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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Great post, Kristen. I have a question: What if the main character’s BBT is himself? I see this often in humorous books, where all of the obstacles that the main character confronts are of his own doing, and the comedy lies in him not realizing, or not admitting, that he’s fallen off the deep end. Two examples that come to mind are A Confederacy of Dunces, and Portnoy’s Complaint.
This earlier post will explain how that is handled. There is still an outer antagonist that represents the inner problem. In “Confederacy of Dunces” the protag despises pop culture and modernity. Thus there will be characters that represent what he despises–proxies of the real BBT.
You need to be very careful looking to literature. The goal of these blogs is to train the commercial fiction author. Yes, literature deals with internal struggles and permits much more navel-gazing, but the end goal is to be profound and make statements about society…not sell millions of books to the general reading public. This is why goal-setting is paramount. If our goal is to sell millions of books and be a household name, then we need to consider the audience. Commercial fiction is to primarily entertain. For the most part, it is not going to make any college syllabus or be studied as literature. If our goal is to win the Pulitzer, then our writing will be different than if we want to be a commercial success. I see too many new writers who want to be the next J.K. Rowling, but when forced to cough up a tangible antagonist, cite 19th century literature.
Even literature will have an outside antagonist that represents the overall stoy problem. In “The Road” the protagonist struggles against nature and starvation to make it to the ocean (outside goal). But his internal goal is to make it to the ocean without losing his humanity. We see this manifested in other humans who have resorted to cannibalism.
I also caution writers to look to contemporary works. What was a best-seller in the 1800s would meet a slush pile today. Even a book like “Portnoy’s Complaint.” This book was released in a society that was in the throes of the sexual revolution. It was the right book at the right time. If a writer looked to that book today? Might not be the best template. Even “Conferderacy of Dunces” is a 30 year old book. Different audience with different tastes. Also, both of these are works of literary fiction, which has very different demands than commercial fiction.
If your goal is to be a literary author, then I recommend that you look to the contemporary pieces to have a better understanding of the market. In contemporary pieces, I guarantee you there is an outer manifestation (BBT) of the inner problem as explicated with “The Road.”
I could have read a thousand more books without making that connection. Your earlier post answers my question exactly, and I see that I need to change my approach to different types of fiction. Thank you for the great tips and on-the-spot analysis.
Thank you for this, I finally understand why I wanted to keep a seemingly superfluous character. He’s the foil for the protagonist, and this helps immensely on fitting him into the outline!
Reading this and the previous Nemo post have really helped me clairify my MC’s main goal and the intended path. I was confusing the subgoals along the way for main goals. Now, I realize that my MC main goal is to break the magic mirror’s spell over her in order to stop its evil from destroying the world. The love, revenge, and redemption goals are part of the whole. And it just takes a little while for my MC to figure out she must break the mirror’s spell.
Yes! Now you are cooking with gas. Normally the protagonist is unaware of the goal until Act II. Larry Brooks teaches this best and I highly recommend Story Engineering to help.
It’s thrilling to see my MIP pulling together. I’m downloading Story Engineering today. 😀
This is really fascinating, and I love the Finding Nemo examples 🙂 I can see that I sort-of had these roles in the novel I’m working on right now, but now I know they were probably way too vague and need some work. Figuring out my characters’ main goals and separating it from all the other sub-goals would probably be a good idea, too! Thanks for the post.
I’ve paid extra attention to the posts on antagonists, but your comment reply to Mark is what stuck with me. I finally figured out who my antagonists are! They were there all along, but I didn’t know it because the protag is very fond of these characters, but these characters have the opposite goal of the protag. HELLLLOOOO should have seen that one as obvious. They are proxies. 🙂 Thanks Kristen!
P.S. I’ve downloaded the triple threat from Who Dares Wins and its helping immensely.
Great blog. I am about to watch Finding Nemo so I can recognize the scene antagonists. Great blog.
Cute post for explaining something like antagonists. I’ll be using these posts on character development when I begin on my bad guy again. Feeling a bit stuck, but you’ve given me good things to think about. Thanks Kristen.
I love it. “All protagonists have very clear goals.” And that all parties grow emotionally because of their interaction, not because they spontaneously wake up and decide to change. One thing I hate in a story is when the protagonist stays the same through most of the book, and then suddenly becomes someone who can overcome the problem, and there’s no line connecting Point A to Point B. Great post, Kristen.
I loved the Finding Nemo examples. It really helped clarify your points.
Favorite stories? I’m a series character whore. I love watching characters like Kim Harrison’s Rachel Morgan slowly evolve over the course of many books. For Rachel, it is admitting her mistakes and the influence of her supporting cast that makes her change. However, she doesn’t change too awfully much, because she’s a series character.
I’m reading Brooks’ Story Engineering right now. And loving it! Glad to see it comes with your stamp of approval. Up next will be Mayer. Can I avoid the Pants of Shame if I am actively and legitimately trying to improve my skills before sending more word count into the abyss? 😉
You have no idea Kristen how timley this post was – It confirmed to me that I was right to structure my script a certain way. I was worried that I had given the goal away too soon, nope, as you say show / direct the audience through the eyes of the protagonist towards his objective.
Stop inspiring me to try fiction again. I’m too busy. Every time I read another post by you I figure all this stuff out then want to go try it somewhere. You really need to quit doing that to me.
Wonderful post, Kristen. The part that really struck a nerve with me was, “Remember, an antagonist is not necessarily a bad guy or villain. An antagonist merely has goals that conflict with what the protagonist wants.” That immediately snapped into place who the main antagonist is in my WIP. Before that, I thought I just had a bunch of little antagonists and not one big Boss, but yeah, all my protagonist’s problems stem from her relationship with the main antagonist. She has a conflict with the main antagonist in Act One, loses, and then must face the Boss again at the end. This has really helped me see that the changes I’ve been mulling over making to my plot are the way to go. Thank you!
This is a great post – and if I can ever find the time to sit down and read through my 88,000 manuscript, I will look with fresh eyes, trying to determine if each chapter has the metaphorical Dori and a few well placed vegetarian-sharks and mellow, cool dude turtles and girls in braces. You know what I mean.
Seriously though, super helpful.
But, alas, it is clear to me now. You are a cyborg twin. 😉
THANK YOU for your posts. I was deliberating about making a change to the beginning of my novel, and after reading your post on “normal world,” I made the change. Now it’s a much stronger novel. (just in time for publishing in June!)
Your wisdom makes for better fiction!
Great post Kristen. I love the way you break down the character arc’s and show the motivations for change. Way to go sensei!
You’ve really clarified goal setting for me. I was inclined to keep my characters’ goals mysterious but now that I’ve laid them out it’s actually made the writing easier as well as heightening the conflict and making the story more dynamic.
Comfort zone is for ordinary people. Heroes are not supposed to be ordinary.
For hero’s journey, film and screenwriting, you need to look at http://www.clickok.co.uk/index4.html ; it’s a shining beacon above all others in the story structure world.