Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Built for Adversity

By Steven Pressfield | Published: December 5, 2012

Human beings are built for adversity. Probably all extant species are, or they wouldn’t still be extant. But we humans in particular—lacking claws, fur, fangs, etc.—have needed the evolutionary edge of being designed for hard times.

Moby Dick

Moby Dick and Ahab. The villain is the adversity faced by the hero.

Almost every great book or movie is about adversity. Moby Dick, War and Peace, The Hangover. The whole concept of “story,” of three-act structure, is about a protagonist confronting adversity. As Billy Wilder used to say, “Act One, get your hero up a tree; Act Two, throw stones at him; Act Three, get him down out of the tree.” Or Kurt Vonnegut: all stories boil down to three words, “Man in hole.”

Our American culture does a disservice to us as writers, artists, and entrepreneurs by holding up the model of easy living and instant gratification, money for nothing and chicks for free. We humans are not at our best in that world. We shine when times are tough.

For the writer, artist and entrepreneur there are two types of adversity: external and internal.

In every story, there’s a hero and a villain. But in the great stories, the villain is inside the hero. The protagonist is fighting a battle against himself. He is dueling with part of his nature. It’s one thing to slay the dragon, but another thing entirely to slay the dragon in our own minds.

The reason the concept of Resistance is so helpful, I suspect, is that it acknowledges the existence of the dragon in our own minds. Yes, it’s there. Yes, it’s real. And yes, it’s cunning and relentless and without pity.

Fortunately, we’re built for it. Fortunately, evolution has equipped us with tools to deal with it.

One of those tools is story.

If we’re writing a story or a movie or a video game, the first thing we should think about is the villain.

From what source does adversity come? We have to answer that.

How extreme should that adversity be? (Answer: as extreme as possible. The higher the stakes, the more involving the story.)

What is the nature of that adversity? The villain can’t be generic. The antagonist must be personal—specific to the hero’s fears and weaknesses. Ahab and Moby Dick, Jake Gittes and Noah Cross, Puss in Boots and Humpty Dumpty.

Ideally the antagonist—i.e., the source of adversity—should be a disowned limb of the protagonist—Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker—or a mental creation of the protagonist. One of the greatest of these was Forbidden Planet. Did you ever see that? In the climax, Walter Pidgeon was dueling with “monsters of the Id,” literally battling inside his own brain as the unseen villains were burning through foot-thick doors of Krell steel to kill him and his daughter and, believe it or not, Leslie Neilson.

The antagonist is the dark side of the protagonist. He’s who the hero could be and would be if he gave himself over to the sinister force inside him. When Alan Ladd as Shane guns down Jack Palance as Wilson, the black-clad gun-for-hire, he is facing the shadow side of himself.

Vampires and zombies are great antagonists because they represent our own selves gone bad. The reason we often empathize with certain vampires is that we see their good selves trapped inside their bad selves and struggling to get out.

Why do we need story? Why do we love great books and movies and videogames? Because these stories provide us with models for dealing with adversity. These heroes enact, in metaphorical form, the same dramas you and I are dealing with in our real lives.

Do we feel trapped? Give us a prison-break story.

Are we overwhelmed? Show us the little guy triumphing against all odds.

Are we tormented by the feeling that we’re living inauthentically? Show us Spiderman or Batman or Superman slipping into an alternate identity.

The Hero’s Journey, as Joseph Campbell has articulated it from myth and legend, is about adversity. It’s priceless for us storytellers because it isn’t made up or invented or theorized. It’s the raw evolutionary material of the human psyche. It’s the product of X million years of real life, up a tree, in the trenches, down in the shit.

We’ve been talking in this blog for the past couple of weeks about drafts of books and screenplays: what should we, as writers, focus on in successive drafts?

Focus on the villain. Take one pass and bear down on nothing but this. Adversity. Where is it coming from? Who is the villain and why is he the way he is? Does he reflect the dark side of the hero? If he doesn’t, we’d better take a good hard look at that.

And let’s not forget that we’re the hero too, facing the adversity of the work—Resistance, fear, self-doubt, self-sabotage, laziness, arrogance, impatience and overhaste (not to mention Second Act Problems)—and having to struggle every day against our own villains.

The story in the work is our story too, as is the adversity. Fortunately, we are built for it.

Posted in Writing Wednesdays

13 Responses to “Built for Adversity”

  1. Basilis
    December 5, 2012 at 4:32 am

    An article about how to write a Book (with a capital”B”)!

    Excellent stuff!

    (At an artistic point of view the finest creations are forged in “hard times” ha?
    I’ll keep that in mind…)

  2. December 5, 2012 at 4:44 am

    Outstanding life wisdom, as always, Steven.

    Especially realizing that the antagonist is in us.

    Brings to mind the Rilke line from Letters to a Young Poet…

    “Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.”

    • December 5, 2012 at 8:31 am

      That is great Chris, thanks for sharing.

  3. December 5, 2012 at 5:55 am

    I’m reading Anti Fragile by Nassim Taleb right now and your article resonates very well with what Mr. Taleb has to say about Fragility, Robustness and Anti Fragility.

  4. John Arends
    December 5, 2012 at 11:24 am

    I read your posts every week, Steven. They consistently deliver the goods in astonishing spades. This one, however, blew the top of my head off. Brilliant. Timelessly so.

  5. December 5, 2012 at 12:00 pm

    “Who is the villain and why is he the way he is? Does he reflect the dark side of the hero?”

    Another one to post on the wall while I write. Thanks so much, Steven.

  6. Jessie
    December 5, 2012 at 12:32 pm

    “chicks for free”

    I certainly hope you were referring to young poultry being given away at the local farm and ranch store.

    • December 5, 2012 at 4:29 pm

      It’s okay, Jessie. I was quoting the lyrics from Dire Straits’ “Money For Nothing.”

  7. December 5, 2012 at 4:30 pm

    Steven, you are at the top of your game today: Simple, concise, insightful and convincing. Bravo for planting yet another flag atop Pressfield Mountain!

  8. December 6, 2012 at 7:47 am

    I was thinking last week about this idea of adversity helping us to thrive. About why deadlines are so good for us as creators. Put some pressure on that coal of a creative mind, as it were.

    In the book “Bounce,” discussing the importance of practice, Mathew Syed emphasizes that quality practice, that which helps us to grow and improve, is tough, a little beyond our current capabilities.

  9. December 6, 2012 at 1:14 pm

    The first time I became aware of the antagonist as the disowned limb of the protagonist was long before Star Wars in Ursula Le Guin’s Wizard of Earthsea. I remember my childhood self being completely overwhelmed by the ending, where the hero Ged must name his nemesis. Cogent advice for writing and life, as usual. May we all overcome Second Act lag.

  10. Lon David
    December 9, 2012 at 9:47 pm

    Steven you’ve got to stop this crap! I’m inspired and depressed all at the same time here. I’m struggling to get out my little piece of crap ebook and feel even more insecure about it in the shadow of great writing. But I hear your voice in my head. Saying you’ve been there, fighting the same dragon too. Makes it even harder to just give up no matter how bad I want to. Not sure if I should thank you or curse you, but something tells me you know what I mean…

  11. December 10, 2012 at 3:12 pm

    Three men sitting around a camp fire sharing war stories. The first pulls up the leg of his trousers to show the saw marks of a shark above both knees. The second opens his shirt to show the repeated slashes of a grizzly bear that almost disembowled him. The third … he sits quietly, sipping his beer and massaging his appendix scar. Which one is going to have the best story? Which one do you want to be? What are you prepared to do?