The Villain's Journey

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RemusShepherd

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I've been asked to post this here, and I think people might find it of interest. I wrote it up some years ago when I was working on a story that followed the Hero's Journey. In that story I found my villains followed a journey of their own with striking similarities.

For those who aren't familiar with Joseph Campbell's Hero's Journey, aka the Monomyth, it is an analysis of the shape that myths take in every culture and time period. It can be a useful tool for writing fiction, but be warned: The Hero's Journey is a guideline for characterization, not plot, and it is only one type of story. You should not chain yourself to it. But if you choose to write a story that follows the Hero's Journey, Campbell has already written your outline for you.

A condensed set of stages for Campbell's Hero's Journey might be:

  • Call -- The hero is called to adventure.
  • Threshold -- The hero crosses a threshold and enters a darker world.
  • Dragon -- The hero undergoes trials and faces overwhelming danger, which may include a symbolic death.
  • Atonement -- The hero atones with his father, and/or marries a goddess. (*)
  • Boon -- The hero recieves a boon that gives him supernatural abilities.
  • Mastery -- The hero is master of both worlds, and is free.

(* -- I personally believe that the 'Atonement with the Father' and 'Marriage to the Goddess' are two different versions of the same stage of the monomyth. In either case, the hero is accepting the cultural mores of his society, and gains the ability to definitively say 'This is what is Good in the world'. I mention this because of what follows.)

The epiphany I had came when I was laying out the plot arcs for my villains. They also followed a version of the Hero's Journey -- but in reverse!

  • Master -- The villain is, or believes himself to be, better than other people and thus capable of altering society to his whim.
  • Loss -- Despite his mastery, the villain is missing something: A ring, a macguffin, or just absolute power. He then goes out to obtain this item.
  • Denial -- The villain denies the cultural mores of his society. This is when great crimes occur, for the villain is now defining his own ethics. Also known as the 'Moral Event Horizon' moment.
  • Dragon -- The villain undergoes battle(s) with the hero. The hero's symbolic death may emerge as a false victory for the villain, if it makes him believe the hero is dead and the villainous plans are unstoppable.
  • Foiled -- The villainous plans are foiled, and the world is delivered from danger.
  • Echo -- Some piece of villainy remains; either the villain escaped alive or some residual evil lingers in the world. A villain whose deeds are completely erased by the end of the story is not very satisfying.

There are other, optional stages in the Hero's Journey that do not appear in all myths, but were common enough for Campbell to remark on them. The Villain's Jorney has reflections of those as well:

Magic Flight From Danger (Hero) turns into the First Invasion of Evil (Villain).The villain often begins his campaign to find the macguffin with a display of shock and awe.

Refusal of the Call (Hero) turns into Refusal of Aid (Villain). Even after being Foiled, all true villains would rather fall into a volcano than let a hero pull them to safety.

The Hero's Initiation (Hero) turns into the Final Rituals of Power (Villain). Heroes sometimes need a symbolic initiation to step across the Threshold. Villains use a Final Ritual to finish their grand scheme, but are Foiled just in time.

There's a nice symmetry going on here.

What I found most interesting about this is that the cycles can chain off of each other, or can be used in different ways for different characters. The same plot event could be a protagonist's Threshold but an antagonist's Loss, transforming one character into a hero and making another bitter and evil. Or, a single character could do both complete cycles, with the foiling of his plans acting as a threshold into darkness, where he then recants his evil ways and atones with his society.

I just thought that the concept of a Villainous Monomyth was interesting, and wanted to share it.
 

gabbleandhiss

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Every character thinks he's the "hero"; the "villain" is no exception.
 

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The "Tragedy" in Booker's 7 Basic Plots is a similar story, where the protagonist brings about his own downfall. It's set up as a "Hero's downfall" as opposed to a "Villain's Journey", because as a poster noted above, the bad guy is the hero of his own story.

This summary is from TVTropes wiki, it's the best version of 7 Basic Plots I have found online. But look at the book, it is way more awesomer:
Tragedy

Tragedy is the flip side of Overcoming the Monster: It's the tale of the villain spiraling down into evil and then being defeated by the hero. Here, release comes only with the death or destruction of the main character. The end, however tragic, is seen as just, even if we can sympathize with the villain and see some of his choices as right or forced.

Here are the stages for Tragedy:

Anticipation Stage

The Hero gets focused on "some unusual gratification... object of desire or course of action." At this point, he is "incomplete or unfulfilled."

Dream Stage
Like in many other stories, the Tragic Hero gets "committed to his course of action" (Booker mentions Faust's Deal With The Devil as an example). There's no turning back now. However, at first "things go almost improbably well for the hero." Even if he's doing bad things, nobody seems to be catching on, or even if they catch on they seem unable or unwilling to stop him - he's "getting away with it."

Frustration Stage

Things start to go wrong... perhaps very slowly, "almost imperceptibly," but the Hero is starting to experience difficulties and annoyances. He may decide, at this point, to do "further dark acts which lock him into his course of action even more irrevocably."

There may also appear some "shadow figure" which seems to threaten him (perhaps only in his imagination).

Nightmare Stage
Booker describes this stage better than I can: "...things are now slipping seriously out of the hero's control. He has a mounting sense of threat and despair. Forces of opposition and fate are closing in on him."

Destruction or Death Wish Stage
He's about to go down, hard. This is caused by either "some final act of violence" or because of the various enemies he's made - the "forces he has aroused against him."

The Tragic Hero's death or destruction releases the world around him from the darkness he had wrought, and the world without him rejoices.

ETA: The good-guy side of this would be Booker's Overcoming The Monster plot, which is the most similar to hero's journey. The stages are:

Anticipation Stage and The Call (some shit is going down, the hero is needed!)
Dream Stage (hero prepares, but the danger is still far away)
Frustration Stage (villain wreaks havoc, hero thinks he can't win)
Nightmare Stage (Danger! The hero is actively fighting back)
Thrilling Escape From Death/Death of the Monster (Good guy wins! Woo! Cue the HEA!)
 
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RemusShepherd

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Every character thinks he's the "hero"; the "villain" is no exception.

I disagree. Every character thinks they are "good". But a hero is someone who supports and exemplifies the standards of their society, and they are admired for it. A villain opposes society and is loathed. Many villains see society as flawed, and accept that they are scorned, but they still see themselves as the good guy because the world would be a better place if only the villain got their way.

This is *especially* true in the Monomyth. The villain rejects society's mores, and wants to replace them with something they see as better. The hero supports society. Both think they are in the right; but the villain knows that he is the antagonist, the one who is proposing change.

More importantly than that, the villain has to have a different journey for literary reasons -- the hero triumphs and the villain must fail. The hero's journey is a recipe for difficult success. It would be difficult to shoehorn a villain into it, and still have a satisfying story -- either you must break the journey and have the villain fail, or you complete the journey and let the bad guy triumph. Don't do that. The villain's journey must be one from success toward failure, an inversion of the hero's path.

You can certainly write stories where the villain is the protagonist, but stories of that sort do not follow the Campbellian Monomyth.
 

gothicangel

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You obviously haven't spent much time around my characters.

Even the walk-ons think it's all about them. :D
 

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Exactly. However, it's entirely possible to have an antagonist who sees himself as a hero, but is aware enough to understand that others see him as a villain.

Engaged in that kind of story telling right now. It's very fulfilling and meaty stuff to undertake. Often characters have a very shallow awareness of self.
 

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I disagree. Every character thinks they are "good". But a hero is someone who supports and exemplifies the standards of their society, and they are admired for it. A villain opposes society and is loathed. .

I disagree with this. The villain isn't necessarily loathed by society. The villain may be lauded by a society that doesn't see his vile heart. Likewise, the hero may not be recognized as good. Just because he is fighting the good fight doesn't mean others recognize it as such.
 

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But a hero is someone who supports and exemplifies the standards of their society, and they are admired for it.

I disagree with this as well. Ever heard of "no good deed goes unpunished"? I think the relationship between a hero and society is more complex than this, at least in a good story.
 

RemusShepherd

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Fair enough, on both criticisms. But we are talking about a specific type of story, the Monomyth. I can't think of a classic myth where the hero goes unrecognized for the entire story.

Aladdin comes close, but by the end of his tale he's a prince. Gilgamesh screwed up in every way possible, but he was a king through the entire story. Ditto for Odysseus. Heroes can fail, but if they succeed in their tasks they are rewarded, and one of those rewards is recognition.

The villain's ideals are loathed. He may have a moral and upstanding disguise, but if he were revealed society would cast him out.

The Monomyth is an artifact of human psychology, and each human's need to represent and serve their tribe. To be a hero in it the tribe has to come to love you, and the only villains in it are those the tribe can and should do without.
 

gothicangel

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In a revenge plot, the villian will quite often see himself as on the side of justice. Vigilantes see themselves as on the side of the moral 'good.'

I would hope that a writer goes beyond such simplistic binaries such as 'good' or 'bad' though.
 

MGraybosch

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Engaged in that kind of story telling right now. It's very fulfilling and meaty stuff to undertake. Often characters have a very shallow awareness of self.

I'm doing that myself. My antagonist is manipulating humanity in general, and the protagonist and his friends in particular, in order to ensure the destruction of an entity whose aims are inimical to both humanity and the antagonist's kind. His methods are immoral, he knows it, and he's counting on the protagonist to not only kill the entity, but the antagonist as well.

As a similar but minor antagonist says, "I'm a tyrant. A bullet in the head is my rightful due. It doesn't matter if I thought I had good reasons for the shit I've done."
 

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The Monomyth is an artifact of human psychology, and each human's need to represent and serve their tribe. To be a hero in it the tribe has to come to love you, and the only villains in it are those the tribe can and should do without.

The problem with the Monomyth and the idea that the villain is always wrong is that it may be the tribe that is wrong. Perhaps its ideals have become hollow. Perhaps the conditions that gave rise to their traditions no longer exist, but the tribe doesn't dare adapt to current conditions. The one who points this out, the "complainer" who's always wrong, is the villain.
 

S.J.

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I disagree with this. The villain isn't necessarily loathed by society. The villain may be lauded by a society that doesn't see his vile heart. Likewise, the hero may not be recognized as good. Just because he is fighting the good fight doesn't mean others recognize it as such.

But if the villain is lauded by society, he must be doing SOMETHING right. (Unless he's only lauded by a few or he's secretly hated.)

Likewise, if the hero is not recognised as good then surely he must be doing something wrong?

I'm just saying - if the villain has a 'vile heart' but people like what he does for the country or whatever, then what right does the hero have to usurp him? In my books a "vile heart" is NOT reason enough and it would annoy me to read that.
 

Albannach

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But if the villain is lauded by society, he must be doing SOMETHING right. (Unless he's only lauded by a few or he's secretly hated.)



Likewise, if the hero is not recognised as good then surely he must be doing something wrong?

I'm just saying - if the villain has a 'vile heart' but people like what he does for the country or whatever, then what right does the hero have to usurp him? In my books a "vile heart" is NOT reason enough and it would annoy me to read that.

I disagree.

Let me take an historic example: The English thought they were the good guys in the Easter Uprising of 1916. The Irish thought THEY were the good guys and that the English were cold-blooded murderers.

Which side you laud depends entirely upon which side you are portraying. Obviously, I have an opinion on which were the good guys but a lot of people lauded a side I don't admire. To do what *I* would consider a good novel about it you would have to base it on the idea that *both* sides thought they were right.

Another example: Hitler was lauded by many (most?) Germans who liked what he was doing. Did that mean Bonhoeffer had no right to conspire to assassinate him?

Life is not as simple as you are presenting and hopefully neither is our writing.

Edit: I am not an admirer of the "hero's journey" which I feel has stereotyped far too much writing, but that is my own opinion. I wouldn't use either. *shrug*
 
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Lady Ice

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I disagree with this. The villain isn't necessarily loathed by society. The villain may be lauded by a society that doesn't see his vile heart. Likewise, the hero may not be recognized as good. Just because he is fighting the good fight doesn't mean others recognize it as such.

Exactly. And not every villain thinks he is good. In Richard III, Richard resigns himself to villainy and embraces evil. Normally the villain is or feels exempt/outcast from society and so they turn away from society's laws. This does not necessarily make them 'evil'.

Villains always have some bit of good about them and heroes always have some bit of darkness. This part of them might be buried very deep but it is still there and it allows you to write a believable character.
 

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Thanks for sharing the villain's journey Remus. That was very interesting.

It doesn't matter if the villain is good, thinks he is good, or knows he is absolute evil; when the story is using the hero's journey, the villain does follow this path. At least in many of these types of stories that I have read.

As for what a villain is, I think it is funny that people are trying to define what a villain must be. A villain could be the hero of his own story, or he could know he is an evil SOB. The only thing a villain must be is three dimensional and interesting.
 

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The Operative from the movie Serenity came to mind while I was reading this thread.

: I'm sorry. If your quarry goes to ground, leave no ground to go to. You should have taken my offer. Or did you think none of this was your fault?
Capt. Malcolm Reynolds: I don't murder children.
The Operative: I do. If I have to.
Capt. Malcolm Reynolds: Why? Do you even know why they sent you?
The Operative: It's not my place to ask. I believe in something greater than myself. A better world. A world without sin.
Capt. Malcolm Reynolds: So me and mine gotta lay down and die... so you can live in your better world?
The Operative: I'm not going to live there. There's no place for me there... any more than there is for you. Malcolm... I'm a monster.What I do is evil. I have no illusions about it, but it must be done.
[/URL]

He knew he was a bad guy but thought it was necessary to achieve the goals of the Alliance.
 

thothguard51

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I have always felt the strongest stories are those where the Antagonist story is told alongside that of the Protagonistl. In many cases, they parallel each other, just that they have different goals...
 

S.J.

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I disagree.

Let me take an historic example: The English thought they were the good guys in the Easter Uprising of 1916. The Irish thought THEY were the good guys and that the English were cold-blooded murderers.

Which side you laud depends entirely upon which side you are portraying. Obviously, I have an opinion on which were the good guys but a lot of people lauded a side I don't admire. To do what *I* would consider a good novel about it you would have to base it on the idea that *both* sides thought they were right.

Another example: Hitler was lauded by many (most?) Germans who liked what he was doing. Did that mean Bonhoeffer had no right to conspire to assassinate him?

Life is not as simple as you are presenting and hopefully neither is our writing.

You're right, I suppose, especially about the Hitler thing. But that's an easy example to use. The things Hitler did were so basically, disgustingly wrong that anybody who actively opposed him is a hero.

What I meant was: I dislike it when heroes in novels believe they are righteous in opposing the villain, despite nobody else seeing it. They plough on towards their goal without ever questioning if THEY aren't the 'bad' guys; and the reader is not supposed to question this either.

To give an historical example: The Bolsheviks used force to usurp the Constituent Assembly of Russia in 1918, despite the fact that the majority of people wanted the Assembly, because they thought they knew what was best for Russia.

The only difference is, in novels, the minority usurpers are often proven right.

I know that's a sweeping statement, and to be honest I think villains can mean anything from Hitler to simply opposing factions like in the Easter Uprising (although I'm not going to lie, I didn't know what that was before you mentioned it). But it irks me when heros are presented as Just Good; and it's even worse if writers justify this by making the villain excessively, vilely evil.

I think we might actually be on the same page here.

The Operative from the movie Serenity came to mind while I was reading this thread.

I was thinking of him, too! He's such a great walking anti-cliche! :D
 

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I agree that heroes shouldn't be just good and villains just evil, which I thinks makes my Easter Uprising example a better one. While I think the English were 100% wrong, that didn't make them necessarily evil. I only raised the Hitler example because you said that most people would support a "good" usurper which I don't agree with. They may oppose him from fear or a number of other reasons.

The British/English vs the Irish wasn't "factions" but one nation fighting an oppressive conqueror. The thing is that the "oppressive conqueror" side didn't see themselves in that light. They saw the rebels as traitors who should be killed.

The fact that it was not quite so easy a pure good vs pure evil situation makes it interesting. The leaders of the British (Gen Maxwell to be specific) never had any doubt that the Uprising should be put down and the leaders executed. But Gen. Maxwell was no monster, in fact there was a lot of good that could be said about him as a person (not for his actions after the Uprising).

Which means, bottom line, that we are in agreement.

Edit: I'm not Irish, by the way, as shown by my log-in. ;)
 
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S.J.

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You've got a good point about my 'everyone should support a usurper' argument... I didn't think through that properly. But still: although being pig-headedly sure that you're 'fighting the good fight' might be seen as an admirable (or even necessary) trait in a hero, it doesn't sit well with me.

...the English were (as usual *ahem*) 100% wrong...

AHEM. Excuse me. Everything else I agree with. Everything but that "as usual". :tongue

Haha, and I did think you were Irish for a moment there.
 

Albannach

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You've got a good point about my 'everyone should support a usurper' argument... I didn't think through that properly. But still: although being pig-headedly sure that you're 'fighting the good fight' might be seen as an admirable (or even necessary) trait in a hero, it doesn't sit well with me.



AHEM. Excuse me. Everything else I agree with. Everything but that "as usual". :tongue

Haha, and I did think you were Irish for a moment there.

haha! I removed the "as usual" as a bit inflammatory.

Edit: I fly my colours pretty plainly since Albannach is Gàidhlig for "Scottish".

Even worse. ;)

I also edited to refer to the British which is more accurate for that time period.
 
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