Antagonists as Protagonists by Claudia Mills

One very small moment in my third-grade year became a life-long touchstone for me.

I sang in our church's Crusader Choir, and a girl from another town named Claire Hatfield sat next to me each week at choir practice and shared my hymnal. One day, the thought suddenly popped into my head that while, to me, Claire Hatfield was just the girl who shared my hymnal in choir, to Claire Hatfield, I was just the girl who shared her hymnal in choir. In the same way that she was a bit player in the story of my life, I was a bit player in her life story, too.

The same is true, I've come to think, of protagonists and antagonists, both in fiction and in life. The antagonist in one character's story is the protagonist in the same story, told now from their point of view.

In my West Creek Middle School series, published much earlier in my career, each of the five books in the series features a different viewpoint character. And the two final books in the series - Alex Ryan, Stop That! and Makeovers by Marcia - star kids who weren't, well, so kind or empathetic to Ethan in Losers, Inc., or Julius in You're a Brave Man, Julius Zimmerman, or Lizzie, in Lizzie at Last. But when I gave Alex and Marcia their turn in the spotlight, I could see, for the first time, the hurts in their own hearts that led them to act as they had. I ended up loving them just as much as I had loved the characters they treated badly.

So many of the books that most broke my heart as a reader portray kids who act badly out of their own pain: The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson, There's a Boy in the Girls' Bathroom by Louis Sachar, and the achingly beautiful Home from Far by Jean Little. Thanks to the artistic skill of Paterson, Sachar, and Little, the worse the characters act, the more we ache for them.

Down deep I don't believe in the existence of villains or monsters, at least not child villains or child monsters. Children can act thoughtlessly. Children can act cruelly. But inside each antagonistic child is a child who yearns to be the star of his or her own story. How fortunate we are as authors that these stories are given to us to tell.


  1. Nice perspective. I like the way you frame this!

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