A Hero Without a Villain: Writing Lessons from the Novel The Red Tent

Is a hero without a villain just a regular schmo? Can you be heroic in the absence of an opposing force? The standard advice for writers is your main character needs an opposing force that stands between them and their goal. I recently read The Red Tent by Anita Diamant that makes me question the universality of this advice.

Spoiler alert

I’m going to spoil The Red Tent. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

The Red Tent

This novel presents the life of Dinah, a briefly mentioned daughter of Jacob in the bible. As the scripture tells it, Dinah was kidnapped and defiled by a prince of Shechem, prompting her brothers to attack and kill all the males of the city. That is the only mention she gets, and the author, Anita Diamant, felt Dinah’s life must have held so much more than the bible reported. She brings voice to this silence through creating a story of Dinah’s life from her earliest childhood memories to her death in old age.

About a quarter of the way through the novel, I realized that there was no over-riding goal Dinah was striving to achieve and no antagonistic force between her and that goal. Such things are the hallmark of Storytelling 101–a character wants something, and some opposing force prevents them from getting it. The struggle that ensues is the story.

The Red Tent, conversely, was quite simply the telling of a life. Dinah was a child, she grew, she had dreams, they were crushed, she recovered, she dared to dream again, she found sadness, she found happiness, she aged, she knew loneliness, she knew belonging. She lived a life. Her goals grew and evolved as she did. Antagonistic forces blocking her goals came and went. Periods where she had no particular goals, where instead she just lived her life, interspersed the trials that periodically arose.

Yet despite the lack of a central plot or struggle, I found the story wonderfully engaging. How could this story lack the core element of what makes a story and still engage the reader? For me, it has to do with the writer’s voice and the unique perspective she portrayed in her novel.

The writer’s voice

So, writer’s voice is one of those ephemeral things writing teachers urge students to develop without ever really being able to stick a pin in what that means. Writer’s voice is how you present your thoughts. It’s how you choose to structure your sentences and the words you use to populate them. It is that point where the rules of grammar transcend into art. It is what gives a fantasy novel written by Guy Gavriel Kay a very different feel from one written by Brandon Sanderson.

Anita Diamant’s voice enrapt me. Here is one of my favourite passages from the book describing the main character’s earliest childhood memories.

I am not certain whether my earliest memories are truly mine, because when I bring them to mind, I feel my mother’s breath on every word. But I do remember the taste of the water from our well, bright and cold against my milk teeth. And I’m sure that I was caught up by strong arms every time I stumbled, for I do not recall a time in my early life when I was alone or afraid.

– The Red Tent

When we remember fond childhood memories, say family gatherings for the holidays, we seldom remember the details of who sat where and what Mom served for dinner. Instead, we remember the feeling of those times. We remember the laughter rather than the joke. As the passage above shows, the author’s prose presents the memories of her main character’s life in a way that mirrors how we remember our own experience. Her writing had a lyrical, dream-like quality. It was a beautiful read.

A unique perspective

The Red Tent gave a unique view into the lives of women in biblical times, a perspective that storytellers seldom present. The author did this in a way that portrayed feminine strength, and she did it with originality.

Often in modern stories, I find writers supplant historical values and norms with contemporary ones. We’ve all seen stories set in ancient times where the heroes fight for women’s rights even though no one had yet conceptualized those rights in that period. In The Red Tent, the author took pains to research the social structures of the time, including norms and values, and portrayed them as they were.

She further presented those norms in a way that was not judgmental. Often, modern writers vilify the values of bygone ages. Think of stories where a slave in ancient Rome rebels against the tyranny of emperors. Instead, The Red Tent shows the world through the eyes of Dinah who was born and raised in her society and knew nothing else. It was a patriarchal society where women were the property of men, but Dinah knew of no other way. It was how she understood the world to be. The novel sought to portray her strength within the world that she knew.

It is a common trope of modern storytelling to demonstrate women’s strength by having them assume the roles typically filled by men. Think of stories where women of ancient times pick up sword and shield to become warriors of renown. In The Red Tent, the author did not show feminine strength by showing women doing what men did. Instead, she showed women doing what men could not. Childbirth was a theme on which the novel focused, and this is, of course, the exclusive domain of women. Midwifery in the novel was also the domain of women, and so when a child was born, it was born exclusively through a community of women. Men, meanwhile, waited uselessly outside the tent.

Rather than replacing the mores of the historical society with modern ones, rather than vilifying those mores through a contemporary lens, rather than focusing on women’s ability to do what men can do, this novel presented women’s unique strengths within the society in which they lived. For those reasons, I found it an exciting and compelling read.

So much for the rules of storytelling

Thus, The Red Tent taught me that stories can be more than the struggle between what the character wants and the forces blocking them from that goal. Author’s have a purpose in every story they write. Most often, it seems, that purpose is achieved through watching characters struggle to obtain a goal. The author’s purpose in The Red Tent, though, was to give voice to a biblical story drowned in silence. This was achieved not by showing the character struggle with an inner or outer foe, but rather by telling the story of a life lived.

What are the books you’ve read that defied the traditional wisdom of storytelling? Please take a moment to share your thoughts in the comments.

6 thoughts on “A Hero Without a Villain: Writing Lessons from the Novel The Red Tent

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  1. Many years ago I read a book called “Earth Abides” by George R. Stewart. It is a post apocalyptic novel, and initially I found it somewhat boring as I looked for the protagonist and a conflict, but it just seemed to go on and on without much drama. Eventually I realized that the novel was simply a description of life in a world where human civilization had collapsed. No great crisis, no ray of hope at the end, no victory of good over evil (or evil over good), just a few survivors getting by. In a broader sense the book was a history of human civilization in reverse, describing the slow, inexorable collapse of humanity. I lost the book decades ago, so I refreshed my memory via Wikipedia and to my surprise learned it was written in 1947 and was the first of a long series of post WWII post apocalyptic stories. For some reason, this is the book that popped into my mind at your challenge.

  2. Hello Brad,
    I’m currently posting chapters from a book I’m writing based on Dinah. Would be great if you can check it out and let me know what you think.

    Wonderful observations by the way….

  3. I wasn’t a fan of “The Red Tent”, but don’t feel able to comment because I actually DNF it. I don’t abandon many books, but that was one of my first.

    The idea of a hero vs villain in literature has been challenged many times. I recommend Caroline Kepnes’s “You”, for a fabulous villain who’s side, you want to take… does that make him the hero…? Or “The Book Thief”, where I can’t quite identify the villain (circumstance, time, a political ideology or figure?), but the narrator provides an impressively unique perspective.

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