The Villain’s Journey

 

By Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

By Downloaded from [1], Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=14258218

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, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=55221516

 

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 Mythcreants.com 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:

Gain/Loss:

“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.”

Obsession:

“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.”

Revelation:

“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.

~~~

TKZers:

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

Juice Up Your Characters With Inner Conflict

In Chapter 9 of Conflict & Suspense I write about Inner Conflict. I define it this way: Think of this interior clash as being an argument between two sides, raging inside the character. Like the little angel and the little devil that sit on opposite shoulders in a cartoon, these sides vie for supremacy. For inner conflict to work, however, each side must have some serious juice to it.

I had a chuckle re-reading that, which chuckle I must now explain.

Last week I was in Minneapolis for the annual Story Masters Conference. Donald Maass, Christopher Vogler and your humble correspondent spent four solid days with a roomful of writers, digging deeply into this craft we all love.

I enjoy Story Masters each year, not just because I get to hang out with Don and Chris and a whole bunch of motivated storytellers, but also because I pick up something valuable each time myself.

This year, during Chris’s talk on The Hero’s Journey, I was struck by something he said about how we feel stories. This came to him, he explained, during his years as a reader for the studios. He noticed that strong emotions hit him physically, at points in his body. There were different points for different emotions.

He connected this to the concept of Chakra. What happens is that certain emotions immediately fuel a secretion of chemicals in areas of the body. Chris realized the that best scripts, the rare ones that really knocked him out, were hitting him in more than one place.

With a playful gleam in his eye, Chris announced to the class what he calls “Vogler’s Rule”—

If two or more organs of your body are not secreting fluids, your story is no good.

This got a laugh from the crowd. Thus, my reference above to the serious juiceof inner conflict is apt.

As Chris’s session went on, I started thinking more about this idea. What Chris suggests is that when our “fluid centers” are activated, we are not being rational. Thus, a great form, perhaps the best form of inner conflict is when the character’s rational mind is being assaulted by a strong emotional, er, fluid.

How human that is, isn’t it? Think of the traveling salesman. He has a wife and children he loves. But at the bar in Wichita he sees a cocktail waitress whose sultry walk and Lauren Bacall voice unleash inside him an immediate animal lust. The fight is between his mind, which reminds him of all he has at home, and his body, which doesn’t care what he thinks at all.

Or what about a sheriff with a high and honorable sense of duty? That’s his mind. He’s thought this through his whole career, lived by that code. But then killers come after him, and he cannot gather a posse to stop them, and his body starts feeding him fear—of death, of losing the woman he’s just married, of perhaps being a coward. This is the inner conflict that throbs throughout the entire movie High Noon. It’s head versus body.

I was reminded of something Iago, who has all the best lines in Othello, says to Roderigo:

If the balance of our lives had not one scale of reason to poise another of sensuality, the blood and baseness of our natures would conduct us to most prepost’rous conclusions. But we have reason to cool our raging motions, our carnal stings, our unbitted lusts. 

Shakespeare was describing this very thing, the battle between reason (the mind) and all our bodily “raging motions.”

It’s such a great way to think about inner conflict, because you can create this tension at any time in your novel. Just arrange for something to strike your character on a strong emotional level, and put that at odds with something he strongly believes.

Thus, I came up with “Bell’s Corollary to Vogler’s Rule” as it relates to inner conflict:

You must have at least one hot fluid fighting your character’s head!

This is where you have so much potential for ratcheting up the readability of your novel. We follow characters not because of what’s happening to them, but because of what’s happening inside them. Make it real and full of churning, roiling inner conflict.

What about you? Are your characters conflicted enough?

Storms of the Brain

It only occurred to me recently how apt the word brainstorm truly is. Perhaps it was prompted by watching the terrible effects of Hurricane Sandy, but I’m sure it was also related to my own story problems lately.
I’m working on my fourth Tyler Locke book right now, and I’ve been having a hell of a time wrapping my head around why the plot just wasn’t working. I had a synopsis and basic outline, but the elements weren’t gelling into a cohesive story. No matter what I did with the plot I had, it wouldn’t work. It was as if I were trying to put together a jigsaw puzzle with pieces from three different boxes. The individual elements were all great, but for some reason they didn’t fit together.
It was the dreaded writer’s block. But I’ve written five novels already, so how could that be possible? Shouldn’t I have the process figured out by now? If I were a golfer, I’d curse my case of the yips. The stuff that should be an easy putt by now was suddenly impossible. The mojo was gone, and I didn’t know if it was a permanent condition or more specific to this story.
Then my wife reminded me that this happens with every book. I always reach a point where I want to chuck the whole thing and move on to something else because I can’t figure out what’s wrong with the story. She recited my familiar lamentations back to me: “This is never going to work.” “I’ll never finish the book.” “Why did I start writing this stupid thing in the first place?”
As Christopher Vogler describes in The Writer’s Journey, I had reached the deepest chamber of the Inmost Cave to face the Ordeal. And the defining element of the Ordeal is the hero’s death and rebirth.
So I had to throw out all the assumptions I had about the story up to that point. I had to look at each and every part of it and decide whether to keep it, toss it, change it, or put it somewhere else. It was time to brainstorm.
As with the most violent storms, like hurricanes and tornadoes, everything in the story was at risk: characters, scenes, settings, action, even premise. Then I unleashed the gale. Some parts were ripped away, while others right next to them remained virtually untouched. Whole swaths of the story were decimated, while others were picked up gently and set down intact in an entirely different place.
When the storm was over, many of the individual pieces were still identifiable, but the overall rearrangement gave the story a completely new life. While real storms bring tragedy, my brainstorming was as beneficial as it was difficult. Yes, there’s a lot of cleanup still to do, but I can build something long-lasting from the wreckage.
So my question for the writers out there is, how do you get out of writer’s block? Do you unleash the brainstorm, or is there a less turbulent method to dislodge the block?

What the Hell Do You Want to Say to Me?

You have to evolve a permanent set of values to serve as motivation. – Leon Uris
This week I’ll be leaving for Houston to teach alongside the mythic structure guru, Christopher Vogler, and the breakout novel sage, Donald Maass. Three intensive days with a room full of writers, talking about what we all love–the craft of fiction.
So it seems apt for this post to riff on a question that Mr. Maass poses at the end of his book, The Fire in Fiction.Maass wants to know what you have invested in your story, where the blood flow is. He asks, “What the hell do you want to say to me?”
Which brings us to the subject of theme, or premise. It’s the part of the writing craft a lot of writers seem to struggle with.
I’ve been reading some resources of late on the subject. Some suggest that you must know your theme up front, or your manuscript will wander. Yet many successful authors say they concentrate on the story itself and “find” the theme as they go along.
Either approach will work as long as you let the theme arise organically out of a plot that shows a character with a high stakes objective, opposed by a stronger force.
For example, in the film The Fugitive you have an innocent man on the run from the law, trying to find the man who murdered his wife. He’s got an opposing force in the U.S. Marshal’s office (embodied by Sam Gerard, super lawman). Forced to keep ahead of the law, Dr. Richard Kimble finds resources within himself he never knew existed, and eventually proves his innocence while nailing the bad guy.


So what is the theme, or premise, of The Fugitive? You could state it in several ways:
– Dogged determination leads to justice
– A good man will ultimately prevail over evil
– Fighting for what’s right, even against the law, leads to the truth
As a writer, you probably have a sense of what your theme is simply by knowing how your character will come out at the end. And you definitely should know at least that much.
For example, when I wrote Try Dying I knew my lawyer protagonist would find out who killed his fiancé, the one true love of his life, and in doing so prevail over the bad guys. In my head, then, I was thinking something along the lines of True love will pursue justice for the slain lover, and win.
That’s what the hell I was trying to say. And I believed it passionately, which is the key to a premise that works. The reader has to believe you believe it.
At some point in your writing –– before you begin or soon after you get going –– ask the following questions:
1.  At the end, what is the condition of your Lead character? Has he won or lost?
2. What is the “take away” from that condition? What will the reader think you are saying about life?
3. Most important: Do you believe it passionately?If not, why are you writing it?
Here’s an example. In Casablanca, what is Rick’s condition at the end of the movie? He has found a reason to stop his self destructive behavior (drunkenness) and his isolation (because of perceived betrayal). He’s found the inspiration he needs to go back into the world and rejoin the fight for freedom against the Nazis.
What’s the take away? True love will sacrifice for a greater good, and restore a person to a life worth living.

Rick sacrifices his true love, Ilsa, because she is married to another man and that man is essential to the war effort. Rick knows that if he and Ilsa go off together she’ll regret it (“Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon, and for the rest of your life.”)
Coming as it did during the early years of World War II, it’s clear the filmmakers believed this passionately, because that sort of sacrifice for a greater good is what the government was calling upon its citizens to do.
So use those three power questions to find a premise worth writing about.
How about you? Do you consciously identify the themes in your stories? Do you discover them as you go along? Or do you just let it happen as the characters determine?
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this in detail, as I am currently working on a chapter on theme for a new collection. Let’s have a conversation.