard behind it wanted them to do just that. The power outage disabled the security system at the nearby bank (their real target) and he and his goons were free to move in and rob it. Of course, this being Leverage, they were still able to stop him in time. Still one of the only times when the villain was a step ahead of the team.
  • As one would guess from its title, the procedural drama Motive uses this, as the start of each episode tells the audience who is the killer and flashbacks show events leading to the murder. The final flashback, however, will often show the motive for the killing being different than what the audience was led to believe.
    • A limo driver seemed to have killed a cop to defend his girlfriend. It turns out the driver found out the two were in cahoots for a con on him.
    • A woman appears to have murdered a high-class call girl for having an affair with her ex-husband. It turns out the call girl had discovered the woman was running a Ponzi scheme and was killed to keep it quiet.
    • A pilot appears to have been balancing two women at once and killed one girlfriend to prevent her from telling his fiancée. It turns out the "girlfriend" was a stalker who he killed in self-defense when she attacked him in a rage.
    • A family man is murdered by someone who then kidnaps the man's daughter. It turns out to be the girl's real father as the "victim" had kidnapped her years before.
    • A unique case has the wife of a pro athlete killed. It turns out she was a trans woman who faked her death with the help of her then-wife before transitioning. Said alleged widow is more frantic about the secret being revealed and her ex assumes it's because of how it will give them bad press. In reality, she is worried the insurance company will want back the million dollars she got off the life insurance policy she put out on her ex's old identity. It's this, more than the public reaction, that drives her to kill her ex.
    • In "Fallen Angel", a priest who has managed to kept his Church from financial ruin is killed by an unemployed chef known as a perennial loser as a result of Parental Abandonment. Everyone thinks it was because the priest knew about the $2 million in diamonds the chef's father stole a long time ago. The chef couldn't care less about the diamonds; he killed the priest because he never told him that his father has died years ago and, therefore, he did not abandon him as a child. If the priest would have just told him, then maybe the chef would have not grown to be a loser.
  • In the NCIS episode "Leap of Faith", Tony is convinced that a suicidal naval officer was killed by his wife simply because he always suspects the wife, especially if money's involved. It turns out that Tony's half-right — the wife did kill him, but it was because she was a Syrian Mole and he was a loose end.
  • In Once Upon a Time, Jasmine mistakenly thinks that Jafar wants to rule Agrabah (and you probably did too) and hands him her family ring to stop him from destroying it, only to find out he wanted to destroy it all along, and the protection spell was in the ring.
  • A truly wild one on the third season of Riverdale. Betty is thrown when her mother joins a weird cult run by Edgar and claims to have seen her long-dead son in person. Betty figures this is a run-of-the-mill "trick them out of their money" scam and enlists the aid of Cheryl and Toni. To her shock, each woman joins the cult for real, both claiming to have seen long-dead family members in person. Betty herself is thrown when, after a meeting with Edgar, she comes face-to-face with her own "dark persona". She soon realizes the true insane plot: Edgar is hypnotizing people into seeing loved ones to bind them to him. He then convinces them that only by undergoing a procedure can they be freed of this pain. The "procedure" is really harvesting them for organs which Edgar can sell on the black market, meaning this entire thing is one ridiculously elaborate organ-selling plot.
  • Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "The Hunted" has an enhanced war veteran who does this constantly while trying to evade Enterprise security. Even when they are aware that he uses misdirection to conceal his true objective, they are still unable to stop him.
  • In Timeless, this happens several times, usually because the team has to guess what Flynn/Rittenhouse might be doing at a particular date in history.
    • In "Atomic City", the assumption is that Flynn wants to do something to JFK, who was in Vegas at the time. In reality, Flynn wants to get his hands on a plutonium core in order to create a nigh-limitless battery for his time machine.
    • In "Stranded", they think that Flynn wants to alter the course of the French and Indian War. In fact, it's a trap. Flynn and his people lure them to 1754, then damage the Lifeboat in order to strand them in the past.
    • In "The Capture of Benedict Arnold", the initial assumption is that Flynn wants to mess with the Revolutionary War and/or kill George Washington. While Flynn does threaten to kill Washington if they refuse to work with him, his real plan is to find the origins of Rittenhouse and, possibly, end the Ancient Conspiracy before it even starts.
    • In "The Day Reagan Was Shot", the team assumes that Ronald Reagan is the target. The real target is young Denise Christopher, the woman who brought the team together in the first place. Interestingly, modern day Christopher realizes who the real target is as soon as she's told the date and time, but the Lifeboat team has already departed by that point.

  • Eminem's song "Not Alike" contained a vicious and unprovoked diss to Machine Gun Kelly, accusing him of having an eye for underage girls note . MGK fired back with the diss track "Rap Devil", which accused Eminem of having banned him from airplay on his radio station Shade 45 based on an old tweet he made about how hot Eminem's (then underage) daughter was. Eminem's response was the diss track "Killshot", in which he revealed his diss wasn't because of MGK's comments about his daughter (which he didn't even know about), but because "I just don't like you, prick". He then went on to thank Kells for dissing him because it gave him a retroactive excuse to have dissed him for no reason in "Not Alike".

  • Twisted: Prince Achmed returns to his kingdom and shows his troops the reason they're going to war: he got his ass scratched by the Princess' tiger. The troops think he got scratched while getting sodomized by the tiger and absolutely nothing can make them think otherwise despite Achmed's repeated denials (if anything they admire him for it). Even once they've invaded the Kingdom they still think he's come to get the tiger back.

    Video Games 
  • Altaïr of Assassin's Creed accuses Majd Addin of murdering ordinary people simply for believing differently than him. Majd Addin corrects Altaïr by telling him he did it because he could and because it was fun. This is what Altaïr used to think about assassinating, before he was demoted to novice and forced to kill powerful people with basic equipment as penance for his arrogance. So he stabs Majd in the neck twice.
  • Magus from Chrono Trigger is a send-up of Japanese fantasy RPG tropes: as the Fiendlord, he sends forth his monstrous armies in a bid for world domination. He's also identified as the creator of Lavos, the titanic hellspawn fated to destroy the world in 1999 AD. Crono and company set off to defeat Magus and prevent him from triggering the end of the world; unfortunately, it turns out that Magus was actually trying to destroy Lavos all along, and they interrupt him just in time to hasten Lavos' awakening, putting the world on schedule for destruction in 1999 AD.note 
  • Fire Emblem: Awakening: During one of their support conversations, Olivia sees Henry, the team's resident Combat Sadomasochist and dark mage, cornering an injured dog and orders him to get away from it, believing that he intends to sacrifice it to his "dark god." Much to her surprise, Henry loves animals and actually intended to nurse the dog back to health.
  • Edelgard in Fire Emblem: Three Houses believes Seiros killed Nemesis in The Great Offscreen War over a dispute on whether a divine being or a human should lead the world. Seiros, now known as Rhea, actually killed Nemesis for Revenge, as he murdered her mother in her sleep and made the Sword of the Creator from her spine.
  • In Fire Emblem Engage, the heroes spend most of the story thinking Big Bad Sombron is trying to open a portal to other worlds in order to become a Multiversal Conqueror. It's only right before the final battle that he reveals he's actually trying to reunite with the Zero Emblem, his Only Friend from the past, who vanished from this universe but might exist in another. Interestingly for this trope, this reveal doesn't make the heroes any more inclined to sympathize with him, as he still treated an entire world's destruction, along with the deaths of his own children, as merely a "stepping stone".
  • In the Grand Theft Auto V show-within-a-game Impotent Rage, this trope leads to a case of Villain Misidentification. The title character (a parody of Captain Planet) shows up at a protest against fracking and mistakenly assumes that "fracking" is a euphemism for sex, and that the protesters are religious fundamentalists protesting the right of the (male) businessmen to "frack" each other. Only after he sends the protesters flying into the sun does his nemesis, Uberman, explain to him that fracking (a.k.a hydraulic fracturing) was actually a controversial form of natural gas drilling, and that the Corrupt Corporate Executives he defended were now free to pollute the water as they saw fit.
  • In The Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction, Bruce Banner presumes that Emil Blonsky is trying to figure out how the Hulk works in order to make and weaponize gamma mutants. In reality, Blonsky is trying to control his own mutation, which is threatening to drive him mad. And that's because he's trying to save his wife and child.
    Bruce: You can't break a man who's already broken. What if you get inside... and you don't like what you find?
    Emil: I know what triggers it, you freak. I know how strong you are to the nearest decimal point. I don't need to know how to become like you, I need to know how to control it!
  • In The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, everyone believes Ganondorf has returned to destroy the world. It turns out that while he did endeavor to take over Hyrule, his original motivation was to put it in control of the Gerudo, so his people wouldn't have to remain isolated in the harsh desert. The way he talks about his childhood is quite sad, really.
  • Mass Effect:
    • Mass Effect: Everyone assumes Saren has gone rogue and led the Geth to attack humans because of anti-human racism. And while Saren is anti-human, by the time Shepard catches up with him, Saren reveals he thinks he's trying to save all the species from being liquefied by the Reapers by proving they're useful. Of course, Saren's become indoctrinated by that point.
    • Once their existence is revealed, just about everyone in the trilogy assumes the goal of the Reapers is to render organic life extinct, an assumption seemingly supported when the player scans assorted planets across all three games and the in-game description describes formerly inhabited worlds blasted so hard that if they aren't lifeless then life is rare, often just single-celled, and clinging to survival. Then the player finds out that due to the Insane Troll Logic of a rogue AI from a billion or so years ago, the Reapers claim to be preserving advanced life from extinction by liquefying members of the galaxy's dominant species to make new Reapers while leaving primitive species alone to develop, only to repeat the process every 50,000 years. Just so that advanced species don't create synthetic life that will possibly make all organics life go extinct.
  • Max Payne 3: Max gets a job as a bodyguard (as in, kill all enemies like he usually does and the bystanders who survive will pay him), only for his Boss' wife to get kidnapped despite all that slow-motion perfect shooting. What seems like a classic kidnapping heist (trade three million dollars in exchange for Mrs. Bronco's safety... for three more weeks) expands into an over-the-top Evil Plan that involves Victor Bronco, the brother of Max's boss, attempting to harvest organs from the slums en masse so that he can get elected as Sao Paolo's mayor and turn Sao Paolo into the largest organ market ever. And Max is the scapegoat, because he's so good at staying alive and butchering people other than the police. Max's partner seems to be in on this plan, but Passos claims that Victor paid him and the gangsters to terrorize the boss into early retirement, giving Victor the family fortune. Needless to say, this is definitely not what happened.
  • In Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance Raiden accuses Big Bad Senator Armstrong of being a typical greedy self-serving politician using the war economy to boost his own position. The villain initially plays along with this assumption. After Raiden destroys his Metal Gear, he figures that Raiden deserves to know his real goal and gives a Motive Rant while delivering a No-Holds-Barred Beatdown. He's actually a Social Darwinist who hates War for Fun and Profit, and he wants to tear down America and rebuild it as a nation where everyone is free to fight for what they believe following no law other than their own will. Raiden amends his earlier opinion of the man, saying "You're not greedy... you're BATSHIT INSANE!"
  • Outpost 2 features humanity accidentally creating a Grey Goo scenario during attempts to terraform their new planet, and being forced to quickly design and build a new colony ship to evacuate in haste. The humans also possess a small but potent number of A.I.s known as Savants... who, it turns out, are able to merge with the terraforming microbe and use it as a neural network. The ending narration of the game reveals that the Savants completely misunderstood the scenario and assumed that humanity had spread the microbe on purpose, as a way of freeing the Savants and letting them ascend to virtual godhood as a planet-sized supercomputer. In return, they promise to dedicate a portion of their newfound mental resources specifically to improving or creating various technologies that would be useful to humans, and sending the plans to humanity wherever they ultimately decide to go.
  • Ratchet & Clank:
    • This happens in the climax of the first Ratchet & Clank, when the title duo confront Chairman Drek as he's about to destroy Ratchet's home planet to make room for the Blarg's new planet (the raw materials of which came from the destruction of several other inhabited planets).
      Clank: There must be a better way to find a home for your people!
      Drek: Fool! You think that's what this is about? Who do you think polluted the last planet? I did. This is about one thing and one thing only: cash! And lots of it. You see, I've been paid for every square inch of my new planet. Once the inhabitants move in, I'll begin polluting this planet as well! And the whole thing starts all over again. Aah. Brilliant.
      Clank: Y-you evil little
    • Drek's expy in the non-canon Size Matters, Otto Destruct, makes it clear towards the end that him kidnapping Ratchet to make clones of him were not for proving to the universe that Technomites were real and should have credit for their part in the development of technology, but rather, to kidnap bright minds for their intelligence. Clank calls him "pure evil".
    • Also happens at the very beginning of A Crack in Time when Clank accuses Dr. Nefarious of seeking vengeance.
      Nefarious: Vengeance? You think I went to all this trouble for mere vengeance? [to self] And they say I'm egomaniacal.
  • Sly 2: Band of Thieves: At the end of the game, Sly initially believes that Arpeggio only planned to reassemble Clockwerk's frame because he's Driven by Envy over the fact that other birds can fly while he cannot, outright calling him pathetic. However, Arpeggio soon reveals that he actually wants to use the Clockwerk parts for immortality.
  • In the Mount Hyjal area in World of Warcraft, one questline has the player infiltrating the Twilight's Hammer cult and assassinating a number of their higher-ups. Near the end, the Twilight Hammer instructor who you've been taking orders from reveals that she knows that you're the one killing them, but she believes that you're trying to climb the food chain and take charge rather than sabotaging the Twilight's Hammer from within.

    Visual Novels 
  • Downplayed in Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors. Players weren't wrong to think that Zero wanted to take revenge on the Cradle Pharmaceutical higher-ups for creating the first Nonary Game. That was indeed Zero's goal, just not the primary goal. The real reason Zero orchestrated the events of the game was to activate Junpei's psychic powers in order to send information to the past that Zero, as Akane, needed to survive the first Nonary Game.
  • In the second trial of Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair, which centers around the events of an actual murder involving several members of the cast, the characters assume that the culprit, Peko Pekoyama, is Sparkling Justice, and killed Mahiru Koizumi for trying to cover up a murder that her friend committed, and was later killed for. At the end of the trial, after the culprit is found guilty, it turns out that Peko was faking being Sparkling Justice, and is actually a servant of Fuyuhiko Kuzuryuu, the culprit responsible for killing Mahiru's friend in revenge for the latter murdering his sister. Peko killed Mahiru out of the belief that Fuyuhiko would want her dead, and allowed herself to be convicted thinking that since she considers himself Fuyuhiko's "tool," he would receive credit for getting away with murder, allowing him to graduate and escape.

    Web Animation 
  • RWBY:
    • Blake originally believes that Adam shares her idealism for a world where humans and Faunus peacefully co-exist. Although she left the White Fang due to his extremism, she still believes he simply went too far in pursuit of a noble goal and describes him as someone pursuing justice for the first three volumes. Only at the end of Volume 3 does she learn that Adam actually thinks equality impossible, desires a world where Faunus ruled over humans, and is motivated by spite more than anything else.
    • In Volume 4, Sun thinks that Blake took off on her own so that she could deal with the White Fang personally because of all the things the Fang did to Beacon and her friends. In reality, Blake is so broken by what's happened that she's avoiding the White Fang entirely and just wants to go home to Menagerie.

  • In The Adventures of Dr. McNinja, Doc initially believes that King Radical's plan is to turn an army of jerks into wizards. He only wants to turn one of those jerks into a wizard as a by-product of his larger scheme to transform this reality into the new Radical Land.
  • Daily Grind deals with a LOT of these. Fitting, since the Daily Grind agency deals with sleuthing, research, and killing demon overlords:
    • What seems to be a racist rally of cats against dogs (it's a furry webcomic) turns out to be a plot for a young gangster to kill his sister, drive his mother into a heart attack, and inherit over a billion dollars in stocks. The racism was publicized so that it would look like his sister dying was a hate crime and not a bid for family fortunes.
    • One poor mage is forced to try and kill the Demon Bunny Tharka, or let his friends die (since his magic is connected to them, he can't commit suicide). They order him to make it look like he's just another crazy mage on a roll.
  • The Order of the Stick:
    • Xykon murdered Roy's father's master and took his crown. Roy thought he did it because the crown was magical and powerful; it turns out, it's neither of these things. Xykon just wanted the crown because it looked cool. Learning that the motive was something so petty only made Roy hate him even more.
    • The Sapphire Guard believes the Bearer of the Crimson Mantle's goals are to destroy the universe. While an acceptable loss, the reality is that he is actually out to blackmail the gods for his species' dominance over others. Or fair and even treatment. He'll settle for that, as well. Though it's that or the end of the universe...
  • Happens to the "heroes" in Schlock Mercenary, after they complete a job to take down a sleazy holovision network; the police believe they conspired with the network's CEO to profit off of it.
    Tagon: Can we plead, "that's not how we did it"?

    Web Original 
  • In Worm, the supervillain Cherish has high-end emotion-reading powers that she used to establish a dossier on every parahuman in Brockton Bay for the rest of her team, but she made a number of serious errors in interpreting motivations — most notably completely misreading Skitter's.

    Western Animation 
  • Tends to happen with Professor XXX-L in Codename: Kids Next Door. He does kidnap Numbuh One on occasion, and tends to get into conflicts with the KND, but his motive is always nothing more than to create the perfect snowcone. For example, that aforementioned kidnapping incident was because Numbuh One doesn't get brain freeze, making him the perfect taste tester.
  • DC Animated Universe:
    • In the Batman: The Animated Series episode "The Clock King", the eponymous villain's Motive Rant seems to blame Mayor Hill for ruining his company; instead, he's more upset that Hill made him late.
      Batman: Give it up, Fugate! Hill committed no crime against you!
      Temple Fugate: He did worse than that! He made me late!
    • Superman: The Animated Series: In "Fun and Games", Lois Lane publishes an article about the Toyman in which she interviewed a psychologist who describes him as merely a gimmicky criminal. Later, he abducts her and shares his story about why he's been targeting the gangster Bruno Mannheim: the Toyman's father, Winslow Schott Sr., was given money by Mannheim to start a toy factory, but Mannheim used it as a front for a numbers racket, and when the police busted it, Schott was arrested and sent to prison while Mannheim escaped indictment.
    • Batman Beyond: In "Hidden Agenda", both Terry and Maxine assume that she's being targeted by the Jokerz because she was working on a program that could identify them. The truth is they targeted her just because she had a higher grade on a test than one of their members. Additionally, Maxine thinks Terry is one of the Jokerz trying to get her, when in fact, Terry's the new Batman and it's one of their classmates who's after her. She becomes a Secret-Keeper to Terry when she learns the truth.
    • In the Justice League Unlimited episode "Question Authority", the Question confronts Lex Luthor about Luthor's current evil scheme. The Question thinks Lex was trying to discredit the League in order to win the presidency; a Lex Luthor from an alternate universe had done this, killed the Flash, leading to that universe's League going rogue and becoming Evil Overlords. Question went to kill Luthor (because he was known to be insane, so the League's reputation wouldn't suffer as much); unfortunately, Luthor reveals he has superpowers, and proceeds to beat the tar out of the Question, at the same time revealing his whole presidential bid was just a ruse to tick Superman off. The Question wasn't even close. His actual plan? To continually pit the government agent backing him and the League against each other, so as to distract both from his development of a machine to give himself A.M.A.Z.O.'s nigh-godlike superpowers. And then it turns out not even Luthor knew his own motives, as his entire thought process was being influenced by Brainiac, who wanted a new body.
      Luthor: President? Do you know how much power I'd have to give up to be president? That's right, conspiracy buff. I spent $75 million on a fake presidential campaign, all just to tick Superman off.
  • Dewey and Webby spend most of the first season of DuckTales (2017) hunting for answers about the disappearance of the former's Missing Mom Della and why Scrooge seems to have gone to great lengths to erase any sign that she existed. Both of them come to the conclusion that Della must have betrayed Scrooge in some way, but in reality he partly blamed himself for what happened to her, and it was how he coped with his grief. When Dewey confronts him for answers, Scrooge readily tells the whole story when he realizes how Dewey badly wanted to hear the truth.
  • In the G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero five-parter "Arise, Serpenter, Arise", upon learning that Cobra is collecting DNA samples from the greatest leaders and conquerors throughout history, the Joes believe that they're planning to create the prototype for a vast army of Super Soldiers. Unbeknownst to them, they're only half right — Cobra is making a super soldier, alright, but they aren't going to mass produce it or have it serve as a solider. The creation, Serpentor, is going to be their new leader.
  • In Gravity Falls, for the majority of the series, Grunkle Stan's true nature is ambiguous, and becomes even more questionable in the first season finale when we learn of a mysterious machine he has in a secret underground lab. This culminates in "Not What He Seems", when upon learning about the machine, Dipper becomes convinced that Stan is really a villain and might not even be his and Mabel's real great-uncle. It then turns out that Stan is on the level; the machine was a powerful-yet-risky portal that he was using to try and bring back his brother Ford, the Author of the Journals, after he was thrown into the multiverse almost thirty years ago. Upon learning this, Dipper apologizes for doubting him, with Stan admitting that everything did seem suspect.
  • One episode of The Mask featured a dognapper and a chili maker who bought the abducted dogs. Stanley thought they were turning the dogs into chili but he later learned they were just having the dogs try a new brand of dog food.
  • In one episode of Mighty Ducks: The Animated Series, Dragaunus unleashes a multiplying, gremlin-like energy creature against the Ducks. Upon hearing about a rocket carrying a Kill Sat that is set to launch, the Ducks figure that Draganus intends to have the creatures sabotage the satellite to prevent it from being used against him, leading the Ducks to protect the rocket from the creatures until it launches. It's only afterwards that they realize that the creatures were actually a distraction to keep them busy while the Saurians planted a control device on the satellite. Wildwing has a Face Palm when he realizes that the Ducks did Dragaunus a favor by making sure the rocket launched.
  • The Penguins of Madagascar: In the episode "An Elephant Never Forgets", after helping Burt the Elephant sneak out of the zoo for personal reasons, the penguins discover that Burt had a creepy-looking chart tracing the life of a man who was once called Kid Kazoo, a zoo regular who used to torment him with his kazoo, with the Penguins believing that Burt wanted revenge. The penguins arrive at the man's office to what looks like Burt trying to attack him and try to stop the elephant, but to no avail. It then turns out that Burt was trying to return the man's kazoo, having taken it from his pocket years ago and felt so guilty about it that he spent all that time tracking him down to give it back. Skipper points out that Burt could've just told them that, with the elephant replying that he was too sheepish.
  • The Simpsons: In the "Treehouse of Horror XVI" segment "Survival of the Fattest", Mr. Burns invites some of Springfield's men to his estate. Moe thinks they're all there as part of a timeshare pitch, before it's explained that Burns invited them all so that he could hunt them for sport.


Video Example(s):


Who Said We Were Terrorists

Hans Gruber has a much more straightforward reason for holding the Nakatomi building hostage.

How well does it match the trope?

5 (9 votes)

Example of:

Main / MotiveMisidentification

Media sources: