Friday, February 10, 2012
The Faceless Villain: What to do When Your Bad Guy Isn't a Person
In a lot of stories (especially genre novels) the antagonist is a physical being that can be fought against. But what do you do when your antag is something to overcome, like depression, or a self-destructive streak? Technically, there's nothing plotting against your protagonist for them to fight. It's a personal situation or flaw holding them back.
These stories are a little tougher to write.
But like any good plot, even if your protag is dealing with something difficult, they'll still have an external force to reckon with. They'll still have a goal to work toward. They aren't sitting in a room trying to will themselves not to be depressed/grief-stricken/addicted.
In these cases, look for representatives of the problem the protag is dealing with. The problem might be the depression, but people are likely involved somehow in dealing with that depression.
For example, let's say your protag isn't trying to seek help. She doesn't know she's depressed (or whatever the situation is), she just feels a certain way. She's still going to have a goal of some type driving the story, even if that's to get everyone off her back and leave her alone. She will act in ways to achieve that goal. Something external.
The book isn't about "a girl who gets over her depression." That's her character arc or the theme. The inner journey. What she does to get over that depression is the plot. If she's not doing anything but being depressed and people try to help until she gets better, odds are you have a premise but no plot yet.
All plots need goals, so the protag needs something to work toward. And someone or something is going to be in the way or trying to keep her from that goal. Maybe it's Mom who doesn't notice she's hurting and makes the situation worse. Maybe it's friends who keep calling and she ignores them. Maybe it's the boy who knows what she's going through and recognizes her smile is all an act. Maybe it's her own behavior. Something.
A problem isn't necessarily an antagonist, it's just a problem. It might be a huge problem, and affect all aspects of the protag's life, but it's the external forces that are a result of or interfering with that problem that become antagonists. What events are a result of her depression that are preventing her from acting in some way?
If your protag knows she's depressed and wants to overcome her depression, then healing becomes the goal. But it still might not be enough, because with plots, you want a goal you can work toward that also includes stakes and rising tension. Perhaps she wants to heal so she can go to her daughter's wedding, or see the Eiffel Tower. She wants to get better because...? Even if it's "to get her life back" (a pretty common goal in a story like this), then what does that entail? What specifically needs to happen for that?
In this case, the depression itself is more of an antag here, but it's still not doing anything to directly oppose the protag. It's a cause for sure, but there will be obstacles to overcome that aren't just her illness. Something is in the way of her getting better. Getting her life back means getting treatment, reconciling with estranged loved ones, proving she can hold down a job. Whatever steps and events symbolize what "healing" means.
To heal, the protag will have things to do. Therapy. Medication. Lifestyle change. But the protag will also have issues the depression is causing. Her behavior due to this illness will likely make her act in ways that lead her away from healing and her story goal. Perhaps there are people aiding her in this who can become representative of her depression and work as antags as well.
It's Kind of A Funny Story is a great example of this kind of antagonist problem. The protag is depressed, is seriously thinking about suicide, and calls the suicide hotline. This leads to him checking himself into a psychiatric hospital to get well. His experiences in the hospital lead to his recovery, and he can get on with his life.
But that's not all the book is about. That would be boring from a fiction standpoint. There's a choice he has to make, a realization he has to have, sacrifices he has to accept. (goals and stakes are all about choices and sacrifices, right? Hence you have plot). The story question driving the book isn't "will he get well?" but "Will he figure out the problem so he can get well?" It's a subtle difference, but it's the difference between watching a guy go through a rough patch and rooting for a guy struggling with a problem and wanting him to win. That goal matters.
If your protag is facing a problem and not a flesh and blood antagonist, look for the things affected by that problem and find the goals and obstacles connected to it. Odds are the book isn't just a study of someone with a problem, but the things that problem affects and the choices that person makes to overcome, or survive, that problem.
Is your antagonist a problem and not a person? Do you have goals and obstacles for your protagonist?