As has become the norm, for this Tuesday’s post I’ve had a go at the latest Writing Excuses exercise, to sharpen my writing skills and hopefully inspire others to give these exercises a go. This week’s exercise was provided by a guest on the show, Wesley Chu:
take something that you’ve already written, swap the personalities of your protagonist and antagonist, and re-write a scene from the story.
I’m under some time pressure this week, so I’m not going to write a full scene, just think about how this role reversal would work in one of my stories – ‘Shadows, Stones and Hungry Ghosts’, from my collection By Sword Stave or Stylus.
The Original Situation
‘Shadows, Stones and Hungry Ghosts’ stars First Swift Footstep, a criminal in a fantasy setting influenced by China and Japan. The story depicts his interrogation by a nameless authority figure, which leaves First Swift Footstep haunted by what may be a spirit or may be a figment of his imagination.
In this original set-up, First Swift Footstep is a chancer and an opportunist. He’s fidgety and somewhat nervous, plagued by his own doubts. He’s willing to cross legal and ethical boundaries where it’s in his best interests.
The interrogator is a figure of calm and stillness. Educated, connected and rooted in the traditions of their country, he understands how to use small gestures to his advantage. It’s his infinite patience, as much as First Swift Footstep’s impatience, that becomes the thread of their confrontation.
Reverse the Polarity!
So what happens when I switch these two around?
Now we have a protagonist and prisoner who is calm and patient, able to resist the techniques used on him by an interrogator desperate for results. Instead of seeing the prisoner slowly worn down, we would see his resisting a range of different approaches to interrogation, up to and including torture – after all, our new interrogator is happy to cross that line. Ultimately, it’s still a story about how much one man can endure, but it’s about external pressures, not internal ones, and the through line is one of resistance to a dark change, not growing insight.
Reflecting on the Exercise
I think that, if I’d looked at another of my stories, this exercise might have created something more interesting. As it is, the reversal makes a story that’s more mundane and less interesting. Though I am fascinated by the character of the new, impatient interrogator, and think he could have a lot of use in a future story, by making the calm, patient, almost flawless man the centre of the story, I end up with a less interesting protagonist.
If you’d like to read the original story, By Sword, Stave or Stylus is free on Amazon today. And if you’ve got any thoughts on the exercise, or have tried it yourself, please share your thoughts in the comments – I’m always interested in what other people make of these exercises.