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  • Edgar Mahaffey

Blog Post 3: Antagonists and What They Do for Us

When googling the word "antagonist" that was the first character's picture that came up and man, it's perfect. What an effective antagonist, right? Not only is he ruthless and clever, but he also wins. He accomplishes his goal. He becomes king of the pride lands for nearly half the movie. But he isn't the only effective antagonist. The next two that came up from the same google search are incredibly effective as well.

Another ruthless, clever antagonist. What about the third?

Yep, ruthless and clever. With this third one we get a lot of backstory, though, right? We understand how and why he became who he was in a deeper way than with the former two. Even so, that doesn't change the fact that when viewers were presented with this image back in 1977 he was still seen as a ruthless, clever, and effective antagonist even with very little backstory presented. So, aside from being ruthless and clever, what do these three have in common? They're "bad guys", sure, but what else? How about this: you know who they are even though I didn't say their names. Their pictures alone were enough. You know the movie they're from—even if you haven't seen it—and you know they're the antagonists. It's a bit simple, right?

It is.

In writing, antagonists serve more purposes than just "attacking the protagonist". That may be their role, but it's the product of that role that really aids the story. Antagonists show the reader/viewer what the protagonist is made of. So, in a way, a strong antagonist creates a strong protagonist. It's the same in our lives.

Who's your antagonist?

Better question: what's your antagonist?

Think of your life like a single-sentence pitch to an agent or a publisher. You don't have the time or space to write about all your antagonists. You get one (usually) and you have to drive that one home as succinctly as possible.

For me, if my life were a book the logline would be: "Devilishly handsome early-thirties man struggles to make it as a writer." Aside from the tongue-in-cheek description of our main character, this logline is boring. That's why literary and cinematic markets are flooded with fiction. Fiction is—more often than not—more interesting. Don't get me wrong, non-fiction can be jaw-dropping, but it has to have actually happened. And for most of us, it's just not compelling enough to be turned into a marketable novel or movie. But anyway, back to the logline. A more serious one this time.

"Early thirties man goes through life with amazing friends, a fun job, and absolute badass of a wife as he struggles to make it as a writer."

I would not buy this book. But just because it's not compelling doesn't mean it doesn't reveal something: the antagonist worthy of being in my logline isn't a who, but a what. Yours probably is, too, but that's for you to figure out.

My antagonist—the publishing industry / literary agencies—isn't something I overcome through force (like Simba does to Scar) or through the people of Gotham choosing not to blow each other up (like Batman does to The Joker) or through bringing them back to the light side of the force (like Luke does to Vader). No, mine is through rising up to a level worthy of their attention. Mine is through writing and rewriting and getting feedback and rewriting and getting rejected and rewriting. In this way, my antagonist is different. But in one key way, my antagonist is exactly the same as the above three: my antagonist is bringing the best out of me.

"Jin's Baby" won first place in the 2019 Writer's Digest Popular Fiction Awards because of my antagonist.

I started seriously writing about a year and a half before it won. I wrote three novels and a couple dozen short stories. And they all got rejected. I did very little editing and virtually no studying (except for youtube videos, which are good but they're no substitute for books and articles on our craft). Rejection sucks. But damn, I love writing even more than I hate rejection. So I made the choice to get better.

If your antagonist is above you, you have two choices: accept it or rise. There is no third option.

I read several of the books I posted on my "Favorite Books" page and one of them was Stephen King's "On Writing". In it there was a writing prompt (google Stephen King writing prompt if you'd like an explanation of it). I decided I'd use that prompt. I had an older edition of his book and inside was a request that, if you used the prompt, to send it to him. I wanted to. Damn, I wanted to. But on his website was a section requesting people no longer send him their stories with his prompt. It made sense, for sure, but I was disappointed. I wanted Stephen King to read my story. But that set back ended up being the best thing that could have happen to me. Having nowhere else to send it, I submitted it to Writer's Digest.

And it won.

And as of today (March 11, 2021) it's the only story of mine that can be found online. I won an honorable mention a year later with a short story called "There's No Such Thing as Yellow" which explores the effects of sexual abuse as a woman goes through the strangest job interview in the history of job interviews. However... it's not online. It will be one day. It's a damn good story and I'm certain it'll find a place, but for now, you can't find it anywhere. That's beside the point, though.

My antagonist forced me to rise. And I became a better writer because of it. My antagonist rejected me this morning (One novel rejected by a publisher and a separate novel rejected by an agent... both happened this morning, seriously). It sucks, but I don't mind it. Every rejection is just a statement that I need to improve. So I keep improving. You can ask my beta readers on this one. I've grown so much over the last three years that it's safe to say I'm a different writer altogether.

How cool is that? I am deeply grateful to my antagonist for rejecting me. I'd far, far rather have a good story be rejected because it isn't great, than have a bad story accepted just to make me feel good. But a few years ago I didn't feel that way.

My antagonist attacked and, like the counterparts to the three pictures above, I attacked back. My claws are the daily writings that consume the entirety of my every morning, my batarangs are my continued queries to agents even after dozens of rejections, and my lightsaber is my absolute, unending passion for writing. And, my friends, there is no greater ally than passion. But the passion has to be right. If you're a writer aspiring to go pro, be sure you're clear with yourself. Is your passion about writing? Or is your passion about being a writer. If it's the latter you may want to reconsider your path. If it's the former, however, then you have a weapon that can slay any antagonist.


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