The Hidden Figures of NASA: Black Women Mathematicians and the Space Race

Hidden Figures reveals a truer picture: that black women “are part of the American epic” that placed astronauts on the moon. And it’s long past time we celebrated their efforts.

Hidden Figures tells the story of the women who performed the behind-the-scenes work that propelled American aviation triumphs during World War II and Space Age rocketeering. Author Margot Lee Shetterly focuses on a particular group of pioneering women working at NACA/NASA,[*] the African-American women who overcame barriers imposed by both their gender and their race. Called computers, they were mathematicians whose work entailed calculating complex equations for the engineers engaged in the then emerging field of aeronautics.

The Call to Serve

The first female computing pool, then all white, formed due to necessity. Prior to 1935, the male (usually white) engineers performed their own calculations, a tedious task that slowed their research. Historian Beverly E. Golemba notes that “Because of the male shortage and the added attractiveness of paying women less, they rather reluctantly began to hire women as computers.” Despite their qualms, these white women soon proved themselves equal—and better—at the task. Although they earned less than male counterparts despite possessing equivalent bachelor degrees,[†] NACA still paid better than teaching did and permitted them to continue working long after marriage and the arrival of children.

The demand for human computers soon outstripped the supply of qualified white women available. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, pressured by black labor union leader A. Philip Randolph’s threat to march on Washington, signed an executive order that desegregated the defense industry and made it possible for black women to become computers. Although advertisements for black computers were more discreet during this segregated era, they nonetheless attracted the attention of Dorothy Vaughn (the first black female supervisor) in 1943,[‡] one of the three computers Shetterly’s book features. Cold War concerns kept NACA’s Langley Research Center (located in Hampton, Virginia) retaining and continuing to hire more computers to process the vast data produced by the research conducted there.

The Hidden Figures of NASA: Black Women Mathematicians and the Space Race. Text by R. Gould
The Friden calculator was one of machines that human computers once used to perform complex calculations.

Calculating Times of Change

As Shetterly follows Dorothy Vaughn, Mary Jackson, and Katherine G. Johnson (famed for calculating flight trajectories of the Mercury and Apollo space missions) through the highlights of their careers into the late 1960s, she also performs the daunting task of capturing a cross-section of the eras in which these women worked. Moving from World War II to the Cold War and Space Race accompanied by the burgeoning Civil Rights movement, she laces her narrative with layperson discussions of aeronautical innovations. Shetterly, too, describes the complex calculations (Johnson’s figures are compared to a symphony) while underscoring the human cost of miscalculations: loss of life. At times, one wishes for more biographical and less technical detail, but the perspective is critical for understanding her subject’s work. Shetterly correctly observes that it’s important to learn about the computers who worked at NACA/NASA and document their work—all while recording the obstacles these black women overcame.

Among the book’s poignant moments, Shetterly recounts Katherine Johnson’s[§] journey to Langley from West Virginia in 1953. Once her bus entered Virginia, she entered a segregated state; she and other black passengers were required to move to the bus’s back. Later, they all had to disembark as the bus would not travel through the black part of town. Johnson ignored segregation and gender-based discrimination when she could, unafraid to use a white only bathroom or ask why she, a female computer, could not attend the Space Task Force editorial meetings with the male engineers.

Mary Jackson, a Virginia native and Hampton local hired in 1951, discussed her frustration with unequal work conditions to an engineer who responded with an invitation to join his team; this move launched her career as the first female black engineer. To attain that rank, however, she needed special permission to go to classes at the segregated local high school she’d unable to attend as a teen. The school, which she expected to be superior to the one she matriculated from, was dilapidated: the full cost of segregated school systems was fewer and worse resources for all.

“What I changed, I could; what I couldn’t, I endured” were Dorothy Vaughn’s words to Golemba about her time at Langley. Disappointed that she did not again attain a management position after NASA integrated its staff in 1958, she launched many careers during her time as a supervisor (Katherine Johnson’s included).[**] Vaughn soon observed that computing machines would gain ascendancy, and she made it imperative that she and other human computers learn how to code them, thus making themselves indispensable to NASA. And it would be Johnson’s calculations that would confirm the accuracy of the new machines, giving NASA (not to mention astronaut John Glenn) confidence in the machine’s calculations.

Finally, Zeroing on Hidden Figures

When reading about these women’s accomplishments and considering how often the Space Race has been memorialized, it seems shocking that we didn’t know these women’s names earlier. Of the many computers named in Hidden Figures (both black and white), I only knew of Katherine Johnson beforehand. Shetterly acknowledges, as other authors do, the role that the women’s modesty played. She also adds that many people did know about the work these women undertook (particularly in Hampton, which happens to be the author’s hometown). Yet, this knowledge remained unseen by the public. As Shetterly indicated in an interview on NPR’s All Things Considered, “…I think that it really does have to do with us…not valuing that work that was done by women, however necessary, as much as we might. And it has taken history to get a perspective on that.”

Shetterly’s remarks here are hardly controversial: women’s work (particularly domestic) long has been undervalued and unappreciated. Writing Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race provides this much needed corrective accounting. Both black and white computers’ contributions alike were forgotten while white men they worked alongside were lauded. As reporter Virginia Biggins explained during a panel that discussed the role of human computers, she “just assumed they were all secretaries”. Hidden Figures reveals a truer picture: that black women “are part of the American epic” that placed astronauts on the moon. And it’s long past time we celebrated their efforts.

NOTES:

[*] Respectively, National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) and National Aeronautics and Space Agency (NASA)

[†] Golemba’s unpublished report indicated most computers pursued mathematical degrees because it was a subject at which they excelled in high school and that most intended to use the degree as part of a teaching career.

[‡] Shetterly discusses other black computers and their careers where appropriate but the book’s scope does not permit spending much time with them. However, her ongoing project, The Human Computer project, strives to capture the history of the women who served as computers.

[§] Katherine Johnson was then Katherine Goble, as her first husband was still alive.

[**] Although Shetterly focuses mostly on black women, she also exposes the gender-based struggles white women encountered where appropriate. When Dorothy Vaughn intervened on Katherine Johnson’s behalf and helped her obtain a permanent position (and promotion) to a team where she’d been temporarily assigned, Vaughn also helped a white computer gain the same appointment. Not having anyone to forward her cause, her request to join the team would otherwise been ignored.

Reading Women Month: Spreading the Word About Women Writers

Dedicating a month to reading women writers both brings more attention to their terrific works and fulfills Reading Women’s mission to reclaim half the bookshelf.

In celebration of their first year podcasting, Reading Women debuted Reading Women Month to encourage everyone to read great books written by or about women throughout June.[*] As a member of the newly formed Women Writers Network, I love to see women’s writing being discussed and promoted. The latest VIDA count demonstrates that women writers still publish less than their male counterparts. Dedicating a month to reading women writers both brings more attention to their terrific works and fulfills Reading Women’s mission to reclaim half the bookshelf. You can show your support by using the hashtag #readingwomenmonth when you post about the books you’re reading on social media like Twitter and Instagram.[†]

If you need additional suggestions for your reading list, I’m recommending several books I’ve read:

Finally, check out these articles that list more amazing works by women writers:

Which women writers do you love to read? Share your favorites in the comment section below!

NOTES:

 

[*] The event includes both reading challenges and photo challenges, as well as giveaways. Details are here.

[†] Feel free to use the #women_writers and #readingwomen to increase exposure of your posts!

[‡] I discuss Hidden Figures here.

[§] You can read my review of Swing Time here.

Self-Editing: Tactics for Taming Weak Wording

Most words and phrases that people recommend avoiding earn this distinction because they bloat word counts and (possibly) make editors despair.

Among the more specific writing suggestions that exist,[*] writers often are advised to avoid certain words and phrases to improve their work’s readability. However talented we are as wordsmiths, I suspect most of us find ourselves deleting questionable phrasing from our early drafts—myself included. Part of becoming a better writer involves learning how to self-edit one’s verbal excesses. I’ve identified categories of weak wording, strategies for dealing with them, and a few reasons why we might use them anyway.

Filler Words

Most words and phrases that people recommend avoiding earn this distinction because they bloat word counts and (possibly) make editors despair. I call them fillers because they add text without value. For example, “a variety of reasons” could instead be “various reasons” or “assorted reasons”. Other offenders include redundancies such as “joint consensus” when “consensus” suffices. At fault here is wordiness. Why do style manuals hate wordiness? Because it makes reading dull. Reading pages of “in order to”, “at this point”, “very”, and their boring brethren makes it difficult to stay focused on the topic. Style manuals recommend concise writing for a reason.[†]

Cliches bore the kitty.
The cat isn’t yawning because she’s tired; she’s bored by filler words and clichés.

Overused and Imprecise Wording

Some words and phrases don’t bear repeating because their overuse dilutes their impact. Clichés typically belong in this category, as does the word “awesome”.[‡] Other words lack precision. “If someone is “very” smart, do we mean they are intelligent or a genius? How much is “a lot”? Be specific (eg, seven) or generalize concisely (eg, numerous). Likewise, words like “stuff” and “things” are vague; they can be replaced with “belongings” or a description of said things (clothes, cars, bottle cap collections…).

Adjectives, Adverbs, and the Passive Voice

Adjectives, adverbs, and the passive voice constitute an interesting group because they permit wordiness (and perhaps imprecision) yet remain vital in other contexts (more on that later). Because they are useful, we sometimes overuse them. Some sentences become more concise and/or gain immediacy when we replace an adverbial or adjectival phrase (eg, “public disgrace”) with a more descriptive verb or noun (“scandal”), respectively. “She stomped” has greater impact than “She walked loudly and angrily” because we switched from telling to showing. Sentences written in the passive voice (“I was running”) similarly benefit when revised to an active verb (“I ran”). We also need to consider whether some adjectives or adverbs can be dispensed with altogether.  If the character’s quietness in “She walks quietly down the hall” isn’t being described for a reason (ie, to show that she’s being considerate of others who are asleep), this adverb should be removed.

gavel, weak wording
Objection, your Honor! Weak wording appears in dialogue to simulate natural speech!

Objections: Appropriate Uses and Other Reasons

Before I discuss strategies for clearing verbal clutter away, I want to address why we still use items from these categories. As soon as a person lists phrases or words that should be avoided, someone will cite cases where the word or phrase is permissible—even desirable!—to use. I find articles that suggest we delete all instances of certain words (like adverbs) too prescriptive. My goal is to make it easier to revise occurrences of weak wording, not ban writing that works. If you find a way to make a cliché or the passive voice read well, use it. Here is an incomplete list of some reasons we use “avoidable” wording:

  • Dialogue. We use weak wording to simulate or report dialogue. [**]
  • Creative license. Robert Frost’s poem “Mending Wall” and its musing about neighborliness wouldn’t exist without a cliché . This poem reminds us that creative people know how to make trite phrases interesting again.
  • When fillers aren’t fillers. Sometimes “a lot” is an actual lot (as in realty). And we leave “in order to” alone when “order” means “sequence” because “Place the objects to collect a prize” is not equivalent to “Place the objects in order to collect a prize” .[††]
  • Using parts of speech when needed. It’s impractical to always avoid adjectives, adverbs, and the passive voice. We cannot replace every adjective and adverb with a more descriptive noun or verb. Also, the passive voice has clear usage cases (eg, general truths such as “Rules were made to be broken”), which you can read about here and here.
  • Repetition. Were I writing about a “scandal”, I may switch to “public disgrace” if I’ve used the word “scandal” so often it’s become boring!
Revision. Self-Editing: Tactics for Taming Weak Wording. Text by R. Gould
Get ready to revise.

Tactics to Minimize the Extraneous

Moving from understanding why weak wording makes writing less interesting to detecting its presence in our own work is difficult, something that requires practice. Some approaches and tactics help us find weak wording faster and edit thoughtfully. The following are my recommendations for self-editing:

  • Familiarity. Become familiar with words and phrases people suggest avoiding. Learn the specific reasons why a word or phrase should be revised and when it can be kept. Keep notes on items you want to avoid or review carefully when you write and revise. To get you started, I’ve listed several articles that discuss words to avoid at the end of the article (see “Read More”).
  • Identify problem areas. Check through your work (or ask someone else to do so) for weak wording, particularly repeat occurrences (“in order to” is one of mine). Keep your list of weak wording near where you write as a reminder.
  • Utilize software. Diana Urban advocates using the word processing “find” feature to locate and highlight weak wording, making it easier to  revise as needed. Building on her idea, I suggest using the same approach to check adverbs (most end in -ly) and adjectives (many use -ous, -ed or -ing suffixes); MS Word will let you search by suffixes. Built-in grammar software also highlights some egregious examples of weak wording.
  • Other resources. Use dictionaries (software, online or even manual) to confirm when phrase are redundant.  “Public opprobrium” is redundant by definition. Internet searches and other resources (Cliché Net) provide swift results about whether a questionable phrasing is cliché.

As a group defined by our words, we need to choose them with greater care. Self-editing, backed by research and technology, is one way we can improve what we write. If you’ve know of any strategies I haven’t mentioned, I’d love to learn about them. Feel free to share in the comment box below!

NOTES:

[*] I’ve done a roundup on this topic here.

[†] To clarify, concise writing refers to removing excess words; it is not a dictate to write shorter sentences. Both terse and lengthy sentences read better when every word in them matters.

[‡] I blame the 1980s.

[**] When using filler words or clichés in fictional dialogue, aim to give readers reality without the tedium. Writers usually condense reality: we don’t report every conversation verbatim. Even nonfiction writers insert ellipses when statements meander.

[††] Sure, you could say “Sequence the objects to win a prize” but you sound stuffy doing so.

READ MORE

Tameri Guide for Writer’s “Words and Phrases to Avoid

Freelance Writings “Ten Words to Avoid When Writing”

Diana Urban’s “43 Words You Should Cut from Your Writing Immediately”

Mark Nichol’s “50 Redundant Phrases to Avoid”

Thoughtco’s “Overused and Tired Words: A Tip for Effective Writing”

Pearl Luke’s “681 Clichés to Avoid in Your Creative Writing

Oxford Dictionaries’ “Avoiding Clichés

Reading in Company: The Advantages of Audiobooks

Reading ranks highly among solitary activities because its immersive nature, by design, tends to work best solo. As a bonus, no one comments on how odd it is that you are doing it alone. Yet reading can has its social side, as both book clubs and public readings prove. And that socialization can be the whole point of reading with others.

Reading Side by Side

For me, reading with another person present ideally occurs when we quietly read our own texts, perhaps sharing the occasional bits that amuse or interest us. For many years now, that person has been my spouse, although my tot has begun joining me of late. These joint reading sessions become irksome with too many interruptions, but they generally work out well.

The scenario alters, however, when both parties want to read the same book. This happens infrequently, since my spouse and I are rarely on the same page[*] with reading material. When it does occur, it’s not exactly polite to mention items of interest when the other party hasn’t hit the same point in a book. Matters become more complicated when there’s only one copy of book and I need to wait ages to read a book so that we can finally discuss it. Or worse, so I can read it. But there are workarounds.

Reading in Tandem

During a recent car trip, my spouse played an audio copy of a nonfiction book we both wanted to read.[†] All the difficulties of reading together disappeared: The narrator provided the pacing, preventing me from getting too far ahead. The audiobook format allowed us to hit pause and discuss the portions of the book we found interesting or disliked. And we continued our listening once we returned home.

I don’t typically listen to audiobooks, possibly because I find auditory accompaniment unnecessary since I figured out that “reading in your head” thing. That, or read-along-books put me off the idea.[‡] In fact, the last time I listened to an audiobook was…in a car ride with my spouse a few years ago.[§] To be honest, I don’t see myself listening to many audiobooks on my own, unless I have a reason to do so.[**]

It occurred to me, though, my spouse and I should consider listening to more books together and not just on tedious car rides. There are other books we’ve both wanted to read that might make a good evening’s listening, taking a page from friends of ours (another couple) who refer to their audiobook sessions as their literary salon. It’d be interesting to see if this becomes our new reading habit.

And who knows? We might even let the kid pick a book or two.

Happy reading!

Do you like to listen to audiobooks? Share why in the comment section below. Also, sign-up to the Sequence’s newsletter and keep current with the latest posts.

NOTES:

[*] When the pun is too good to delete.

[†] The book in question is The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing by Marie Kondō. Because stuff accumulates.

[‡] As children, one of my brothers and I couldn’t hit the fast forward button fast enough during the song portions of a certain read-a-long book based on a movie. During the movie, the songs were okay, but they dragged without the accompanying visual entertainment. And the narrator read the book so sloooooooooooooow.

[§] Nuture Shock by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman.

[**] Say, a few weeks ago when post-LASIK eye strain really put a crimp in my reading plans.

Coming of Age: Writing and the Continuity of Maturation

With the exception of bildungsroman tales, however, there is no reason the age must be adolescent or the struggles pubescent when we invoke the phrase “coming of age”. After all, rites of passage (eg, graduations, first jobs, parental loss) can occur at many different ages.

Literary Connections

In one of those fascinating moments of literary connection, I stumbled upon a quote that resonated with my own writing:[*]

…“all stories are coming-of-age stories”[†]

I discovered this statement, attributed to Antonya Nelson (author of Female Trouble), in a Q/A session between Karen Russell (author of Swamplandia and interviewer) and Robin Black (the interviewee) that served as an afterwords for Black’s short story collection, If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This: Stories. Russell references Nelson’s remark while discussing Black’s stories, which she notes explore with intensity how characters “come of age” at various points of their life. Concurring, Black relates her view that “coming-of-age” stories are works involving the change from innocence to experience, a process that continues to complicate one’s life. I found myself nodding, as my story-in-progress sprang to mind.

Coming of Ages

But what does a “coming of age” story represent? Usually, we refer to stories focusing on a young person in the process of achieving adulthood. Examples range from a teenager gaining understanding of her mother and harm seen in Nelson’s short story “Primum Non Nocere” to bildungsroman novels (eg, The History of Tom Jones by Henry Fielding), which focus on the development of a youth into maturity (eg, moral, psychological, intellectual).[‡] With the exception of bildungsroman tales,[§] however, there is no reason the age must be adolescent or the struggles pubescent when we invoke the phrase “coming of age”. After all, rites of passage (eg, graduations, first jobs, parental loss) occur at many different ages.

In my intergenerational story, three women’s lives change, with each experiencing a “coming of their particular age”. The youngest member, of course, experiences the more typical coming-of-age moment after leaving college. For her mother, her child’s nascent adulthood revives memories of her own mistakes at that age coupled with current worries that make it difficult for her to accept her child’s choices. And for the grandmother of the group? In addition to supporting the younger women in different ways, she looks toward her own next transition: addressing her own increasingly limited ability to care for herself.

Characterizing Maturation

One of the reasons I’ve enjoyed working with this story is that I felt the characters had opportunities to grow and learn, either by succeeding in their endeavors or by failing. When I read this interview and considered “coming of ages” in my writing, I knew I’d stumbled onto an underlying theme of my story: how families deal with their continuing evolution. In this regard, I felt more kinship with Black’s notion of moving from innocence to experience. Or, as I think of it, the ways in which we move from ignorance to knowledge, learning how to be ourselves at a certain age. It’s worth considering how characters of all ages “come of age”, how they mature through their experiences, when we write. Maturity, as Black notes, may not confer mastery but it makes for a richer tale.

NOTES:

[*] And they were all women authors!

[†] “A Reader’s Guide.” Black, Robin. Interview by Karen Russell. In: Black, Robin. If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This: Stories. New York, Random House, 2011.

[‡] Anne Boyd Rioux discusses female bildungsroman novels, including the contradictory nature of applying this term to female protagonists when such characters ultimately step into their expected social roles instead of pursuing their own dreams. Fortunately, she also lists several nineteenth century novels that flout these limitations here.

[§] By definition, a youth must be involved.

Soul Searching in Swing Time: Identity and Friendship*

Throughout the novel’s course (spent shuttling between the narrator’s upbringing with Tracey and her later career), Smith’s characters act as foils for each other in ways that make us question identity.

In Zadie Smith’s novel Swing Time, the unnamed narrator finds herself with time for self-reflection following a scandal that leads to public ignominy and unemployment. The scandal itself, however, is the least interesting part of this novel that travels between time and place while the narrator comes to terms with whom she is. Of course, much of whom the narrator might be depends on perspective, place, and the unevenness of memory. Smith’s novel, short on plot, delves into notions of identity, with emphasis on how class and race intertwine.

Family

Part of the narrator’s shifting identity stems from being the daughter of contrasting parents. Her mother, a black woman from Jamaica, is ambitious and intellectual, while her white, working class English father is the nurturer, determined to give his child a more stable, loving home than he had. The narrator wryly notes that her upbringing in the estates occurred “in the widening gap” between her parents who eventually divorce. She is neither parent’s child exactly, a sentiment that, in her father’s case, is exacerbated by meeting his white children from a previous relationship. To the narrator, they seem to be more genuinely his children than she is despite her father’s clear devotion. Smith gives her character unenviable insight: she could view this scenario from the opposite perspective but is unable to do so even as an adult. It’s this self-awareness and paralysis that make this character both frustrating and compelling.

Fiction and “Fitting In”

Throughout the novel’s course (spent shuttling between the narrator’s upbringing with Tracey and her later career), Smith’s characters act as foils for each other in ways that make us question identity. Shared skin color, for example, draws the narrator and Tracey (another biracial child) together when they meet in a dance class. Alike and different at once, both aspire to be dancers but only Tracey has the talent and drive for it. Yet Tracey longs for a loving father: she romanticizes her own abusive father’s absences—a tactic the narrator adopts when discussing her white siblings. Of course, such tactics and uncertain memory also complicate matters of identity. The epiphany that Smith’s narrator has about herself is inspired by watching Astaire’s performance in the movie Swing Time again. Yet, her realization (now wearing glasses and in good light) that she forgot Astaire performed in blackface disrupts this moment. And we are left to question: What is forgotten, what is untrue?

Laced with envy, the girls’ friendship is rocky. Sexuality, here, also affects identity and belonging. Although the narrator remains Tracey’s friend when the “nice” girls at school ostracize her for early sexual maturation, time spent together occurs only on Tracey’s terms. And Tracey sneers when the narrator socializes with the other girls, suggesting that the narrator’s presence among them is pretense. While playtime with nice girls like Lily Bingham offers the narrator relief from Tracey, it also invites alienation. Lily—white, middle class and “color blind”—is hurt when the narrator shows her a film scene featuring only black performers. The narrator doesn’t understand what Lily means by “we” when Lily claims “we” would be displeased if only black children were allowed to attend dance classes, both casually conferring and negating her friend’s black identity. This alienation is echoed in Africa. There, the black residents are impressed that “white women” like the narrator and her employer, Aimee (an actual white woman), can dance like black people do.

 

Book Review of Swing Time

 

Career: Celebrity and Erasure

Aimee, an Australian pop idol, is the least intriguing of the Smith’s characters, partly suffering from being too similar to a certain real-life pop idol and partly from her resemblance to a force of nature. To be fair, the latter also represents a comment on celebrity. Smith, however, permits Aimee to be personable, unafraid to cut through emotional morass, and more emotionally available to the narrator than her own mother. Possessing her mother’s social awareness, the narrator cannot ignore how her identity may be used to avoid charges of insensitivity when she raises concerns that Aimee’s “carnival” versions of  African dances could be interpreted as cultural appropriation. She’s ignored, of course: her work involves making Aimee’s life smoother, not disrupting it as she eventually does.

Cooperative or not, Smith narrator fails to inspire admiration the way other women in her life might. Overly apologetic, she lacks a dream to chase or a cause for which she fights, instead laboring in the shadows for others: her mother (recruited to participate in social marches), briefly Tracey (working as stagehand where she helps Tracey deal with costumes and love affairs), and Aimee, as her always on-call assistant. Over time, the narrator’s existence is at last subsumed: she cannot maintain her own social circle or romantic relationships while she services Aimee’s life. The resulting scandal, while not an attempt to quit, nonetheless betrays her discontent.

Shadows and Belonging

In the aftermath of the narrator’s scandal, watching Astaire’s dance with three shadows of himself causes the narrator to realize that she “experiences [herself] as a kind of shadow”. Dismissing these shadows, the question remains will she dance on as Astaire did? Swing Time is a thoughtful meditation on identity that meanders but never loses it way from this concern. Whatever path the narrator decides to take with the revelations about herself, however, lie with Tracey, her left-behind sister who happens to be the one person that evokes belonging.

Agonizing over Motivation: Why What an Antagonist Wants Matters

Insight into the motivations of some villains, however, can be the crucial difference between producing a caricature and a badly flawed individual.

Kurt Vonnegut’s rules for writing good short stories state that all characters “should want something, even if it is only a glass of water”.[*] Vonnegut’s levity aside, considering what fictional characters desire is useful because such explorations often reveals their underlying motivation, particularly when we write about antagonists. Antagonists represent individuals who oppose protagonists in some fashion. With exceptions such as monsters or forces of nature, most antagonists have reasons for their opposition. When writers understand what motivates their antagonist’s decisions to block the protagonist, we can root their subsequent actions within that frame of reference, thus giving their behavior an explicable context.

Villainous Pathos and Madness

When discussing antagonists, we often think of outright villains. It’s often easy to discover what motivates these villains to thwart a (presumably) plucky protagonist. The criminal masterminds and “take over the world types”, for example, have clear goals. Further insight into the motivations of some villains, however, can be the crucial difference between producing a caricature and a badly flawed individual. Consider J. K. Rowling’s Voldemort, whose snake-like appearance and (temporarily) undying nature makes him monstrous, more embodiment of evil than wicked wizard. As we discover in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Voldemort fears death and considers it to be a shameful weakness. Because he desires immortality, Voldemort chooses to undergo dangerous, immoral magical rituals.[†] Discovering that Voldemort’s behavior is motivated by his boyhood fears, initially stemming from the mistaken belief that his mother couldn’t be magical because she died and left him alone, both explains his reprehensible choices and humanizes him. Thus, learning Voldemort’s motivations provokes a twinge of pity for the person he might’ve become under different circumstances.

With other villains, gaining an understanding of what motivates these villains not only explains why these characters act as they do but also assists protagonists in overcoming the obstacles the villains set and/or defeat them. In Stephen King’s novel Misery, a seriously injured Paul Sheldon is held captive by Annie Wilkes. Understanding both Annie’s volatile mental status[‡] and her obsession with his Misery Chastain novels, he concocts a desperate plan to escape before she kills them both. Once he completes the Misery novel that Wilkes forced him to write, he ignites it instead of letting her read it. Caught off guard and desperate to save the book, she approaches close enough for Sheldon to attack and then lock himself away while he waits for the police.

chainsaw-agonizing-antagonist-motivation
Annie Wilkes’s short-term motivation involved murdering Paul Sheldon with a chainsaw, had she survived her injuries.

Law and Laughs: Adversaries and Friendly Obstructionists

Many antagonists, however, lack a villainous streak. Victor Hugo’s indefatigable policeman from Les Miserables spends his time enforcing the law he when isn’t attempting to recapture fugitive petty thief and protagonist, Jean Valjean. Javert’s relentless pursuit of Valjean seems excessive when considering the nature of crimes Valjean committed (bread theft). However, Javert is not interested in the unfairness of human law (or its sentencing) so much as he is passionate about enforcing it. He possesses a rigid worldview that despises challenges to authority and social order; he also does not believe lawbreakers like Valjean are capable of reform. Compelled to set affronts to order right, Javert also derives immense pleasure from doing so. Understanding Javert’s code explains both his conduct and prepares us for his fate. Although forced to flee Javert for years, Jean Valjean saves his long-time nemesis’s life—something which Javert finds incomprehensible. Once confident in his role in the world, Javert’s value system is upturned, prompting him to do something that otherwise would be unthinkable for such a man: he commits suicide.

In other instances, the non-villainous antagonist are less adversaries and more well-meaning sorts who nonetheless creates difficulties for protagonists. Agatha Christie has a beloved family member juggle the roles of benefactor and antagonist in her short story “Strange Jest.” Recently deceased Uncle Matthew hid a fortune for his two heirs to find. Despite their diligent searching, they find nothing. Frustrated, they agree to let Miss Marple assist them. Miss Marple seems to be an unlikely sleuth but soon proves to be adept at recognizing types of people and what motivates them. Not long after poking around the deceased’s home, Miss Marple forms the opinion that Matthew is like her own Uncle Henry, a bachelor unaccustomed to children but who enjoyed teasing them. This combination means that he’s likely to go a bit far with his little jokes. As such, the fortune he left is not the gold bullion he suggested burying in the yard instead of placing in a bank (a decoy, according to Miss M), but rare stamps on envelopes accompanying fake love letters that Uncle Matthew likely laughed over while penning—the sort of letters his nephew might’ve burned out of gentlemanly respect for his uncle’s privacy! Understanding that Uncle Matthew couldn’t resist one last joke, however, saved the inheritance.

Uncle Matthew's desire to have one last joke on his heirs results in digging up the back garden for hidden treasure. Naturally, it's found in the house.
Uncle Matthew’s desire to have one last joke on his heirs results in digging up the back garden for hidden treasure. Naturally, the inheritance is found in the house.
Part of creating a believable character can involve providing them with motivation (rational or not) for what they do. Motivation, working as a component of character behavior, makes characters more realistic. While gaining an understanding of what an antagonist wants might not make them beloved, it does make them relatable and occasionally worthy of readerly sympathy. After all, we all possess aspirations, even ignoble ones.

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NOTES:

[*] As mentioned in my post on writing advice, Vonnegut’s list represents specific writing advice that’s helpful to consider as needed.

[†] Undergoing these rituals also cause the radical alteration in his appearance from handsome man to snake-like, thus suggesting his wicked deeds in some way lessen his humanity.

[‡] During previous escape attempts, he discovers that she’s killed in the past (Annie likely has Munchhausen by Proxy syndrome) in addition to murdering a sheriff looking for him.