Hero, Victim, Villain

Download the Math of Storytelling Infographic

Malcolm Gladwell describes The Tipping Point as an intellectual adventure story.

Beyond the appeal of the phrase…it connotes both high and low on the old Literary and Commercial spectrum…what does he mean by that?

Like literally mean by that?

Let’s go back to The Story Grid’s GENRE section and look again at what the Action Adventure Story is all about. And then, let’s see if we can apply the global knowledge about that kind of category to Gladwell’s Story.

Here is the applicable description from The Story Grid book.

Action Adventure/Man Against Nature Stories: These are stories that use the natural world or a specific setting as the villain/force of conflict. They can be further delineated by four kinds of plot devices:

  • Labyrinth Plot: The object of desire is to save victim(s) and get out of a maze-like edifice. (Die Hard)
  • The Monster Plot: The villain is an animal. (Jaws)
  • The Environment Plot: The villain is the actual global setting (Gravity)
  • The Doomsday Plot: The victim is the environment. The hero must save the environment from disaster (Independence Day)

Okay. The above narrows our focus a bit.

Of the four sub-genres of Action Adventure, I’d have to say that The Environment Plot is the best fit. If you remember the movie Gravity, outer space was the villain of the film. In the movie 127 Hours, the villain was the rock that trapped Aron Ralston (played by James Franco). The very environment is the thing that threatens the protagonist/hero of the story. And it’s a life or death threat too.

Now I know from experience that one of Action’s must-have conventions (for every single one of its sub-genres) is all about the core cast of the story. It doesn’t take a genius or publishing veteran to know this. This convention is embedded in everyone’s subconscious too. So it’s not going to be a big shocker for you.

Remember that when you begin to make a list of “conventions and obligatory scenes” for the genre/s that you want to explore, write down everything that you know to be true about that genre. No matter how obvious. The little things are hugely important.

Now to tell an Action story you must have at least three characters. They are:

  • The hero
  • The victim
  • The villain.

These are not suggestions. Without a hero, a victim and a villain, you just can’t deliver an Action story.

That doesn’t mean that there can only one hero, one victim or one villain.

You could have a number of heroes with differing individual traits who come together as a unit to free a single victim or a group of victims from a single villain or a group of villains. The key though is that the sum total of the individual parts of the heroic cast must add up to a formidable force of strength. The Seven SamuraiThe Dirty Dozen, Gates of Fire, Inglorious Basterds, Ocean’s Eleven, Ghostbusters, are examples of stories with multi-protagonist/heroes.

And remember also that the hero can also play the victim role too. A great example of that is The Fugitive. Or in the case of The Incredible Hulk, depending upon the situation, the Hulk can play hero, victim or villain. All three.

Or another show-stopper, one of my all time favorites…Chuck Palahniuk’s masterpiece Fight Club. All three (hero, victim and villain)…all in one character. Brilliant!

The three roles must be filled, but again they do not have to be filled by a single character. Part of the innovative fun is figuring out the cast.

But above all, the villain is the crucial role to fill in an Action story…because the villain is the force that provides all of the conflict. And conflict drives Story. Here’s something I wrote about the importance of the bad guy a while back.

Okay, so an indispensable convention in the Action Adventure story is that there must be hero/s, victim/s, and villain/s.

That’s nice, but what does that have to do with the Big Idea Nonfiction The Tipping Point? It has to do with the fact that Gladwell intentionally constructed an internal genre beneath his external global nonfiction genre.

Let’s go back to Gladwell’s categorizing his book as an intellectual adventure story. (When asked, he didn’t say a “Big Idea Book.”  He emphasized its internal genre.  Worth noting.)

Strictly speaking, does The Tipping Point have the required conventions of hero, victim, and villain?

Who would be the hero of The Tipping Point?

With his use of the first person point of view “I remember once as a child…” (Page 13) and his direct address of the reader “I made some of you reading this yawn simply by writing the word ‘yawn.'”(Page 10), Gladwell places himself at the center of the story.

So Gladwell is one possible hero.

I’ll get into what makes a protagonist a hero in another post, but here’s a short definition: A Hero is a character who sacrifices himself to free victim/s of the villain/s.

But Gladwell also brings in other characters throughout the book that act as co-conspirators of a sort in his quest to figure out what makes things “tip.” He even addresses the reader in the collective “we” at times to bring him/her into his search party.

What that all adds up to is that there are numerous protagonists/potential heroes in the Story, including the reader.

So let’s put a check mark next to the Hero requirement in an Action Adventure Story and move on.

Who would be the victim of The Tipping Point?

The victims in The Tipping Point are its readers. They are us. And in a fantastic choice, Gladwell also makes himself a victim too. He writes about his missteps in his journey to codify the mysterious idea he has labeled The Tipping Point. He’s poking and prodding in the darkness, hoping to free a pattern that gives form and structure to something we just don’t understand.

Why seemingly overnight, some things become ubiquitous…

And when phenomena emerge that he has difficulty fitting inside his theory, Gladwell narrates his struggles with them.

It’s all well and good to label heroes and victims in The Tipping Point, but if there is no compelling villain in the Story, there is no way it could be categorized as an Action Adventure. So does it have a villain?

Well, The Tipping Point has the most dastardly villain of them all…an unbeatable one to boot.

The villain is our state of being.

No, it’s not specifically “outer space” or “a rock” or “ a snowstorm.” It’s the implacable foe that each and every one of us stares down and then retreats from every single conscious moment of our lives.

The villain of The Tipping Point (and all of Nonfiction for that matter) is the human condition.

As Matt Weiner’s Don Draper on Mad Men so bluntly put it:

Well, I hate to break it to you, but there is no big lie. There is no system. The universe is indifferent.”

We know very little about what makes the world go around. Physically or spiritually. Many of us spend their lives searching for some kind of answers to the deep questions that plague us all…

Who am I? is a big one.

But Why am I here? is the killer.

The search for the answers to those two questions is the territory of the artist. And when I say artist, I don’t just mean the usual suspects who use paint or pound on keyboards or weave. One of the greatest artists I’ve ever met works at a toll booth.

Although they’ll always be ignorant–they just don’t have the capacity to definitively know, that’s why all religions require faith–artists spend their lives in their own private internal boxing rings fighting to understand who they are and why they are here.

They shadow box.

The rest of us, just hang on waiting for Godot… One day we read the tealeaves of life and believe that all is turning around for us, that we’ll get our due and climb the secular and spiritual ladders of success simultaneously. Magical thinking.

The next day, we’re convinced that the righteous (us) suffer while the wicked (everyone else) flourish. All is lost.

What remains the same both days though is that the sun rises and sets just as it has since the day we screamed into consciousness.

What does one do in such an environment?

In an Action Adventure Story, the hero sacrifices and fights the villain to free the victim.

And that’s exactly what Malcolm Gladwell does in The Tipping Point.

More to come.

For new subscribers and OCD Story nerds like myself, all of the Storygridding The Tipping Point posts and The Story Grid posts are now in order on the right hand side column of the home page beneath the subscription shout-outs.

Download the Math of Storytelling Infographic

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


About the Author

SHAWN COYNE created, developed, and expanded the story analysis and problem-solving methodology The Story Grid throughout his quarter-century-plus book publishing career. A seasoned story editor, book publisher and ghostwriter, Coyne has also co-authored The Ones Who Hit the Hardest: The Steelers, The Cowboys, the '70s and the Fight For America's Soul with Chad Millman and Cognitive Dominance: A Brain Surgeon's Quest to Out-Think Fear with Mark McLaughlin, M.D. With his friend and editorial client Steven Pressfield, Coyne runs Black Irish Entertainment LLC, publisher of the cult classic book The War of Art. With his friend and editorial client Tim Grahl, Coyne oversees the Story Grid Universe, LLC, which includes Story Grid University and Story Grid Publishing.
Story Grid 101: The Five First Principles of the Story Grid Methodology
by Shawn Coyne
What are the first principles in writing a story that works? At Story Grid, it’s easy to get distracted by the tools, spreadsheets, commandments, macro lense, micro lense, and on... Read more »
Paperback: $19.99
Ebook: $0
Audiobook: $14.99
Author Shawn Coyne


Debbie L Kasman says:

Thank you, Shawn! That explains the feeling I had that there was “something spiritual” about the book. Gotta trust those feelings.

Mary Doyle says:

So if I understand this Gladwell, while counting himself as a victim along with his readers, also becomes a sort of Benevolent Savior as they follow him through this adventure. In the end, though, he doesn’t merely free the readers — he goes a step further and elevates them to hero status against the villain of the human condition. It’s a brilliant analysis. What reader could resist such an adventure?

Jeff says:

Wanted to bounce this off of you, Shawn: one of the story structure frameworks I’ve stumbled across makes the point that hero, protagonist, and main character are not interchangeable terms, and that not every story has a “hero,” once you understand the term properly. In this framework, a protagonist is the character that pursues the story goal and takes action to drive the plot forward. A main character is the person through whom we subjectively experience the story and themes and who is usually the “point of view” character.

A hero, according to this particular framework, is when the protagonist and the main character are combined into the same character. This might be often the case, but it’s certainly not always the case. If you think of works like Moby Dick, The Great Gastsby, and To Kill A Mockingbird it’s pretty clear that the main character isn’t the protagonist.

So I was wondering if that distinction was useful in a Non-fiction book like The Tipping Point? Gladwell might well be the main character or point of view character, but the role of driving the plot forward might be an ensemble — that sort of thing.

What do you think?

Shawn Coyne says:

Hi Jeff,
I come at all Story from the POV of Genre. So the choice the writer makes about the protagonist and/or main character is all in the service of the Story. What narrative device serves the global story/theme/controlling idea in the best possible way? That’s the question I think writers should focus on.
Here’s my take on Moby Dick. Melville needed a stand in for the reader to narrate the story. Someone who could directly experience the charisma and passion of Ahab. If he wrote the story from the pov of Ahab, no one would “get it.” Few people care deeply enough about anything and/or are willing to sacrifice their lives in pursuit of a White Whale. So in order for readers to understand that quest, Melville wisely chose to tell the story from someone who witnesses the madness/brilliance of the character.

Here’s my take on The Great Gatsby. Fitzgerald knew that his theme/controlling idea of his global story required a narrator, again, that the reader could relate to. So the very first paragraphs of the story are dedicated to getting the reader into Nick Carraway’s shoes. The reader might be a poor kid from Pittsburgh, but still the eloquence and self-deprecation/vulnerability of Carraway’s voice made that reader feel like he could very well be just like Carraway. That sucked the reader in to the story and then the reader could experience the strange/inviting/horrifying world of the decadent rich in a way that felt genuine. Without Carraway, if Fitzgerald told the story from Gatsby’s POV, no one would relate or care. Gatsby doesn’t change. He’s a sap who buys in to the bullshit American Dream…that if you get rich you get whatever you want…you can even change the past. Remember the last line of the novel. Nothing saves any of us. Boats against the current etc.

Here’s my take on To Kill a Mockingbird. Lee knew that to truthfully tell a story about prejudice, she couldn’t pull any punches. She had to present the reality of the world, not some sort of whitewashed version of it. She had to use words that viscerally make readers today squeamish. For good reason. So the way she solved this Story problem was to tell the story through an innocent child. Just like Mark Twain did in Huckleberry Finn. Scout was the perfect choice because she is a child becoming…maturing. The choice was respectful of all of us in that we are all children. We need to consider that the crap we learn from others could be complete hogwash. So having Scout tell the story was a real kindness to the reader. You are not at fault…it sort of implies…if you are ignorant and think that the color of someone’s skin has anything to do with their moral character.

Everything boils down to serving the story. You really cant’ go wrong if you think about what your story is really about and then walk back to find what is the best way to tell that story. Just like Melville, Fitzgerald and Lee did.
Hope that helps

Shawn Coyne says:

One last thing on this…How courageous was Nabokov writing LOLITA? He deliberately chose to tell the story from the POV of the pedophile. And it worked. You leave that book uncomfortable…knowing that darkness is so damn appealing that you can’t stop yourself from cheering it on.

Jeff says:

You seem to find that theme at work in a fair amount of books, Shawn: first in Silence of the Lambs and now in Lolita. Sign of the times, or is that just the kind of book you like? : )

Joking aside, I noticed the same thing in Pressfield’s The Virtues of War. Not the darkness part, but the breathtaking ballsiness of having Alexander speak for himself, rather than having a secondary character like in The Legend of Bagger Vance and Gates of Fire.

Thanks again for your replies (and posts). I can’t tell you how much I’ve learned reading your stuff.

Mary Doyle says:

P.S. The Fed Ex guy just delivered The Story Grid and posters – really beautiful job on this Shawn! I can’t believe how big the book is (and these aging eyes appreciate the larger font size too)! I’m taking these posters out to be framed today. Congrats to Black Irish for turning out such a quality package!

Jeff says:

Mine too. They are awesome. Expected them to be great and they’re even better.

Joel D Canfield says:

Came home from a 4,400 mile trip and found my packages on the table (and I’m assuming our son with a key put them there, and not the FedEx guy.)

Question for you framers: the SOTL poster is printed way close to the edges. Are you mounting it on something before framing? I’m used to having lots of whitespace to tuck behind a mat while framing.

Kent Faver says:

Joel – this probably deserves a thread over on the forum – lol. I have no idea, but DO want my posters framed!

Larry says:

Posters? I guess I’ll have to settle for a bunch of Steve Pressfield books instead.

Elanor says:

This is a super cool way to look at this! Thanks for another wonderful post. 🙂

David Villalva says:

Wow, I’ve been learning a lot here. I have a great grasp of fiction’s story structure but these non-fiction breakdowns have been straight up enlightening. Thanks

Carolyn Mance says:

I also received two packages that I couldn’t wait to get a hold of. When I tore open the box, Shawn’s mug was staring back at me! For someone who says he is “still figuring this stuff out” y
our book is beautiful and so incredibly thought-full…every detail, inside, out. Hey, isn’t that an upcoming Disney movie? It must be such an incredible feeling to go from editor to writer/publisher. I’m so happy for you and today’s post is inspiring, eye-openingly helpful. I don’t often post a comment unless I have something worthwhile to say and Shawn, you are a genius! Congratulations and many, many thanks and a warm hello to Steven and Callie and the rest of the Black Irish team.

Shawn Coyne says:

Wow! Thanks Carolyn. Can’t tell you how great that is to hear!

Shawn Coyne says:

Many thanks. What a great review! You are the best.

Greg Marquez says:

I think this was the best one of these posts.

What a powerful and completely unexpected, and exactly accurate, way of looking at a work of non-fiction.

That last part was almost too strong.

“The rest of us, just hang on waiting for Godot… One day we read the tea leaves of life and believe that all is turning around for us, that we’ll get our due and climb the secular and spiritual ladders of success simultaneously. Magical thinking.

The next day, we’re convinced that the righteous (us) suffer while the wicked (everyone else) flourish. All is lost.

What remains the same both days though is that the sun rises and sets just as it has since the day we screamed into consciousness.”

I also got a copy of the Story Grid yesterday. Very nicely done. Big, feels rich, looks really good. This copy’s for our 1st Lt. USMC son, he’s working on something…

Thank you for sacrificing so much to fight the evil and free the victims and for trying to teach us how to do the same.

Joel D Canfield says:

That villain sounds a mite like another villain I know whose name begins with R . . .

Good call. This series is teaching me as much as the previous did. I just might start writing nonfiction again.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

The Book

Is this your first crack at writing and finishing your book? Are you lost on how to tackle this project? This is the place to start.

First Time Writer

Is this your first crack at writing and finishing your book? Are you lost on how to tackle this project? This is the place to start.


Is this your first crack at writing and finishing your book? Are you lost on how to tackle this project? This is the place to start.