Do You Need a Villain in a Learning Story?

Do you need a villain in a learning story? Several years ago, I attended an interesting webinar by Joe Ganci on how to use science fiction to improve eLearning. In the presentation, Joe talked about elements of storytelling common to science fiction and how to incorporate those aspects for better stories in elearning.

Bearded businessman with evil expression, plus two more behind. Any of these men could be the villain in a learning story.

Personifying a challenge

One of Joe’s points was that great science fiction stories have a compelling villain that allows the heroes to be heroic. The same goes for storytelling for learning. Even if the major conflict is a tight budget or short timeline, Joe argued it’s better to personify that challenge. Provide a manager who explains the budget limitations or a harried customer who needs an project finished quickly.

To some extent, I agree with Joe. Instead of simply an abstract challenge of time or resources, you can humanize it by showing why the budget is tight or how being late will impact a real person. Stories help you make learning more concrete.

Reality isn’t always good vs. evil

However, I’m not quite convinced that a “villain” is what we need in learning. In the real world, the bad guys and good guys aren’t always so clear cut as in the movies. Real people are rarely motivated by simply being evil. They may be confused, misguided, angry, or disorganized. That doesn’t exactly make them a villain though.

Shoehorning a villain into a story might make it too over-the-top or comical. That can work if that’s what you’re going for, but I think that’s challenging to pull off well in most corporate environments. I have seen it backfire, especially if the story is too far removed from the actual work context.

Villain or antagonist?

Part of my problem is with the word “villain.” If we call that character an “antagonist” instead, then it works better. The antagonist doesn’t have to be evil like a villain; they just have to create the conflict or challenge that drives the story. The harried manager telling you the budget is tight isn’t really an evil villain, just someone doing their job in a way that creates a challenge for the learners.

In fact, Joe commented in response when I originally wrote this post,

Yes, you’re absolutely right that I don’t mean a villain like Dick Dastardly, just that we need some opposition. We love to see the good guys win (most of the time) and that means having something to vanquish.

Joe Ganci

Character motivation

Therefore, rather than a villain doing evil for the sake of evil or world domination, the antagonist needs to have a better motivation.

In the comments, Norman Lamont said,

The point of any character in an elearning scenario should be to bring in, to personify, a point of view. As you say, people more often do the wrong things because they think they’re right, rather than just to mess with you. The reasons are the things you elicit in your initial analysis. Show a character arguing in favour of the wrong action or disagreeing with the right action FOR A REASON, and you bring the story to life.

Norman Lamont

Think about the motivation for your character. Why would someone do this? Are they pressed for time? Do they have limited resources? Do they not understand the situation? Are they missing a key piece of information? Does your antagonist’s goal conflict with your protagonist’s goal?

Challenges and conflicts that aren’t between people

Although there is some value to the idea of personifying a challenge or conflict, I don’t think it always needs to be a character.

Kayleen Holt commented,

If we recall the types of conflict we learned about in English class (e.g., man vs. man, man vs. nature, man vs. self), it’s easy to see how those can apply to eLearning scenarios.

Kayleen Holt

If we stretch the conflict narrative of “man vs. nature” to “people vs. environment,” then “not enough time” or “not enough resources” can be the conflict in training. That’s often what we would be fighting as IDs–it’s the challenge of not having enough time/resources to do what we’d like or know would be more effective.

That struggle against the environment applies to many other jobs too. The environment as the antagonist or conflict fits for training scenarios because it uses the realistic context as part of the story.

The traditional “man vs. self” conflict structure (to continue using the older terminology) might be used for training based on an internal struggle. Perhaps the main character lacks confidence or struggles to make an ethical choice. Maybe they’re exhausted and burnt out, struggling to feel connected or relevant. It would be trickier, partly because it’s hard to show that kind of internal struggle, but it might be possible.

Poll results

When I originally posted about this topic, I included a poll to gather opinions from others. Almost half of the respondents said a villain might be helpful sometimes. The next most popular response was to include them, but think of them as antagonists rather than villains.

Poll results
Do you need a villain in a learning story?
Maybe. Sometimes they might be helpful: 48.72% (19 votes)
Yes, you should always use one, but think of them as antagonists rather than evildoers: 41.03% (16 votes)
No or generally no. Villains would distract from the learning: 7.69% (3 votes)
Yes, you should always use a villain in your stories. 2.56% (1 vote)

Obviously, this was a small sample (only 39 total votes), but it was pretty clear that most people put themselves somewhere in the middle, either as a “maybe/sometimes” or as an antagonist rather than an evil villain.

Originally published 3/14/2017. Updated 5/12/2022.

9 thoughts on “Do You Need a Villain in a Learning Story?”

  1. I enjoyed this read! I get ridiculously excited about the intersection between fiction stories and eLearning scenarios–and how we can apply what we know about writing fiction to writing scenarios. But I agree with you that it can be taken too far, especially when scenarios need to be realistic if they are to be effective for workplace learning. The word “villain” calls to mind over-the-top cartoons twirling their nefarious mustaches. An antagonist is the same thing but without the stereotypical connotations. If we recall the types of conflict we learned about in English class (e.g., man vs. man, man vs. nature, man vs. self), it’s easy to see how those can apply to eLearning scenarios.

    1. If we stretch the “man vs. nature” to be “people vs. environment,” then “not enough time” or “not enough resources” can be the antagonist in training. That’s often what we would be fighting as IDs–it’s the challenge of not having enough time/resources to do what we’d like or know would be more effective. That applies to many jobs too. The environment as the antagonist often fits for training scenarios.

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  3. I agree that a preening villain, stroking a cat and (inevitably for the US) speaking in an English accent, would be a needless distraction. You also get into tiresome diversity arguments – why is the villain a woman, Jewish, black, white etc? The point of any character in an elearning scenario should be to bring in, to personify, a point of view. As you say, people more often do the wrong things because they think they’re right, rather than just to mess with you. The reasons are the things you elicit in your initial analysis. Show a character arguing in favour of the wrong action or disagreeing with the right action FOR A REASON, and you bring the story to life.

    1. That is a great point. Showing the reason or motivation behind the antagonist’s actions can give the character depth. It’s a lot more interesting than a flat, stereotypical villain.

    1. I have seen a few examples where the designers took the idea of movie inspiration too far. I remember one a few years ago where they used a Mission: Impossible theme, complete with an evil criminal mastermind. The project failed spectacularly, partly because the story was completely tacked on to the actual content. The villain was unbelievable and irrelevant.
      With relevant, contextual stories though, I can see how creating a character to provide the opposition would be helpful. I do sometimes just leave certain constraints as abstract (budget, time, etc.), but I think you may be on to something with the idea of personifying it. You need enough opposition that it does feel “heroic” when you succeed.

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