by Deren Hansen
Part of what makes stories superior to daily life is the presence of a
clearly defined villain (that and the fact that a good story-teller
skips the boring bits). You may object that there are plenty of stories
where the villain doesn't have a face or is something that can't be
embodied in a single person. While that's true, those stories still
ultimately reveal the nature of the antagonist (or antagonistic forces)
and show how the protagonist overcomes (or at least deals with) them.
Conflict is the fuel that feeds the story engine. That's why a great deal of writing advice (like the Christopher Walken cow bell sketch on Saturday Night Live)
boils down to, "Ratchet up the conflict." But you can't have engaging
narrative conflict if the parties and their conflicting objectives are
When story needs to motivate as well as entertain, the need for a
clear-cut antagonist is all the more pressing. If you were told two
stories, one with rainbows and bright flowers about puppies who learn
they should be nice to each other, and one about oppression and wrongs
to be righted--right in your very own neighborhood--which is more likely
to move you to do something more than turn to the next story?
The crux of the motivational problem is that we live in a world whose
name, if we had to follow the convention of a large, U.S.-based toy
retailer, could be, "Ambiguities R Us."
I should have foreseen the present partisan and cultural divide coming:
parties need an enemy--a threatening "other"--to call their partisans to
action. During the Cold War, one of the partisan battle fields was a
tug-of-war (pun intended) over who was strongest on defense (which was
code for who would stand up to the Soviet Union). Since the collapse of
the Soviet Union, we've had a parade of mostly Middle Eastern dictators
and terrorists. The latter, as a nebulous threat, haven't lived up to
their narrative potential to provoke fears entirely out of proportion to
their actual activities. So now, without a strong external threat, we
have no choice but to look inward and find even more fearful threats at
home. In other words, our lust for narrative conflict drives us to turn
For a significant portion of the middle ages, an irrational fear of
witches served very nicely to keep village congregations huddled
together. We now look back, tut, and shake our heads at such
superstitions, and then, in practically the same breath, rise up in
righteous indignation at their modern counterparts.
I'm not asking for enlightenment--or even tolerance. I'm simply pointing
out something that as storytellers we, of all people, should
understand: we're not the only ones who go out of our way to manufacture
conflict because that's what a good story requires.
* Except that you should carry a pistol if you're likely to be attacked by fruit-wielding maniacs.
Deren Hansen is the author of the Dunlith Hill Writers Guides. Learn more at dunlithhill.com.