Shadowing Pádraig Ó Tuama: We Need More Villains in Our Stories

This is part of an ongoing series on my month shadowing Pádraig Ó Tuama, poet, theologian, and leader of The Corrymeela Community in Northern Ireland. To read the introduction to the series, click here. To read the rest of the series, click here

I don’t remember the exact context, but I remember hearing Pádraig say, “I think one of the things I’m taking away from this is that we need more villains in our stories.” He elaborated that sometimes we tell stories—true or otherwise—that pile the blame on a single villain. But single villains are rarely the case in real life.

I hear Pádraig’s words as a challenge to listen to how we tell stories. More specifically, how we scapegoat in the way we tell stories.

Scapegoating is the common practice of pitting our problems on a target that actually isn’t the cause of our problems. Rather than honestly evaluate the complexity of the ills facing us, we opt for the ease of finding something visible to pin our target onto. This scapegoating works even better if that target will have a hard time defending itself, and especially if the act of defense itself will seem suspect.

It is important that we learn to multiply the villains in our stories, if only for two reasons:

  1. When there’s a single target, we can concentrate fire. This leads to devastation and/or annihilation.
  2. Scapegoating distracts us from the kind of deep examination and diagnosis that could lead to radical healing and change. Almost always, the problems we face—socially or individually—are multi-faceted. Scapegoating leads us to believe our problems are simple and therefore have simple solutions. This does not produce the kind of diagnosis that facilitates sustainable change. For example, many of us might like to identify a particular political figure (or figures) as the problem with our country, but that’s too simple. Politicians aren’t the problem; they are symptoms of deeper ills.

We need to reflect honestly about the characters we cast in our stories. Who are we naming as protagonists? Who are we naming as antagonists? Are these fair? Maybe the villain we’ve named isn’t actually a villain—maybe we just want them to be because it’s simpler that way.

And maybe they really are the villain, because sometimes that’s true. We lie to ourselves if we say nothing in this world is actually perpetuating evil. Sometimes, there are villains in the stories. But, they might not be as villainous as we assumed or would like to claim. Or maybe they aren’t the only villain. Perhaps we need to spread the blame a bit more.

We should beware stories with single villains. They’re almost never true, and they can encourage us to see the world through a cookie-cutter story structure. When we believe that single villains make for good stories, or at least for true stories, we look for a world that fits that. Or we try to force the world to fit that.

At best, this delays any transformation of the problems that plague us. At worst, we destroy each other.

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