Friday, August 27, 2010

Where did the bad guys go?

I'm reviewing the submissions for a speculative fiction writing workshop -- that's fantasy and science fiction to normal people -- and am awed by the range of imagination in the nineteen submissions.  Not to mention that a few of the stories really knock my prissy little lace-edged Sunday socks off.  But something bothers me -- fewer than half the stories have an antagonist.  That's the person who opposes the protagonist, the main character.  Sometimes we call the main character the hero, although in modern stories he or she isn't usually very heroic.  By traditional story-telling standards, the conflict between the protagonist and antagonist is the heart of the book.  In this case, the workshop was for novel proposals, and the workshop leader asked us to submit a synopsis and the first five thousand words -- about twenty pages.  In more than half, no antagonist either appeared or was named in those first five thousand words or in the synopsis of the entire book.

So if there's no antagonist, what does the main character do?  Clock out and go home early?  Be assured, there is conflict in all of the stories.  Some are in subgenres that don't require a human antagonist -- make that sentient being antagonist.  This is science fiction, after all, where being human is not necessarily a requirement for characters.  In coming of age stories, for instance, the protagonist's struggle to find a place in society can be conflict enough.  A couple of the stories were also murder mysteries, and we all know the murderer isn't supposed to get named until the end of those.  But not even to mention the murder's identity in the synopsis?

Most of the apparently antagonist-free stories had a sort of group baddie -- a conspiracy, a computer network, a cadre of unnamed government agents or clergy.  But these people had no names, no personalities, no single individual who truly hated the poor protagonist's guts and was out to make his or her life miserable, maybe even short.  In real life, conspiracy nuts -- I'm not one, but I don't know about you -- can put faces on their fears.  Sarah Palin, President Obama, bin Laden, maybe even the late Chief Justice Earl Warren.  (You don't really believe Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone do you?  You do?)

Wondering whether I'm old-fashioned about this antagonist business, I spent a perfectly nice morning with a dozen books published by the company that employs our workshop leader.  I looked for the first reference or appearance of potential antagonists, cutting off the search at page twenty.  In that space, only four -- a third -- hadn't had an antagonist show up.  Even in one of those, the blurb inside the paperback cover promised an opponent for the hero.  Of the remaining three, two were murder mysteries and one was a Crichton-ish techo-thriller, so there's still hope for an antagonist to make an appearance.

It's too late for me or the other workshop participants to change our submissions.  We'll have to let the leader decide whether antagonists are a make or break issue.  But I'm going to plead for writers to consider using antagonists.  Bad guys need jobs, too.  Be warned, of course, that if you invite an antagonist into your story, she'll duct tape you to a chair, steal everything you have and set the house on fire.  But you're a writer.  What else is happening in  your life?

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