Coming up with antagonists who are believable, effective, and even a tad sympathetic is one of the greatest challenges I face with my writing. It’s a stone-tablet novel-craft commandment though, that the better you write your antagonists, the more your heroes and heroines have to grow and stretch to outwit them.
Then I came across this article by Issendai, courtesy of writing industry blogger Jane Friedman, which outlines how to create a sick system. The sick system, be it a business, a relationship, a writing group, holds together on the basis of unhealthy psychology. Factors such as chronic overwork, fatigue, never-ending crises, and unpredictable rewards create a sticky mess of anxiety, guilt, hope, and fear, with no resources remaining for real problem-solving.
This article prompted reflection about the unhealthy relationships I’ve been in, and a couple of villainous patterns emerge.
Part of the reason I’m chronically tired in a sick system is because the person who set up the system won’t help me with all the responsibility I’ve been assigned. The ex keeps dodging his or her half of the parenting schedule. The boss gives me too many projects and won’t get me an assistant, the other parents on the playground watch “must” work all the time, every weekend. The more selfless their excuses, the harder it is for me to name their exploitation of me. In some clever cases, I’m the very reason they can’t help: I demand child support (the law demands it), I want a promotion (when did I say that?), I volunteered, didn’t I (for every weekend?!)?
Another factor at work is that actions and words don’t connect for people perpetuating a sick system. “I love you,” offered with an affectionate smile, doesn’t jive with, “So I’ll leave you to deal with all the bills, our unruly adolescents, the falling apart car, the overgrown yard, and the irate homeowners’ association while I go to my third spin class of the weekend.”
Sick systems also rely on an ability to pivot villainy–to fingerpoint–outside the system. How many bosses have patiently explained that, “Some clients are unreasonable, but they are the client…” over and over, without admitting that some bosses give clients unreasonable expectations, over and over? How many spouses have blamed the job, while doing nothing to find another job? How many judges, school administrators, pastors, and other authority figures have said, “My hands are tied,” when in fact, there isn’t a rope to be seen?
And these people seem to know how to turn up sweet just often enough, just unpredictably enough, to keep our loyalty.
Those patterns–creating perpetually unreasonable obligations, disconnecting actions and words, evading responsibility, and offering unpredictable rewards–should result in some thoroughly dis-likeable, absolutely believable, hard-to-defeat antagonists… If I can stand to write them.
Have you come across any real-life sick systems? How did you get out, or how would you advise a character in a book to escape such a dynamic? To one commenter, I’ll send a signed advanced reader copy of No Other Duke Will Do.