Why A Disease Cannot Be An Antagonist

Why A Disease Cannot Be An Antagonist

A question that comes up again and again while I am teaching Writers Write  is whether or not a disease can be the antagonist. I don’t think so.

Here’s why:

Claire steps into the lab. The door swooshes shut behind her. She misses slamming doors. That was what she needed for this. A door to slam. She meant business. The receptionist couldn’t stop her and these guys won’t stop her either. 
                The lab is cold. Her frail frame shudders and she wraps her arms around her skeletal ribcage. Today, she would give them a piece of her mind. She was over it. She marches up and puts both hands on the cold steel counter. She searches between the microscopes and test tubes. She spots her target.
                “I am done with you.” She points her bony finger to drive the point home. “Seriously, this is over. I will not allow you to do this again.”
                The tumour seems to glare at her in a malignant fashion. A small cluster of indignation as she dares question their presence in her body. 
                “Don’t look at me like that. I am warning you. I am going to nuke you and all your evil friends that are still in my body. I refuse to be taken by you. I will not be eaten alive by your cancerous filth. There is no place for your noxious influence in my life.” 
                She gets no response from the petri dish and shoves the table. The cells shake as she walks away. Yes, she told them, she told them good.

A bit odd, right? Yes, it is hard to fight a disease. I have heard of cancer patients naming their tumour, but even then it can’t talk back.

Who, then, is the antagonist?

First, ask yourself: ‘What is the protagonist’s goal?’ If she wants to be left to die in peace with the last bit of her dignity intact, the person trying to keep her alive is her antagonist. If she refuses to give up and wants to keep fighting, the doctor giving her no hope is the antagonist. Always keep in mind the antagonist does not have to be evil. They merely have to be in opposition to the protagonist. It can be an over-bearing spouse, a friend with unasked-for advice, a mother who refuses to let go.

If you were writing a story about people on an island with an erupting volcano, the volcano is not the antagonist. It is part of the setting that shapes the story. You could say a disease is similar in that it forms or dictates the setting. Your story will most likely take place in a hospital with lots of doctors. Or at a holistic retreat where patients are made to eat hand-picked leaves and raw honey. Regardless, there will be sick people, there will doctors or healers. This setting will shape your story and cause conflict.

Conflict is always both internal and external. Internally, it will be a spiritual, emotional and psychological battle. Externally, it will be the physical fight to live, but there must be physical conflict with other people. It does not have to be a fist fight, an argument will do.

Perhaps somewhere in the world is the one book that has been written to disprove this. If you have read it, please leave the name below. Otherwise take a look at The Fault in Our Stars by John Green or The Household Guide to Dying by Debra Adelaide for examples on how disease is simply part of the story. Happy writing.

Source for Comic

If you want to learn how to write a book, join our Writers Write course in Johannesburg or sign up for our online course.

by Mia Botha

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Posted on: 27th February 2014

6 thoughts on “Why A Disease Cannot Be An Antagonist”

  1. one could argue that ‘the disease’ is the antagonist in every zombie story that portrays the cause of Zombie-ism as a disease or virus.

    THIS one wouldn’t argue that, but the argument could be made.

  2. I think you’re being too literal. It could absolutely be an antagonist; you don’t have to personify something from a petri dish to make it so. And just because there may not be a book out there yet, who’s to say there won’t be?

  3. Actually, I have to say that ‘The Fault in our Stars’ while being about a girl with cancer, isn’t really a good example for the point you’re making.

    Yes, cancer is part of the setting for this story, but considering that this aspect of the story was poorly researched (or rather, John Green did his research into various cancers and then ignored them in favour of a fictional cancer that would suit his story better, then made a fictional miracle drug to go with it, and had the characters act as though this drug wasn’t experimental and the patient taking this drug should in fact be watched and monitored carefully), the fact that the protagonist has cancer is mentioned repeatedly but nothing is shown of how having cancer affects her mental state and her decisions or the story in any quantifiable way, and in all these ways and more the reality of many people is belittled and exploited, this book is really not a good example. Look carefully, and you’ll notice that for all the actual shown impact it has, the book may as well be about Hazel and her crippling clumsiness (except when it isn’t).

    It could be an example of how you shouldn’t proceed, but only so long as you understand that the badge it wears of ‘saving the YA genre’ is as well-deserved a victory as any pro-wrestling title win.

  4. You’re neglecting the premise of good and evil. Most antagonists presume their view of the world and therefore their conception of good and evil is universal. Hitler did not think his vision evil. Any super villain who wants to take over the world wants to do it to stop genecide, starvation, and general unrest. But to do that they need to strip.free will from the people. The same can be said of a virus, but their world is a human body, and once they conquer one they notice another world or worlds to conque. One could say that the peace of death is ultimately what they want.

  5. If you do not consider cancer the antagonist in The Fault in Our Stars, then who or what would you consider to be the antagonist? I don’t see any other really antagonistic role in this book & in everything I’ve read, it says cancer IS the antagonist. Explain why you think it isn’t.

  6. Hi Rachel, Hazel’s goal in the story is to find out how the book ends. Van Houten refuses to tell her the ending. He is her antagonist. Cancer adds to the conflict, because it makes it harder for her to achieve her goal. The antagonist opposes the physical goal. I hope this helps.

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