Hero, Victim, Villain

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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.

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Shawn Coyne

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.