“He who struggles with us strengthens our nerves and sharpens our skill. Our antagonist is our helper.” -Edmund Burke
Today in class I’m teaching my young novelists how to write effective antagonists. It’s a challenge for young writers. They have a tendency to write good vs. bad. Black and white. Right and wrong.
But what I tell them is that the best antagonists have humanizing motives. Antagonists in our real lives are rarely madmen hell-bent on ruining our lives for no more reason than to see the pleading and fear in our eyes. Monsters in the real world do those awful things we fear. But they do them for a reason.
I keep returning to the awful shootings in Norway this past week. The shooter took out dozens of people in a drug-fueled rage in keeping with a racist diatribe he’d written and published on the Internet.
But why? He wanted to address the media. He wanted more attention for his crazy ideas. And he was afraid that if he didn’t take extreme action, his country would fall victim to anti-Norwegian sentiment. He didn’t just wake up one morning and decide, out of the blue, to go on a rampage. He had a motivation, as all antagonists do.
Now, do I endorse this action? Of course not. But if I were writing an antagonist who was a fictional version of this real-life boogey man, I’d have to spend some time working on his fears. Figuring out his motivations. Making him somewhat sympathetic. Luckily, I don’t want to write a story about this wack-job. Because the more we know about a person, the more likely we are to empathize with them. And honestly, I’d like to go on forever without empathy for this guy.
Of course, I didn’t use this example with my students. But I have been thinking a lot lately about how the antagonists in my own life – often my own fears and worries – sharpen my skill. Theoretically, when I’m faced with a problem that seems insurmountable, I sit down and figure it out. At least, that’s what my protagonists do.
But in reality, before I can figure anything out, I need to freak. Totally and hopelessly. I need to identify the worst case scenario and convince myself that it will happen. I need to alienate my band of loyal and loving companions and stare into the abyss alone. I need to convince myself that I will fail miserably.
Because my antagonist is never just the external bad guy. My real antagonist is myself.
Yesterday, I had a high-noon showdown with myself. I’d made two of my favorite people cry, I could feel the panic setting in, and I knew my own personal duel was just around the corner. In the past, I might have let my antagonist have the upper hand. If I can get myself really hysterical, I have a much better chance of being defeated by the demons within.
But yesterday, circumstances forced me to be even and calm all day. And when I found myself battling with all sorts of phantoms (a hospital administrator, my mother, my husband, a newspaper reporter, the mail lady), I grabbed my pen and started writing.
There on the page before me was the real battle I’d been avoiding all day. Me vs. Me.
And you know what? After much struggling and internal wrestling, I won. No, not the monsters in dark places me. The protagonist me. The one who wanted a plan and needed to be sharper and stronger and better for the big mountain climbing expedition I have ahead of me.
And knowing these challenges are setting me along a path to be better for myself, better for my family,and better for my students is a giant weight off my shoulders.