3. If you’re tempted to say your antagonist is a corporation, disease or war—don’t.

3. If you’re tempted to say your antagonist is a corporation, disease or war—don’t.

Abstractions make for distant, unrelatable antagonists. If you think “organized religion” or “corporate greed” is your hero’s antagonist, your story might be more effective as an essay. Put a human face on the abstraction. A hypocritical pastor might make a good antagonist in the first instance, or a ruthless Wall Street type in the second (Gordon Gekko, anyone?). Those people can represent the abstraction and take action against the protagonist.

In Anton Myrer’s Once an Eagle, it would be easy to think of “war” as Sam Damon’s antagonist. Myrer thrusts Damon into every war from the early 20th century to “Khotiane” (Vietnam) and paints a grim picture of the suffering it causes him. Yet “war” does not act against Damon; it is war’s human face, Courtney Massengale, who maneuvers to defeat Damon and ensures he loses out on the promotion that might have allowed him to persuade policymakers not to get the U.S. involved in Khotiane. Without this human antagonist, Damon’s life (and Once an Eagle) would have less meaning; he would be fighting against uncontrollable, impersonal geopolitical forces with no hope of changing the outcome. His almost lifelong tussle with Massengale, however, is one every individual can identify with: the battle to live each day as a good human being, devoted to a higher cause than self-interest. If your work-in-progress features an abstraction as the antagonist, rework it to give the abstraction a Massengalian face.

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