Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

The Villain Drives the Story

By Steven Pressfield | Published: December 6, 2017

 

I sometimes get asked, “Why does Resistance exist?”

Stefan Gierasch as Del Gue in "Jeremiah Johnson"

Stefan Gierasch as Del Gue in “Jeremiah Johnson”

It’s a good question.

Why did Creation include this monster? For what purpose? Just to screw us all up and make life difficult?

(When I say “Resistance,” I mean in story terms “the Villain.”)

Isn’t Resistance entirely negative? What possible evolutionary purpose could it serve?

Here’s my answer. It might not be anybody else’s answer, but it’s mine.

 

Resistance gives meaning to life.

 

Or to put it in narrative terms:

 

The villain gives meaning to the story.

 

Think about it. If there were no villain, there’d be no story. If there were no Shark, no Terminator, no Alien … if there were no Coriolanus Snow, no Noah Cross, no Hannibal Lecter, we writers would be up a tree with no way down.

The villain drives the story.

The villain gives meaning to the story.

The snake (actually “the serpent”) in the Garden of Eden saved Adam and Eve from a life of picking fruit and hanging around naked and happy.

Is that Edenic life really human?

I mean seriously. Is that the noblest destiny our race can come up with?

It was supposed to be seen as a calamity when God kicked our original Mom and Pop out of the Garden. Maybe it was. But it was the greatest thing that ever happened to you and me as writers.

 

Because thou hast hearkened unto the voice of thy wife, and hast eaten of the tree, of which I commanded thee, saying, Thou shalt not eat of it: cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life; thorns and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field. In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.

 

Call this myth if you like, but I daresay there’s no truer depiction of life-as-we-live-it anywhere in literature.

The human condition is the ultimate villain, as it is the consummate blessing. The Almighty cast us forth into the Land of Nod, east of Eden, because we dared (no doubt blindly and obliviously, but dared nonetheless) to steal a share of His nature, that is, free will, the knowledge of good and evil, the capacity to create.

In our path He set evil, villainy, Resistance, that indelible, indefatigable aspect of our nature that craved despite everything to destroy itself.

How do we measure a hero in a story, except by the obstacles she faces and overcomes.

 

“‘Mongst Injuns,” Del Gue declares in the movie Jeremiah Johnson, “a tribe’s greatness is measured by how mighty its enemies be.”

 

Actors love to portray villains because they sense, even if they might not always be able to articulate it, that the villain drives the story. The villain gives meaning to the story.

If there were no villain, there would be no story.

Posted in Writing Wednesdays

15 Responses to “The Villain Drives the Story”

  1. Mary Doyle
    December 6, 2017 at 4:47 am

    “The human condition is the ultimate villain, as it is the consummate blessing.” Succinct is an understatement – this says it all Steve – thanks for another great post!

  2. December 6, 2017 at 6:32 am

    This is SO timely for me today. Well, on lots of days, regarding Resistance. But also Resistance as the Heyoka teacher, the bringer of unexpected light, the driver of the story. Thank you!!

  3. LI MIng
    December 6, 2017 at 6:58 am

    I like this article!

    It’s something that everybody can read!

    Great metaphor!

    It gives ‘positive’ meaning to the existence of resistance.
    I now identify my life directions with that of the resistance.

    Doug

  4. December 6, 2017 at 7:59 am

    Fabulous! I’m forwarding this to my rabbi –
    “The snake (actually “the serpent”) in the Garden of Eden saved Adam and Eve from a life of picking fruit and hanging around naked and happy.” It’s like Cliff’s Notes for Torah. I’m thinking there are a LOT of people on earth today who’d LOVE that life instead of what we have on earth now… Don’t you think it’s getting harder and harder to depict Resistance uniquely because there’s so much and so many forms of Resistance in our real lives?

  5. December 6, 2017 at 8:02 am

    Well said Steve. While I wasn’t in love with the adaptation, I thought Matthew McConaughey as Walter the Sorcerer in The Dark Tower was brilliant; he drove the story for me!

    • Kelly
      December 7, 2017 at 7:37 pm

      I have not seen that, but now must view to determine if sweet Matthew’s performance highlights the Resistance.

  6. December 6, 2017 at 9:18 am

    Great post – I have one point to add.

    The villain, for a story to work, also has to be personal. Resistance certainly is. There might be an overarching force opposing the hero but, at the story level, there is a villain who hates and wants to destroy everything good the hero strives for.

    For me it’s capturing that personal aspect that is most elusive and most rewarding.

  7. Julia Murphy
    December 6, 2017 at 9:56 am

    …if there was no dragon, then there is no St. George…

  8. December 6, 2017 at 10:43 am

    “Cause without the bitter, baby, the sweet ain’t as sweet.”

    – Cameron Crowe, Vanilla Sky

    This concept that man’s essential state of being is happiness has been bugging me for a while now. As someone who does not take the Bible literally, I don’t believe that we were meant to live in some naked, fruit-picking bliss until Eve screwed it all up with the apple.

    But even the New Age crowd has been spreading their version of punishment for original sin in the form of positivity fascism–the “you must be happy, happy, happy all the time, or there is something wrong with you” philosophy, with a side order of “if bad things appear in your life, you must have conjured them with your negative thoughts.”

    As a creative, I know we must have villains and evil and struggle for heroes to have meaning. Painters must have darkness to appreciate the light. Music must have silence to highlight the melody. The roller coaster between the two is what keeps life interesting.

    Try explaining that, though, to some people of rigid faiths or Law of Attraction cultists. We artists navigate the grey areas of life and live at the nexus of fate, free will, and random events. I’ll never be a sanguine personality or search for eternal bliss on this planet–it’s just not in my makeup. And that, ironically, makes me happy, for it makes be a better writer.

    • December 6, 2017 at 10:45 am

      … “makes ME a better writer.”

      Sadly, not a better typist. 😉

    • Julie
      December 6, 2017 at 11:37 am

      Check out this podcast–one of the best discussions ever on this exact issue:
      http://www.cbc.ca/player/play/2458656554

      • December 8, 2017 at 11:30 am

        Thank you, Julie, this was indeed an excellent podcast! I bookmarked it for future use because it had so many pithy, quote-worthy lines.

        And it stated better than I did in my comment above what I meant to convey: 1) happiness is a hard concept to pin down and has different meanings to different people; 2) the basic state of humans in this life is not happiness–there’s just too much inherent suffering; and 3) rather than happiness, we should be seeking depth, which I took to mean an appreciation for both the highs and the lows of life and the satisfaction that comes with pursuing goals in spite of struggle or pain and may even help make sense of life’s more negative aspects.

  9. Lyn Blair
    December 7, 2017 at 6:56 am

    I always figured the hero’s journey was an endeavor to escape from hell and that if a writer could provide some insight or message that intimated life could be better, that the hero could be smarter, or that the hero could rise above the challenge, then his writing had purpose.

    Hell is here, whether you call it Resistance or a villain. The human condition is mired in stupidity, scarcity and struggle. A glimpse of heaven at the end of the story brings hope and insight to an already flawed perception of a fallen world. I’ve never encountered anyone who worried about a lack of Resistance. Disease, insanity, war, loss and death grip our lives, and we react with anger, grief and desperation. Such human reactions appear to be second nature. Resistance has thrived for centuries on planet earth. Yet, every so often, glimmers of hope, faith, intelligence and love flicker in the darkness, and they are what get many people through the day. Loving one another despite the invitation to hate — now that’s a challenge.

    The Bible describes the greatest conflict ever portrayed and yet overcome — defeating death on the cross. Crucifixion was the most grueling death of all in Biblical times. Every challenge is an opportunity for victory.

    The lie in the garden of Eden was that evil ever existed at all. The lie was that “good and evil” were “knowledge” and by the way, God’s creation always had free will. It was not something that was “stolen.” If Adam and Eve didn’t already have free will, how could they have chosen to eat from the tree of good and evil? God made man in His image and likeness. Like God, his creation had free will. The freedom in God is infinite, and so it is in man — if man would ever rediscover who he really is.

    The tree of “knowledge” contained a lie. The lie was that living in a dual world (good vs. evil, intelligence vs. stupidity, light vs. darkness, truth vs. lies, order vs. chaos, etc. etc.) would be a better existence. It was a lie that God was hiding something of value, namely “knowledge” from them. Evil isn’t knowledge — it’s a lack of knowledge, in the same way that stupidity is a lack of intelligence. God is not dual in nature — he is infinitely good. And so the lie (Satan is a liar and the father of it ) blossomed into a great illusion that yet persists today. God never created evil.

    And now…we’re writing stories so evil can exist and there can be conflict? Really? How about we’re writing them so mankind can rediscover the truth? What if man could rediscover that his abilities are actually infinite and God already created him to be like a god — like himself, Spirit? What if man is not a finite body that limits everything he tries to do? What if instead of being a body (a hunk of flesh) that has a soul, man is instead a soul that has a body? What if he is a spiritual being, eternal and infinite in nature? In finding out “who you really are” you will peel off lies like the skins off an onion. Making that journey of discovery is no small task and you’ll encounter plenty of Resistance along the way.

    I’m grateful that there is something better to discover and that we’re not stuck in a hell hole of conflict.

    • amy
      December 9, 2017 at 8:34 am

      Lyn,

      I really appreciated reading your perspective. Thank you for sharing.

  10. Sonja
    December 9, 2017 at 7:35 am

    I remember this often, Steven. When I get lost in my story, I try to go back and flesh out my villain, in whatever form he/she/it appears in my story. It’s been a revelation to me, and I appreciate your thoughts.

    Looking forward to your new book! You are on my short list of authors I buy and read as soon as something new comes out. : )

    Best,
    Sonja

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