Do You Need a Villain in a Learning Story?

I recently 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. If you’re attending the Learning Solutions Conference later this month, you can hear this presentation live. (You can attend my presentation on voice over script pitfalls too!)

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.

Bearded businessman with evil expression

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.

I’m worried that forcing 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.

Maybe my problem is with the word “villain.” If we call that character an “antagonist” instead, then it works well. The antagonist doesn’t have to be evil like a villain; they just have to create the conflict or challenge that drives the story. I think that’s really what Joe is getting at. 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.

What do you think? Is it beneficial to include villains in learning stories? I am ambivalent and looking for your perspectives. Answer the poll and let me know. (Email readers, you may have to click through to the site to respond to the poll.)

If the none of the answers in the poll fit, or you want to explain more, leave a comment and tell me what you think.

 

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

    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.

  1. 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.

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s