Enter The Villain Of Our Story...

David Trammel's picture

This is a rather interesting article on storytelling:

"The Universal Structure of Storytelling"

Not only does it have a few things to say about the historically typical villain, but it goes into some depth about the purpose and role storytelling has in society.

"In the mid-2000s I set out, along with my colleagues Joseph Carroll, John Johnson, and Dan Kruger, on a large-scale study of classic Victorian novels by such authors as Jane Austen, George Eliot, and Charles Dickens, among many others. We distributed a survey to hundreds of knowledgeable people—professors, graduate students taking courses on Victorian literature, and authors who had published articles or books in the field. The respondents rated the attributes of characters in the novels exactly as if these fictional people were actual people.

We wrote up the results in our book, "Graphing Jane Austen: The Evolutionary Basis of Literary Meaning". The main finding had to do with something we called agonistic structure, which we took to be a fundamental structural element of storytelling in much the same way that roofs are fundamental to houses. For all the variety in these novels, for all the differences in personality and gender and background of authors stretching over a century, they made strikingly similar choices regarding characterization. As a whole, Victorian novels reflect a sharply polarized fictional universe of good people (the protagonists and their allies) and bad people (the antagonists and their allies) locked in conflict. Overwhelmingly, protagonists looked to cooperate and work toward the common good while antagonists sought to dominate for selfish ends."

On Villains:

"The "Graphing Jane Austen" team was inspired by the work of the anthropologist Christopher Boehm, who gained renown in the early 2000s for demonstrating that the lives of hunter-gatherers were typified not by the every-man-for-himself behavior that most associate with Darwinism but by a much gentler ethic of communalism and egalitarianism. The golden rule of hunter-gather life is pretty simple: Do everything to bring the band together; do nothing to split it apart. Don’t sow division. Don’t hog up more than your share (of food, sex partners, attention). If you happen to be blessed with muscle, don’t throw it around. If you happen to be a great hunter or a dazzling beauty, don’t flaunt it over others. Be one of the good guys, in other words. Of course, if there’s an instinct in humans to get along with each other in groups, there’s also an instinct to get ahead. We proposed that agonistic structure in stories generally, not just in Victorian novels, reflects the ancient morality of hunter-gatherer life. Living in groups, as humans must, means constantly balancing our selfish impulses with group needs. Protagonists of stories properly balance individual self-interest with the needs of the group. In general, protagonists sacrifice their self-interest for the common good when the two are in conflict. Not antagonists. Pretty much the definition of a bad person among hunter-gatherers is the bad team player who reliably puts his or her own interests above the group’s."

The rest of the article has similar insight into the other parts of storytelling.

A picture for storytellers, we are as old as time itself, lol.

(By N.R. Farbman/The LIFE Picture Collection © Meredith Corporation)

Jane Austen is not a Victorian novelist. She died two years before Victoria was born, 18 years before she ascended to the throne. JA is a REGENCY novelist and her writing drew upon much older Georgian works. Her world view is very different from the Victorian modes of moralizing. Hers was a an era of great changes and it was a livelier, more robust, less prim moral atmosphere. Given such a flagrant error as classing her among the Victorians, I am dubious about the other aspects of this author's premises and conclusions.

David Trammel's picture

Since Bill and Teresa have written in the Sherlock Holmes niche, maybe Teresa can comment on Austin's influence in the Victorian era. I can't. The author of the article did say they looked at other books from that period, not just Austin. And they may just be using the term "Victorian" for convenience. Most people understand the general type of English culture associated with the term, where if they had said Regency, they wouldn't.

I was struck more by the articles discussions of the role that storytelling had in tribal cohesion. Myths and stories in historical cultures played a much bigger role than they do now. We tend to sympathize with the villains in stories more no than I would expect it to have been in the past. Why that is would probably be a good research paper.

Going forward as civilization collapses and life gets more harsh, I expect that storytelling will come back to the role of teaching children tribal culture of protection of the group and cooperation.

Jane had her ups and downs.
She sold well enough in her lifetime, got largely forgotten after her death (in 1817), returned to print in 1833, was read, but she wasn't a superstar.

Then in 1869, her nephew published a memoir that introduced her to a new audience.
That's when her literary star began to rise.

And many happy returns

In the Victorian era, Austen was dismissed as being too inelegant and crude, unsophisticated. Her own niece had little good to say about her and her sister in her private letters. It was only after the Victorians themselves were mocked and dismissed that Austen's reputation revived in critical notice. What I particularly object to is the idea of a "sharply polarized fictional universe of good people...and bad people" because Austen did not portray that at all. She portrayed people setting up their own misery whether 'good' and loved or 'bad' and disliked. The main characters suffer almost as much from their friends as they do from their enemies; and the general public's habits of bad-mouthing everyone gets a due share of satirical attention too. No, this author is quite wrong to lump Austen in with the Victorians. She is two orders of magnitude above the simplistic stories that proliferated in popular fiction.

David Trammel's picture

Do you object to the article's author's portrayal of a polarized universe of good/bad people or of all stories with protagonists? I'll give you that for most stories I've read, the difference is much more nuanced but I still have read some that makes it near black and white.

Let's leave Austen aside and talk about what makes a good villain, ok? What are some characteristics you think a good bad person has that makes them interesting to read about? Perhaps other writers have an opinion as well, they could share?

I have been thinking about this more and here is what I came up with. It does not leave Austen aside, but bear with me, if you will.

Also, the Brontes hated Austen’s work as being too bland and polite, too unromantic and rational. They wanted more sturm und drang in fiction.

What chiefly distinguishes scholarship from vulgar error is precision. Lacking precision, what you get is mental mush. The author should have known better than to characterize Austen as Victorian.

The psychological realism of Austen’s characters is almost legendary; people compare the depth of her characters to those of Shakespeare. To class her with the highly colored, romantical excesses of Victorian penny dreadfuls is an error of perception that casts grave doubt on the scholarship of the author. It is like lumping Bach and Mozart with Beethoven and Wagner as being all the same kind of music.

I disagree with the author’s premises on other counts as well. Many Native American stories do not fit into his schema of Self-subduing Goodies and Self-promoting Baddies. Some of them ramble on from one event to the next without any moral content at all—just entertainment for a long winter night. Others portray exemplary skill at hunting or scouting: tales that present models of excellence not just ‘niceness’ or selflessness. Some of them are so intricately complex with surprise twists that it is impossible to gain just one moral from them. Not all of them emphasize the primacy of the tribal group; some of them speak about the need to walk alone. Some of them celebrate outright trickery, clever theft, or strangeness.

What JMG said about “knowing more than one story” is relevant here: the simplistic binary described in the article you reference above is the least effective kind of story. Some of the Sufi teaching stories deliberately insert incomplete threads of other stories into the main tale. Some of them are jokes that force you to re-evaluate your thinking processes anew when confronted with the odd things Nasrudin does out of his literal-minded logic. Others are historical events of saints and teachers whose spiritual attunement is much more profound than the ordinary seeker and give us something to aim for in our own individual development.

Stories can also serve as a preservative for transgenerational resentments that become embedded in the culture and prompt future acts of aggression. One study has given convincing evidence that parts of the Old Testament were re-workings of older tales, compiled in the 8th century and tweaked with the aim of encouraging the Jews to wage war on their current enemies.

Storytelling is certainly a much needed skill to cultivate for the future, and everyone from childhood on up should learn stories and gain some proficiency in the techniques of telling them.

But stories are not just nursery tales meant to regulate the egoism of children. Stories are alive. They emerge from the soil and the sea and the mists of the mountains. They hold more power and mystery than we can possibly confine in the coarse nets of rationalized academic classification. And most of them have teeth! Handle with care: they bite.

Austen’s characterizations are NOT cut & dried, black vs. white. Her heroes are not shining beacons of light but flawed human beings who have backbone, principles, and the courage of their convictions. She once said that “pictures of perfection” make her feel “sick and wicked.” Her villains are NOT cartoon monsters but common and recognizable human types who misuse their power, but who can be negotiated with and ‘disinfected’ by conscious humility and basic good manners.

All her characters are nuanced, even the seemingly flattest and most minor have moments when they spring into roundness, as Lady Bertram does in a true crisis. All JA’s people have varying degrees of sense and sensibility, pride and prejudice; all value both love AND money. Mrs. Elton is like a mirror image of Emma, displaying their mutually obnoxious, oblivious, self-satisfied snobbery with great clarity and savage wit. Who’s the enemy here? Why, Emma herself is her own best enemy.

I hope this clarifies why I disagree with the author and what I think is wrong with the above approach to the value and worth of stories.

There are plenty of ways to tell a story. Going from A to B to C is only one way.

Thanks to the ubiquity of tv and movies, we're less likely to see or even understand other story structures.

Consider this: A to B to Q to AQ. That is, A to B makes perfect sense to a western audience. Then the story jumps to Q which seems completely unrelated. Then the story jumps again, combining A and Q.

Plenty of what you see in mainstream traditional publishing is the way it is because it's what they think sells.

Indie writing lets other voices, other ways of telling a story blossom. Some work, some don't.

David Trammel's picture

Yes you two, I agree with what you said, though I would probably lump Mozart with Wagner as the uncouth musical barbarian that I am, lol. Its those kind of explanations that I love to see here.

As a writer I'm one who believes there is more fun in the vast field of grey than at the end points of all black/all white. Several of my main characters would quite literally be the villains, if the point of view was different. Its understanding the motivations of characters that to me makes a good story, and being able to get the reader to consider that they too might be a villain if things went the same way. I do hate the one dimensional on any characters but most especially the villain.

Anyone else care to give us their opinions? I'd love to hear from others.

Ken's picture

Etymology has been profoundly helpful to me in writing both poetry and fiction. In fact, it often seems to me that, at some level, most people have a subconscious understanding of the origins and roots of many nuanced words and that understanding helps with comprehension. Literary scholars are, of course, appalled at the ham-handed treatment of Literature by ignorant and undeserving scientists; how dare they subject ART to scientific analysis! I found the article annoyingly simplistic but also quite interesting, especially in putting storytelling in it's place of prominence in primal cultures. (primitive vs. primal is a topic for another post!)

Since we are talking about villains, which seem to be the most interesting class of character to many writers, perhaps it is good to review the origins of the term?


I will admit that the primary antagonist in the story I'm currently working on is far easier to write than the protagonist. In fact I fear my hero, while complex, is also rather predictable compared to the villain, who is both disturbing and surprising. I never know what he's going to say or do next! In some ways I'm writing this story because this is the story I want to read and if I don't write it, I won't know how it turns out!