Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Good versus Evil – Cain and Able in Writing

The Joker

Every protagonist needs an antagonist. This is fundamental to almost every form of literature and most especially the suspense/thriller/mystery genres. The historical basis for this form extends back to Homer and the classics. For the protagonist (the hero) to succeed the antagonist (anti-hero) needs to be vanquished. Good over evil, success over failure, obstacles overcome. The Bible itself is a series of short stories that advance the good (as perceived by the authors) over the evil doers of their times. And even if evil gains a temporary win, it will eventually lose. Literature shows no mercy to the faux winner.

But who is the enemy? Every age develops both their own antagonists to be put in the way of the hero and his quest. In certain times and places it was the Southern plantation owner, the Indian, the evil landowner, the cattleman, the industrialist, the communist, the capitalist, and even the society and land itself – all fighting to overwhelm and defeat the protagonist and hero. There are trends in writing based on the times. The dynamic cop/detective fighting the mob/politics in the 1920s and 1930s, Captain America and the evil Axis of Germany and Japan. Hitler and his minions, Tojo, Mussolini all were grist for writers and Hollywood during the late 1930s and into World War II itself (The Lord of the Rings). In the 1950s it was the communists yet Joseph McCarthy as the farcical enemy of communism became an antagonist himself. We had the fear of the atomic bomb which spawned mutant ants, grasshoppers, and a thing called the Blob (more than once). And who can forget The Day the Earth Stood Still (not the 2008 remake) where then enemy became us not Michael Rennie.

To say that antagonists are fashionable is an understatement. The selection of the evil doer is as much a finger on the pulse of society as it is creative fiction. Through the 60s and 70s there were dozens if not hundreds of books on the Cold War. John le Carre, Ian Fleming, novelists such as Leon Uris and Herman Wouk wrote in the era of spies and the great fear of the Soviet Union. The movie, The Manchurian Candidate, was based on Richard Condon’s 1959 novel where the great enemy was North Korea and the Soviet Union training captured American soldiers to become assassins. It was then a time of larger than life enemies and antagonists. To create a character that can instill honest fear and mortal danger to not just the hero but to a nation is worthy of our reading.

But trends can get old and even stale. Wars end, international crises pass, real enemies are defeated, and even the readers themselves get bored. And if there is one critical aspect to writing is that you never bore your reader. Even today almost every major thriller writer (Nelson DeMille, Steven Coonts, Brad Thor, John Clancy, Thomas Harris, Vince Flynn, Daniel Silva, et al) writes the same book: flawed but invincible hero (rogue American/or other westerner) confronts the evil Islamic terrorist (even worse than the governments themselves) and destroys him (unless there is the chance for a sequel). They are all well-crafted, character driven, and great reads. These writers and many others of the genre understand their audience: paranoid and fearful all wanting a savior to smite the enemy and reaffirm the Western future. I know that is a harsh statement but there is some truth to it. And it was the same truth in 1939 (pre-WWII), 1948 (Cold War), 1951 (Korea), 1962 (Cuban missile crisis), 1972 (Watergate), 1973 (Yom Kippur War), 1980s (Afghanistan/Russia), through to September 11, 2001. Every era creates real enemies and so does every writer.

More Later . . . . . . . . .

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