Show and Tell: Why You Should Show, Not Tell!

Whether from a writing professor, workshop peer, or favorite author, you must have heard it before: the oft shared and somewhat dreaded advice of “show, don’t tell.” But what does this mean, and how does one approach doing it? 

The “golden rule” of writing, “show, don’t tell,” describes a creative technique, or style of writing, that enables the reader to experience the story rather than be told it. To achieve this technique, a writer must employ actions, senses, figures of speech, and other vivid details so that the reader is fully immersed in the narrative.

Even the best of the best writers struggle with showing over telling. But learning how to do it gives writing a sense of finesse, excitement, and reality no matter what genre or format it takes. Here, we discuss techniques you can use to avoid telling rather than showing and share examples of what they look like on the page. We also cover what filter words are and supply an exercise you can do to improve your writing instantly. Read on to keep learning!

The Power of Showing 

“Show, don’t tell” is not used only in literature but in every form of storytelling, including film, television, podcasts, stage plays, and more. Let’s show you the power of showing rather than telling through some classic examples from various forms of media.

Film

In Jurassic Park, the cup of water rippling before the T-Rex shows up exemplifies the idea of “show, don’t tell.” Rather than having a character suddenly exclaim, “Look! There’s a T-Rex heading right towards us!” and pointing in that direction, the vibration of the water indicating something large headed their way and the expressions on the characters’ faces when they realize what’s coming imbues the scene with a sense of fear and anticipation. The watcher already knows danger is on the way by the time the T-Rex shows up on screen. 

Books

Taking the same scene from the novel version of Jurassic Park, Michael Crichton writes: 

Tim scanned the side of the road. The rain was coming down hard now, shaking the leaves with hammering drops. It made everything move. Everything seemed alive. He scanned the leaves . . .

Here, the reader is placed fully in Tim’s experience of the action. Words like “shaking” and “hammering” indicate the level of powerful vibration occurring from what we later discover to be the T-Rex’s steps. We are Tim, experiencing his growing anxiety and anticipation about his surroundings. Rather than telling us that Tim is getting scared, we feel his emotional state..

Poetry

Poets often use rich metaphors to show the reader what’s happening. Take “Face Down” by Kelli Russell Agodon, the second in her suite of Three Poems. In it, there is the line, “he’s joking, his elbow baring / down on some back bedroom in the house / of my spine. He asks how it feels.” 

Through the use of words like “baring” and the comparison between the narrator’s back and a house, the reader experiences both the physical and the emotional pain the narrator does. Also, Agodon playfully blends the homophones “baring down” and “bearing down” to indicate emotional exposure or reveal and applying pressure, respectively. This shows the reader multiple facets of the moment for both characters at once. 

When to Use “Show, Don’t Tell” 

While the general rule of “show, don’t tell,” should be applied to almost all of your writing, there are specific places in the text where it’s typically used best.

Character Descriptions

When introducing a new character, you need to tell readers what they look like. On a TV or movie screen, this is done easily. But even when viewers can actually see the character, there are ways to tell the viewer more about them. For example, costuming is a huge part of letting the audience know more about a character. Someone who wears designer clothing may be rich or at least trying to appear it. If they wear only bright clothing, they may purposefully be trying to stand out. A character who starts out with long hair but chops it off halfway through may be going through emotional turmoil. 

In writing, picking and choosing what to show through character description depends on who is narrating and what you want readers to pick up on instantly. Here’s an example from Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings of rich character description that supplies us with more information than just what the character looks like: 

Her skin was a rich black that would have peeled like a plum if snagged, but then no one would have thought of getting close enough to Mrs. Flowers to ruffle her dress, let alone snag her skin. She didn’t encourage familiarity. She wore gloves too. I don’t think I ever saw Mrs. Flowers laugh, but she smiled often. A slow widening of her thin black lips to show even, small white teeth, then the slow effortless closing. When she chose to smile on me, I always wanted to thank her.

An autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings follows the early years of Angelou. This moment describes her meeting Mrs. Bertha Flowers, who later becomes a mentor figure and savior of sorts to her. Examine the text and ask yourself: What does this description tell me about Mrs. Flowers as a character? What does it tell me about the narrator? What other information can I draw from it? 

Emotional Responses

The way that a character reacts to different situations says a lot about them. Describing their reactions in writing can be a tricky balance of being too on-the-nose and too vague. Rather than saying, “He was mad,” outright—telling the audience how he felt—try describing how he expressed that anger: “His face turned red and his nostrils flared. His breath blew hot against my face and I flinched back.” In the second version of the sentence, the reader sees how anger manifests in this person and also how the narrator reacts to this kind of anger, so you have two moments of characterization that you otherwise wouldn’t. Telling creates distance for the reader. Showing creates closeness, and even an emotional response, through specificity. It’s clear that he isn’t just mad, he’s livid and scary, and is potentially putting our narrator in danger. 

Taking this further, let’s examine an excerpt from Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. In the first pages of the novel, we learn that a man has cheated on his wife. In this scene, she discovers it by way of a letter, and we get his reaction upon her discovery:

There happened to him at that instant what does happen to people when they are unexpectedly caught in something very disgraceful. He did not succeed in adapting his face to the position in which he was placed towards his wife by the discovery of his fault. Instead of being hurt, denying, defending himself, begging forgiveness, instead of remaining indifferent even—anything would have been better than what he did do—his face utterly involuntarily (reflex spinal action, reflected Stephan Arkadyevitch, who was fond of physiology)—utterly involuntarily assumed its habitual, good-humored, and therefore idiotic smile. 

A few questions to consider post-reading: what does this short paragraph tell you about the character of Stephan Arkadyevitch? What does it tell you about the narrator or point of view in the novel? How might you expect Stephan’s wife to react to his “habitual, good-humored, and therefore idiotic smile”? We immediately understand that Stephan, caught in his adultery, calculates how to respond to his wife, indicating some falsity in his guilt. The fact that he can only muster an idiotic smile shows us that he’s terrible at being bad and something of a pathetic figure. 

Setting Descriptions

Giving readers a sense of where and when a story takes place is essential to them experiencing it. Setting goes a long way not only in placing the reader in a time and space but also in helping them understand the mechanics of your world. When describing setting, focus on the five senses: how does this world feel, smell, sound, look, and even taste? 

The goal with “show, don’t tell” is to better engage the audience in the story by making them feel like they are living it themselves. Using language that does this—and avoiding language that doesn’t—is key to telling a story that feels like an experience.

Pachinko, a novel by Min Jin Lee about four generations of an immigrant family set in twentieth century Korea and Japan, opens by telling us about the first generation of this family. One way that Lee sets the scene is through describing their house: 

The wooden house they had rented for over three decades was not large, just shy of five hundred square feet. Sliding paper doors divided the interior into three snug rooms, and the fisherman himself had replaced its leaky grass roof with reddish clay tiles to the benefit of his landlord, who lived in splendor in a mansion in Busan. Eventually, the kitchen was pushed out to the vegetable garden to make way for the larger cooking pots and the growing number of portable dining tables that hung on pegs along the mortared stone. 

Let’s think about what this excerpt tells us about the rest of the story. What can we assume about the characters? What do we imagine the characters might do in this house? How does describing the house help place us in the story? Through “showing” language, an author can imply a great deal about the characters and world to the reader without ever saying them overtly. In Min Jin Lee’s passage, we infer the passage of time and the growing of the family because of the descriptive details about the house. We may also infer information about how rich or poor this family is and how they feel about their landlord.

These examples of “show, don’t tell,” help us understand why it’s such an important part of telling a good story. It gives mere words the power to turn into felt experiences for a reader. Next, we’ll cover ways you can start to imbue your own work with the “show, don’t tell” style of writing.

Understanding Filter Words

Filter words increase narrative distance in writing by placing the character in the spotlight rather than the experience. They put a barrier, or filter, between the reader and what the character is experiencing. Generally speaking, filter words relate to the five senses: sight, sound, taste, smell, and touch. 

Common examples of filter words include: 

  • Saw, look, see
  • Hear, heard, listen
  • Taste
  • Smell
  • Felt, feel
  • Realized, knew
  • Remembered
  • Decided
  • Noted

When looking for filter words in your writing, search for places where you say things like: 

  • I saw the open window in front of me. 
  • I tasted copper on my tongue. 
  • He remembered when his brother was alive. 
  • She noticed a piece of paper lying on the ground.

In all of these instances, the reader is being told what happened rather than experiencing it for themselves. Try to replace areas where you notice this happening with things like: 

  • A light breeze rustled my hair as I approached the window. 
  • A bloody glob of spit dripped down my chin, staining the ground copper below me. 
  • His brother had once walked these halls, the winter chill seeping through the hard granite and into his toes.
  • The paper, rough and dry against my fingers, was stained brown and wet from the mud.

In replacing these moments, remember to stay true to the experience the character is going through. For example, to build a sense of anticipation and fear in a scene, you would use different language than if you are describing a tranquil moment. 

This all said, you don’t have to ban the use of filter words in your writing entirely. They can be used intentionally to enrich your writing, mix up your narrative style, or say something simply. But in all these instances, they must have a clear purpose and should be used sparingly. For example: 

  • The midday sun beat down on his shoulders, dampening his shirt. When an arresting stench drifted up to his nose, he realized that he forgot to put on deodorant, and wondered if his date with Marguerite was already over.

In this short paragraph, we get moments of both showing and telling. Balanced together, they work to create characterization while providing us with minor expositional details at the same time. All in all, the effect is that the narrative continues moving forward while we remain fully inside the narrator’s point of view. 

Four Practical Tips for Showing, Not Telling 

Learning how to show and not tell takes time and practice. But aside from eliminating most or all filter words from your writing, you can also take these steps: 

  1. Use sensory details. 

Instead of using sensory verbs, which can become filter words, appeal to the reader’s sense of taste, touch, smell, sight, and sound through description. Some examples of sensory details include:

  • Her cheek blushed bright beneath my lips as I pressed them to her pillowy cheek.
  • A strange rustle altered me to movement. I turned. There, bathed silver in the moonlight, stood the unicorn, its long horn cutting a sharp shadow through the meadow.
  • A burning, smoky scent hit her nostrils and the back of her throat as soon as she entered the car.

In all of these examples, details relating to the senses add to the scene by avoiding things like, “I saw a unicorn in the meadow,” or “I smelled the scent of cigarettes in the car.” 

  1. Utilize dialogue. 

How characters speak can reveal many things about them, such as hints as to where they’re from, how old they are, and what they do for a living. In screenplays, the use of dialogue is often the best way to build exposition in a scene. Throwing us back to Jurassic Park, this scene exemplifies dialogue used exceptionally well to not only feed the audience important information, but also to help us understand the characters in the scene. 

  1. Use action to convey emotion. 

When a person in real life is joyful, upset, or otherwise experiencing a strong emotion, they don’t always express themselves through words or simply think “I’m sad.” Instead, what they do and say shows us how they’re feeling. Try doing this in your writing. For example, saying: “She slammed the door shut, threw herself on the bed, and burst into tears,” provides readers with a much more immersive experience than, “She was frustrated and sad.” 

  1. Create atmosphere through description. 

In literature, atmosphere is the feeling or sense evoked by an environment or setting. Why does a science fiction novel feel like science fiction? How does a writer build a sense of horror when telling a scary story? Many things can contribute to this, but one major way is through the story’s overall atmosphere. To build atmosphere, you use descriptive language. We dive deeper into this in the next installment of this series, but the simple answer is that you can use figures of speech such as metaphor, simile, and analogy as well as the sensory type details mentioned above. 

For example, Bram Stoker’s Dracula brings out the spooky atmosphere through the descriptions, figures of speech, and sensory details used. One example is: “The grey of the morning has passed, and the sun is high over the distant horizon, which seems jagged, whether with trees or hills I know not, for it is so far off that big things and little are mixed.” The words “grey” and “jagged” stand out in particular as adding a sense of building eeriness as our unwitting protagonist Jonathan Harkness nears Count Dracula’s castle. Additionally, the phrase “big things and little are mixed” speaks not only to Harkness’s perspective on the landscape, but also to his confusion about it. Most people are capable of sorting out relative size and distance when looking at a landscape—the mountains are bigger than the buildings in reality, despite appearing smaller because the buildings are closer—so knowing that Harkness cannot indicates the supernaturality of his experience.

Avoiding Common Pitfalls

As mentioned earlier, it takes time and practice to master the art of showing rather than telling throughout your writing. But there are some common pitfalls you can avoid to help yourself along the way. 

  1. Overusing adverbs and adjectives. 

Adverbs and adjectives are both used to modify, qualify, and describe other parts of speech. They can work well to enhance the experience of the reader and provide a sense of atmosphere. However, they should be used very purposefully and sparingly, as they tend to slow down the narrative and can be an indication of places where the author is telling rather than showing. 

For example, “She walked clumsily over to him,” is more simply and viscerally said as, “She stumbled over to him.”

  1. Relying on exposition instead of action.

Exposition is an essential piece of any story, but it can be tricky to implement it without giving the reader an info dump. You want to provide the reader with necessary background information as well as give them details on the setting and characters, but you don’t want them to get bored or be taken out of the story because of it. Try providing exposition through action to make it feel more natural. Some ways to do this include using dialogue, narration, internal monologue, or special devices. 

  1. Lacking subtlety in characterization. 

Authors tell us more about characters through the literary device of characterization. Physical descriptions of a character as well as their actions, dialogue, and affect on other characters all contribute to characterization. While you can use both direct and indirect characterization to describe someone, too much of either one may result in readers reading too much or too little into a character. It also feels clumsy to be too on-the-nose about who characters are. A character who is so overtly evil that they don’t feel real, for example, might take readers out of a story. 

Exercise

To practice showing, not telling, take a previous piece of your writing and go through it looking for places where you use filter words or that can be strengthened through metaphor, simile, or analogy. Highlight those moments and then rewrite them to “show” better. When you’re done, take a look back and re-read those selections in context with the rest of the story. How has it transformed the delivery of your story? 

The Path to Becoming a Better Writer

Mastering how to show, not tell is a key part of taking your writing to the next level. Use filter words sparingly, deliver exposition through action whenever possible, and rely on sensory details to imbue your writing with a sense of atmosphere. And remember, in this case especially, practice makes perfect. Keep an eye out for ideal examples of “showing” in works you love and think about how the author has achieved it. Plus, keep up with our Facts of Fiction series for more storytelling tips, tricks, and know-how. 

The Villains’ Voices: 4 Main Types of Antagonists

Now that we have covered creating compelling characters using archetypes, let’s take a look at one of the most important characters in any story: the antagonist. Antagonists come in many forms—in fact, they may not always be an explicit character—but they are always in direct conflict with the protagonist as the protagonist strives to get what they want. 

Contrary to popular belief, antagonists do not necessarily have to be evil. Many types of villainous antagonists exist, of course, and they are a popular way to imbue stories with an immediate sense of conflict and strife. But sometimes, the antagonist is simply someone whose actions come into conflict with the protagonist, or they are an inanimate force the protagonist must fight against, or the protagonist is their own antagonist.

Let’s explore these different kinds of antagonists through their own stories and voices. Four different types of antagonists weigh in to provide their own insight as to what makes them work so well. We’ll hear from Lady Macbeth, Mr. Darcy, the laws of space and nature, and Dorian Gray as we dive deep into the role a great antagonist plays. 

Please note that this blog contains some spoilers for Macbeth by Shakespeare, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, “The Cold Equations” by Tom Goodwin, and The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde. 

The Villain: Lady Macbeth from Macbeth by Shakespeare

Macbeth tells the story of a Scottish general named Macbeth who receives a prophecy from three witches that he will become king of Scotland. Encouraged by his ambitious wife, Lady Macbeth, he murders King Duncan to seize the throne. However, Macbeth’s guilt and paranoia following this lead to further acts of violence and betrayal, ultimately resulting in his downfall. 

Lady Macbeth infamously serves as the major antagonist of the play, inciting Macbeth to his treacherous actions until her guilt consumes her and she descends into madness. In the end, she kills herself. Lady Macbeth is ambitious, manipulative, ruthless, and determined. She will do anything to increase her and her husband’s status and power, even if it means committing heinous acts. In this way, she serves as the traditional villain-type antagonist who works for evil purposes to destroy the protagonist

Here’s what Lady Macbeth has to say for herself from beyond the grave regarding her actions as a villain: 

They call me villain—I assure you I
Am not. Ambitious? Sure, I have been this,
And murderer, and more. But all for him.
If not for me, the story stalls in his
Unmoving, hesitant hands. Always feeble,
Always weak. Unlike me. So I wanted more,
For myself and for him. Is that so wrong? 
Was killing Duncan so deserving of 
This hell? Each night, I wash my hands of blood. 
And yet when I awaken, there it is
Again. The stain I can’t remove, not from 
My skin nor from my clothes. The blood from whose 
Blue veins it ran I do not know. ‘Tis mine? 
Or his? Perhaps, e’en after all this time, 
‘Tis Duncan’s still. The spot that never leaves. 
Oh well, I’d do it all again, for us.

Lady Macbeth puts it best. Without her, Macbeth may never have done the things he did and the story would not have been a story at all. But like any good villain, Lady Macbeth believes she is doing what is best for her husband, herself, and her community. She believes her ambition is just—at least, until her guilt drives her mad. Compelling villains never feel that they are actually villainous or evil, but rather that what they are doing is necessary or even good. In this way, when an antagonist is truly a villain in a story, their evildoing drives the story forward to its conclusion. 

The Conflict-Creator: Mr. Darcy from Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Pride and Prejudice follows the story of Elizabeth Bennet, the second eldest of the five Bennet sisters, as she navigates the societal expectations and romantic entanglements of early nineteenth century England. When wealthy, eligible bachelor Mr. Charles Bingley moves into the neighborhood, Mrs. Bennet, Elizabeth’s mother, tries to secure him as a husband for one of her daughters. Mr. Bingley becomes enamored with Jane, the eldest Bennet sister, while Elizabeth captures the attention of his friend Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy. However, Mr. Darcy’s pride and Elizabeth’s prejudice against him cause conflict and initially prevent any romantic feelings from developing between them. 

While there are plenty of antagonistic characters in Pride and Prejudice, including George Wickham, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, and Mr. Collins, Mr. Darcy serves as the main conflict-creator throughout the story. He is constantly at odds with the protagonist, Elizabeth, and the story is not resolved until he and Elizabeth become aligned.

But let’s have Mr. Darcy tell us what he thinks through the epistolary style: 

Dear Reader,

Although Elizabeth tells me it is not necessary, I am compelled to defend myself from these accusations of being “antagonistic.” I do not feel I have been antagonistic in the slightest. That is not to say that I do not have faults, but I do not think of our story as one of antagonism… rather, it was a series of grave misunderstandings. 

Elizabeth tells me I am misremembering. The ball, she says, the ball where we first met—you said I was ugly! I did not. I was attracted to Elizabeth the moment I met her, I just could not admit it to myself at the time. I have matured since then. 

The unfortunate circumstances that brought Elizabeth and me together made us stronger, did they not? At the very least, they revealed our inmost strengths and flaws and brought them out into the open. 

It is true, however, that I insulted Elizabeth and her family. This I much regret, though it is true that meeting with Elizabeth’s mother can be rather taxing. (Elizabeth agrees.) At the time, I was too prideful to see that although I may have disapproved of her family, Elizabeth was the only one for me. I should not have let myself be influenced by slander of her and her family. 

She’s smiling now, even as she says that it was she who was too prideful and too prejudiced to see past her initial impression of me. I suppose we both were blind. 

Despite my initial impression of her, I could not help but be drawn to Elizabeth. My actions did not always reflect my true heart. Sometimes it felt that everything we did worked against each other. She was influenced by others whispering falsehoods into her ears about me, and I was held back by my own close-minded thinking. 

Looking back on it, I cannot help but scoff at myself—what a presumptuous proposal I made. Yet somehow I do not regret it, for it led us to where we are today. Even after all this time, I find it easier to communicate my true feelings to her, and to myself, through writing letters. Everything is more clear when put out on the page. 

This is all to say, dear reader, that when you encounter conflict in your life—conflict you, yourself may have caused, do not shy away from it. You must struggle and overcome the conflict in order to reap its rewards. I have found the rewards to be most worth reaping! 

Elizabeth is laughing at me now. I must go. 

Sincerely,

Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy

Conflict-creators in fiction are never outright “bad guys,” but they tend to make things complicated for the protagonist. They often represent a status quo that the protagonist actively resists or are a counterpoint to the protagonist’s worldview. No matter what, the conflicts they create press the protagonist to change—for the better or for the worse. When approaching writing them, think about their motivations: why would they want to create this conflict, either advertently or inadvertently? What character traits put them so at-odds with the protagonist? 

Inanimate Force: The Laws of Nature from “The Cold Equations” by Tom Goodwin

This short story explores the consequences of and the rigidness of natural laws. In it, a young girl, Marilyn Cross, stows away on an Emergency Dispatch Ship (EDS) from the larger ship the Stardust to visit her brother on another planet after ten years apart. What she doesn’t know is that any excess weight will cause the EDS to go into freefall, killing the pilot and ultimately the ailing people on the planet it is heading with a serum for a disease. Thus, the pilot must jettison any stowaways into space once discovered. However, upon realizing that the stowaway in question is an 18-year-old girl who is completely unaware of the dire consequences of her actions, the pilot is horrified and reluctant to follow through. He attempts to see if he can save her, but in order to save the lives of many—including his own—Marilyn must be ejected into space. 

“The Cold Equations” features a unique, non-character antagonist. It is a tragic story about the consequences of action and inaction and the laws of nature. Their oppressive existence throughout the story serves as a reminder of what’s at stake as well as Marilyn’s inevitable death. 

Since space and nature cannot speak for themselves, the pilot weighs in with a recording of the post-mission report: 

Mission Report for Commander Delhart EDS 34GII
Reporter: Pilot Barton; Number A8479-Y50
Mission Date: December 9, 2178

Introduction

Context: On December 6, 2178, the Stardust received a request from one of the exploration parties stationed on Woden. Six men were stricken with fever carried by green kala midges and their supply of serum had been destroyed. Stardust went through the usual procedure, dropping into normal space to launch the EDS with the fever serum, then vanishing again in hyperspace. Barton was the sole accompanier of the EDS per Interstellar Regulations. 

Mission dates: December 8 and 9, 2178

Mission expected outcomes: Safe delivery of the green gala midges fever serum to Group One stationed on Woden. 

Team members: Pilot Neil Barton; Number A8479-Y50

Outcomes

  • Safe delivery of the green gala midges fever serum to Group One stationed on Woden.
  • Stowaway jettisoned from EDS at 1900 en route. 

Activities

  • At 1700 hours, EDS 34GII launched from the Stardust. Ran a metrics check; no reported abnormalities. 
  • At 1800 hours, noticed the supply closet temperature gauge had risen above normal and determined a stowaway had come on board. Per Paragraph L, Section 8 of Interstellar regulations, made way to the supply closet to apprehend the stowaway. Stowaway identified as young girl. 
  • At 1805 hours, returned with the stowaway to the main cabin. After questioning, cut deceleration to 0.001 m/s2. Signaled the Stardust and contacted Commander Delhart. 
  • At 1808 hours, stowaway identified as Number T8374-Y54. Name: Marilyn Lee Cross. Sex: Female. Born: July 6, 2160. Height: 5’3”. Weight: 110 lbs.
  • Ordered to resume deceleration at 1910 hours and complete mission report. 
  • At 1830 hours, requested contact with Lieutenant Gerry Cross, number: T8946-Y52.
  • At 1850 hours, Lt. Cross returned the signal and spoke with Marilyn Cross. 
  • At 1900 hours, stowaway jettisoned from EDS en route to Woden. 
  • At 1910 hours, resumed normal deceleration and submitted primary mission report. 
  • At 2000 hours, arrived on Woden with serum and delivered to Group One Captain Blysmithe. 

Findings and Recommendations

  • Finding: Green gala midges fever more contagious in closed environments than anticipated. 
    • Recommendation: To prevent future incidents of green gala midges fever, supply all ports within 56 parsecs of Earth with vaccination. 
  • Finding: Lack of knowledge regarding consequences of stowage from Earth citizen personnel. 
    • Recommendation: To prevent future stowage incidents, supply Terrans with substantial education on the dangers of stowing away. 
  • Finding: Lack of security around Emergency Deployment Ships leading up to significant launches. 
    • Recommendation: To prevent future stowage or piracy incidents, increase security around EDS launches up to 24 hours in advance of launch whenever possible. 

Barton’s report, particularly his findings and recommendations, help us understand the weight an inanimate force plays as an antagonist. In scenarios where an inanimate force like the laws of nature or societal expectations are the biggest drivers of conflict in a story, often the characters are pitted against it in a way that prevents them from having full control over their fate and the fate of those around them. The antagonists in “The Cold Equations” are faceless and have no motivations of their own, but are nonetheless extraordinarily powerful. Physics serves as one potential antagonist, as science dictates how the ship can land safely. Fate also plays a role as Marilyn faces the consequences of her ignorance and bad luck. The story also features an even more amorphous antagonist: choice. The fact that the pilot and Marilyn must confront a difficult “Trolley Problem” and choose between two bad options is, in itself, an antagonist.

Self: Dorian Gray from The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

In this exploration of a person consumed by vanity and hedonism, the young, handsome Dorian Gray is the subject of a portrait painted by his friend and artist Basil Hallward. When Dorian expresses his desire for eternal youth, wishing the portrait would age instead of him, the wish seemingly comes true. Dorian remains young and unblemished while the portrait ages. Dorian then goes on to indulge in a life of debauchery and excess, spurred by his deep insecurities and outside forces such as the hedonistic Lord Henry. As Dorian becomes increasingly reckless and immoral, the portrait grows increasingly grotesque and corrupted. Dorian fears it will reveal his true nature to the world and becomes consumed by paranoia and guilt. Finally, he destroys the portrait, resulting in his own death and restoring the portrait to its original state while his body reflects the soul inside. 

Although outside forces influence Dorian’s thinking and decisions, his ultimate downfall is himself and his vanity. His own insecurities, his inability to establish and live by his own moral code, and his emphasis on appearance over all lead to his corruption and death. 

Let’s hear Dorian’s ghost as it wanders through the halls of his mansion, remembering his life: 

I once grieved the living death of my own soul. Now I grieve the death of myself while my portrait lives on. It has surpassed me in all, in looks, in youth, and in eternity. No longer do people remember me, Dorian Gray, they only remember my portrait. What a terrible thing it is, to be so remembered for someone else’s work. 

I remain blameless. For all, I blame Basil and his damned portrait. Except for the death of the girl I once loved, perhaps… perhaps that was my undoing after all. 

What am I saying? The portrait caused everything and now it sits there, gilded and resplendent while I wander these halls unable to pass. Do I have regrets? I already set them aside, agreed with myself that I had nothing to do with the unfortunate events that unfolded during my life. 

Sometimes… sometimes I think of what happiness I might have had if not for that portrait. If not for that damnable object. The object of so many’s desire: Lord Henry, Basil himself. Perhaps even Sybil Vane had only ever truly wanted the portrait of me: the image that remains perfect even after death. No one wanted me for the person inside. 

Then again, not even I did, that vile fellow. A lord of debauchery. I lived only as I knew to live, only as I should have lived as an immortal. Now my portrait lives on in place of me, a true masterpiece. And I, I remain here, unable to move on. 

When the self is the antagonist in a story, it means that the major conflicts are caused by the protagonist’s main flaws. In Dorian Gray’s case, vanity and insecurity drive him to cause horrible deeds and ultimately to a terrible end. Characters who have an internal struggle above all may come out at the end of it better than Dorian does, but only if they’re able to learn their lesson and overcome their weaknesses. 

Final Thoughts

Conflict is an incredibly important aspect of any story, and driving that conflict will always be an antagonist of some kind. Hint: All of these antagonists come from stories that are part of our Literary Tarot deck, through which you can unlock even more secrets of classic literature. Remember to check out our next blog in this series which will cover crafting compelling conflict in greater detail! For more on the complexities of antagonists and what makes them work, check out our blog analyzing four truly memorable antagonists