It’s an old adage that there are two sides to every coin. I would go a step beyond what that phrase implies to say there is one story but two narratives. There is the protagonist’s take and the antagonist’s take. If you want to be technical you could say there is a different narrative for every character in a story, but for illustration’s sake, I’ll stick with two. Writing the antagonist’s side to things has really become a popular trend in literature. The Real Story of the 3 Little Pigs, Wicked, Lost Boy, and others give us a version of a classic story from the villain’s perspective. These usually include some accommodations to make us even more sympathetic with the villain. Having read those stories for years, ironically, the clarity of mind to really grasp the concept of there being multiple vantages in every story didn’t hit me until I saw Cars 3. Bear with me, I know I just switched gears a bit by going from classic literature and modern day twists to a Disney movie, but I promise there’s some substance to this.
In Cars 3, you have the upstart rookie who is looking to make his mark on history by being the first car to win the Piston Cup in his rookie year. Oh, wait. No, I didn’t get Cars and Cars 3 confused. In the original Cars, the rookie alluded to is Lightning McQueen, the red race car protagonist who learns a big lesson. In Cars 3, the rookie is Jackson Storm, a black new-age race car who acts as the antagonist. What struck me is that though Cars 3 is still about McQueen and meant to be a Rocky 3/Rocky Balboa hybrid story, is it really fair of us to begrudge Storm for aspiring to the same feats McQueen pursued just because he is billed as the bad guy? Or what about Clubber Lang from Rocky 3 while we’re at it. Was he so different from Rocky at the outset? (I’ll answer this at the end)
Seeing the Cars story played out through two different characters to two different ends really made me think about how we approach stories and even more so daily life. We read a story with the intention of pulling for whomever is intended to be the protagonist, even during those times when the protagonist is actually understood to be a villain (Breaking Bad, Dracula Untold, etc.). Their story becomes our story. The tendency to support “our” story, I believe, is what leads to a tremendous number of conflicts in life. We tend to approach life with an “it’s my story” attitude. If all the world is a stage and we merely players in it, then most all of us believe we’re the lead in the play. The truth of the matter is we’re not the lead, and this isn’t our story. For Christians, the tendency to buy into a self-centered story is more dangerous, because we know Who’s story life is and that we are neither the playwright nor the lead character. Acting as though we are throws a wrench into our dynamic with other characters and naturally leads to mishandling situations. We become so focused our own view point that we lose sight of how a casual observer might see us as an antagonist.
None of this is to say that all conflict is wrong and there are not legitimate instances to take a stand for what we believe and for our actions. It does mean we need to be very careful to remember the Apostle Paul’s adjuration to “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.” (Philippians 2:3, ESV)
When we value others at least as much as ourselves we remember they are people too and have come to a particular moment with a view point and experiences defining their side of the story. How many conflicts that reduce down to stubborn wars of attrition could be resolved by giving someone else the benefit of the doubt and choosing in love to consider the other person first? How many more conflicts would never happen if that attitude guided us from the start? I know I’m guilty of forgetting this. I only pray I remember it more often, because imagine how very different history would have shaped out if the Playwright and Lead Character had chosen to treat us without the humility and loving compassion He showed and shows us.
*: Just to be clear, I in no way am endorsing moral relativism here. Quite the opposite. I believe very firmly there are absolute heroes and villains in both art and certainly in reality. In terms of storytelling, I think the difference in Clubber Lang/Jackson Storm from Rocky Balboa/Lightning McQueen lies in their choices after being introduced. Both pairs have very similar attitudes and responses to the similar opportunities and events. What didn’t happen for the villains is a change of heart or focus that leads to them becoming nobler. At that pivotal moment where growth and virtue could take place, Clubber/Storm veer 180 degrees. I think it is important to remember while writing a story, the villains are often similar to protagonists, but choose the dark side so-to-speak. It’s their resistance to redemption that makes them villains, not their initial role in a story.