Dr. Moriarty. Mrs. Coulter. Alec d'Urberville. Voldemort. Literature is full of deliciously evil antagonists, characters whose primary mission is to keep the story’s protagonist from achieving their goal. Without a villain to serve as a catalyst for the main character’s evolution, most literature would fall flat. Turns out people who make us uncomfortable can serve the same purpose in our lives: if handled correctly, they super-charge our personal evolution. It doesn’t mean they’re fun to deal with, though, and that’s where transforming someone who has made your life difficult into a fictional antagonist can help you to process the experience and lighten your emotional load.
This 3-part activity is short, fun, and healing:
1. Freewrite to choose your antagonist.
Freewriting is a powerful tool for accessing the subconscious and for boosting creativity. If you’re not familiar with process, it simply means writing for a set amount of time without pause and without judgment. For this first step, set your timer for ten minutes. During that time, write down everything that bubbles up in response to this question: What one person has recently caused me the most stress? Think about any interactions with this person, what happened, and how they made you feel. There is no wrong way to do this as long as you’re writing fast and furious, without criticism.
2. After the ten minutes are up, do a body check as you think about the person you chose. Where in your body are you feeling the stress? Briefly record the location and sensation.
3. Create a character bible page for the person you chose.
A character bible is a notebook or a word processed document that a writer uses to organize a novel’s characters. Standard character bible entries include such things as the character’s name, physical details (height, weight, hair color, etc.), personality traits, and a brief background. For your character bible entry, you’re going to answer some very specific questions about the real-life villain you chose, making up answers where necessary. This fictionalizing of a real person is where the healing really takes off because it requires you to empathize, connect, and create.
Questions for your antagonist:
- What's your name? Nickname?
- What famous person do you most resemble?
- Of all your qualities, which are you most proud of? Where do you think you acquired this quality?
- What do people seem to like the least about you? How does this make you feel?
- What habit of yours would you most like to change?
- If someone looked in your bathroom garbage right now, what would they find? How about your refrigerator?
- What scent do you enjoy the most, and what does it remind you of?
- If you could go back in time change one day of your life, what day would it be, and why?
- Who do you love most in the world and why?
- What scares you?
- What do you want more than anything? What challenges do you have to overcome to acquire it?
After you’ve completed this three-part exercise, do a body check again as you think about the person you chose in Step 1. I am certain you’ll find your stress has less power over you. How do I know? Besides the extensive science establishing that writing about a traumatic experience alleviates stress and boosts physical and mental health, I’ve got front-row experience. The first time I tried this exercise, I chose as my antagonist an ex-partner. I’ll call him Doug.
He was the first man I seriously dated after I unexpectedly lost my husband. I’d been a widow and single mom for five years when we met online. Doug was 40 years old, intense, smart, artistic, and wanted to return to college. I supported him financially and emotionally, absorbing his weekly outbursts and accommodating his growing jealousy. A month before he was scheduled to move into my house, I discovered that he was actively courting a 20-year-old woman he’d met at the tutoring job I’d helped him land.
I’ve got some personal responsibility in that scenario, for sure, but I was so angry and ashamed that I couldn’t get at the insight and payoff that I know lives inside of every awful experience. I developed this 3-step exercise as a way to not only forgive Doug but to celebrate his role in my personal evolution. As a bonus, I had great grist for a bad guy in a future novel.
Such is the power of rewriting your life.
p.s. A fun side note: two summers after Doug and I split, I received a phone call from an Unknown number. I was in the passenger seat of a rental car, traveling to Indiana to teach at a writing conference. I answered the phone. A private detective was on the other end of the line. Seems my ex was applying for a high security government job and the PI needed to call anyone he had had a relationship with in the past ten years as a character reference. I said that despite nearly four years together I was unable to give such a reference, hung up, and high-fived karma.