Through the Eyes of an Antagonist

Scarlet_lily_beetle_eating_leafMy farm is a novel that writes itself over and over, year after year, always with a similar story arc: I plant, I tend, things go wrong, bugs invade. I fend off crows and raccoons. I pray for rain. I pray for the rain to stop. I harvest. Some years I am victorious, others years I stand defeated, but I always learn something. Each passing season leaves me changed.

I often wonder, however, if I am the protagonist or the antagonist in this story. One of my favorite quotes about writing is John Rogers’ little gem, “You don’t really understand an antagonist until you understand why he’s a protagonist in his own version of the world.”

As I began editing my novel, this idea really bothered me. My antagonist thinks he is the good guy? But if everyone thinks they are the protagonist, who, really, is the champion? We can’t all be the hero.

It’s about perspective. Who is telling the story? And why?

Today on my farm I killed thousands of beetles – pearly, orange eggs clinging to the underside of potato leaves, plump larvae eating several times their weight each day, and shiny, hard-shelled adults anxious to procreate, yet again. I kill them by hand. I usually start out flicking the larvae into a bucket of soapy water and scraping the eggs off with a popsicle stick. My shoulders ache as I move through row after row. The sun burns my neck. I get lazy and start shaking the plants. Plump, adolescent beetles rain to the ground. I smash them with my boot. I have no mercy. I forego the popsicle stick and scrape eggs with my fingernail. By mid-morning my hands are stained orange.

If the beetles were telling this story, I would be the villain, an executioner wiping out innocent families. They just want to have babies and make sure they are safe and well fed. They want to have tons of sex. I slaughter them ruthlessly (often in the middle of that frequent sex.) I have blood on my hands. I feel no remorse.

I am the villain.

But from my perspective, I am a struggling organic farmer trying to save my potato plants from the ravages of my enemy, the beetles. They are vile, relentless beasts determined to eviscerate my crops. I want to feed these potatoes to my children. More than half of the vegetables I grow will go to a food pantry. These monsters are destroying food for hungry children. What could be more evil?

This is when I fly in with my SuperFarmer cape and a pitchfork.

It would be a lot easier (and less disgusting) to spray insecticides instead of relying on my up-close-and-personal, bug-squishing strategy. But I have vowed to keep my soil organic and pure. I scrape, squish, and drown bugs in the name of hungry children and protecting the environment from chemicals.

I am the hero, dammit.

The fact that each version of this story is accurate makes the drama more compelling. Competing interests and desires give a story life and tension. I think about this as I write the antagonist in my novel. No scene makes sense if I can’t convince myself that my bad guy believes he is justified. He is the hero in his own version of the world.

I want readers to boo and hiss at my antagonist. But I also want them to identify with him, at least a little. In early drafts of my novel, my antagonist was pure evil. In subsequent drafts, I softened him, gave him a back story and dimension. I tried to get inside his head and figure out why he acted the way he did. As an exercise, I wrote a few scenes from the antagonist’s perspective. I think I went too far. When I reread my experimental scenes, I realized my antagonist wasn’t actually the villain I thought he was. (Great. Now I have to rework the ending.)

I’ve come to learn there will always be an antagonist, but it might not be who I think it is when I start writing. I need to be nimble, willing to try different tacks with different characters. I must be willing to see the world through the eyes of all the people I invent, especially the antagonist.

Tomorrow I go to battle with the crows in my corn field. It will not be violent. There will be no blood, squishing, or death. It will involve rubber snakes and sparkly cellophane tape designed to scare the birds away. I suspect the crows will laugh at my folly, but I will defend my corn valiantly.

The crows and beetles don’t understand that I am telling this story, so I get to be the hero.

If they see things differently, those nasty pests can write their own version.

8 comments

  1. Love the John Rogers quote. You’ve inspired me to do some off-the-page writing for my antagonist, someone who thinks they are acting in heroic ways. What a great and simple idea. Thank you!

    Also, I want to help you scrape beetles off potato leaves with popsicle sticks.

  2. Rosemary Porto

    I am writing my second draft exploring my antigonist’s version of her story. Your article confirms my decision to let her tell me why she is the hero of her own drama. Thanks for sharing John Roger’s quote. It shines a light on my path.

  3. Anna

    You have just given my bad guy a big boost. (Also, crows, like ravens, are guaranteed to laugh at our feeble efforts. Good thing they aren’t novelists. Or are they?)

  4. Bonnie Waltch

    Love the analogy, Julie! It is so important to see the situation from all your characters’ POVs to make each sympathetic and multidimensional. Good luck with those pesky crows. I hope you have a fruitful harvest!

  5. Pat Carney-Dalton

    Julie, I love your essay and how you tied all of the pieces together. I just want you to know, that I want you to have wonderful delicious corn– but I do not want you to hurt the crows feelings.

  6. Sally M. Chetwynd

    Nothing to do with writing, but a note that I read some years ago about organic farmers in the mid-West who keep barns full of geese, which they let out into the fields every day. The geese eat the insects and fertilize the ground at the same time. The geese end up doing some weeding, too, as small shoots come up between the desired crops. There are only three or four crops that the farmers cannot use the geese with, for the geese eat those crops – I don’t remember which ones. I am not sure, but I think the article said that once those goose-attractive crops reach a certain size/maturity, then the farmers can release the geese into those fields.

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