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New World Library Unshelved

New World Library Unshelved

Positive news and inspiring views from the New World Library community

Thursday, June 18, 2015
Have you ever noticed that the same type of character keeps showing up in your life and pushing all your buttons? These people may look nothing alike or even share the same gender, but they keep presenting you with more or less the same frustrations and issues. Or perhaps it’s not a certain person but a negative situation that you always find yourself struggling with. Why do these characters and situations keep appearing in your storyline?

If we look at life as a story, these characters and situations are the antagonists of our narrative — and while we may not like or appreciate them, they play an instrumental role in shaping our plotlines and our character. The antagonists are the personal trainers who push us beyond perceived limitations to develop flabby, underutilized emotional muscles. As with a personal trainer, we might swear at them through gritted teeth. But if we read between the lines, the antagonist is just helping us build inner strength.

No one ever consciously desires antagonists — or the conflicts they present, for that matter. However, in life, as in literature, not only should we expect them, we can learn to view them as an important part of character development.

Every protagonist has a character arc, the particular way they mature and develop in response to tension in their story. Inevitably, situations arise that challenge the protagonist’s perspective or demand skills they don’t yet possess. After all, if the character already possessed the necessary skills or a broader perspective, there would be no challenge or conflict in the story. The degree to which the protagonist embraces this challenge, or tries to avoid it, determines who they become, for better or for worse.

Similarly, we are the ever-evolving protagonists of our own lives, with the power to choose how to respond to what happens to us. Of course, when we’re mired in a personal conflict, it can be difficult to step outside our emotionally charged stories to identify the personal growth opportunities being presented. So here are a few tips for doing so:

Write about the Conflict in the Third Person

A number of research studies suggest that viewing your life from the psychologically distant vantage point of the third person helps you see situations more objectively and with more compassion. Third-person narrative uses the pronouns “he,” “she,” and “they,” and it is used when the narrator describes someone else’s story, often from a neutral or all-knowing perspective.

Writing about your conflict in the third-person voice can help you access the elevated perspective of your inner omniscient narrator, eluding your censoring ego, which wants to defend your position. After all, you’re not writing about yourself (wink, wink), you’re describing the character of your novel! This technique can help you see yourself as a character overcoming obstacles while creating an opening to be more curious about the direction of your unfolding story.

Name and Summarize the Current Chapter

Using the third-person narrative, name and summarize the conflict that is playing out in the current chapter of your story. The present, after all, is the precise moment in the story when you, as the protagonist, can take action and grow.

Describing your current chapter can help you zero in on the primary antagonist of your story, which might be a person who is giving you grief, like a boss, or a troublesome situation, like unemployment. To identify the antagonist of your narrative, ask yourself, in the third-person voice, “Within the frame of the current chapter, who or what, more than anyone or anything else, is pushing the hero of the story to stretch in new ways?”

Identify Strengths, Vulnerabilities, and Growing Edges

Once you’ve described your current chapter, continue using the third-person voice to explore the desired character traits that might be strengthened through interaction with the antagonist. Antagonists often expose our vulnerabilities, the areas in our psyche where we haven’t historically felt so strong. But they also push us to marshal our strengths. Ask yourself:

  1. Has this type of antagonist appeared in your story before? If so, how might you summarize him/her/it? Example: the benevolent authority figure who often offers unsolicited advice “for your own good.”
  2. What vulnerabilities is the antagonist exposing? Perhaps it’s a fear of confrontation or a tendency to get easily discouraged.
  3. What strengths can you leverage and what additional strengths (also known as “growing edges”) might you develop by facing the situation? Perhaps it’s courage, greater resilience, or allowing yourself to be vulnerable.
  4. What steps might you as the protagonist take to move this story in a character-strengthening direction?
Reframing Personal Victories

Framed this way, the antagonists of our stories present us with an invitation: When they show up, do we run away, turn our heads, or surrender to the way things are while hoping for the best? Or do we rise to meet the challenges, embracing our antagonists as if they were full-body toning instruments designed to open our heart muscles and help us grow?

Once we accept that our antagonist has something valuable to teach us, we can begin to mine the gems from the situation, whether or not our story unfolds to our liking. This new awareness can reframe our personal narratives as tales of triumph of the human spirit, reminding us that character development is at the heart of any story worth reading — or worth living.

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Kim Schneiderman, LCSW, MSW, is the author of Step Out of Your Story

She counsels in private practice and guest lectures at venues including New York University. 

She also writes a biweekly advice column for Metro newspapers and blogs for Psychology Today. 

Visit her online at

Based on the book Step Out of Your Story: Writing Exercises to Reframe and Transform Your Life. Copyright © 2015 by Kim Schneiderman. 


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