Writing a Great Villain

[0:00:00.1] TG: Hello and welcome to the Storygrid Podcast. This is a show dedicated to helping you become a better writer. I am your host, Tim Grahl and I am a struggling writer trying to figure out how to tell a story that works. Joining me shortly is Shawn Coyne. He is the creator of Storygrid, the author of the book Storygrid and an editor with over 25 years’ experience.

In this episode, I bring Shawn a question that I have been thinking about in some other people in the Storygrid community have been talking about and that is the nature of evil and how to make sure that you are coming up with a really good and believable villain. So I bring this question to Shawn and he had some really good insight on it. So let’s jump in and get started. 


[0:00:44.8] TG: So Shawn, a question came up in the Level Up Your Craft community the other day and we’ve been asked this a couple different times and then I feel like I am even dealing with this a little bit with the threshing and it’s this basic thing about the nature of evil and figuring out how to do a villain, especially when I am thinking about action right? Because the villain is what drives the action, the two kicks off the story and all of that kind of thing. 

But I feel like there is always like the speech and praise of the villain, right? So there is always a point where the villain gets to explain themselves and they make some good sense. So when you are thinking about stories and villains, how do you step into this idea of evil and what kind of direction do you take and then I guess how do you make sure you have an actual compelling villain that is evil but also, I don’t know what the word would be, like sympathetic. 

[0:01:52.0] SC: Right, well you know here we go, I’m getting on my pulpit again here but I think it’s a very, very, very difficult question and it is probably one of the top, one or two, you know what? It is the top two reason why people want to write a novel to begin with and I will tell you what I mean by that. Let me look at this from a very – you know how I always talk about levels of analysis and this is my new sort of analytical tool that I have been piecing together for the past couple of years. 

Levels of analysis it is all about looking at the experience of the world from varying perspectives. So what I always do when I get these kinds of questions is they are very paradoxical just like everything. Meaning they are, everything has a level of positive and negative valance to it. So I am looking from the level of analysis that it is extremely abstract. It is sort of like trying to put yourself in the place of the great creator if there is such a thing and the great creator has to look at the phenomena of life in a very abstract way. 


So I know I am speaking very vaguely right now but I am going to get there. So if you look at the phenomena of life extremely abstractly, you actually have two ways of looking at the world. The first way is only been around for maybe I am going to say a couple thousand years and it really hasn’t come to the heart of our existence for let’s say the last 500 years. So in the terms of evolutionary timescale, this is very, very new and the way of at looking at the world through this prism is called the objective point of view, the objective landscape. 

It’s the scientific way of looking at something right? It is the way we measure things and describe those things. It is, what are the things in the world that we are experiencing? So that could be a coffee cup or it could be house camping at the hotel you’re staying at, something like that. So you have objects in the world and beings in the world that interact with the objects. So if you look at the world just objectively, you can say, that person is this age, has this color hair, has this type of skin pigments, etcetera and you could say the coffee cup is seven inches tall, five inches in diameter and you could really go to town on giving an empirical count on what those things are and it is just the material substance of the phenomena that you are observing. That is the scientific point of view right? It is saying what is the same for all of us. If you were to look at the coffee cup and measure the coffee cup and I were to do it independently, we would both come to the same results if we are using the same measurement devices. 

Okay, so that is one way of looking at the world. It is the objective empirical scientific way of phenomena right? Now that is amazing, that way of looking at the world and it is what creates the technology and the incredible world we’re living in now. All the advances of taking care of fundamental needs like water and food and shelter and WiFi and all kinds of amazing things, that’s great but what it doesn’t tell us is, how do we live in this world.

How do we interact with the objects in the world that we are living in a way that will what? We are trying to figure out what is it that we want, how do we behave, what is our moral compass? I am using the word morale in a very strict way of how do you behave to get something that you desire. What is the moral value that we are constructing to look at the world and the way we do that is called the subjective point of view. So when something is subjective, it is only really experienced by an individual. 

So the objective is for everyone and the subjective is for the individual and the individual wants to know how do I interact in the objective world such that things will be good for me and now, we get into the real hairy part. What does good mean? What is good? And this is where the morality and the subjective morality of the universe comes into play. Now people who just say there is no such thing as subjective reality. There is no morality, everything is fungible. 

We just live in an empirical objective world. It’s random, nothing has really any value valance to it. It is all sort of dependent upon the X, the individual’s frame of reference and there’s no universal morality. I don’t really buy that because it is basically slicing experience in half and saying half of the experiential world doesn’t exist and it is a really super important part of the experiential world that the empiricists and the objective people want to throw away. It’s the world of story. 

It’s the subjective experience because subjective experience takes narrative form. This is how we experience the world, is through story in our own minds as we’re walking down the street, we are living in a story that we have told ourselves that helps us get what’s good for us. So let’s get back to the fundamental issue of what does good mean because good means a couple of things. What it fundamentally means from just an objective empirical evolutionary point of view is that what good is, is what keeps us alive, right? 

It’s what keeps us surviving in the environment. So what’s good is to survive for the longest possible amount of time. So that’s number one good. The number two good is to leave a legacy for when you are no longer here, meaning having kids or creating something that only you could have created right? It is the thing that we talked about in Level Up Your Craft. It is the reason why I started that course to begin with. It is about creating something that lasts longer than you do and having the courage to say, “Yeah, that is what I want” and I think that is a pretty fundamental thing to accept about your own self. 

There is no shame in wishing to leave a legacy that lasts longer than you do because that legacy, it can either be your children or it could be a creation other than your child that lives longer than you. So Pride and Prejudice is an example of a creation that live longer than the creator. Okay, so that’s good now let us broadly define that as good. 

Now what’s evil? Well evil would be the opposite of good. Okay, so if good is creation, if good is something that is better than nothing and if you believed that and I believe something is better than nothing, I believe that something that someone creates and puts all of their heart into is better than them not have trying to create it. I think even if the creation isn’t so great and nobody really cares about it other than the creator, it is still something. 

It is still better than nothing. Okay so that’s what good is, something, a creation. So if good is something a creation then the opposite of something of creation would be nothing or destruction. So in my estimation just thinking about it in these very global abstract terms, if good is creation evil is destruction. So you might say to yourself, “Well geez, nobody wants anything to be destroyed on the earth do they? I mean everybody is good, everybody is born with the desire to create something new and fresh”. 

“It’s in our DNA, we have sexual drives that want to force us and drive us to mate with another person and create something new. So there is no such thing as a destructive force among people really. I mean come on, that is ridiculous” and what I would say to that is baloney. We have both, every single one of us has within us the desire to create something and we have the capacity to destroy things and sometimes, the capacity to destroy things are in the service of betterment of the world. 

So it is very, very paradoxical that good can be bad and bad can be good and this is the story of our life, dealing with that very difficult paradox that everything objectively we observe has two capacities. It can be something that you can use to further creation and it can be something that you can use to destroy something. So evil, okay so how does this storyteller deal with the problem of creating sympathetic evil? How do they do these things that I say they need to do? 

How do they create an evil antagonist adversary aligned against the creative hero of their story in such a way that the reader goes, “Well you know that adversary has got some good points there and yeah, I can understand that point of view. You know what? There are times when I would get behind that guy”. How do you that? How do you make evil convincing and reasonable and something sympathetic and understandable by the largest number of people in an audience? 

Well the answer to that question is that you have to think about your own evil. You have to think about what drives you to want to destroy something. Now this is not very fun sometimes until it does become fun because what I have found is that people and I think our culture is getting worse and worse at this, they don’t want to really contemplate evil within themselves. They’re fine targeting other people as evil or other concepts as evil but anything that’s in their story is difficult to take another point of view and describe it as evil. 

So the concept of contemplating evil is one of the top two problems that a writer must solve. You know the other problem is creating the good in such a way that is not cheesy. So this is the dynamic at play in a great well-told story is that the hero has the great capacity of evil and the evil has capacity of good. So nobody is one thing. Everybody is both ends but the important thing is to really clearly define which side your protagonist is on which is I recommend creation good. 

And which side the adversary is on which I recommend is evil and bad. So let’s define evil in a more practical way beyond destruction. Destruction is good, that’s a good start but we need to really sort of what is the motivation for destruction. Okay, let’s think about that. The motivation for destruction and what I am going to do now is I am going to give you a subjective description of what I personally, Shawn Coyne, believe is a motivation for destruction that could lead a character to a place that is believable and interesting. 

Okay, so let me spin this out a little bit because what I would tell every writer and everyone in the Level Up Your Craft course is that it’s their responsibility as the creator to do what I am about to do which can be unpleasant but it is important to do. So I am going to talk about my global environment and where I came from and how I’ve navigated a difficult situation and everybody is in a very difficult situation. I am not saying in the least that my situation is ridiculously painful. 

Or I think it is on a par with everybody, probably little less than most people. So let’s go back to that abstract concept. There are objects and things in the universe and what we want to do is figure out how do we engage with those objects and things in the universe such that I will prosper. Things will be good for me so whatever reason, when I was I think 25 I decided I wanted to get into book publishing. Okay, I didn’t know why and when people ask me why I did it, I give them some bullshit line that doesn’t really work but I just needed to. 

I just felt like I needed to go into it and so I went with that urge. I have been fumbling around trying to find something that I liked and it got to a point where somebody said, “You’ve got to make a choice now, what is it?” and I said, “I like to read, I’ll go into book publishing” and that was enough and that’s what I did. So when I got to book publishing I had to get into the circle right? There is a circle called Book Publishing just like there is a circle called The Lion’s Club in Nashville or the football team in Schenectady or the Woman’s Auxiliary in California. 

Everything is a club and book publishing is a club. So I had to get into that club. So I have to say to myself “What is it that I will have to do to get into that club and I will do those things to do that?” so I did. I wrote a resume, I went on a bunch of interviews, I’d put on my best suit. I polish my smile, I held the hands of the interviewers with a tight grip and I was very earnest and I got a job. So they said, “Okay outsider, you are now allowed to come into the fringe of the book publishing universe and if you succeed, you will get to the core and the most powerful place in the book publishing industry probably in about 15 years”. 

So now of course, I didn’t think of this when I was going through it. I was just trying to get a job, right? Okay, so what I discovered, I am going to flash forward very, very quickly, is a lot of things didn’t go very well for me and I’ve discovered that things went well for other people who did certain things that I didn’t think were “morally or ethically proper” and so I was faced with a choice: Do I do the things that I didn’t think were morally or ethically proper not that they were killing anybody or doing anything like that. 

But they were the small slow little sacrifices of the creative spirit in the service of the fruits of the creative spirit. So if you were able to do certain things, you could become a high level executive in book publishing and I was confronted with whether or not I should do those things to get to that place or not and sometimes, they did. Sometimes I did do those things and sometimes I didn’t but it became very confusing and the more confusing it got for me and the higher I rose in the hierarchy of book publishing. 

Meaning the more promotions I got, the more power I got, the more money I got, the more confusing it started to become for me and so, what happens when you get very confused and you know that you’ve done things that you aren’t all that proud of to get to where you are is that you can do one of two things. You can convince yourself that you did everything the right way and that this is just the way the world works or you can say, “You know this world is a little weird, maybe if somebody changed things it could be a little bit better”. 

So you hit a place like that and then you move forward or you stay where you are. So it’s at this time that the person who continues on the path of compromise, doing the things that everyone else does to get the carrot at the end of the stick, they start to get a little resentful, right? I knew I did. I started getting a little resentful like, “Oh geez, I am doing what’s necessary to get ahead and I am not getting ahead and this other person is. That’s not fair, that’s wrong. This whole thing is messed up! This whole thing is terrible” and you can slowly get to the place where you go: 

“This shit should be torn to the ground! This is wrong. This entire industry is corrupt. Everyone in it is a liar” now I told you I was going to tell you a subjective story that would illustrate how one could get to a place where you form destructive thoughts. So I was really playing up the drama here to make a point and my point is that you substitute book publishing with being a bee farmer in Australia. It doesn’t matter. Every culture, every mini-culture has a similar progression of little tiny things that you either accept or don’t accept in order to make your way through the world. 

So that’s how you can construct an evil character. What you would say is, what is the universe that this character has been involved in? What little tiny things did they learn over time that revealed to them that the order that they were in was corrupt and when they did confront the corruption of the order and guess what? Every order has an element of corruption in it. It’s just the natural state of order, it’s never perfect, it’s never going to make everyone happy. It’s never going to be amazing, there’s always going to be the lousy, crazy, corrupt, dark things in everything.

There’s dark things working at Starbucks, there’s dark things working in a hospital. It’s just the way it is. When you confront the darkness of the environment in which you are living, you have a choice. You can say, “I’m going to burn this shit down to the ground, I’m going to destroy it for the sake of destroying it because it’s wrong” or you can say, “you know what? I know what I’m going to do, I’m going to create a different way.

I’m going to update this order, I’m going to try and make this order better, I’m not going to rip it to the ground but what I will do is courageously explore what’s wrong with it and do my best to create a solution to that problem. I can heroically confront the darkness, I can step outside of my comfort zone and have the courage to say things are what they are when I see them and then offer solutions to make those things better.” Now, that’s a great heroic story and it’s a story we all need to hear.

But we also need to know the cautionary side of that story. We need to know the evil, what compels a person to actually go to the dark side? To the place where they go, “you know what? That guy is trying to make things better, he’s a chump, he’s a loser, he can’t figure out the way the world works, the only way the world works is if it works just for me.

I’m the center of the universe, what I think is the only thing that matters. My vision of the universe is total.” That’s where you get totalitarianism, that’s where you get tyranny, that’s where someone says, “if everybody just did what I did what I told them to do, everything would work the right way.”

Now, I don’t know about you Tim. But I say that to myself every time I’m in line at the grocery store. I say that to myself, every time I’m in line at the movie theater or when I go into a public bathroom and someone has peed all over the floor. I go, “if people would just behave like I do, everything would be right with this world.”

That is the early stages when resentment and anger and aggressive just complete rage at the state of the universe can begin to rear its ugly head within yourself. Now, that doesn’t mean that people should go to the bathroom on the floor, you know what I’m saying?

[0:23:19.1] TG: That’s not the point you’re trying to make.

[0:23:19.7] SC: That’s not the point. My point is that, if you explore these thoughts and these ideas within yourself, “how might I become the person who would imprison somebody for having a different idea than I did. Is there a road that I can go down that could actually get me there? I wonder what that road would be?”

And then guess what you do? You go, “I’m going to take that big fat package of darkness that I just constructed for my own life and I’m going to change the details and I’m going to give it to my adversary, my evil force in my novel” and guess what you’re going to find when you do that, you’re going to write some of the best things you’ve ever written in your life because we all are barely holding it together, 99% of the time.

We’re barely holding it together. I read somewhere like someone had done some sort of ridiculous calculation and they said, I think the line was “We’re 13 meals away from chaos” like, “if all of the supply lines into your community were cut and you only had the food in the super market that was in the supermarket, within 13 meals, everyone would be so jacked up with desire for food that it would be just crazy, it would be chaotic.” I mean, this is what, you know, the preppers are all about, it’s like worrying about the – we can go crazy worrying about that.

I’m not suggesting that we do but what I am saying is that we live in a very delicate ecosystem, not just with the people around us but within ourselves. It’s not saying that we’re losers for being so dynamically psychologically difficult, that’s just the nature of it, right? We all have the things that are present in a novel, we have the good, we have the bad and we’re constantly struggling with the choices that present themselves to us every freaking micro second of our day.

Do I yell at the person who is doing their best job behind the checkout counter because they can’t read the bar code fast enough for me? Is that really necessary? All of us would say to ourselves, “no, calm down, what’s your problem? Person’s obviously doing the best that they can” but an evil person who had gone over to the dark side, they would take that and they would go, “that’s evidence, there’s another piece of evidence of how stupid everyone is.”

Us as readers, we go, “that’s right, that is infuriating every time I go to the store and they can’t read the bar code. What’s with the bar code anyway? What genius came up with that?” You can see how you can quickly go down that totalitarian point of view. When you say, how do you write the speed and praise of the villain, I’m telling you right now Tim, once you lock in, you’re going to write 3,000 speeches and praise of the villain because the villain is just going to say the shit that’s true and then your audience, when they read it is going to go, “you know what? 

That villain really makes a lot of sense, that hero really is an idiot for being the chump who is trying to protect the corporation that’s destroying the universe. Why doesn’t he just rip that corporation apart,” you get it?

[0:26:36.3] TG: Yeah. Does that apply, so what I’m thinking through like the threshing. I mean, I can – that’s pretty right down the middle of what you just said, right? Everything that’s wrong, everything that needs to be protected and people would just do what I say, everything would go better. But what about like the villain in a love story or that kind of stuff where it’s not so – I mean, it’s not like an action thriller or a post-apocalyptic where everybody’s fighting over the last thing of bread. You know, whatever it is, how do you apply that when the villain isn’t so villain-y I guess.

[0:27:17.5] SC: Okay. Great question. Here’s the $64,000 answer to that question. Really focus on the lie. What’s the lie? The villain is all about the lie. They’re liars, they misrepresent, now, when you say, “who is the villain in a love story?” okay, one of the great love stories that’s also a family drama and also, all kinds of things and I recommend everyone to read this novel and watch the film is Ordinary People. I think the woman who wrote it was a woman named Judith Guest.

She may have only written this one novel and it was brilliant. I mean, just – if everybody listening to this just do one thing, just watch that or read that book. Okay, now there is a story where the villain of the story, she is the prototypical, archetypical perfect mother, she makes French toast in the morning for her family, she goes to the country club and plays golf with her husband.

She runs all the committees for the PTA, there’s always a hot meal, there’s always the right sheets on the bed. Everyone is taken care of with a detail and perfection that is beyond anyone’s, it’s sort of like Martha Stewart to the ninth degree.

What she presents to the world is perfection, perfect mother the loving and caring and wonderful person that is the heart and soul of her family. But there’s a truth that lies underneath that and the truth is that that entire persona is a big fat lie. She’s an evil person, she’s a totalitarian tyrant, she hates her son so much that she’s driven him to try and kill himself.

The beginning of the story is the kid has finally, after he was saved from his own death, he was taken to a place that helped them rebuild himself and now he comes home and there’s his perfect mom and his dad and now he’s going to be okay because he’s gotten the right attention and the right psychiatric care and he’s back in the devil’s lair is what he is. The way this woman torments this guy and the other thing that’s really difficult to accept about this story is that you can really sympathize with this mother. 

You can understand her point of view because her kid’s kind of irritating, you know? He’s kind of soft, he’s kind of a baby a little bit. He’s always looking to the father to bail him out. He just needs a little bit of discipline to get his act together and if everybody wasn’t coddling this kid in the way that they were, then maybe you know, he would seize his potential and become a real person, a real man.

You can’t help but you know, have a little bit of that feeling when you’re with her and she’s doing all the perfect things, right? She’s – all of her actions seem to be culturally good. She cleans the dishes, she does all those stuff but what she’s doing is a lie. She really hates the kid and she doesn’t want to be around him anymore and in fact, she doesn’t really have all that much respect for her husband either. 

What she’s doing is getting them to make a choice. Will they live in a lie that she is telling them to live or will they leave her or force her out and that’s what this story is all about. Will the father finally confront the big, fat white elephant in the living room that his wife hates his son and drove him to try and kill himself and will he confront her about it and say, “you know what? This shit’s got to stop honey.

I love you, I married you, we had this son, you know, we’re all in on this kid, you can’t treat him like that and if you do, you got to get the hell out.” You know, is he going to be the hero to do that or is he going to be the loser who is afraid of confronting the evil and let that evil destroy his son, an innocent person that he brought into the world and is supposed to protect.

The way you craft the adversary and the evil force in a story like ordinary people is to really focus on what lie is the adversary showing the world? What are they really after?

[0:31:34.9] TG: Is it the what lie do the believe or what lie are they trying to get other people to believe, or both?

[0:31:41.6] SC: It can be both and this is the difficult thing about not just writing fiction but navigating the world, right? It’s the concept of gas lighting. Gas lighting is when what I call plausible deniability so if you get a feeling from somebody that they’re really not happy with you and they just want what’s worse for you because they want to destroy your soul but what they’re doing is like, “hey, how are you doing, would you like to do this thing” and you go there and it’s the worst experience of your life and they go,” hey, did you have fun?”

You go, “actually no, it was really upsetting” and they go, “Oh upsetting? Really? Well, geez, everybody else had a good time, I’m not sure why you didn’t have a good time. Gee. Well let me think about that. Anyway, I’m sorry if I made you upset but I was just trying to do something nice for you,” right? Then you say to yourself. “My god, I’m such a jerk, you know? Why can’t I have a good time when everybody else is?”

[0:32:40.8] TG: Yeah, get you to ask that question, “am I the crazy one?”

[0:32:43.7] SC: That’s right. If you find yourself, asking yourself that question a lot around someone, they’re probably gas lighting it. Now, the difficult problem is, how do you know if they’re intentionally gas lighting you or if they’re just not really all that self-aware, you know?

Maybe they just don’t know what they’re doing and making that judgment is extremely difficult. That was what that drives the narrative drive of ordinary people is that, when you’re reading the story, you’re not really sure if the mother is really cognizant of what she truly feels about her son or what. You’re not sure, she’s gas lighting everybody and she may even be gas lighting herself, which is even worse because people who won’t accept that they have negative feelings about somebody else, it’s just part of being a human being, they’re very dangerous.

When somebody says, “I don’t hate anyone. I don’t feel negatively about anyone. I really try and be positive and happy,” run away from them. Because they’re lying to themselves. It is impossible to navigate this world without having negative emotional responses to people. Your biology will not allow you to go through the universe only feeling positive things, it’s a lie. In fact, the only reason why we are actually alive right now is because our bodies were built with negative, your initial response to everything is negative because you know what? It could kill you.

Stepping out of my apartment could kill me so me, not wanting to step out of my apartment made sense. I could die but you know what? So what? I got to get out of the apartment anyway. The only way to get over the negative feelings is to take positive actions to take creative steps to act creatively. If you start to act destructively.

If you start to believe the lie, then you’re going to spiral into the depths of sorrow and suffering to a place where you get so angry about where you are in life that you want to act out and hurt other people, if not, you know, or hurt yourself and you may even extend to other people and maybe the community you’re in, if you’re in book publishing, maybe you know, you want to write some nasty blog post about how everybody’s an asshole. 

Or, in the Lion’s Club or you know, in the knitting circle. The great thing about dealing with complex adversarial characters is whenever you get confused, say, “What lie are they projecting to the world, what lie do they believe and have they turned the corner where they have accepted their role as executioner of all that don’t, do not believe what they believe.”

That’s when the adversary turns the corner. Now, for example, the joker played by Heath Ledger in the Batman, he was the ultimate adversary. Because all he was on the planet to do was to destroy things. When Batman tried to say, “Hey man, what do you want?” Where other people tried to be like,”Hey, we’ll give you what you want, what do you want?” He was like, “what I want is everything to be destroyed.” Well jeez, I can’t give you that, well that’s what I want so it’s this holy guacamole, how do you deal with that?

The only thing you want is the destruction of everything? Yeah, well how do you get to that place? Well, these slow soul crushing examples that I’ve been laying out for the past 40 minutes are the way you get to that point where you say, “you know what? There’s no such thing as good, there’s no such thing as evil, everybody’s a jerk, human beings are terrible, we’re destroying the planet, everybody’s a jerk, let’s just blow the whole damn thing up.

Because there’s no such thing as beauty, creation’s a myth, let’s just blow it all up” and that’s when you get to nialism. That’s when you get to – “let’s blow up buildings for the sake of blowing up buildings. Let’s kill people who are innocent, who have nothing to do with my rage just because it’s going to blow up what I think is meaningless.” That’s evil.

[0:37:11.1] TG: Okay, let me – I feel like that’s good, what about who is the villain in Pride and Prejudice?

[0:37:19.4] SC: The villain is an internal villain in the two lovers, it’s an internal lie like on the Story Grid spreadsheet, you’ll see that I think I have – the way I represent the conflict is in a concept called cognitive dissonance and what cognitive dissonance is, it’s when you believe one thing to be true but you act the other way in public. That is a very difficult state of existence that will either drive you to choosing creation or choosing destruction. What do I mean by that?

Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, what she believed was that her family was good and proper and authentic and wonderful and that the upper classes represented by Mr. Darcy were corrupt, evil, bad, they’re bad people, those reach people.

What happened to Elizabeth Bennet was when she discovered and she was forced to confront the fact that,  “you know what? My family – they’re kind of low class, they’re kind of doing things that are really inappropriate. They’re not what I think they are, they’re rude, they’re being kind of destructive to other people in parties and they don’t really have any moral fiber and this is kind of bad.” Then she has to come to the realization so that cognitive dissonance is that her view of the world is not true.

When she discovers her frame of reference, her world view is not true, that causes her to confront the evil within her which is believing a lie. When we believe a lie – 

[0:39:01.1] TG: And so now we’re back to the lie, right?

[0:39:03.3] SC: It’s all about the lie.

[0:39:03.5] TG: It all comes back.

[0:39:04.4] SC: You cannot live a lie, the only way to live a lie is to be a totalitarian. People who are confronted with the lies that they’ve told themselves have a choice, they can either correct the lie in their brain or they can say, “bullshit, the way I look at the world is the way I look at the world and the way I look at the world is right.

Everybody else is wrong. I’m right, I’m the totalitarian leader, I’m the tyrant. My view of the world is correct and everybody else is an asshole.” That’s evil. But when you get evidence that your world view is wrong and it’s very easy to get that evidence if you’re looking for it then what it forces you to do is to correct the lie that you’ve been leading and that’s what a hero does.

A hero, when confronted with a lie corrects the lie within themselves and it’s painful because when you start correcting the lies within yourself, the people that you’ve surrounded yourself with don’t like it. 

[0:39:57.8] TG: The villain is the one that when confronted with that doubles down on the lie.

[0:40:02.9] SC: That’s right. Because the lie is pretty exciting, right? The lie is look, our cultural lie is this. Make a shitload of money, buy a lot of stuff, get on television, post perfect pictures of yourself and you’re made in the shade, right? That’s it.

[0:40:21.4] SC: Yeah. That’s the cultural.

[0:40:22.8] TG: You’re happy now.

[0:40:23.1] SC: Yeah, you’re happy now, that’s happiness and everyone who approaches that and gets near that, they find out it’s a lie and then they can either double down on the lie like you know, billionaires do who try and get more billions, or, they go, maybe I need to correct that. Maybe that’s not meaningful for me. Just me. Maybe for me, that doesn’t work. Maybe I need to find something else. Gee, what am I going to do now?

Why don’t I try and create something? Maybe creating something will make me feel better. Well, it’s hard to create stuff but you know what? When I’m doing it and I’m really doing it, I feel better. Nah, I’ll just keep creating crap and you know, I’ll do my best to make sure I have enough money to feed everybody and take care of myself and I’ll just keep creating stuff because that’s the only thing that seems to be meaningful to me.”

That’s what a writer is, that’s when you know you’re a professional because guess what, amateurs give a shit about getting on the New York Times best seller list. Professionals probably have gotten there and know it’s all meaningless and they’re like, “well, I don’t care about that.” What I care about is writing something new, coming up with something fresh. Looking at the world in a different way and that’s what keeps Stephen King banging out a book every year.

How does he do it? Well, he can’t do anything else, that’s why he does – that’s what Steve does and so that’s what a professional does. Stephen King, his money has lost meaning a long time ago to him.

[0:41:51.8] TG: Right, I mean, if it was the money or the New York Times or any of these things, he would have stopped a long time ago.

[0:41:58.8] SC: Of course. There have been plenty of people do that. They write a big hit and then they’re gone and you know, maybe they’re out doing another creative thing, they probably are but the writing wasn’t you know, the release it is for Stephen King. You know, all the power to them, you know? It really comes down to when you get stuck in your novel, you go, what’s the force at play here?

My adversary needs to be the force of destruction, my hero needs to be the force of creation. My hero needs to suffer for being that force and my adversary needs to benefit from being that force. Then I’ve got to bring those two forces together and have them wage war against one another and what do I want to win? Let’s see.

Do I want the creative force to win or the instructive force? You know, my recommendation is to have the creative force win because that’s a nice message to give people. Something is better than nothing is a good message.


[0:42:58.0] TG: Thanks for listening to this episode of The Story Grid Podcast. For everything Story Grid related, check out storygrid.com. Make sure you pick up a copy of the book and sign up for the newsletter so you don’t miss anything happening in the Story Grid universe. If you’d like to check out the show notes for this episode or any past episodes, all of that can be found at storygrid.com/podcast. 

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The Book

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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.