Instructor Q&A

Marian Szczepanski, author of the debut novel Playing St. Barbara (High Hill Press, 2013), holds an MFA in fiction from the Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College and a BA in American Studies from the University of Notre Dame. Her short fiction has garnered the deMaine Award for an Emerging Writer from Clackamas Literary Review. She has received fellowships, grants, and awards from Hedgebrook, Vermont Studio Center, the Writers’ Colony at Dairy Hollow, and the Houston Press Club. Named to the Houston Press roster of “100 Houston Creatives” for 2014, Marian teaches creative writing workshops in Houston at Writespace and beyond.

Marian is teaching a class for the Writers’ League on Saturday, October 31 at St. Edward’s University called “Characters Who Don’t Play Well with Others: Crafting Credible Antagonists.” This class is currently sold out but we plan to offer classes similar to this in the future as well as invite Marian back to teach for us again. Please take a look at our other fall classes here.

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Scribe: Who is your favorite antagonist in literature and why?

Marian Szczepanski: For the past two years I’ve been something of an evangelist for Anthony Marra’s remarkable debut novel A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. The novel offers readers a close-up of the Russian occupation of Chechnya by focusing on a handful of Chechens, among them Ramzan, a villager who is coerced by the Russians (known as Feds) into serving as an informant. Ramzan is a fascinating character because he’s responsible for the disappearances and almost certain deaths of his friends and neighbors. Although Ramzan has powerful reasons for helping the Feds, he’s fully aware his behavior is reprehensible. Consequently, he’s horribly conflicted over his actions. The expression “caught between a rock and a hard place” describes his situation perfectly. I’m captivated by antagonists like Ramzan because they can’t be easily explained or labeled as “all bad.” They’re complex characters who behave in often contradictory ways, and they may hate themselves as much as or even more than the character(s) harmed by their actions.

Scribe: Do you think crafting an antagonist can be a good place for new writers to start building a story?

MS: Absolutely! I agree with fiction writer Richard Bausch’s assessment: “No trouble, no story.” Compelling fiction requires some sort of conflict—even if its focus is a character at odds with him or herself. That said, an antagonist doesn’t have to be a murderer or pedophile. An antagonist’s role can be much more subtle, more like an instigator who shakes things up for the protagonist. Boris in Donna Tartt’s novel The Goldfinch behaves in this way. The youthful behavior of Theo, the protagonist, becomes increasingly reckless as a result of his friendship with freewheeling Boris, and their alliance will have far-reaching consequences as the novel progresses. Even before meeting Boris, Theo’s chance encounter with a dying man just after the museum explosion pushes him to do something he arguably would never have done on his own. These characters plant the seeds for trouble, some of which simmers just beneath the story’s surface, building up steam until the narrative provides the perfect moment in which to blow the action wide open.

Scribe: What do you personally struggle with most when imagining the antagonists in your stories?

MS: In my debut novel, a primary character is an abusive alcoholic, and his actions are a vital component of the plot. As I wrote the story, I needed him to behave very, very badly in relationship to his wife and daughters, but I didn’t want his persona to be one-dimensional or “just plain bad”. I gave a lot of thought to how I could provide contradictory characteristics for him, to find at least one aspect of his nature that was positive, even laudable. I did a lot of rewriting in scenes that focused on his behavior at home to accurately render his violent side, yet not turn him into a monster. I also paid attention to their placement in the overall narrative, making sure I balanced these negative episodes with glimpses of the character’s passionate efforts to achieve justice for his fellow workers.

Scribe: Do you think antagonists are more at risk of not being fully developed than protagonists?

MS: I do. I know it was an ongoing concern for me while writing my violent character. It’s easier to create a bad-to-the-bone character than one with contradictory personal traits. It’s a true balancing act on the part of the writer, allowing an antagonist to do his or her damage even as he wrestles with ambivalence about these actions—or something completely unrelated to them, such as a troublesome personal relationship. Tony Soprano was a terrific example: a ruthless mob boss who thought nothing of murdering anyone who got in his way, yet sought out a therapist to help him get a handle on increasing panic attacks. A mafia don with panic attacks—talk about a fascinating, complicated character. Yes, he was bad and did extremely bad things, but he was also so much more.

Scribe: How much do you think writers run into difficulty when they want to create a fully fleshed out antagonist but they don’t want their readers to sympathize with the antagonist? How is this conflict a good or bad thing for writing?

MS: Frankly, I think a little sympathy for an antagonist isn’t a bad thing. I feel tremendous sympathy for Ramzan, whom I mentioned earlier, because I truly don’t know how I’d respond if forced into a similarly untenable situation. I think the best antagonists are ones who can’t be pigeonholed. Unlike Rowling’s He Who Must Not Be Named, such a character shows up and prompts the reader to think “uh-oh,” then proceeds to behave in a way that undercuts the reader’s expectations. An unpredictable antagonist amps the reading experience in such a wonderful way. If a reader doesn’t know what’s coming, or isn’t quite sure about a character’s intentions, her curiosity increases and compels her to keep reading. That’s every writer’s objective, crafting a story that makes the reader think, over and over, “I wonder what happens next?”

Scribe: Some writers like Flannery O’Connor have the reader stuck inside the head of the antagonist. What do you think about making the antagonist the main character or even the narrator?

MS: O’Connor was masterful in presenting point-of-view characters who are self-centered, judgmental, bigoted, and narrow-minded—then allowing them to metaphorically hang themselves with a rope created by their shortcomings. In my class, we’ll talk about her story “A Good Man Is Hard To Find,” whose obvious antagonist is the murderous Misfit. However, the grandmother in the story is also a classic O’Connor antagonist, and it’s her sense of superiority and self-righteousness that causes her family to take a deadly wrong turn. O’Connor showcases the grandmother’s flaws by telling the story from her perspective, allowing the reader to form an opinion about her that she is blind to herself. This lends the story an exquisite irony and complexity that wouldn’t be possible if the point-of-view character were another family member.

— Thanks, Marian!

Click here for our full fall class schedule.

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