When the Hero is His Own Worst Enemy–What We Can Learn from FLIGHT
One of the biggest mistakes most new writers make is they don’t understand the antagonist and how antagonists are used to drive plot momentum and ratchet up the stakes. Without true antagonists, there is no way to generate dramatic tension. One of the “outs” many writers try to use is “Well, my protagonist is his own worst enemy.”
Yeah, um no. That’s therapy, not fiction.
All stories need two types of antagonists:
The Big Boss Troublemaker
Since the term “antagonist” confuses a lot of new writers, I came up with the term, BBT. If the BBT is something existential (like alcoholism) then it needs to be represented by someone corporeal. In WWII, the Allies weren’t fighting fascism, they fought HITLER. Concepts need a FACE.
Often allies and love interests will provide the scene conflict. Protagonist wants A, but then Ally wants B.
Today, we’ll use a “My protagonist is his own worst enemy” story to prove my point. We are going to talk about the movie Flight. I could write 20,000 words about this movie. It is some of the most brilliant writing I’ve ever seen and Denzel Washington definitely earned the Academy Award nomination for this (he should have won the award, but that’s my POV).
Denzel Washington plays an airline captain who’s somewhat successfully hidden a very dark secret. He’s an alcoholic and drug addict with an ego the size of Mt. Everest. Early in the movie we know alcohol has already cost him dearly. He’s divorced and estranged from his son. Yet, he’s in denial. He’s able to put on a sober, confident face for the world and hide his demons beneath smiles and bravado.
Whip might have continued flying his entire career half-drunk and hopped up on cocaine, except for one problem…he saves a plane full of people from dying and is hailed a hero. When storms, combined with a major mechanical malfunction send his plane hurdling toward certain death, Whip calmly executes maneuvers no other pilot could duplicate, saving all the passengers but four.
We are introduced to the BBT EARLY
This is critical. I read way too many new pieces of writing and, 50 pages later, have no idea what the story problem is. The BBT must appear early. We have to know what the protagonist is up against. In Flight, we see the BBT in the opening scene, the bottles of booze all over the hotel room, the lines of coke Whip snorts before getting ready to fly.
The BBT is clearly addiction. Whip is his own worst enemy.
The Inciting Incident Challenges the BBT. Conflict has a FACE.
Had Whip flown just another routine flight, he would have continued drinking and drugging. Had everyone died in the crash, he never would have had to face his demons. Ah, but he saves the day and is hailed a hero.
Every crash, by law, is investigated.
When Whip is sent to the hospital, his blood is drawn and it shows that he was practically pickled while flying. Also, later in the investigation, three small empty bottles of vodka are discovered in the crash (bottles he drank right before the crash).
Now we have the core story problem, and the BBT has a face—THOSE RUNNING THE INVESTIGATION.
If there was no investigation into the crash, Whip would not have to change. He wouldn’t have to see the hard truth of what he is…an addict. The crash (and ensuing investigation) creates the story problem and tension mounts as the union, the owner of the airline, the NTSB, and the FAA exert outside pressure.
Make the flaw complicated.
I think what makes Flight a particularly brilliant example is that most everyone knows that, had Whip been sober, he likely would not have been able to successfully execute the daredevil maneuvers that saved the passengers.
Likely it was a mixture of the alcohol that relaxed him combined with the cocaine that heightened his senses that allowed him to save the plane. A sober pilot would have crashed everyone into a fireball of death.
Why is this important? It generates enablers. Whip is pulled between two extremes. One side wants the truth and wants accountability. The other side? They’re willing to turn a blind eye, fudge the truth, and pursue legal loopholes to save Whip from jail time. They are feeding his bloated ego (which is a HUGE source of his problem).
This creates scene antagonists on each side.
Friends are willing to lie for Whip to spare him from jail. Others are offering him a drink or some drugs. These “allies” offer Whip an opportunity to keep self-destructing. Since in these scenes, he’s trying to remain sober, the “friend” offering him a drink is the antagonist.
The other side? They want the truth. Where did the vodka bottles come from? Someone needs to answer the unanswered questions and justice needs to be served for the four people who did die. The more questions they ask, the more Whip needs to drink.
His lawyer can’t afford Whip to be seen drunk if he hopes to keep him from going to prison, so he’s working to keep him sober. In these scenes, Whip wants to get blitzed, but his allies won’t let him near the liquor cabinet. Thus, these allies are standing in the way of his goal to drink, which creates tension and makes them antagonists.
His lawyer, girlfriend, and close buddy are all working to keep Whip sober, but as the pressure mounts and the stakes get higher, Whip’s addiction only gets worse. The investigation (story problem) is exerting the pressure that is opening the boil of his flaws.
On the other side, the more Whip self-destructs, the more the enablers step in. His best-buddy Harling is always there with any drug he needs for the situation, any upper or downer Whip requires to maintain the facade that he doesn’t have a problem.
The Protagonist in Act Three MUST Make a Choice
Since the BBT is alcoholism, it MUST be defeated in Act Three by a choice. I won’t tell you that choice, because I wouldn’t want to ruin the movie for those who haven’t seen it yet (I haven’t revealed anything you wouldn’t see in the trailer).
Whip MUST defeat addiction. Question is, “Can he?”
His arc is from self-destructive addict in complete denial to someone who takes on his demons, no matter the cost. The ANTAGONIST is the NTSB. No investigation? Life continues as normal. The addict isn’t tossed in the crucible.
What this means is that a character being his or her own worst enemy alone is not enough. There MUST be a story problem that generates the tension and change. With no story problem, there is no way to have dramatic tension. It just becomes a character being TDTL (Too Dumb To Live). We don’t have a novel, we have self-indulgence that will bore readers or irritate them.
What are your thoughts? Can you think of other examples that did the whole “He is his own worst enemy” thing well? What are your questions? Below is the trailer if you haven’t seen the movie. Watch it. Study it. It is sheer brilliance.
I love hearing from you!
To prove it and show my love, for the month of March, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. If you leave a comment, and link back to my blog, and mention my book We Are Not Alone in your blog…you get your name in the hat THREE times. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.
I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).
And also, winners have a limited time to claim the prize, because what’s happening is there are actually quite a few people who never claim the critique, so I never know if the spam folder ate it or to look for it and then people miss out. I will also give my corporate e-mail to insure we connect and I will only have a week to return the 20 page edit.
At the end of March I will pick a winner for the monthly prize. Good luck!