you + your shadow: who is the “necessary opponent” in your life story?

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If you don’t have any shadows, you’re not in the light. — Lady GaGa

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I came across a phrase I liked in John Truby’s excellent THE ANATOMY OF STORY: necessary opponent.

Truby uses it in the context of storytelling, but you could also apply it to life.

In fiction, when you’re thinking up your protagonist, you can’t create him in a vacuum. She exists within – and is defined by – a web of other characters.

And no hero can be a hero without an antagonist.

I’m not exaggerating, writes Truby,

when I say that the trick to defining your hero and figuring out your story is to figure out your opponent. …This relationship determines how the entire drama builds…Structurally the opponent always holds the key, because your hero learns through his opponent. It is only because the opponent is attacking the hero’s great weakness that the hero is forced to deal with it and grow.

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In other words, the main character is only as good as the force(s) she battles. Protagonist and antagonist drive each other to increasing levels of greatness.

So the opponent has to be necessary, in that she is the one person in the world who can zero in on the heroine’s weakness.

The heroine must overcome this weakness, learn from it, or be destroyed in some way (end the story at a lower point than when she began).

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We exert so much energy avoiding conflict — but fiction is all about meaningful conflict. Conflict, conflict, conflict, as any writing instructor will tell you. Why? Because meaningful conflict is the crucible that exposes character, boils out the essence and then transforms it. Conflict forces us to grow and change – or die trying (and what is stagnation except a death-in-life?).

And perhaps the reason why human beings have such a driving need for stories – why nature hardwired us this way – is because we look to them to show us how to deal with challenge and change. How to come of age, how to love, be moral, live well and, when the time comes, how to die well. In a conversation with Bill Moyers, the beloved scholar Joseph Campbell explained that all myths are about “the maturation of the individual”. We want to become contributing members to society; we want to grow past our small frightened selves and into a much larger picture. That’s how we find and make meaning. Stories point the way.

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When I was a teenager I became fascinated with the Dark Knight Returns graphic novels, especially the relationship between Batman and the Joker, how they serve as dark reflections of the other. I always loved that movie cliché where, during the final battle, the bad guy tells the good guy some variation of, “You’re just like me.”

Jungian analysts say that in a dream, every character represents some part of the dreamer. In a story – the fictive dream – characters tend to represent some aspect of the protagonist: who she was, is, or could be.

When antagonist and protagonist compete for a goal that only one can win, it’s not just two individuals battling it out but two opposing sets of values, of living and being, that each represents. How the conflict resolves reflects the writer’s final overall message (otherwise known as a theme).

So, as Truby points out, a human antagonist must double the protagonist in some way. The antagonist is who the protagonist would be if she lost her moral vision. The antagonist is her Shadow: the buried, repressed parts of the personality that the protagonist has sent underground. By dealing with the antagonist, the protagonist is really dealing with the dark qualities of herself. A triumphant protagonist learns how to integrate those qualities, to take what she needs, apply them to her situation, and grow and evolve to higher consciousness.

In life, we are constantly creating, or co-creating, our ongoing life stories, based on how we choose to interpret the world around us, the weight and meaning we assign to events. We tell ourselves a story about who we are, and whatever doesn’t fit that self-definition gets cut off and cast out – and forms our Shadow.

Trapped by our blindspots, the limits of our self-preconceptions, we can’t see our own Shadow until someone else throws it back. They do this when they trigger us, often just by being who they are. We can’t see them clearly. We see instead the Shadow we’re projecting, the qualities in ourselves that we have disowned…but come surfacing back to us when we see them, or think we see them, in the other person.

So maybe that other person becomes our necessary opponent: necessary for us to learn from in order to learn about ourselves – and mature as human beings.

Perhaps the necessary opponent of your life isn’t one person but a series of people with certain traits in common, traits that always trigger you because you haven’t dealt with them in yourself.

Maybe when you learn to love your enemy, you’re learning how to love that shadow aspect of yourself: to find the gold in the darkness, the strength and the wisdom. Maybe that’s why forgiveness is so powerful. In the act of forgiving someone else, you’re forgiving a despised and neglected aspect of yourself. click to tweet

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We learn to love ourselves through loving other people; we learn to love other people through loving ourselves.

We are tangled up in each other.

We are one.

Jun 22, 2013
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10 comments · Add Yours

Wonderful and true. Brava. Well
Said.

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Enlightening post! I love Truby’s book and use it extensively in my writing, but never looked at it quite this way in terms of my own life. I like what you said here: “…maybe that other person becomes our necessary opponent: necessary for us to learn from in order to learn about ourselves – and mature as human beings.” and the point about forgiveness being about learning to love the shadow aspects of ourselves. To me, forgiveness is about and for the forgiver rather than the forgivee — it’s a powerful thing, because granting it doesn’t require the other person to specifically ask for it. You don’t even need to tell her you’re giving it.

Back to writing and storytelling, this is exactly why I’ve always viewed Gollum as the primary antagonist in The Lord of the Rings rather than Sauron. He really is Frodo’s shadow, and ultimately, **SPOILER ALERT** Frodo fails — he succumbs to the power of the ring and becomes Gollum. It’s Sam who saves the day, in large part because of his own capacity to forgive, and Gollum, whose shadow becomes his own undoing.

Thanks for the food for thought!

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Awesome post – both for how it helps me with the story I’m working on and how it makes me look back at those “opponents” and what they may represent in me.

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So much here to chew on (as usual). By the way, Catwoman was always my favorite, and I think it has something to do with how she embodies the light and the shadow.

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Deeply provoking

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I loved Catwoman too. :)

Really great point about Lord of the Rings…One thing that strikes me about good vs evil movies is that the good guys are characterized by a sense of community, an awareness of the importance of friendship — if they don’t start out with that, they develop it along the way, and often it’s the very thing that saves them.

Oh, and I recently had the point of this post driven home to me all over again. I was talking to my ex-boyfriend (still a close friend) about the “kind of woman” who “tends to annoy me” and I rattled off a brief description. My ex started laughing hysterically: “Justine, you just described *yourself*!” Do with that as you will. :)

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Those shadow triggers are key. The people who invoke my strongest emotional responses _against, are those people from whom I can learn the most about myself. I always know when I have inner work ahead of me, when the shadow triggers appear in my life.

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Really interesting post and something that I will keep in mind when writing (and… in life!).

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Love a good conflicted character! Morally gray characters are always the most fascinating. EVERYONE is a little morally gray. ;)

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Justine, I’m one of those people who came to writing as a means to survive, to make sense of my life, the history of my people. I’ve used what I learned two+ decades ago in John Truby’s screenwriting workshops in L.A. to figure out the dynamics between my parents and other relatives. It’s taken me 20 years to get to the point where I was able to write a novel, then a screenplay based on the same story, finally using the “other” lessons I learned. Sometimes intuition beats understanding, by seconds, sometimes by years, or decades.
I’m amazed at how quickly your story has become epic.
What made you overcome your fear of flying of sharing?
I’m aware I’m combining two of your posts, but then, they’re all related aren’t they?
And Write On!

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