When I sat down to write this final draft of my book, I felt like I knew a lot about story. My three bookshelves jammed with tomes about the craft of storytelling were a testament to how much I’d learned about the subject over the past few years. And so as I set out to tell my tale, I was confident that I had all the necessary pieces in place. Protagonist? That one’s easy. Check. Central conflict? Check. Initiating incident? Check. Theme? That one took forever to figure out, but I finally realized what it was. So, check.
I started writing. Then, a couple chapters in, something dawned on me:
What about the antagonist?
Every story has an antagonist. It can be as obvious as a supervillian or as subtle as personality quirk, but there is always a force that opposes the protagonist. In fact, if you don’t have an antagonist, you don’t have a story. So I figured that there must be one, but couldn’t pinpoint what it was.
I didn’t come up with anything. Eventually I just figured it must be the devil, broadly defined. The story I was writing was ultimately a story about me finding God, and evil always tries to stop us from doing that sort of thing, so it seemed like a good enough answer. I didn’t see many incidences where I encountered evil face-to-face in a way that would make one think, “Hey, that’s the devil!”; I couldn’t imagine how I’d highlight encounters with this antagonist, if at all, but I proceeded under this assumption.
Then one Saturday morning I sat down to work on the book. I checked my writing schedule to see that I was about 25 percent of the way into the story, and it was time to start talking about those first stirrings of desire for God. I’d already recounted why I came to believe in some kind of Creator on an intellectual level, and now it was time to explain how my heart got into it. Before I started writing, I asked myself a question that would change the course of the book; it’s probably not an exaggeration to say that it changed the course of my life. I simply wondered:
Was there anything I wanted more than God at this point?
Based on that prompt, I started writing. The memories came like a downpour. I could hardly type fast enough to keep up with the thoughts. I wrote and wrote, churning out an almost inhuman words-per-minute output as I told the story of a time I encountered something that I was so attached to, that I desired so deeply that I wanted it more than I wanted God. I’ve rarely had an easier writing assignment than describing the ways in which this thing lured me, what I found so wonderful about it, the reasons I thought it would make my life complete.
When I was done, I took my hands away from the keyboard, looked back at what I had just written. And with a chill I realized that I had just encountered my antagonist.
Yes, it was the devil, in the sense that it was probably him who put this thing in my path and encouraged my attachment to it. But I didn’t understand my own story until I understood that my antagonist was something more than the general workings of evil. It was something very specific that I wanted out of life, a goal that I desired to achieve with everything in my being. Not that there’s anything wrong with setting goals and aiming to accomplish them; but what made this particular goal the antagonist was that I wanted it more than I wanted anything else — even God.
I’ve been thinking about this all through Lent. I remembered that I’m still living a story, even if I’m not putting it down on paper. Which made me realize: That means that there is still an antagonist. And if I’m ever going to live a great story, I must identify what it is.
It’s been a fruitful exercise, one that I recommend everyone undertake. As we approach the end of Lent, take a moment to ask:
What do you want the story of your life to be? What would a beautiful, God-glorifying ending look like? And now: What is your Antagonist?