Saturday, November 6, 2010

Antagonists are Essential

Just like most aspiring and perhaps real writers, I have my spurt non-blog projects that never get finished, I have my great ideas I have to go home and start writing only to abandon a few months later...etc.

Those and a host more problems have got to be fixed (why am I using passive voice? I have to fix them) if I want to do more than just aspire for the rest of my life, and I suspect that fixing these things requires discipline, hard work, and simply slogging through day after day.

The oldest project of mine is something that started off as science fiction, went more of a fantasy route for a while, and I'm now trying to re-route toward science fiction again.  I am absolutely in love with this project, even though I've stalled out about five times on the actual writing since high school.  It has many the things I love about science fiction and/or fantasy:  big-picture ideas of space and time, parallel universes, people and creatures from other places, super-human powers (and the responsibilities and consequences that come from being powerful), characters who I think have great heroic potential because of and in spite of their their human flaws, decent interpersonal and internal conflict.  Romance, of course.

I keep re-working the background stuff to incorporate new ideas, science I just figured out how to twist awry, etc.  And that is a problem, of course, because at some point you have to just write the thing.  And I have never been able to progress, despite how much I love my characters and their world and their strengths and weaknesses and issues.

I think this is because despite all these other fun elements, I never had an antagonist that was truly worth fighting, or who was deep enough to be interesting.  I wrote the bare bones of this story when I was in elementary school--oddly, the first and only time in my life that I wrote novel-ish length stories from start to finish without much trouble.  They have elementary-school quality of course;  my idea of good and evil wasn't particularly refined back then. It was very black and white and very much of 'these guys are evil just because they are", and my bad guys didn't do particularly scary or bad things because...I didn't really understand back then what full range of bad things were possible, and more importantly, what various motivations for bad things might be.  Now that I'm adult I have seen "evil just because not good" done really well:  Joker in The Dark Knight was a really great example of "I'm fucking insane evil  just because I am"--and it worked.  Gave me frikkin goosebumps.  But it gave me goosebumps because of how Joker the antagonist pushed the rest of the story:  spotlighting the heroes who dared to stand against someone so scary and senseless, highlighting the choice between caring for a thinly possible ideal, running in fear, or deciding to "just watch the world burn."

Many more times, however, "evil just because I am" has not worked at all--(example, Avatar.  Well, there was supposed to be a reason, but the reason was so poorly defined that it was pretty much "evil just because") because it didn't' force the main characters to define themselves against it.

I don't know who my antagonist is supposed to be in this story.  I have what my elementary school self created, which is two-dimensional and has no backstory and not much reason for doing what it is doing.  My struggles to re-define all the science fiction or fantasy or whatever else elements of this story have really been trying to re-define what the heck the people in my story are fighting for,  because I'm not satisfied with what was there.  Heroes need something heroic to stand for.  They need circumstances which allow them to choose to be heroes.  That doesn't have to be some dark insurmountable race of aliens, or a hidden smuggling ring or terrorists or whatever.  It is possible to have evil be something more subtle: man pitting various incompatible internal wants against each other, hell, man against bureaucracy or an approaching black hole or a wasting disease, man against all the shit from his past while trying to find his way to a better future.

It's just that heroic fantasy or science fiction tends to have some big, malevolent bad guy or bad organization or bad species.   Fantasy is often a fan of the amorphous dark powerful Satan-like being--I'm thinking Wheel of Time here, which manages to make such a cliche antagonist into something that I did mostly find really enjoyable and interesting because of the various interpersonal conflicts that resulted from having to deal with Scary Evil Force of Nature.  In science fiction it's probably any number of scenarios involving aliens, or various natural features of an inhospitable universe, or humanity's inability to deal with technological advances, or else just a crime mystery novel set in the future.  I like all of those...but I don't know what I want for my story, and I need to know, because everything my lovely characters are going to be doing in their lovely word is irrelevant if it doesn't mean something against some kind of danger or intrigue or high stakes.

I've known all of this for a long time, because I know the kind of stories that have given me goosebumps throughout the years, and I know for all of them exactly why. It is much easier to recognize that in someone else's work than try to figure out how to put it into my own--which is just the skill a writer needs to have, no excuses.

It's the basics that will kill you.

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