Can I just be a rebel for a minute? As a writer, I sometimes feel obligated to embrace the elements of story as perfect, absolute, and well-defined.
But I’ve always turned my nose up at the idea of an “antagonist.” Perhaps it’s the way they teach it in small-town public schools, but I feel like I’m “doing it wrong” if my opposing force isn’t a person or group of people. The antagonist of a story can be an entity…
like the government
or the Catholic church.
But even then, those are still groups of people. They can speak for themselves and no matter how twisted or convoluted the reason, they can always justify opposing the main character. Where human enemies are concerned, fellow human characters have some degree of control over their impact on the story. Kill them. Conquer them. Or just get out of their way.
I’ve found I tend toward antagonists that humans have no illusion of control over or justification for. Illness, death, evil, nature, accident. I think the unfairness of it all makes the angst we feel for the character experiencing it deeper and more tangible.
Yes, we always need human antagonists. Bad things can’t just keep happening to everybody all the time. And we need them because they are real to us. We understand humans as antagonists. At some point in life, we all make an enemy or two. And so we enter a story with ideas about what a human antagonist can and cannot do.
But we can’t understand untimely death, or a terminal diagnosis, or what triggers domestic abuse, or a devastating tornado, or a plane crash.
These symptoms of brokenness are the true enemies of the human race. And these are the foes that make the most compelling stories. Why? Because they’re not just the character’s enemies. They are our enemies. A corrupt cop feels like the good cop’s enemy, but cancer feels like my enemy too. These universal opponents connect us to the story in ways no wicked stepmother could dream.