As many of you know, I'm writing a new craft book on using movies to inform fiction techniques, titled A FICTION WRITER'S WORKSHOP AT THE BIJOU. In it, I'm using the film THELMA & LOUISE as my model. I've read thousands of screenplays and seen thousands of movies and this is, hands-down, the very best model for writers I've come across. In virtually every single frame, there's a teachable moment for fiction writers.
One of the problems I've determined that face writers are the terms we employ in our advice/instruction. We borrow freely from lay terms, such as "action" and the like and often the writer sitting in our classes apply the lay definitions to these terms, not realizing we intend a different meaning. The word "action" for example. Often, writers take this to indicate more melodramatic definitions and when they are told their story needs to begin with "action" they start off with shootings, buildings being blown up, kidnappings, murders and the like. Not that some stories shouldn't begin with those kinds of actions, but the term action when used for fictive purposes means something far more encompassing than simple physical actions. "Action" in fiction terms is used to denote almost any kind of activity involving conflict, either overt or covert. Dialog, for example, is action. Reading something that creates tension and a story problem is action. Seeing a dead bird by the side of the road is action if it elicits a memory and a realization.
I don't intend this to be a discourse on the word action, but am just using a simple term to illustrate how writing instruction becomes perverted by an imprecise understanding of the terms borrowed from the lay language, the word "action" being only one of many such terms incorrectly applied.
For example, in James Baldwin's brilliant short story, "Sonny's Blues," the story begins with the protagonist sitting in a subway car reading the day's newspaper. In it, he comes across a news story about his brother's arrest. Instantly, this creates a bona fide story problem for him. In this instance, reading is an action. Nobody was shot or killed, nobody was kidnapped, no bombs went off, none of that. He is just sitting... reading. That's just one of many examples of what the term "action" means in fiction.
Now. The two terms I want to talk about today are the terms "protagonist" and "antagonist." The following is an excerpt from Chapter Two of the book I'm writing. I'm aware that what I say here will go against what you may have been told from others. You'll have to determine for yourself if what I promulgate has sufficient evidence to prove what I'm proposing as the definitions for these terms. You may agree with me or you may choose to disagree. At the least, I hope I've given you solid food for thought.
And, without further ado, here's a bit of Chapter Two, on the definitions of Protagonists and Antagonists.