‘With great power comes great responsibility.’
When I was working as a Royal Literary Fund Writing Fellow at the University of Bristol, helping students with their academic writing, I sometimes came across students who had not fully understood that the British academic essay, article, dissertation or thesis is, at its core, a polite form of argument. I often read essays in which students put forward the academic point of view they believed to be correct. When I suggested that the counter-argument was missing – or even an acknowledgement of a different interpretation – these students were reluctant to add it. Some believed it was unnecessary; others were anxious about including an alternative point of view in case they couldn’t successfully argue against it.
My argument is that just as every story needs a hero, every story also needs a villain, so every academic paper needs a hero argument and an antagonist, or counter-argument.
1 Our hero
‘You are stronger than you believe. You have greater powers than you know.’
Antiope, Wonder Woman movie
Many of our myths and much of our folklore share common elements — a hero who faces a call to arms and then undergoes a number of challenges (Vogler, 2007). The hero is the person we empathise with. Our hopes, dreams and fears are rooted in the hero’s journey. In an academic essay, the hero is the central argument being put forward, the one our hopes and dreams are pinned upon, the one we hope our reader will agree with.
2 The antagonist
‘My dear child, that is not the Godkiller. You are. Only a god can kill another god.’
Ares, God of War, Wonder Woman movie
Arguably, the most significant challenge the hero faces is the villain. If the hero doesn’t engage with the villain, or does engage, but the villain is weak and easily defeated (or defeated by someone other than the hero), the movie will feel a little flat. The hero has to grow and find the strength within herself – with help from allies, friends and mentors – to conquer her nemesis. Take the 2017 movie version of Wonder Woman. Our hero, Diana, leaves home to stop World War I. She crosses paths with a super villain, Ares, God of War. Ares invites Diana to join him in destroying the human race. She refuses, but then finds that he is too strong for her to conquer. Finally, she realises that she can absorb Ares’ own strength and malevolence, before turning his deadly force against him and killing him.
A strong counter-argument in an essay or dissertation will force the writer to make their own hero argument even mightier and more convincing — with the help of data, evidence, quotes and rhetoric.
3 The villain is also a hero
I am not the God of War, Diana. I am the God of Truth.
Ares, God of War, Wonder Woman movie
No one thinks they’re a villain. Everyone believes that they are the hero of their own story. The best movies are those with the best antagonists, by which I mean that the villain is realistic, nuanced, believable and authentic (within whatever parameters the film is operating; we don’t expect to see a Marvel-esque antagonist in a work of literary fiction). In the interests of good writing, you don’t want to build a straw person that a breath of wind will blow away. Get inside the skin of the opposing argument, walk around in its shoes: give the opposition the respect it deserves.
4 Do or die
‘I used to want to save the world. To end war and bring peace to mankind; but then I glimpsed the darkness that lives within their light. I learned that inside every one of them there will always be both.’
Diana, Wonder Woman movie
In movies, the hero usually defeats the villain. However, in academic essays, while you may decide that your original position is the right one – now strengthened by being pitted against the counter-argument – your final position could be a synthesis of the two arguments. The hero argument may incorporate parts of the counter-argument within it, or at least acknowledge its validity, leading to a discussion about a new path research could take in the future. For instance, in a thesis on the environmental impact of eating meat, with arguments both for and against, the final discussion may conclude that although the impacts in terms of water use, pollution and climate change are significant, there could be some types of meat production that are less harmful, such as meat cultivated in a laboratory.
5 There’s no villain
In blockbusters, it is easy to see who the villain is. In other genres, the antagonist may be less obvious: it could be an elemental force, like the weather, a virus, an animal, or even within the hero themselves. In LA Confidential, the protagonist’s alcoholism is the antagonist; in Fight Club, it’s the main character’s own split personality, personified by Edward Norton and Brad Pitt.
In some assignments, such as a conference poster, it won’t be necessary to write a counter-argument. The poster is usually the bare bones of a paper presented visually; the argument has already happened and been incorporated. What is presented is the final summary, though counter-arguments may be alluded to in the Aims and/or Discussion and Conclusion.
In short, if you come out of the cinema feeling flat, it could be that the villain wasn’t powerful or believable or authentic enough, or the hero wasn’t able to summon sufficient inner strength to defeat them in a unique, believable, yet surprising way. Similarly, to make your writing as engaging and convincing as possible, it’s worth giving the counter-argument sufficient space and understanding.
Christopher Vogler (2007) The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers, Michael Wiese Production