Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Antagonists

As I have been working on a novel based largely on my early life, I am now at the point of beginning again for the third draft. To give myself a clear direction forward, I asked a few writers to take a look at my unwieldy manuscript and weigh in. When you find two or three people in complete agreement, a rare enough occurrence in real life, you have a pretty strong sense of where the structure of the story may be lacking. Writing from real experience can be quite maddening, as the events of anyone's life do not fall into the lines of story structure. Even in straight memoir form, even if you have had the most fascinating life imaginable, you would still need something of a dramatic arc in order to carry the story forward. While  I have filled five hundred pages  full of snippets of memory, it has been made clear that I need to fix something in the structure.

After much tossing, turning, casting about and questioning the fates, the answer came to me late at night when I asked Google for help. I found a blog, very much like this one, where a writer tried to process a constant piece of criticism she faced with alarming regularity from friends and agents alike. Her stories were too nice, she was told, about nice people and that her writing lacked conflict. The woman went on to describe how she avoids conflict in real life, and like me, turns herself inside out and backwards to give other people their way rather than face down any transgressors. Bingo, I thought. This is me.

Upon further reflection, I realized that I had no desire to create an antagonist in any of my fiction. I would rather not spend my time thinking about people compelled to make themselves into a veritable roadblock. To tell you the truth, in my own life, I consider those types, and there doesn't seem to be any shortage of them, to be avoided at all costs. While most are well meaning and tend to question whether any course of action has been thought through well enough, for their liking at least, it still drives me crazy to be second guessed.  After all, I think I do enough of that for myself.

 In taking an existing true story, as was the case with my novel entitled, My American Eden, I did not have this problem as the antagonist came with the territory. It was the Puritan minister, the man who preached to the first citizens of Boston on board the Arabella, headed to the new world, where they were about to have a second chance at paradise who distrusted women and feared a second Eve would be their undoing. Believing God would not be merciful a second time, under his theocratic jurisdiction, women were tied to the whipping post, stripped to the waist and thrashed. When that did not exert enough control, he fined, jailed and then executed those who disagreed with him. Tying his own handkerchief over the face of my heroine as she willing faced her execution, he was her antagonist to the bitter end.  In a story based on the true events of my childhood, a person in complete opposition to me is harder to come by.  The answer will have to  spring from my imagination and it is this conundrum that has me up in the middle of the night.

If you feel that your story is starting to sag in the middle, not gaining in momentum, or lacking a certain zing, take a look at your protagonist and put more obstacles in his or her path. The protagonist has to want something, and the antagonist has to stand in the way. That is the long and the short of it. Get every rejected work out of the drawer, cupboard or filing cabinet and look at it through this lens. You'd be surprised at what a good, old fashioned Snidely Whiplash kind of character can do for your story. 


Lila said...

Wow Elizabeth! You couldn't have described the problem I'm struggling with any better. I too avoid conflict in real life and I'll be dipped if I don't have a difficult time with my villains. I'd begun to think I couldn't write fiction well enough and felt like I was missing something.

As an introvert and conflict avoider, it's easy to think that everyone else gets how to do this writing thing and I just don't have what it takes. You've made me think about my problem in a new light...and inspired me to keep trying.

Thanks for your post!

Elizabeth S. Brinton said...

Thank you so much for your wonderful comment. There are a thousand elements to great stories and it seems crazy to me that I could have inadvertently over looked something so crucial, but when I read that post, it hit me like a lightening bolt. Shakespeare had no such trouble: Iago, Tibault, MacDuff, not to mention Hamlet's stepfather.