Monday, June 1, 2009

Finding the power

Occasionally, a simple sentence has considerable impact. For me, today, it was author Brent Hartinger saying in a Cynsations interview: For a story to be engaging, the antagonist must be more powerful than the protagonist. More powerful. I had never thought about it quite that way. Yes, I know the antagonist must be strong and in the main character's way, causing obstacles and tension and maybe even life-and-death situations, but I hadn't correlated that power-wise.
Hartinger said the imbalance of power forces the main character to change and grow or be destroyed. And that makes absolute sense.
So I thought about books where that is obvious or not-so-obvious. In Lord of the Rings, Frodo is way out of his league against Sauron, or, for that matter, even the Nazgul. Frodo may be reluctant at first but he grows into the realization that he must find the strength or his entire world will be lost.
In Susan Straight's A Million Nightingales, the antagonist is the entrenched system of slavery in Louisiana. That would be overwhelming for any slave, let alone a young girl sold away from her mother. In this case, the main character endures and finds a way to replace the family she's lost.
Any thoughts on this? Or is this so obvious to everyone that you're rolling your eyeballs? I can almost hear a chorus of duhs. Well, it spoke to me, and if that helps my writing gain power, that's all I can ask.


Donna said...

Interesting turnabout to think of the powerful antagonist as a catalyst for the protagonist's growth.

Sybel said...

Never label an epiphany a "duh" moment!

I just finished Huck Finn with two of my sophomore English classes. Society is so much more powerful than Huck. I really see it as the protagonist. He's fighting against slavery, his conscience, hypocrisy, greed, religion, and just about every obstacle society can throw against him.

In the end, he decides he'd rather go to hell than return Jim to slavery.

I get chills when my students "get it." Don't assume the status quo is right. Ask if your conscience is corrupted by a morally bankrupt society.

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Thanks Sybel. That definitely fits -- a kid and a slave fleeing on a raft from formidable and corrupt mores and laws and Huck making that choice, knowing the odds are against him.
It's satisfying to hear that your students "get it," too.

Robyn Campbell said...

Hmm, in my MG novel the antagonist is definitely more powerful, it's the rugged mountains where they're lost. The two girls do grow and change, for sure. Thanks for visiting my blog and following. Love your blog! :)

Laura Canon said...

This is kind of an inversion of the old categories of conflict -- man vs. nature, man vs. man, man vs. self.
But since I hate categorizing things I prefer the way you put it.

Pat Murkland said...

The classic, The Hero With A Thousand Faces, comes to mind.

Barrie said...

You know what's really weird? I started re-reading The Geography Club today. And super strong antagonist theory certainly works for that book!

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Thanks everybody.
Barrie: I haven't read The Geography Club yet, but I know the premise and I can see how it fits really well. I'll have to pick that up -- as well as the other great reading recs on your blog!
Pat: You're right Joseph Campbell outlined this in great detail. "more powerful" just put it post-it-note size for my struggling brain.
Laura: Precisely.
Oops thunder rumbling. Perhaps, I shall go offline!

Shelli (srjohannes) said...

great line! i agree.

Dave said...

Thanks for passing that writing advice on. I like the idea. Actually, it got me pretty excited because I think that in many ways the hero in my story has obstacles to face that are bigger than she is. Plus, I'm contemplating a new story, so that thought helps for that too.

I think that it's one of those intuitive things that is easy to go wrong on. The advice makes me want to really up the power of the villain in my next story. I think that one of the reasons I like Bilbo and Frodo so much is that they are underdogs and, like you pointed out, they face villains that are larger than life.

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Hey thanks, Dave. Glad to know it strikes a chord with others. I also realized that Frodo never does get as powerful as Sauron, he defeats him by being determined and drawing on his own strength of character -- he finds a way around the more powerful opponent.