Where’s Iago?

I love Thanksgiving and Shakespeare will almost equal fervor. Love cooking all the food and having the family over and basking in the warm glow of belonging. This year, Thanksgiving was even better because I’d recently finished redecorating my dining room, which now has a “Shakespeare Corner.” If I have any altar in my home, this is it. There’s the Sanders portrait of the young bard; there’s the beautiful shelf underneath holding his even more gorgeous works.

Thanksgiving afternoon, Tim, my younger son, walks into the dining room, admires the new floor and says “who’s on the wall?” I tell him young Shakespeare and go into my story about how the portrait was found in an attic a couple years ago. Tim says “he looks kind of weird.”

I think he’s grand, but that may just be me. I love all things Shakespeare. Including his bad guys, like Iago. Andrew told me about Susan Neville’s essay “Where’s Iago?” a while ago. It’s in Bringing the Devil to His Knees: The Craft of Fiction and the Writing Life, a book of essays edited by Charles Baxter and Peter Turchi. Andrew specifically mentioned “Where’s Iago?” because I’ve been having trouble with identifying conflict in my WIP. He thought Neville’s essay might shed some light.

It did. It also entertained along the way, which is more than some essays about writing manage to do. Neville told a Kurt Vonnegut story to set up her premise. They were talking on the phone one night. Vonnegut asked her about her book. When Neville told Vonnegut about the trouble she was having, he responded “I can tell you what’s wrong with it without seeing it…You’re missing Iago.” He went on to say he’d spent twenty years figuring that out. “Look for Iago,” he said.

As it happens, I’ve already got my Iago. Her name is Jane. I’m trying to make her as complicated and completely human as possible. But what I realized after reading Neville’s essay is that I’ve got a long way to go.

I know all the usual things about antagonists: that they shouldn’t be stock villains, because that’s boring and predictable. I know Jane’s more complicated than that. She delivers dramatic tension because her needs are in direct opposition to Eve’s. I even know that every action Jane takes causes ripples of conflict for Eve and the other characters. Certainly external conflict, but also internal. Jane sets off bombs, just by being Jane.

Before reading Neville’s essay, I thought if I did all of this, my story would work. It wouldn’t be Shakespeare, but it would not fail. However, Neville points out that for her, it’s not about whether a story will succeed or fail. It’s about whether it will matter.

Ouch. Shakespeare matters to me and millions of other people four hundred years later for reasons that go beyond having an evil antagonist who brings the plot to a boil. Or as Neville says “…the function of evil, in the best of conditions, is tension and imbalance, and the eventual creation, through suffering and misfortune, of wisdom.” Easy enough to understand if not execute.

But what about this advice to “…locate evil in the characters we identify with most closely.” I have been stewing over that sentence for days now. Where is the evil in my protagonist? Why should there be evil in her? How can I locate it without alienating readers? Why would I want to try?

My first problem was understanding the way Neville defines evil. She sees it not so much a moral thing, but rather a force inside each of us that doesn’t want to get along, that resists and wants to corrupt the norm, thereby bringing chaos. If I go deep enough into character, I can see that the seeds of greed for that particular piece of land beside the lake are in both Eve and Jane. They both want it for themselves. After that, their motivations diverge, but the initial urge is the same.

So, after much ado, I found the “evil” in Eve, and even though I may never refer to it directly in the text, it will inform how I put her on the page and how her struggle with Jane plays out and the story will be better for it. As Neville points out, “We need Iago. Because every story is a fall from innocence: from seeming grace into the hard truths of what is.”

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