The Sympathetic Antagonist

phantomI posted an informal poll on Facebook asking readers whether they rooted for the Phantom or Raoul to end up with Christine at the end of The Phantom of the Opera movie.

One commenter asked, “Why would you choose the controlling, reclusive psychopath?” In the real world, I most definitely wouldn’t. The character of the phantom was a controlling murderer. I would never encourage anyone to be in a relationship like this. His control over her and his surroundings and disregard for life were apparent. He is blatant in his tactics and you can easily avoid them, unless, apparently, you are Christine.

Raoul is also manipulative and controlling. He’s simply more understated with it. He tells Christine her fears are unfounded. He encourages her that all she needs is him in her life to be protected. If she will walk away from the bad, the life he gives her will be practically perfect. He downplays her feelings for the phantom as not real. She could never actually have any positive feelings for such a monster unless brainwashed.  That being the case, what she feels for him is unimportant and should be dismissed.

Christine is better off on her own. She needs to figure herself out before committing to a man. Her trauma started with losing her father, continued as she mistakenly associated the phantom with a promised otherworldly guide sent by her father, and then was rounded out with the fear inducing events of the movie. She’s been through a lot emotionally, and it would be best for her mental and emotional health to process these things before pursuing a committed relationship.

But that’s not the point. Focusing on character, I want to look at the phantom again. He is clearly the antagonist. He is an obsessive, controlling murderer. Yet there are people that struggle with his loss at the end of the movie. Why? Why would intelligent, emotionally balanced individuals who would NEVER condone such relationships in real life be left feeling less than satisfied at the end of the movie?

The answer is a key to making our own antagonists better. Without background information, the phantom is only evil bent on the destruction of everything to get what he wants.  In this one sided world he is completely selfish and there is nothing about him to garner anyone’s sympathy. We would actively cheer for his demise as good triumphs over what is so clearly evil.

But we are given the phantom’s history. Tortured and unloved, his first memories of life are horrific. His own mother didn’t want him and thought him a monster. She’s probably the one who sent him to his childhood tormentor. To escape abuse and constant public humiliation, he has to kill the man who has caged him for financial gain. To stay safe, he lives apart from everyone in the network of tunnels running under the theater. He’s learned there is little to no compassion for one like himself. Though he’s around people, he is on the outside, a feral child looking in at what he cannot be part of.

Through Christine he finds a way to interact with the world. He helps her improve her singing. Her voice becomes his voice to the public. He is obsessed but believes it’s love. All he knows of love is the messed up version he’s seen lived out on stage. When his “love” is threatened, the phantom reacts, escalating in his protection of that relationship. As she chooses Raoul, he lashes out in retaliation against those who would take not only his voice but also his love from him.

When Christine reaches out to him in the end, the truth begins shine through. Love doesn’t despise based on the flesh. Even he can be treated with compassion. To make sure the one they love has what is best for them, a person will give up their own wants. For the first time, the phantom begins to understand love and responds with his first action of real love in allowing Raoul and Christine to go free. It breaks his heart and he hopes she will choose him, but he lets her leave. Then, he leaves the only life he’s known taking nothing with him except her ring. He loves her throughout her life, letting her live in peace with Raoul. We see it in the rose and ring left on her grave. He loved her by letting her choose and going on without her.

Because the one who created the phantom’s character gave us insight into his past, we get to see him as more than evil. He is broken. The tormented became tormentor to protect the life he knows. And because he is not evil for evil’s sake, because he shows signs of growth in the end, we are left with the hope that he does become more than what he’s been. His pain brings our compassion, and that compassion coupled with the promise of change leaves some wishing it could be different for him.

As a writer I want to remember this when writing antagonists. Unless I’m writing a purely evil character, I need to give them motivation. I need to give them hurts and triumphs and losses. The only thing that separates the antagonists from the protagonists is what they do with those events.

It’s been said that an antagonist is the protagonist in his own mind.  As a writer I must remember to show this to the reader. I must leave my antagonists vulnerable and redeemable. In doing so, I create a character who is more relatable and realistic. I give permission to the reader to feel compassion for the way the antagonist’s hurts have shaped his life while still holding him accountable and avoid writing into my story a cartoon villain whose sole purpose is causing trouble or inflicting pain.

 

Changing Winds and a Chance to Win

mary“‘I’ll stay till the wind changes,’ she said.” Mary Poppins by P.L. Travers

The winds have changed directions unexpectedly and drastically in the few weeks since summer began.

In my writing life, the changes have been wonderful. God blessed me with the opportunity to grow as a writer through attendance at the Blue Ridge Mountains Christian Writers Conference and the KenTen Writers Retreat. Gorgeous, peaceful scenery surrounded me at both. And in addition to everything I learned, I got to connect with other writers of faith. It is an incredible encouragement to spend time with people who love the same things you do, minister to others the same way you do, and understand the joys and struggles of that ministry because they’ve been through it like you have.

The winds changed for my family while I was at my second conference. Both my mother and I were away from home during this time. This left my grandmother’s caregiver and my aunt by choice to care for my elderly grandmother in our absence.

The diseases of dementia and Alzheimer’s do not play nice. The most loving, sweet, and considerate people can become irritable, impatient, and rude. Dealing with outbursts and hatefulness day after day is taxing. It doesn’t matter that it’s uncontrollable and far from personal. It takes its toll. I got the call on Wednesday that Friday would be the caregiver’s last day with Granny. My mother would not arrive home from her mission trip until Sunday evening.

With the exception of the two and a half days I attended the conference, I’d already been taking the evening, night, and early morning shifts with Granny while my mother was out of town. The caregiver’s departure didn’t change that. But those winds of change blew through hard and fast when my mother asked me to consider taking the caregiver position. My mom knew she could not give 24/7 care to Granny. She understood that Granny related better to family than anyone else. And she wasn’t ready to consider a nursing home for the woman who has given so much of herself to her family through the years, especially when she would be aware of her surroundings.

My husband and I took as much time as we could to pray and discuss our options. That Friday, I turned in my notice at work. I would finish out the next week, before becoming Granny’s caregiver. Yesterday I said good-bye to the people I’ve worked with for almost two years. It’s bittersweet. And before you ask, no, I do not feel prepared for what’s ahead.

In fact, one thing I’ve already learned in taking care of Granny is that the winds change constantly. What brings peace one day may induce frustration on the next. And the days can go from sunny and bright to dark and stormy in seconds. There’s no rhyme or reason to it. But she is my grandmother, and she needs me. I will continually seek God’s wisdom, pray for grace and mercy, and love her as best I can.

These changing winds are why you have a quote today in place of “What I’m Reading”. With everything happening at once, I’ve not been reading this week. I’m going to look through my TBR pile tonight and hope something jumps out at me. It’s my plan to have everything in my blogging world back to normal this week.

Before I go for today, I promised in the title a chance to win something. The something is a copy of my second book, Grasping Hope. I was interviewed by Hallee Bridgeman this week. There were some unique questions included that I had a lot of fun answering. And in the interview is the contest link. I hope you’ll take the time to stop by. You can find it here:  http://www.halleebridgeman.com/interview-with-heather-greer/

See you Monday!

How I Spent My Summer Vacation (This Week)

I just got back from the KenTen Christian Writers Retreat, and I wanted to share some things I learned from the experience. I hope you enjoy it!

  1. Retreats and conferences are made better when enjoyed in a beautiful, natural setting. Montgomery Bell State Park was wonderful, and the weather was perfect.

  2. kenten7Sometimes being moved out of your comfort zone can provide wonderful surprises. I shared a room with someone I didn’t know. That isn’t an experience I would ever seek out on my own, and it caused a little stress before I got there. God blessed me with a wonderful roommate for the conference. She and I enjoyed several fun conversations and some meaningful ones as well. I hope to keep in contact with her and see her at future conferences.
  3. When you put a fantasy writer and three contemporary romance writers together to brainstorm, a simple stained glass window can become a door to another world and an idea for a time slip novel is born. An added bonus, give them extra time together, add Ground Hog’s Day (the real one, not the movie), and the idea of a compilation project to come up with a great idea for a collection of novellas like no one has seen before!

  4. If you want to win at trivia, this is the team to beat! The Fantastic Four lived up to their name. By the way, did you know The Six Million Dollar Man was based on a book? P.S. The lady in the selfie with me is an excellent trivia night creator and host. Thanks for a fun evening of laughter with everyone!

  5. Writers are interesting people. We don’t mind being compared to a bag of Hershey Miniatures, and it’s surprising how many mini candy bars and bags of M & Ms a group of thirty writers can go through in two days. We like creative and quirky ways of explaining what we do. And hearing a writer say, “I’ve got to figure out how to murder him after I kidnap him” is not cause for alarm. We love to laugh together. We are each other’s cheering sections. And, as evidenced by the writer’s survival bag and motivation bags we received, we really care about seeing each other succeed at this thing called writing. As a side note, plot bunnies apparently multiply like regular ones. I had a whole fluffle (yes that’s a real term) in my bag!

To Answer and Obey the Call

“Are you called to write? If the answer is no, don’t waste your time. If the answer is yes, than anything less is disobedience. Don’t worry about getting an agent or finding a publisher. Write for an audience of One. Write as an act of obedience.” – Mark Batterson

Someone posted this quote on Instagram this week at just the right time. I was in a discussion with a friend about his writing habits or the lack thereof. This quote got to the heart of the matter, saying exactly what I wanted to say in a way I never thought to say it.

I write because I feel that is the ministry God has called me to. He has blessed me with the interest in it, the tools I need to learn the craft, and the stories to tell. I write because He showed me a long time ago the power a story can hold. I write because sometimes the only way to get vital truth past people’s walls is to clothe that truth with relatable characters, an interesting plot, and an intriguing setting. I write because I feel called to encourage and challenge other believers in their walks of faith.

Failure to write, for me, would be disobedience to the One who called me. I’d love for my stories and devotions to impact people in a big way. I try to be faithful to do what I know to do in furthering the reach of my writing. It would be amazing if Hallmark called me one day and said, “We read your latest book, and we want to make it into a movie.” Of course, great for me would also be earning regular and reliable royalty checks! But as much as I’m going to continue to grow in my understanding of the business side of writing, I can’t lose sight of one important truth.

God gave me this ministry. It is not mine. It is His. This means I can be responsible with the work of it, but I have to truth Him with the outcome. 1 Corinthians 3:7 is a great reminder of this. “So then neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but God who causes the growth.” It’s His calling for me, His message going out, and He is the one who will cause it to reach the ones He intends it to go to.

It is my job to be obedient. If that means doing something He has called me to do, then that is what I must do. If I want to do something and God says no, then, obedience tells me I cannot do it no matter how much it hurts to turn away from it.

I cant wait to obey until the pieces fall into perfect place. I’m working a full-time job, and I have a family. These make it difficult to write regularly. I’d love writing to be my only job. I could tell God I’ll obey later when that’s possible, but “not right now” is as disobedient as an outright “no”. God has called me now, and I want to be obedient to that call.

What about you? What do you feel God is calling you to? Have you answered the call or are you making excuses and choosing disobedience? Are you ready to obey God’s call? Spend time in prayer letting God know you’re ready to follow His path for your life and ask Him to show you how to accomplish His will, His way in your life.

What I’m Reading: Red Rose Bouquet

Tall. Apparently it’s how people describe me. Don’t worry if you’ve mentioned my height in conversation. I’m used to it, and it doesn’t offend me. At a hair below six feet without shoes on, I know I’m tall for a woman.

So when I met a couple fellow Mantle Rock Publishing authors at a conference recently and I learned they were told to look for “the really tall one”, I understood completely. It probably is the trait you would lead with because it’s the one that people will see first.

My height used to bother me. I was taller than a lot of guys, and it was one in a long list of things I was self-conscious about. I’ve grown out of that. When I’m told people of my height shouldn’t wear heels, I shrug and do it anyway. I like wedge sandals, boots, and other wedge heeled shoes. If they’re cute, I don’t care that they make me even taller. I own the “tall one” label.

Not all labels are as easily accepted. Often we allow the mistakes of the past to become our label. When we do, we let those events or traits or mistakes dictate our futures. Just ask Cheryl Thompson from Red Rose Bouquet by Jennifer Rodewald. Cheryl’s been going through life with one fling after another. She’s a successful in her profession, but her personal life is a wreck.

When her brother calls her back home, Cheryl is not prepared for the memories she has to face there. And she definitely isn’t ready for Brock Kelly, her brother’s best friend. He doesn’t fall easily into the love him and leave him place Cheryl has reserved for the men in her life. He challenges her and awakens hope for something better in her life. But he doesn’t know about the one big secret, the huge regret in her life that Cheryl has used to label herself for more than ten years. If Brock knew who she really was, he would never look at her the same way again and he definitely wouldn’t be offering hope.

When the truth comes out, the relationship between Cheryl and Brock is stretched to the limit. It becomes obvious that Brock’s love and acceptance is never going to be enough. Cheryl needs to understand the way God sees her and the decision from her past if she’s ever going to heal.

Some labels are pretty painless, like being “the tall one”. Ones like Cheryl’s are devastating. Cheryl made a sinful decision, and it haunted her for years. Whether it’s sinful or simply a horrible choice one regrets, we tattoo the labels they create onto our hearts. Failure, loser, worthless, or worse names than these become the thing we see when we look in the mirror each day. But they don’t have to be.

When we give our sins and failures over to God, we allow Him to bring something beautiful out of the mess we’ve created. God promises if we confess our sinful choices to Him, if we turn from them, He will forgive us. We may still face physical consequences of our choices, but we are forgiven. He’s not keeping tally in heaven to hold over us later.

And more than forgiven (and that’s a huge thing), we’re wanted. We’re loved. We’re children of God. We’re redeemed. We belong. We have purpose. We are chosen by the Creator of the universe. We are His. Forever.

When we allow God’s forgiveness it’s work in our lives and turn away from our sins, our old labels are erased. We may face the pain from our choices in the future, but we don’t have to let it define us and tell us we are less than. We don’t have to be trapped by regret. We are forgiven. When the past tries to close in on us and move us into a cycle of continuing bad choices, we can say no. We can remind ourselves of our new labels. These are labels given to us by God and found in His word. They are for all who have accepted God’s gift of redemption for themselves. They are labels that allow us to move forward in confidence and peace. They are labels that help us move beyond our past failures and hurts. And they are labels that no man can ever erase.

Right Stuff Wednesday: Grief and Love

Hobbit Home“The world is indeed full of peril, and in it there are many dark places; but still there is much that is fair, and though in all lands love is now mingled with grief, it grows perhaps the greater.” – J.R.R. Tolkien – The Fellowship of the Ring

It doesn’t seem right, but I think there is a lot of truth in this quote. On the surface it seems like a great quote to encourage keeping perspective. There is bad, but there is good too. Let’s look to the good. But the quote is more than an attitude adjustment.

Love is mingled with grief. We see it more each day. I’m not going to argue whether or not it’s really worse. The argument could be made that it’s been bad all along, but our ability to broadcast it to the four corners of the globe have made it more noticeable. It doesn’t matter which it is or even if it’s a combination of both. What matters is that love and grief are walking side by side in this life.

Some of the grief in our lives is self-made. Sinful and simply bad decisions bring consequences that we didn’t think would ever happen to us. Our lives aren’t immune to the results of other people’s actions either. Sometimes nature takes center stage in hurling grief onto our paths. Natural or self-made, grief is grief. It would be easy to focus on it and let ourselves be sucked further under into our grief. It’s easy to play the victim and cry “woe is me” and determine there is no way out of the hurtful place we find ourselves.

Please understand, I’m in no way diminishing the pain or disappointment or loss anyone has faced. These griefs are real and cutting. I know. I’ve faced them too. The problem comes when we choose to continue living in them, letting them paint the landscape of our lives. I believe there is more for us than the darkest times in our lives. It’s in the most painful times of our lives when true love (and I don’t mean the romantic kind) becomes the sweetest.

Little acts of kindness, unearned and unexpected, bring light into the darkness grief tries to shroud us in. When done in godly love, they can bring peace, hope, and moments of joy one can cling to as they work to rise above the darkness. They can remind us we are not alone. We are not fighting alone. We are not hurting alone. It’s why Romans 12:15 instructs us to share in each other’s joys and hurts.

Reaching out to others in active, godly love is also a great reminder to us that we have another who understands what we’re going through. Hebrews 4:15-16 reminds us that Jesus sympathizes with our weaknesses. He understands our temptations and hurts. Jesus knows disappointment. He understands betrayal. He has felt what it’s like to be utterly alone. In our griefs, it is the love of God shown through others that brings the comfort of knowing know matter how we may feel, we are not alone.

It’s sad to say, but sometimes it takes the grief to move us to compassion. Think about the days following true tragedies. Many can remember 9/11. It was a horrible time of loss for so many. Fear was rampant. But so was love. People gave of themselves and their resources to be there for those in need. Families spent more time together. It didn’t take away the pain for those who suffered loss, but they knew they didn’t stand alone.

It happens every time there is a natural disaster. The people around are mobilized to help. Our sense of what it means to be human and compassion move us to help in any way we can. Sometimes it’s as simple as listening to someone’s grief. Other times it involves taking action.

When we get into step with those walking through times of grief, God’s love shines a little brighter in their lives. Their grief may remain, but for a moment it may not hang so dark and heavy over them. How great would it be if it didn’t take the times of grief for our love to sweeten someone’s day?

Eustace Clarence Scrubb

dawn treader“There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.”

Wow. Could there be a better opening line and character description? Immediately readers, even the children for whom the story is meant, will be able to identify the Eustace’s in their lives. With one sentence the “nails on the chalkboard” existence of Eustace is firmly planted in our minds.

C.S. Lewis draws us in with the first pages of Voyage of the Dawn Treader, and he continues to lead us through the misadventures of Eustace. We can understand the sentiments of Lucy and Edmond as they deal with his attitude of superiority, and we find it too easy to give in to the idea that he gets what he deserves as things fail to go in his favor. He tries our patience just as he does the same to every creature on the Dawn Treader.

When an author so completely gives us an image of his or her characters, it’s easy for them to become real to us. Suspending our disbelief to accept Narnia and Aslan and dragons as real is only natural. But a great description is only the beginning.

In a well-told story, readers get to know the characters. They get to see beyond the actions and outward appearances to who the characters are at their core. C.S. Lewis describes this occurrence in another quote from Voyage of the Dawn Treader.

“‘In our world,’ said Eustace, ‘a star is a huge ball of flaming gas.’

‘Even in your world, my son, that is not what a star is, but only what it is made of.'”

There is more to a star than what is is made of. There is more to a character than their looks and behaviors. It is an author’s job to give their characters souls. In doing so, readers are able to enjoy a fully formed person as complex as the ones sitting beside them while they read.

But in a well-told story the characters evolve through their failures and triumphs. This is not to say they become perfect versions of themselves. Readers don’t want perfection. They want a better understanding of reality. Even in fantasy, there has to be something for the reader to connect to. If readers see themselves in the characters then they also need to see attainable hope. We won’t reach perfection, and I find it frustrating to read about someone who always does the right thing. I want to see the one who tries and fails and gets up to try again. It makes a character work. It made Eustace Clarence Scrubb work.

“It would be nice and fairly nearly true, to say that ‘from that time forth, Eustace was a different boy.’ To be strictly accurate, he began to be a different boy. He had relapses. There were still many days when he could be very tiresome. But most of those I shall not notice. The cure had begun.”

It had begun. It was not finished. And we can appreciate this in the characters we read about. Sometimes it is more difficult to appreciate in the real world with the people affecting our day to day lives. We sit in church and judge the one who tried and failed or the one who is traveling at a snail’s pace in their journey of faith. We place people on a pedestal of perfection that no man since Jesus has been able to attain. We hold them to this impossible standard and crucify them when they fall. Just like we did with Eustace at the beginning of Voyage of the Dawn Treader, we fight pleasure at their circumstances when they seem to get what they deserve.

But often we fail to let ourselves relate to them. We color over our own failures. In Jesus’ words, we “look at the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye”. (Matthew 7:3) When we realize we are all Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and we almost deserve it, we find patience we didn’t know we possessed. We find empathy that desires to see those we previously rooted against become the people God created them to be. We learn how to come along beside our brothers and sisters to encourage each other to continue to grow in faith. We stop taking note of every failure and choose to look at God’s cure in them that has already begun.

What I’m Reading – Justice Delayed

When I’m under pressure I have the bad habit of procrastinating. As my deadline looms ever closer, I find myself rebelling against the clock. I have plenty of excuses for what I’m doing. I’m tired after a long day at work. I need to make dinner. There’s a new Hallmark movie starting soon. And if the procrastination is to its highest levels, I need to wash the dishes.

I’m ashamed to say the excuses win out in the fight for my attention. And they are all true and some even good things. My husband is thrilled to come home to a clean kitchen despite the fact that it’s simply a way to further my procrastination. I’m not sure why I do it. I know I shouldn’t do it. I want the pressure to end, but the pressure is what pushes me into procrastination mode. It’s a vicious cycle, and it’s one only I can break.

Andi Hollister from Justice Delayed by Patricia Bradley understands excuses all too well. For years, she has worked to put her sisters murder behind her. Days before the murder’s execution is to take place, circumstances bring to light the possibility that the wrong man is about to die. Andi is hesitant to accept this. Her excuses range from a confession and subsequent conviction to simply not having the strength to face the pain of losing her sister all over again.

Andi is a go-getter when it comes to her job as a reporter. She doesn’t hesitate to do whatever is necessary to get her story. When her attitude leads her into trouble and friends and family tell her she needs to slow down and let God lead her in her actions, Andi has excuses at the ready. The stories need told. Why should she ask for help when she can do it herself? Why should she wait on a God that took her sister from her?

While Andi is searching for the truth about her sister’s murder, she becomes a target herself. Tracking down answers to questions that should have been asked during the first investigation puts Andi in harms way and aggravates an old back injury. It’s this injury that give birth to Andi’s most devastating excuses.

To deal with her physical pain, Andi was prescribed a pain medication. While she knows in her head that pain medication can be dangerous, she has convinced herself that she is immune to becoming addicted. Even as her drug use causes issues for her in her quest for the truth, Andi continues to make excuses. She’s too busy to have the surgery that will correct the back problem. She was prescribed the medication. She’s too smart and capable to fall into the pit of addiction. She is only using when she has pain. Even when she begins to see a problem developing in her use, Andi convinces herself one more dose can’t hurt anything. Besides, she needs it to finish the job.

Some excuses, like the ones I use to justify procrastination, don’t have a great potential for causing harm in my life. They need put in their proper place and dealt with, but missing deadlines and sleepless nights cramming to get the job done are more than likely the worst results I’ll face. Excuses like those Andi uses to justify her drug use are far more deadly. Continuing drug use could cause her to lose her job, her health, and endanger herself and others. The ripples of those choices can keep going forever.

Andi’s excuses to misuse her prescriptions may sound horrible to us, but we need to consider how often we make those types of excuses in our own lives. It may not be for drug use, but how often do we excuse sinful behaviors that come between us and God? How often do we excuse a lie with the idea that it’s only “a little lie”? How often do we gossip about others excusing it because “it’s true”? How often do we ignore the prompting of the Holy Spirit because “we must not have heard Him correctly”? The list could go on and on. We sin in our anger and call it justified. We choose to say or do things we know are not godly because of what others will think of us if we don’t.

We excuse our behaviors as being necessary and not harming anyone, and we can’t honestly say that. And just as bad are the times when we acknowledge our sin and laugh it off because “everyone does it” and “God will forgive it because He knows I’m human”.

It doesn’t matter what excuse we use. Sin is sin, and it puts a wall between us and our heavenly Father. It’s time to rid ourselves of the excuses, acknowledge our sins, and turn away from them. Only when we get rid of the excuses can God work in us to make us more like Christ.