Sunday, February 9, 2014

Born Toxic?

Jellyfish (jellies) are. They die that way, too. Try stepping on a desiccating one, or, rather—do so at your peril. Antagonists? That’s a matter of nature and nurture, and one of crucial importance to fiction. In Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook, Donald Maass reminds us that a multi-dimensional opponent is not only more intriguing, but “more dangerous.”

And as Robert McKee puts it in Story, “All other factors of talent, craft, and knowledge being equal, greatness is found in the writer’s treatment of the negative side.” Why? Because without a worthy antagonist, a protagonist has no compulsion to defeat inertia. The status quo seems less exhausting. Why not just …

Tip: The antagonist is the source of change—and growth—in the protagonist.

Two kinds of worthy antagonist can motivate your protagonist. The first is doomed. But your antagonist obviously needs greater complexity than a creature with only a nerve net. Maybe your antagonist yearns to be good, cursing the universe that makes some of its inhabitants unable to conquer their worst foibles.  These villains fill Shakespeare’s plays—because such antagonists offer credibility and inspire empathy.

As a novelist, it’s your job to make us grasp that level of pain. What would it be like to envy the impulse toward morality? Challenge yourself to understand that notion, so your readers can.

Other antagonists haven’t the slightest desire to change. They rationalize lust, greed, arrogance, or violence so skillfully that the audience wonders whether there’s something valid about those arguments. The compelling antagonist has mastered self-justification: “It’s absolutely okay for me to murder or starve or rape these people because I…”

It’s your job to complete that thought. The source is backstory, not on the page, but in your grasp of character. Which sociological and psychological factors formed this person? This requires viewing your antagonist as a person—not a creature.  Again, the answers probably come from your worst secrets. What stories do you tell to legitimize moments of selfishness or deceit? On a much uglier magnitude, the antagonist’s mind works the same way. The darkest, dirtiest parts of you long ago familiarized you with the storytelling that lets us do what we want instead of what we know we should. There’s a little antagonist in most of us.

Jellies come in hundreds of species. They’ve been around practically forever. Antagonists, born toxic or otherwise, are at least as old as Greek tragedy. Despite pollution, jellyfish still thrive. So do antagonists, every time you reveal what makes such individuals as real and complex as everyone else.

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