The Antagonist

March 28, 2012 | 20 comments

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?


  1. Christina

    “Was there anything I wanted more than God…” Oh my, this is the last three months for me. What I wanted more than God was day dreams or idle thoughts. Anything to keep me from thinking about real stuff. I’ve read numerous silly books that I’ve tried to justify in some way (and which may not have been bad had I only read ONE or TWO, but after a dozen or so it adds up).

    What’s worse, I kept avoiding confessing this, so although I went several times to confession it wasn’t until this Monday that I finally broke. I wanted God more than the slowly escalating depression and darkness I found myself in (for anything less than God is just that). He is patient — at some point the natural consequences of NOT choosing God really begin to hurt and we have to choose the pain of healing over the pain of staying.

    I suddenly feel like I have more energy to do good, more life in me in general. God is Good, anything else isn’t just second best, it’s hell.

  2. JB

    Interesting meditation. I’ve been thinking about personal roadblocks in much the same way as you describe, and I think it is an interesting way to consider the passions in our lives, particularly during Great Lent.

    As for me, I’m not exactly sure how to quantify my antagonist, as I have a bit of an eating disorder, but it arises out of something other than the food itself. Just haven’t been able to completely identify the something other yet, but I’m working on it with a therapist. Obviously, I’d like to get the point where disordered eating no longer rules my life, and that I can simply eat a meal without complications, but that may be my cross to bear this life.

    Best of luck as you wait on the reply back from your agent on the book! I know how hard that waiting game can be, if you are a writer. You want the approval NOW! When submitting something for friends and family to read, I literally sit on a couch and bounce with nervousness, twirling my hair, biting my fingernails, etc. until they are finished. (Or at a stopping point, as some of my stuff is rather lengthy). I hope you have feedback soon!!

  3. Emily

    My antagonist is the desire for children. I must be infertile for a reason, but my heart keeps fighting the child-free lifestyle and even adoption, and while reading your post, I thought to myself, would I trade God for the ability to be pregnant and raise a child? It gave me pause. I said of course not, but it was really tempting.

  4. Diapeepees

    Leaving us in the dark…So I guess we’ll have to buy the book now…great marketing!

    • Mark L

      That’s funny.

      Mark L.

  5. Lauren P

    Powerfully framed post – and for me, super pertinent. I have been chewing on this very idea, without naming it in such a direct and literary way, with increasing urgency this Lent. Though I’ve been totally God’s in my mind for a long time, it’s amazing how my humanity presents its weaker sides to me over and over again, asking me if I’d like to continue surrendering it to Christ and if I’m willing to trust TODAY and be vulnerable TODAY and endure hardship ONCE MORE, etc. It is truly a daily task – daily calling, daily bread given. Our future is in His hands.

    I believe that everyone must grapple with this question you pose Jen – our “idols” are often borne of ideosyncratic weaknesses that can’t fall under the category of “mortal sin” when analyzed from an exterior level. However, the Spirit searches the heart and knows all that is there – and in His great LOVE, He asks for nothing less than our whole hearts – because in the end we come to God entirely – or not at all! Thank goodness that He also patiently bears with us and woos us into allowing His Transformative Love to refine and possess us more and more in time.

    I have learned that I can look just fine (good even!) to everyone else and be following my own will or indulging my own fears and selfishness to avoid being vulnerable to pain, sorrow, loss of knowledge and control, or loneliness. I guess those are the things hardest for me to embrace. The flip side would be to say that my antagonist is my desire to be able to rely on human support/love/relationships, all part of God’s plan for me, but to arrange my life in such a way that I feel least vulnerable to the loss thereof in any sense. I hate to feel alone! I know God does not call me to isolation, but merely to trust Him to fulfill the deepest desires of my heart! And that if, per chance, I do find myself alone, He will be there, and I will be ok. He (Jesus) was! I thought I had learned this a few times over, but man, it is still there, lurking, if I am not careful. (That’s what the devil does though, huh?!) And if I am not careful, it is not just the desire, but the people themselves, too – my spouse and children, closest friends – that get turned into idols – and that is not real love. Love is always present in the moment, open to the other, to the unknown, to the possibilities that await, to the suffering that might be called forth, even to the loss of the Beloved, if that be the Truth of the reality of the moment.

    Is it any coincidence that my CAPTCHA Code is “2LUV” ?!!! 🙂

  6. Ginger

    At a retreat I attended a few years ago during Lent, the priest said something that has stayed with me. You don’t have to LOVE it, for it to be your idol. You just have to serve it, be a slave to it, make sacrifices for it. For me, what I was slavishly serving was something about work / prestige / the admiration of others. Somehow, realizing that I was serving it but but not loving it helped me open my eyes and my heart to the One who is worthy of absolute service and absolute love. And that helped me learn how to actually love my work–for God’s sake.

    Oh, and of course, once I learned that, it was the end of all struggle … Riiiight. Oh, is that why Lent comes back every year? Anyway, thanks so much for this timely and thought-provoking post.

  7. Mark L

    This is why I read your blog. Thank you for sharing.

    Mark L.

  8. weavermom

    Thought provoking. I’m looking forward to your book. I’ve read the publishing world is slow, slow, slow, but I hope your process goes more quickly!!! 🙂

    I think comfort and love (from others) are mine. So tricky, because both are blessings, but I can put the blessings above God.

  9. Eva

    In my own search for God, I often see my own, rational and argumentative mind as the antagonist. The mind that won’t let me accept wishy-washy airy-fairy ideas as truth; the one that keeps demanding ‘proof’, what ever that may be.
    Yep. That’s definately my antagonist.
    Which is very, very irritating!


  10. AizaMay

    This looks really interesting…You are an inspiration to people…Well you know everything is possible as long a God is the center of our living…

  11. Julia at LotsaLaundry

    Excellent question.

    My answer: the well-being of my kids.


  12. elizabeth

    Fabulous post. I write fiction, and never really thought of the fact that non-fiction requires the same basics for good storytelling. In my life, it is hard to identify the antagonist, but I think the big, bad guy named Fear most often separate me from Christ’s love. I also struggle–and wonder if other writers do–with wanting so badly to get my book done and published. It is such a fine line between ambition for self and desire to bring glory to God through your work. I would highly recommend reading “Habit of Being” –a collection of Flannery O’Connor’s letters. Though lupus was ravaging her body when she visited Lourdes, Flannery didn’t ask for a cure, but help to finish her novel. That gives me some solace that maybe all writers feel this way:)

  13. Veronica Mitchell

    I have been working on a novel the last few years, and one of the things I have discovered is the importance of writing what shames or embarrasses me. That thing, whatever it is, is my real contribution. The part of me that I want to hide is the most significant thing I have to give readers.

    The surprise has been that the thing that most embarrasses me is rarely sin. It is usually something that I use sin to cover up.

  14. Jen G

    I think I could name Fear, Anxiety and Need for Control as some of my big hurdles. Thankfully, I am working through all these things, and it’s getting a little less oppressive. A friend told me that this life will break your heart over and over again. I think it’s been a process of being worn down over time, so that I can accept that I can’t do it all. It’s a relief to understand that I don’t have to do it all.

  15. Kris, in New England

    There must be something in the air that goes beyond Lent. I have been struggling with this for years now and I have non-Christian/agnostic friends and acquaintances who are doing the same thing.

    For me, my antagonist is my lack of faith in myself that I am the good person people tell me I am. It holds me back from a full and loving relationship with God and it is holding me back from pursuing a career change that will enlighten my life and allow me to live my passions fully.

    I recently shared this with a visiting priest who did a 4-night Lenten Mission at my church. He was so shocked because I put out such a jazzy-persona that no one would suspect that inside – I have a very low opinion of myself. Fr. John made me promise to keep the note I wrote about this with me at all times, and in 6 months to pull it out and remember our conversation and see where I am vs. where I was.

    I am working hard to accept that I am a good person with a good heart; that I’m smart and that people want to be around me because of … me. This is hard and I am determined to work thru it as it really does stand in the way of a full relationship with God.

  16. Charlene

    Wow, God must be speaking to me through you. I’ve been thinking about this very thing for weeks now. Even though I have been a Christian, apparently, for years it is only recently that i have realized that Christianity is more than saying a prayer and going to church. It is action too. A Turning away from self towards God. A giving up of things that feed the flesh and instead feeding the spirit. I know this now, yet the giving up, the dying, is painful and i am, to be quite frank, avoiding it, putting it off. So, thank you for this post.

  17. Sarah B.

    What do I want more than God? Food. It’s always been food, and I have to work very hard to turn my pain to good rather than to ice cream.

    It’s hard, but when God gives me the grace to do it, there’s no feeling like that freedom.

    Thank you for a very thought-provoking post. Can’t wait for the book.

  18. Tracey


    I’m 40. Fifteen years ago I came back to God. Five years ago I came back to Christianity. Six months ago I came back to the Catholic Church. When I first turned back to God I was covered up in what seemed to be numerous things I had put before God; money, sex, image, pleasure on demand, material possessions, etc. Attachment to many of these things fell away immediately. Attachment to others is being chipped away by the process of the pursuit of God.

    As it turns out, the many things I have chased after are all just one thing in different clothes. They are promises of security. My pursuit of God has been all about learning to reject the world’s empty promises and to place my trust in God alone. The very good news is that I’m not giving up security, I’m learning to find it in the only place it really lives, God Himself.

    Speaking of filling a book, Jennifer, if I were only going to read one (or two. Okay, three.) of the books you liked about writing, what would you recommend they be?

    • Tracey

      My question would have made more sense if I had left in the original first line of my comment, which was “The long answer could fill a book, but here is the short(ish) answer.”

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