Sunday, September 21, 2014

Antagonists: You Can’t Live with Them and You Can’t Write a Story without Them

My faculty mentor in my writing program wants me to turn two of my fictional characters into stronger antagonists. She feels they’re not quite causing enough trouble in their current form. The purpose of an antagonist is to prevent your main character from reaching their goal. The consensus is that all stories must have an antagonist, otherwise you have a flat story where your protagonist runs unhindered toward their goal, boring the reader to death.  In a Writer’s Digest article entitled, “Six Ways to Write Better Bad Guys,”  Laura DiSilverio makes the claim that to omit the obstacles provided by a worthy antagonist prevents your main character from having the opportunity to grow or change.

 On most real life days off the page, I have to confess I wouldn’t mind life with fewer antagonists where I easily skipped to my goal. But they often seem to appear uninvited, whether you want them or not. Writing often reflects real life, and the more I think about it, antagonists in our life do play an important role, just not always a pleasant one.   
We’ve all had them – neighbors who let their trees grow to block your vegetable garden, preventing you from growing produce to be canned and donated to the local food pantry (a benign example). There are the people who rear-end you at a stop light, but manage to convince a police officer and a judge that they are the innocent victim. The folks who have lied about you, either at work, or school, or even within your own families. Maybe they haven’t quite lied about you, but they use details out of context to manipulate opinions to their own advantage. Some antagonists try and destroy your goal of having a happy, life-long marriage by intervening with your spouse. They prevent your kids from reaching their goal of attending school without antagonism, or remaining drug free. And on and on this list goes.   I simply call these folks “difficult people,” but they are really antagonists, preventing us from reaching our goals.
Along the way though, they have something very valuable to give us. Without them, we would, indeed, remain flat, as would our lives. Think about having coffee weekly with someone whose life never changed, never had drama, never had movement or conflict or difficulty. Yawn.
Antagonists force us to look at ourselves and examine what we want, how we’re willing to get it, and what we’re prepared to do if that goal is unattainable. Sometimes the results are surprising. Many a person has spent years winding their way to a dream goal, only to look back at the route that resembled the Israelites wandering in the desert for forty years, but the roundabout journey changed them for the good and prepared them best for the work ahead.
  For example, if we look at how we respond to folks who lie about us, most would flunk the exam. We usually respond terribly to mistreatment, only learning with practice not to be threatened by these folks and to keep a proper perspective.  If we can look at these troubles as delightful messengers, sent to grow us and produce positive change within us, eventually our lives are enriched in unexpected ways, and those difficult antagonists lose all their power and momentum because you never followed their model of behavior. Isn’t it interesting to think the difficult people in our lives actually play a meaningful role?  Is there any better way to dull an antagonist’s negative impact on your life than to flip it upside down and let good come of it?
Bring on the antagonists!

1 comment:

Stephanie Rische said...

Ah, such good words. It's so much easier to appreciate antagonists in books than in real life!