Conferences and Conventions, Guest Feature

AWCon 18: Scott T. Allison on the Villain’s Journey

One of my favorite seminars at the 2018 Agile Writers Conference given by Dr. Scott T. Allison, a professor of psychology at the University of Richmond who has published extensively on heroism and leadership. I wondered if his talk, “The Villain’s Journey: How to Craft a Worthy Adversary to Your Hero,” would confirm some of the ideas I had about writing a quality villain.

The short version of my take on villains: they are characters who have the right goal, but take the wrong steps to achieve it. The villain is the hero of his own journey, and the story’s hero is a constant obstacle—the villain of the villain’s story.

When Dr. Allison mentioned there was an uncomfortably fine line between the hero and the villain, I got excited. He surveyed a large group of people beforehand to come up with the top 8 qualities of heroes and villains. These were his results:

Top 8 Qualities of Heroes and Villains

  1. Heroes: Smart | Villains: Smart
  2. Heroes: Strong | Villains: Resilient
  3. Heroes: Selfless | Villains: Egotistical
  4. Heroes: Caring | Villains: Vengeful
  5. Heroes: Charismatic | Villains: Greedy
  6. Heroes: Resilient | Villains: Immoral
  7. Heroes: Reliable | Villains: Violent
  8. Heroes: Inspiring | Villains: Unstable/Volatile

Right away, it seems like most things on the villains’ list of qualities are the kinds of qualities a hero might show at the beginning of the story, but later overcome. And sure enough, Dr. Allison suggested the villain is who a character who went on the Hero’s Journey, but didn’t complete it as they should have. For reference, the Hero’s Journey (based on Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth) includes the call to adventure, meeting a mentor, meeting allies and making enemies, the main crisis, and the resolution. Throughout all this, the hero usually undergoes some sort of emotional, mental, physical, spiritual, or moral transformation, and/or finds whatever quality he lacked at the start.

Looking at the above list, it almost sounds like the hero could start off a villain. If the hero is one who starts off egotistical, greedy, or immoral and learns to be selfless, generous, and moral along the way, he’s completed his journey. If he doesn’t, he’s the villain.

Dr. Allison suggested this failure might come from one of three things:

  1. The character never gained what they lacked.
  2. The character had a poor or corrupt mentor.
  3. The character had no mentor at all.

One person in the audience commented that when we catch ourselves rooting for the villain or sympathizing with him, it’s like we’re kidnapped by the villain’s point of view. When another person asked if the hero becomes a villain when he fails the journey, I was happy to recommend Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series (in particular The Final Empire trilogy) as an example of how that might be done.

Final Thoughts on Writing a Villain

Dr. Allison’s entire talk was fascinating. I loved that he brought up The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil by Phillip Zimbardo—the man behind the Stanford Prison Experiment. That happens to be one of the books I found by pure chance, sitting on the wrong shelf in the bookstore. It also happened that I was the only person to have read any part of that book. It’s a fantastic psychological insight I would recommend to anyone, regardless of whether you’re a writer.

But of all Dr. Allison’s statements, my favorite is when he stressed the importance of mentors. He said the mentor is often the one whom you’d least expect to get advice from. But he also said this:

That is the exact reason I chose to focus on young adult writing, though it is true for all genres of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. These words ought to hang over every writer’s workstation or be inscribed at the front of their notebooks.

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