Last week we talked about the antagonists that drive the action thread of the story. This week, we are going to talk about a different type of scene antagonist…the antagonist that drives the inner change of a character. This will conclude this series on antagonists. To write truly great stories that will resonate long after the reader puts down our book, we are wise to consider how a character will emotionally grow and change over the course of the adventure.
All good stories have ONE core problem that must be resolved. The story’s main antagonist–what I like to call the Big Boss Troublemaker–is responsible for creating this problem. Our protagonist, if pitted against the BBT in Act One, would fail. Why? He or she has not grown enough to be able to survive the Big Boss Battle. Protagonists who are strong enough to win at the beginning make for boring fiction.
Most real people are not self-aware enough to realize they have problems. In fact most real people spend years in therapy to come to the realization that they might actually be responsible for their own problems. Most real people do not wake up one day and say, “Wow. You know. I think today I am going to change.” Real people need some outside event or person to create discomfort that makes us change. Nasty breakups teach us not to take our partners for granted. Family members who move onto our couch and won’t leave teach us how to set effective boundaries. Credit card fees and penalties teach us to get better at paying the bills on time.
Great fiction takes real life and removes all the dull parts….but it still must reflect something of real life or it will ring untrue to the reader. Characters that are far too self-aware and who spend page after page thinking and mulling over inner monologues seem contrived and false. At best, the victory will come without facing any genuine opposition, which equals DULL STORY. We love books because of the opposition. It is the battle, the struggle, the darkest moment when all seems lost and how can they ever survive…THAT is why we read fiction.
Too many new writers have no BBT. Thus, there is no clear story problem. Since there is no clear story problem, it is impossible to create dramatic tension. All that is left is the dross of self-indulgent melodrama. Look to all the GREAT stories, the ones that will be told for generations. Does the author keep the finish line a secret? To be revealed with a twist ending?
No. All protagonists have very clear goals.
Lord of the Rings—Drop the Ring of Power into Mount Doom before Sauron grows strong enough to cast all of Middle Earth into perpetual darkness.
Finding Nemo—Find Nemo before Darla the Fish-Killer’s birthday.
Silence of the Lambs—Rescue the senator’s daughter and stop Buffalo Bill from killing more girls.
Star Wars—Defeat the (Sith) Emperor.
Fried Green Tomatoes—Stand up to abusive family.
Joy Luck Club—Go to China to meet lost twin sisters and relay the news of Mom’s death.
Coma—Find out who is responsible for killing patients and stop them.
The Road—Make it to the ocean without losing the essence of humanity.
The Hunger Games—Win the Hunger Games.
Good stories have clear finish lines. Better still, great stories have protagonists that grow and change over the course of the story. In the beginning, the protag lacks that fundamental ingredient that will allow him to triumph at the end. Thus, the trials ahead will fire out impurities and strengthen the character to make him fit for battle. Often there are allies and mentors who will serve as scene antagonists to drive the necessary change.
Remember, an antagonist is not necessarily a bad guy or villain. An antagonist merely has goals that conflict with what the protagonist wants. In the beginning, what the protagonists want are not always what is best for them. This is why allies and mentor characters are so vital.
Last week we looked at the children’s movie Finding Nemo. We studied how other incidental characters like Bruce the Great White in Recovery served to drive the story’s momentum when it came to the action thread. Today we will look at the protagonists’ inner arcs and how change is created.
What is the goal of Finding Nemo? Um, find Nemo. But the log-line might look something like this.
A neurotic fish father must swim to Sydney, Australia to rescue his son from a dentist’s fish tank before Darla the Fish-Killer’s birthday.
At the very beginning of the movie, we are given a few minutes of back-story. Marlin loses his wife and all their eggs (save one–Nemo) to a barracuda. This has made Marlin overprotective and overly afraid of…everything. He is smothering his son Nemo and not allowing him to mature.
Conversely, Nemo has a damaged fin from the barracuda attack. His father tells him repeatedly how this handicaps him and that is why he needs to stay safe under Dad’s control. Nemo, deep down, believes that he is handicapped, but it doesn’t stop him from resenting his father’s overprotective control.
In fact, it is this very resentment that births the story problem. Out of defiance, Nemo swims off the reef to touch the boat. This is what gets him snared in the diver’s fish net.
So in this movie, we have two story lines. Marlin’s and Nemo’s.
Marlin doesn’t trust anyone and he is a hopeless control freak. Thus, right after the inciting incident, who becomes Marlin’s ally?
Dori, the Forgetful Fish. Dori suffers short-term memory loss. She is a happy-go-lucky optimist who never gives up. She is exactly the ally Marlin needs to teach him to lighten up, let go of control, and to learn to look at the positive. Dori is Marlin’s mirror opposite. He is controlling and negative, where she is easygoing and positive. Dori is exactly the example Marlin needs to mend his ways.
Scene after scene we see how Dori serves the role of the antagonist.Heroes are not made in the comfort zone. Dori’s main role is to continually challenge Marlin and shove him repeatedly out of his comfort zone so that he grows and changes.
Marlin wants to moan and complain and give up when the one clue to finding his son drops into a deep sea trench. Dori starts singing, “Just keep swimming” and encourages Marlin to continue the adventure. Thus, we have a conflict lock. Marlin wants to give up. Dori wants to go after the clue. Only one party can have her way. If Marlin wins this battle of wills, the story is over and Nemo is doomed.
Dori continually places Marlin in a position of having to trust. She makes him overcome the greatest weakness he has….his need to control. His need to control his boy was what created the problem and is why Nemo was lost to begin with. Marlin must learn to let go of control to save his boy.
On the other side of things, Nemo awakens in a fish tank in the diver dentist’s office. It is in this tank we see the ticking clock. Nemo must get away before Darla the Fish-Killer’s birthday. Nemo is her intended gift and Darla’s last gift died from being shaken. Who becomes Nemo’s mentor? Gill. An angel fish with a damaged fin who won’t let Nemo make excuses.
Marlin must overcome his need to control and trust Dori to get to Sydney Harbor.
Nemo must listen to Gil and believe in himself in order to escape the dentist’s office.
Both parties must grow emotionally and overcome their greatest weakness in order to be victorious in the end. Scene antagonists are responsible for turning floundering helpless protagonists into heroes.
A good exercise is to watch movies. Try to figure out what element the protagonist needs to develop to be victorious in the Big Boss Battle. Who are the scene antagonists driving that change? How do events drive that inner change? Stories where the protag wakes up and has an ah-ha! are boring. That is lazy writing. Outside forces must challenge the protagonist to change, grow and rise to the occasion. Fiction is the path of greatest resistance.
Some of THE BEST books to help refine your craft–Bob Mayer’s Novel Writer’s Toolkit, Larry Brooks’s Story Engineering, Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat, James Scott Bell’s Plot and Structure, and Les Edgerton’s Hooked.
What are your favorite stories and why? How did the protagonist change? Is it more clear who and what drove that change? Any advice? Suggestions? Questions?
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