The Villain’s Journey


By Debbie Burke


By Downloaded from [1], Fair use,

Lately, villains have been in TKZ’s zeitgeist with posts by Steve and Sue.

In one comment, TKZ regular Marilynn Byerly asked if there is a “Villain’s Journey” that is the flip side to the “Hero’s Journey.” Christopher Vogler outlined the Hero’s Journey in his classic bestseller, The Writer’s Journey.

What a great question!  

Down the Google rabbit hole. Surprisingly, I found only one book with that title and it focused on sci-fi/fantasy. But I did find a number of articles and blog posts that drew parallels between the villain’s journey and the hero’s journey.

Here are the 12 stages Vogler laid out that the hero goes through.

  1. The Ordinary World.We meet our hero.
  2. Call to Adventure. Will they meet the challenge?
  3. Refusal of the Call. They resist the adventure.
  4. Meeting the Mentor. A teacher arrives.
  5. Crossing the First Threshold. The hero leaves the comfort zone.
  6. Tests, Allies, Enemies. Making friends and facing roadblocks.
  7. Approach to the Inmost Cave. Getting closer to our goal.
  8. The hero’s biggest test yet!
  9. Reward (Seizing the Sword).Light at the end of the tunnel
  10. The Road Back.We aren’t safe yet.
  11. The final hurdle is reached.
  12. Return with the Elixir.The hero heads home, triumphant.

In theory, the villain’s journey could also go through these same steps but with one major change.

The villain’s journey ends at Step #9.

The villain doesn’t attain the reward and is defeated at the hands of the hero. Game over.

In a 2008 blog post, bestselling mystery and romantic suspense author Allison Brennan says:

Everyone talks about the heroes and their backstory and conflict, but they often forget that the villain needs it all and morewe need to figure out how they became so evil.

The Hero’s Journey is a valuable tool for your writers tool chest. If you remember to apply those steps of the journey to your villain’s life, your bad guy will be richer–and scarier–for it. But it’s not just the “bad guy”–it’s any antagonist in your story. WHY characters do things, even minor characters, is important to know, so if you can identify where they are on their personal journey, it’ll help enrich your story. This isn’t to say every character needs a backstory on the page, but every character needs a backstory in your mind.


University of Richmond psychology professors Scott T. Allison and George Goethals host a blog called Heroes: What They Do and Why We Need Them. In a 2014 post, they posed the question: “Does the Villain’s Journey Mirror the Hero’s Journey?”

Do heroes and villains travel along a similar life path?  Or do villains experience a journey that is the inverse of that of the hero?

Both heroes and villains experience a significant trigger event that propels them on their journeys.  Heroes and villains encounter obstacles, receive help from sidekicks, and experience successes and setbacks during their quests.

We’ve observed that many stories portray villains as following the hero’s life stages in reverse.  Whereas heroes complete their journey having attained mastery of their worlds, the story often begins with villains possessing the mastery.  That is, hero stories often start with the villains firmly in power, or at least believing themselves to be superior to others and ready to direct their dark powers toward harming others.

By Mike Maguire – Witch, CC BY 2.0,


They offer examples of the Wicked Witch in Wizard of Oz, Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and Annie Wilkes in Misery.

The story begins with the villain securely in power, the master of his or her world.  The heroes of these stories, in contrast, are weak and naive at the outset.  Only after being thrust into the villains’ worlds do these heroes gather the assistance, resources, and wisdom necessary to defeat the villains.

The villain’s story is thus one of declining power while the hero’s story is one of rising power…In defeat, the villain’s mastery is handed over to the hero.  The villain’s deficiencies of character have been exposed; the hero’s deficiencies have been corrected.  The two journeys, one the inverse of the other, are completed.

In another article, Scott traces the stages that cause some people to become villains, both in real life and in fiction:

  • The pre-villain is an ordinary person living in an ordinary world that is safe and familiar.
  • Something happens that hurls this ordinary person into the “special world” that is dangerous and unfamiliar.
  • Often this new dangerous world is the world of abuse, with the ordinary person at the receiving end of emotional or physical abuse.
  • Typically, the abuser is a parent, but sometimes another authority figure, peers, or harsh social conditions damage this ordinary person.
  • The ordinary person suffers psychological harm that can assume the form of narcissism, psychopathy, depression, or schizoaffective disorders.
  • This mental illness distorts the ordinary person’s views of themselves and the world, often producing an extreme self-narcissism and/or collective narcissism of their community or nation.
  • The ordinary person remains unaware of their skewed perception of reality and is never able to acknowledge their damaged state nor their need for psychological and/or spiritual help.
  • As a result of their untreated trauma, the villain undergoes terrible suffering, often in private, but is unable to learn or grow from it. Their deep fears and sadness transform into anger.

Okay, that covers the villain’s backstory and motivations but…

What about mysteries where the villain is hidden until the end? How does a writer handle the origin story and motivations when the villain’s point of view is never shown?

We’ve all watched films with the tired old trope where the hero is captured and tied to a chair. Then, because the writer couldn’t think of a less clumsy device, the villain bares their soul to the hero, revealing they were driven to exterminate humanity because they’d been potty-trained at gunpoint.

To avoid that pitfall, Chris Winkle of offers these suggestions:

The most important method of showing your villain’s character arc – or any character arc – is demonstrating a change in behavior. If you keep their arc simple enough, that could be all you need. The basic unit of changing behavior would look like this:

    1. The villain shows a clear pattern of behavior.
    2. An event occurs that would reasonably impact the villain.
    3. The villain shows a different pattern of behavior. 

Chris outlines several options for the unseen villain’s character arc:


“The villain gains and/or loses something they care deeply about, and that drives their character change. Usually what they gain or lose is a person they love, but it can be anything as long as you can show the audience why it’s so important.”


“This is a villain that changes their motives during the story because they acquire a new obsession or goal. Often that obsession is the main character, but it also might be a shiny new superpower.”


“This is a great arc for villains who think they’re doing the right thing and consider all the harm they cause justified. In this arc, they have a revelation that challenges this belief, forcing them to adapt.”

Chris’s summary:

If you want a sympathetic villain and you can afford to give them their own viewpoint, that’s great. Give them a deep arc your audience will remember.

But if that doesn’t fit your story, bring them to life in whatever space you have to work with. If you can’t manage a complex arc, create a simple one.


Many thanks to Allison Brennan, Scott Allison and George Goethals, and Chris Winkle for allowing me to quote their various interpretations of the Villain’s Journey.

And thanks, Marilynn, for asking a terrific question.



Do any of these techniques resonate with you?

How would you add, subtract, or change steps in the Villain’s Journey?



Please check out various Villain’s Journeys in the Tawny Lindholm Thriller series by Debbie Burke.

Buy link

35 thoughts on “The Villain’s Journey

  1. Fantastic post, Debbie!

    This is extremely interesting, and I am going to come back and study it again and again. What struck me is the structure for building the villain, a skeleton on which we can flesh out a villain that is deep, with real motivations for his actions, and even deserving of some sympathy. This is certainly more useful than a list of the villain’s shirt size, hair color, and the type of tooth paste he uses. In other words, we can use models you have discussed here to build our villain with the components we actually need for the story we are telling.

    Thanks for bringing all the resources and discussions together in one place.

    I know what your are going to say, Debbie, but with your background in journalism this would make a great subject for a book.

    Thanks for covering an important subject! (and thanks Marilynn for asking the question!)

    • Hahaha, Steve! You’re always coming up with new projects for me! I *was* surprised there weren’t more books discussing this subject so there is a gap to fill…when I find the time!

      Superficial character traits, like preferred toothpaste, make for superficial characters. You’re right that we have to dig deeper to understand the hero, villain, and important secondary characters. Everyone has their own story in which they are the hero/protagonist.

      Thanks, Steve, for your kind words and for this idea!

  2. Thanks for this post. Getting the villains right is so important. I’m going to re-read tonight when I can take notes. I remember the first full ms I completed & someone graciously read for me. One of their key pieces of feedback: your antagonist is too one dimensional. I agreed. The points that Scott Allison makes in this post will be beneficial in revamping villains like that.

    Also look forward to digging in to the suggestions by Chris Winkle concerning the path of villains who are hidden until the end. As I’m in the midst of writing my first mystery, I’ve been puzzling over this very thing (okay, well that and a lot of other things. LOL!)

    Lots of great takeaways here. Thank you.

    • Thanks, BK, glad this was helpful.

      Chris’s advice about the unseen villain is a big help to mystery writers trying to build an interesting character w/o giving away whodunnit.

  3. Excellent post, Debbie. The villain’s journey is often overlooked or cliched. I especially like Winkle’s advice about subtle changes in mysteries to show the villain’s arc.

  4. Perfect timing! I’m just starting to flesh out the villain of my next book and trying to figure out what went wrong to turn him (or her—don’t know yet) to a life if crime and this will help so much.

    On thing I do is figure out the lie the villain believes about himself and why he believes it.

    Thanks for a great post!

    • You’re so welcome, Patricia.

      “the lie the villain believes about himself” is a tremendous window into his character. Delusions make great motivations for villains.

      Digging out the reasons why he turned to crime will be fun. I’ve been working on a voice journal for the baddie in my WIP.

  5. Good stuff to chew on, Debbie. I always advise writers to know the exact why the bad guy thinks he’s justified in what he’s doing. I say, write out his closing argument, as if he’s pleading his case in front of a jury. Makes for good cross-currents of emotion in the reader!

  6. Good timing on this, Debbie. I’m about to start reading Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero With A Thousand Faces” which, I’m told, is the go-to on the hero’s journey. I’m going to view it through a villain’s perspective.

  7. This is very interesting. Never really thought of it that way.

    I wonder if James Scott Bell’s Superstructure could apply to a villain’s journey? I’ve also wondered over the years if the bad guy has his mirror moments? I’d like to think they do, and have tried to fit that into my stories to make them seem more human like.

    • Ben, great points to consider. Chris addresses the “mirror moment” in his discussion of “Revelation.” You might want to check out the rest of his article at the Mythcreants link. He elaborates on the villain whose revelation changes his perspective so much so that s/he becomes an ally of the protagonist.

      • I also believe that could be the behavior of the “shapeshifter” although they may align with the hero in changing positions, they put themselves first.

  8. Very thought-provoking post, Debbie! Since I write mysteries, I was especially interested in “What about mysteries where the villain is hidden until the end?”

    I think the best mysteries are when the villain is right in front of the reader for the whole story, but the reader makes assumptions based on the way the villain is portrayed. Then at the end of the story, the reader exclaims, “Of course! Why didn’t I see that?” A good example is The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie.

    I’m bookmarking this page to help me work on my next bad guy. Thanks!

    • Kay, hiding a villain in plain sight is a great technique. After the big reveal at the end, many readers enjoy going back through the story, finding breadcrumbs the author had dropped.

      Dame Agatha certainly perfected that camouflage while still playing fair with the reader.

  9. Can this work just as well in cozy mysteries, in which the main imperative is usually preserving community goodness and order, and establishing the lovability of a series’ ongoing characters? I can’t imagine cozy readers pick up a book with a Maine bed-and-breakfast on the cover hoping to spend a lot of time inside the head of someone who is determined to do harm to the lovable cast and community ….

    • Cozies rarely have more than one viewpoint which is the main sleuth. The point is that you as the writer understand why this person does what he does. Each step in his/her journey into evil has a logic he/she understands.

      • Thanks for a great answer to Jim’s question, Marilynn. The villain’s POV and backstory are often known only to the author and never shown to the reader.

    • Jim,

      You bring up a good point that is close to my heart. My understanding is that a cozy mystery is a mystery in which there is no explicit violence and no explicit sexual content. This provides for a wide continuum of work. My own stories fall into the more serious side, but there are lots of cozies out there that feature paranormal characters and/or lighter story content.

      I guess what I’m saying is that there is no “one size fits all” in the cozy category. So the author has to decide how much of the villain’s point of view to reveal in order to create the experience they want the reader to have.

      So glad you brought this up. I’ve been thinking of doing a post on the cozy mystery genre.

      • Kay, sounds like a great idea for a post. I’m amazed at the broad range of cozy mysteries, including ones that deal with gritty, real-life problems like homelessness.

      • I for one would be interested in further discussion about cozies and other mysteries. By that I mean, I’m just now trying to understand the differences between various mystery types and where my project fits. I’m in the process of starting to read some cozies so I can get a feel for them. I don’t feel like a light and fluffy type mystery writer, but neither do I use sex and graphic violence, so it sorta feels just a shade more serious than cozies (as I **think** I understand them) but nothing dark.

  10. Thank you, Debbie, for the excellent article and all the research you’ve done.

    Even if the writer isn’t going to use the bad guy/main antagonist as a viewpoint character, he/she should understand why the antagonist does what he does. “Because he’s evil” only works for supervillains in a bad cartoon. Heck, even the Joker and Thanos have credible backstories of why they are so profoundly broken.

  11. Interesting column, Debbie. One thing I don’t see discussed in relation to villains and their journey is the villain’s stakes. I recently watched season 4 of The Unforgotten, a PBS series, and I was struck by the portrayal of stakes for the criminals. A group of individuals are present at a death, and all of them collude to cover it up. One of them is a murderer, although the group didn’t realize it at the time. This is a crime that happened 30 years in the past. All of these people now have careers, families, social standing and appear to be model citizens. We are shown what they have to lose in close-up, what they value most, and it’s exactly the same things that a hero can lose. This portrayal added intense emotional depth to the story and made me reconsider how I think about villains I write. I’ve always tried to make my villains sympathetic, but I haven’t considered showing what they had to lose on a very personal level beyond going to jail or perhaps dying.

    • Kathy, stakes are definitely important. Thanks for bringing that up. We often concentrate on what the hero has to lose. But what the villain has to lose is even more critical b/c that’s what drives him/her to step over the line into criminal acts.

  12. In my screenplay, both Antagonist and Protagonist share the same backstory: each lost a father while young; each of their mothers sold the father’s gold watch to buy food. The Antagonist confesses he is a villain who once rode with Pancho Villa:

    DIEGO: …One night, Pancho send three men to kill me where I sleep.
    ABILENE: What happened?
    DIEGO: Now they sleep there.

    • J, I really like parallel backstories for protagonist and antagonist. For the hero, it injects extra poignancy with the sense of “there but for the grace of God go I.” Under the right (wrong) circumstances, when pushed to the wall, we’re all capable of acts we know are abhorrent.

  13. Fantastic post, Debbie. Really appreciate the research, and time and effort you put into it. Really helpful, even in a cozy, to know what the villain is up to, off-stage. The “invisible story,” as cozy author Sara Rosette calls it. The sleuth’s POV is the visible story, the one the reader follows, but we need to know what the murderer was up to before the investigation, as well as during, for that inevitable confrontation.

    Also valuable in my first-person POV urban fantasies, especially for those “pinch points” ALA Larry Brooks when the antagonist moves against the hero.

    • Thanks, Dale. “Invisible story” is a great term.

      We authors are like the Wizard behind the curtain, pulling levers the reader can’t see. We hope Toto doesn’t reveal us!

  14. I’ll add my kudos to you, Debbie, on this post. Fantastic! Thank you for the detailed research and for tackling the subject.

    I’m so ignorant on this subject, but you made it make some sense to me.

    I guess it doesn’t matter who the character is, the good, the bad, or the downright ugly…something or someone motivates him/her to do what they do.

    Hope y’all have a great week!


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