What is An Antagonist?

After attending the recent New Jersey SCBWI Annual Conference, I had to make an unexpected trip to Miami. When my family calls for help, I get on a plane. I’ve earned a lot of miles this year.

On a better day towards the end of our trip, my sister and I ventured into the Florida Everglades, though we didn’t last long. She quickly became tired, and then a storm came through. Before we headed back to the hotel, I managed to take this picture of the sky. You can see the dividing point where the rain ends. I find it quite fascinating and beautiful.

In the moment when I took that picture, I thought about weather, how powerful it is, and how much damage it can do with little or no warning. This brought to mind the topic of antagonists because in some novels, weather provides the conflict in the story.

On the drive back from our short trip to the Everglades, I considered the meaning of antagonist, mostly because the topic came up at the recent New Jersey SCBWI Conference. What is an antagonist, and do all stories require the presence of one? The answer is yes. All stories need conflict. Something needs to get in the way of your protagonist to thwart their continued efforts to achieve a goal or fill a need or want.  

The question that arose in the workshop was whether an antagonist had to be a person. The answer to this question is no.

A quote from Wikipedia:

An antagonist (from Greek ἀνταγωνιστής – antagonistes, “opponent, competitor, rival”)[1] is a character, group of characters, or an institution, that represents the opposition against which the protagonist must contend. In other words, ‘A person, or a group of people who oppose the main character, or the main characters.’[2] In the classic style of story where in the action consists of a hero fighting a villain, the two can be regarded as protagonist and antagonist, respectively.[3] The antagonist may also represent a major threat or obstacle to the main character by their very existence, without necessarily deliberately targeting him or her.

On that day in Miami, we dealt with more than one antagonist: the weather and my sister’s illness. Both thwarted our plans to enjoy the beauty of the Everglades. If the alligator had jumped any higher out of the water, I would have listed that too.

An antagonist can be devastating weather, an incurable disease, or the racist attitude of an entire community, among many other possibilities. The protagonist can also get in their own way caused by their behavior. This situation can make the most interesting of stories, though it is more difficult to pull off in an effective manner.  Consider that your main character is a sociopathic liar. They may yearn to connect with others and to follow a path of honesty, but their personality doesn’t allow them to change. Who or whatever keeps your protagonist from getting what they seek is the antagonist. Without this element, you have no conflict, and thus, no story. Or at the very least, an incredibly boring story, which elicits no desire, on the part of the reader, to turn the page.

Elusive antagonists are far more interesting and provide a steeper challenge for your protagonist.  It is easier to combat a person than an attitude or an uncontrollable part of yourself that you’ve yet to reckon with. Think about the alternatives when you create your antagonist. What places the biggest blockades in the path of your main character? Don’t make it easy on them. Keep the storm coming, and make it elevate in intensity. Slather the pages with conflict.

In the end, this will improve your story. So no matter who or what your antagonist is, lay it on thick. And have fun creating those antagonists. I know I do.

Images of Whispering Pines

I start the day by applying what I’ve learned–or had reinforced–at Whispering Pines: an extraordinary writing retreat held annually in Rhode Island, and sponsored by the NE SCBWI. (I promise to blog about the conference specifics by the end of the week, and to thank everyone who deserves undying appreciation. There is much to tell and share!)

For most of the morning, I practice The Art of Killing Your Darlings, otherwise known as forcing yourself to rid the manuscript of those scenes and characters you love most, but which add nothing to your story. Sometimes, not so easy to accomplish. To prepare myself mentally for this ordeal, I first remove any and all feelings of guilt. I shove the guilt out the window to a place also reserved for Those Darlings No Longer To Be If I Am Ever To Sell This Manuscript. (I do hope My Darlings are not listening. If they are, I love you!)

Next, in preparation for the kill, I take baby steps. Instead of my writing, I  apply The Art Of Killing Your Darlings to my photograpy while I sort through the photos taken over the weekend. As always, I captured hundreds of pictures, all of which I was compelled to take. Like the characters who appear out of nowhere, whisper in my ear, and then pull me like a magnet into their worlds, I followed, in this case, the whispers of the pines.

The process of Dealing with Those Beloved Darlings or Babies goes more quickly than usual, which is surprising. I scan each picture on my computer, and if it doesn’t quickly grab me, like a well-crafted first page, I hit the delete button. When I am prompted to ponder my rash decision with the words, “Are you sure you want to delete?” I hit the button with full confidence.  Not a hint of hesitation. My inner voice has spoken. I trust it.

While studying what is left of the two-hundred plus pictures I originally took, I discover the reason behind them. Cynthia Lord, my mentor for the weekend, shared with us her process of writing Touch Blue. (If you haven’t read this novel, do so. Touch Blue is wonderful!) Cindy likes to visit a place, so she can notice the tiny details first-hand. Details such as bits and pieces of mussel shells left by seagulls, dropped from high above, in hopes they will break. The mussels eaten, tires drive over what is left of the shells, crushing them. What remains is beautiful. Shimmering shades of blue dance in the sunlight like bits of broken glass.  

During the block of time set aside for writing or critique groups, I found myself walking instead. And that was okay, because it felt right. Right for me. Still trying to wind down from a recent, stressful trip to NC, I needed to decompress.

At first, I walked with hesitation down the windy road, heading away from the conference. Should I be writing? Should I be revising? In truth, I was in my mind. Thoughts of my manuscript swirled in unison with the swish, swish, swish of the pine trees swaying in the breeze. For me, the healing process had begun.

Now when I choose which images to share on this blog, I understand what I was doing. I was listening to Cindy. I was searching for those details that only a visitor can discover on their own. In a place where pines whisper to you, surrounding you with beauty and grace and inspiration.

These are the images I share with you today:

Water resembling melting chocolate (if it were not so blue), the swirls enticing onlookers to purchase a fresh pound of fudge, their taste buds on high alert.

Water so blue that it becomes a work of marbled art. Art I want to touch. This picture will go on my wall to remind me, always, what Cindy told me.

A hawk high above the trees, flying free, its wings spread open, its movement effortless. Oh, how I envy that.

A rushing stream I discovered on the drive out, which compelled me to pull to the side of the road, so I could capture the image. Freeze it in time, forever. Seeing it now, it invokes the happiest of memories: witnessing a Vermont glass blower, blowing bubbles with my granddaughter, experiencing Yellowstone National Park with my family.

Lastly, the sign leading me out, away from this place I did not want to leave. I remember hesitating by the sign, not wanting to go, until I realized what this weekend had given me.

In being shown the way out, I discovered the way in. To the place where my characters have patiently waited for me. Knowing I am ready, they now lead me back to my heart, my words, so that I may surrender, once again, to the singing of my soul.

No other gift could be greater than that.

What if Mrs. Claus Took Over for Santa?

While I enjoy giving writing prompts to inspire other writers, I like being challenged myself. Last week, Kathy Temean had posted this writing challenge: On Christmas Eve day while baking five pies, cookies, meatballs and lasagna, I wondered what would happen if Santa got sick and Mrs. Claus had to take over?  Would the reindeer’s behave?  Would she find her way to everyone’s house?  What would happen if she got mixed up and slipped down the chimney of a house that didn’t celebrate Christmas?  And does she even know how to go up and down a chimney, like Santa?  I could see poor Mrs. Claus running into a lot of problems.  The kind writers like to throw at their main character.  What qualities would Mrs. Claus bring to the job Santa has perfected?

I had not planned to respond to this challenge, but sometimes my mind works on its own. While in the midst of Holiday Cleaning, the story unfolded.  I vacummed . . . typed . . . dusted . . . typed . . . washed dishes . . . typed . . . sorted paperwork . . . typed. By the time my house was close to presentable, I discovered that the words I’d paid no attention to while typing actually made some sort of sense.

Two additional writers responded to this prompt, and Kathy posted all of our stories on her blog. http://kathytemean.wordpress.com/2010/12/29/christmas-challenge-stories/

Here is what I wrote while doing a slew of other activities, simply allowing my mind to play with the idea.


‘Twas the night before Christmas and Santa was ill.

He was sneezing and wheezing, refusing his pill.

The elves, in a panic, said, “what shall we do?’

One pointed at Mrs. Claus. “How about you?”

“Nonsense,” said Santa. “Her job is to bake.

Where’s my soup and my crackers? And how about cake!”

“Bake your own cake,” she said, “it’s 2010.

I can handle this job. It’s not only for men.

I can bake all the cookies, wrap all the gifts,

line up the reindeer, and manage the elves.

Multi-tasking is what, I, Mrs. Claus, can do best.

Now pass me my boots, help me slip on this vest.”

“But Mrs. Claus, Sweet-Pea, it’s my job, not yours.”

“Santa, stop griping, just open the door.”

After kissing his cheeks, Mrs. Claus led the way

to the stable of reindeer and one giant sleigh.

Taking her seat, she grabbed both red reins,

and then, with a twinkle, she called out their names.

“Now, Dasher! Now, Dancer! Now, Prancer and Vixen!

On, Comet! On Cupid! On, Donder and Blitzen!

Never mind with the rooftops, that’s not where we’ll land.

Sliding down chimneys isn’t part of my plan.”

So, up, up and away they soared through the sky

where Mrs. Claus learned she enjoyed to fly.

“I warned this would happen, the man should lay low,”

she mumbled to Rudolph and steered through the snow.

“Santa needs a long break, somewhere warm in the sun.

Together, just us. We deserve to have fun.

Children keep asking for more and more toys

when the world has enough for all girls and all boys.

Electronics and Kindles, it’s out of control.

If the elves can’t keep up, to the mall he might go.”

Then, through the clouds, the first house she did see.

“Now aim for the front yard, just past that large tree.”

With a poof the deer landed, unsure what to do.

They pawed with their hoofs, awaiting her cue.

“Children know Santa’s coming, I’m not going to hide.

Besides, it’s too cold out, let’s all go inside.”

With a rap, rap, rap, ding-dong, she woke everyone up.

And soon she was drinking hot tea from a cup.

In front of a fire, the reindeer got warm,

having lost their desire to fly in the storm.

“See these cookies you leave him, he’s getting too fat.

The man needs more fruit. And a large yoga mat.

At the North Pole, where we live, there are no gym clubs,

which is why my love, Santa, is as round as a tub.

 On the subject of gifts, I will leave you just one,

for you and your family. Enjoy the fun!”

Then, after she posed for a picture or two,

she blew them a kiss and bid them adieu.

The kids begged to open the gift that she’d left,

but the parents said “no,” still needing their rest.

From Asia to Europe, to Australia, too,

Mrs. Claus even made a quick trip to the zoo.

The children were baffled, some even upset.

One gift to share was all they would get?

With a “Hodie! Hodie! Hodie!” she shouted from above,

“What you’ll find in each box is a perfect white dove.”

Early Christmas morning, when all were awake,

the boxes were opened; the doves all escaped.

“Where?” said one child, looking up at the sky.

“Where did they go, and can you tell me why?”

This, I tell you, for those who wish to know

what happened to the doves that flew off in the snow.

At the very right moment, when you expect it the least,

the doves will fly over bringing much needed peace.

Betsy Devany 12/28/2010

THANK YOU, KATHY! This was a lot of fun! Lets do it again, soon.




The Ducks of San Diego

San Diego is a beautiful city. And that is where I spent the past week, celebrating a family member’s birthday. The weather was perfect (sunny and not too hot) and the company of people we haven’t seen in a while was even better. We walked and walked and . . . walked. Through the entire San Diego Zoo, and The Wild Animal Park. And to anywhere that had gelato. Or really good coffee. We indulged in handmade crepes. Dinner crepes. Dessert crepes.  And in anything made with mango–an obsession of mine. Connection to the internet was minimal, and there was little time to write.  

When I don’t write at length for a few days, I feel unsettled and starved for creativity. And at times, melancholy. And so I explored another way of expressing my feelings: photography.  While I am a novus, I love the art of taking a picture. Or trying to take a picture. Or taking dozens of pictures, only to delete most of my shots. I am compelled to follow certain subjects, shooting from different angles until it feels right. I write in this same vein. 

Discovering that I’ve taken a memorable photo feels almost the same as when I’ve written twenty first-pages and throw away nineteen. But one page has a sense of wonder to it. It breathes life and offers possibility. I can step back and see something really good. A character I need to follow. A story I need to write.

And so, as with life, and writing, and photography, I remain open to those moments. The ones you don’t expect. The ones you want to be ready for before they pass you by and blow away in the wind. Like a dandelion that’s been kissed by a young child.   

With a camera by my side at all times, I was prepared. My first unexpected moment on Coronado Island was when I opened the door to our first-floor suite the day after we arrived. With plans of hunting down a good cup of coffee, I was  surprised to find company on our door mat: a momma mallard duck with her thirteen adorable babies following her.

I did what my husband fully expected of me.  I dropped my purse, jacket, and knapsack at my feet, well, on top of his feet, and turned on my camera.

To feed my creative needs for the week we were in San Diego, I saw the world through my camera lens. In other words, I followed the ducks. Unless they were following me, which they did on a number of occasions. And while I did my best to keep the seagulls away from her thirteen babies, sadly, by the time we left the Coronado Island, the duckling count was down to nine. I wanted to protect them all, just like I keep a protective wing around my characters, especially when they are developing and not yet ready to be introduced to the world.

As for the two male mallards (the brothers) who followed me around like puppies, I left inspired by their behavior to return to my picture book manuscript about ducks. The piece has been sitting in a drawer for months. I can now look at it with new eyes. For this, I thank the brothers.

And for my readers, I thank you for your patience while I went a month without blogging. It has been a month of doing taxes, working extra hours at the toy store, attending two writing workshops, completing writing deadlines, and reconnecting with family. 





The Right Fit

Betsy with Eve Adler
Betsy with Eve Adler
Carmen with Lisa Yoskowitz
Carmen with Lisa Yoskowitz

On my drive home, after attending the NJ SCBWI Mentoring Workshop, I began to think about jeans; how hard it is to find the right pair. And how every time I feel hopeful about discovering the perfect pair, I end up with a pile of jeans in a dressing room, all of which need to go back on their hangers, or folded in such a way that you can never find your size easily among the uniformed stacks on the shelves.  After years of  trying on jeans, I haven’t given up. I can’t. Everyone needs a good pair of jeans. The right pair is out there. Somewhere. A pair of jeans that doesn’t bunch up at my thighs, squeeze my calves, require that I gain three inches in height, need a belt at all times, and are the perfect length and right shade of denim. What shade is that? I don’t know. I’ll know when I see the pair in some store when I’m not even in a jean-shopping frame of mind. Something about the denim will catch my eye. And then, the courtship begins. If the jeans fit in the dressing room, what shape will they be in after being washed? And dried?  After a mini-celebration in the dressing room while my husband is texting to see if I am ready to leave the store–do I realize how my five minutes of “I’ll be right back” has turned into one hour?–I purchase three pairs, and then sit on the decision. I let a week or two pass. I keep the jeans with their tags attached in the shopping bag (receipt included, just in case I change my mind) and ponder this unexpected treasure. Are they really as spectacular as I thought in my moment of celebration at the store?  Had I even eaten that day? Was I being delusional? While I decide whether I truly love these jeans, or not, I test myself. I wait three days. Try them on. Look in my full-length mirror. Turn to the side. Put them back in the shopping bag. Wait another week. I am not fully committed. Not yet. Not until the day I decide to recycle the shopping bag, snip off the tags, and file away the receipt, do I know I’m ready to take the plunge. I need these jeans. They speak to me. I look forward to wearing them, many times over.  Unless the first washing is disastrous, the jeans and I have formed a bond.

Finding the ideal jeans is how I equate an editor’s search for the right manuscript that catches their eye, like a sliver of sun peeking through the branches of the tree, its leaves shimmering in the light. And you want an editor who will flatter your writing and enhance your features.

As a writer, I know how difficult it is to find jeans that are comfortable, fit well, are of good quality, and can stand up to numerous trips through the washing machine. I know how frustrating it is, and exhausting, to spend hours at multiple stores, thumbing through the racks and shelves, only to go home empty-handed and never wanting to see another dressing room. Yet, I never give up. My perfect, or near perfect, pair of jeans are out there. Somewhere.

And so, with the image of hunting for jeans (or the ideal pair of  casual, yet dressy, every occasion, black shoes) I appreciate the challenge of facing stacks and stacks of unread manuscripts.  The joy is in finding the right one.

My weekend with Eve Adler from Henry Holt,  and Lisa Yoskowitz from Dutton inspired this thought process. They are both delightful, encouraging, and enthusiastic about the world of children’s literature.  I am now deep into the magical process of novel revision, guided by their wonderful suggestions.