Monday, October 28, 2013

Excerpt from the new craft book I'm writing, on Protatonists and Antagonists.

Hi folks,

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.

Delivering one of those "teachable moments..."

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.


Protagonists and Antagonists

The two most important characters in a novel are the protagonist and the antagonist. I want to spend some time defining these two characters and their roles in the story as there are many misconceptions.
First, to define each term.
The Protagonist
The protagonist is simply the person through whose eyes and viewpoint we experience the bulk of the story. I feel it a mistake to assign moral qualities to either the protagonist or the antagonist. Therefore, I believe it’s misleading to use terms such as “hero” or “heroine” to describe the protagonist. Doing so assigns a moral value to him or her that is not only inaccurate, but that often leads to creating poor characters. When you think of protagonists as “good guys” and antagonist’s as “bad guys” or villains, the temptation is great to create one-dimensional, cardboard, almost “cartoonish” characters. Dudley Doright and Snidely Whiplash.
By the same token, the term “antihero” is misleading. By its very name, it also implies a moral quality assigned to the character. The protagonist is neither a hero nor an antihero. They’re simply the person through whose persona we experience the story.
Do yourself a favor. Don’t think of these two characters as “good” and/or “bad.” I think you’ll find you create far more complex and compelling characters by not doing so.
Same way with that term that’s crept into our writing lexicon in the past few years. That main character thingy, or that even more insidious appellation, that “MC” monstrosity. That says… nothing. Of course the protagonist is the “main character.” But, to refer to him or her with that term, negates somewhat the value of the protagonist. Describing the protagonist as the “main character” implies that it’s the story that’s mostly important (at the expense of character) and that’s simply not true. All stories, regardless of genre, are pretty much the same. It’s the protagonist in his/her battle in the story to resolve the story problem that’s important. Plots are limited—there are only 6-8, depending on the source. Characters—particularly protagonists—on the other hand, are limitless. The life of any story isn’t the plot. It’s how the protagonist and antagonist operate within the plot, not the clever and various ways in which the killings, bombings, kidnappings, love and/or sex scenes, naval button contemplations or whatever are depicted. Those things are incidental to the characters and only exist to serve the characters and provide the obstacles for the struggle.
The Antagonist
Likewise, don’t think of the antagonist in terms of villains. He or she is simply the person whose goal(s) conflict with those of the protagonist’s. Period. Again, just as with the protagonist, no moral value is assigned, at least in relationship to the definition of their character. Not the “bad guy” or “bad gal.” If you think of antagonists as villains, you’ll end up with Snidely Whiplash-type characters. One-dimensional, cardboard, cartoonish characters.
The antagonist, just like the protagonist, can be a good guy or gal or a bad guy or gal. Doesn’t matter. Novels aren’t morality plays. As Samuel Goldwyn said to the screenwriter who sent him a script with a theme of good and bad (badly paraphrased): “Don’t send a message. Western Union sends messages and they do it well. Send me a story.”
Can there be more than one protagonist or antagonist?
One protagonist, one antagonist per novel.
Now, that doesn’t mean they each can’t have multiple allies. They both can and both most likely will.
Are there exceptions? Probably, although I can’t think of any right now. Remember that just because a novel was published doesn’t “prove” it was any good. Doesn’t mean it’s a good model to follow, necessarily. Bad novels get published just about every day. But, do yourself a favor and don’t use a bad novel for a template. I can pretty well guarantee you that there aren’t very many good novels with “co-protagonists” and “multiple antagonists.”
One of the reasons this is true is that when you begin creating more than a single protagonist and/or antagonist, the reader’s focus begins to get diffused. We can “see” an individual. Once you begin creating crowds, it becomes harder to figure out whose story it is or who we should follow.
Let’s look at Thelma & Louise for particularly great examples of a powerful protagonist and an equally-powerful antagonist.
By the way, the strength of your novel depends on the strength of your antagonist, not your protagonist. Write that down. The antagonist should be at least the equal in strength of the protagonist, and preferably stronger. This includes all forms of strength, including physical, mental, emotionally, resource-wise… in every way you can dream up. If the antagonist is weaker in any way than the protagonist, then the protagonist doesn’t have to do much to prevail, does he? And, you want the protagonist’s struggle to be uphill all the way.
The protagonist in Thelma & Louise is Thelma. Period. I know the title says Thelma and Louise, but it’s Thelma’s story. Louise is along for the ride and the primary role she serves is the Mentor role. Khouri was well-aware of that. If they were co-protagonists, wouldn’t she have given Louise’s big sex scene the same big stage as she did Thelma’s? She didn’t. It’s Thelma’s story, all the way.
Another factor that determines who the protagonist is is the character arc. You know, that old Freitag scheme that looks like a roller coaster? Only the protagonist gets that. His or her character has to undergo a significant change as a result of the struggle she’s undergone to achieve the story goal. Only Thelma undergoes this change in the story. Louise changes a bit, but by and large, at the end of the story, she’s pretty much the same as she was at the beginning. Thelma, on the other hand, has had a profound change from where she began. You’ll see that change as we go along here.
And, the antagonist is… Hal the cop as played by Harvey Keitel. Is he a villain? Nope. Not in the least. He’s undoubtedly the single most moral character in the story. His goal is completely honorable and good… for those looking for good guys and bad guys in their fiction.
It’s just that his goal is in direct conflict with Thelma’s. His goal is to rescue Thelma and her friend, Louise. To save them first from going to jail and then, as the story evolves, to save them from being killed. Absolutely, 100% honorable goal. Can you see how the terms “villain” doesn’t have a thing to do with Hal’s character? Do you think for a second that if Khouri thought in those terms—heroes/heroines vs villains—could have possibly written these characters—particularly Hal’s? Not a chance in hell! If her knowledge of story had rested on those kinds of definitions, she would be writing direct-to-video screenplays, if even that.
Please—if you get nothing else from this book—never again think of your characters as hero/heroine and villain!
Are there characters in the story who provide obstacles for Thelma? Sure. Her husband Darryl is about as “villainy” as you could ever wish for. Just about every male character in the story provide opposition. J.T. steals their money even though he does afford Thelma respect in their love-making. The state cop with the tailored uni and mirror sunglasses and male chauvinist hog attitude is villainy. The tanker driver with his pig-like gestures and intentions is villainy. Harlan, the would-be rapist is definitely villainy. The guys manning gas pumps when they stop, or are leaning up against building posts ogling them, are all minor variations of villainy. And, guess what? Just about all of those characters fit the Snidely Whiplash mold. No antagonists in that bunch, except in a very limited, stereotypical role, basically as villainous. Louise’s boyfriend Jimmy, is pretty much a good guy, but he’s definitely not an antagonist. He’s one of their few “helpers” when he comes to Louise’s aid (and, by extension, Thelma’s). No opposition to Thelma’s goal there.
The one character whose goal provides consistent and powerful opposition to Thelma’s goal is Hal. She wants to escape; his goal is to catch her.
And it’s that dynamic that makes for complex characters and complex stories. Two individuals, each with a goal at odds with the other. Both with worthy goals. No “good vs evil” going on here at all. Each the very model of a great protagonist/antagonist. A very powerful antagonist. Look at Hal’s strengths. He’s a lawman with tons of experience catching criminals. He’s got all the technological advantages possible. He’s got a virtual army of people to help him find and catch them. He’s got state of the art computers, communications, transportation, radar, phone tracking capability at his disposal. He’s got the state police along with the FBI at his disposal. He’s got a frickin’ helicopter! He’s got all this arrayed against a housewife and a waitress in a car and little money and their destination known. He’s extremely powerful and about as strong of an antagonist as you could ever invent. When Thelma defeats him—which she does in the final scene—it resonates with the viewer since she hasn’t beaten a weakling at all but an antagonist that was stronger in just about every single way. Think about how this story would have been had Khouri made Hal a nasty guy who hated women and just wanted to either kill Thelma and Louise or just wanted to put them in jail. She could have done that… if she thought in terms of “heroines” and “villains.” But she didn’t. She created a protagonist and gave her a worthy antagonist.
Perhaps why she won the Oscar for this story?

I'm busy at work right now completing this book upon the urging of my agent. Hope when it's done, you'll consider glomming onto a copy.

Hope this helps inform your own writing!

Blue skies,
P.S. Here's an "old" craft book I wrote that you may find useful.

On Saturday, November 23, I’ll be conducting a REALLY BIG (channel your inner Ed Sullivan voice here) workshop where I show the movie THELMA & LOUISE and provide commentary throughout, showing salient fiction techniques, for the Indiana Writer’s Center. This one is a labor of love and exhausting to deliver and I’ve heard rave after rave from those who’ve attended this one before. Click on or go to for complete information.


Unknown said...

Solid advice, Les. And you present it so clearly.

Dana King said...

Great post. I've seen THELMA and LOUISE, and liked it, but never thought of these as overtly as you describe them here, though I think I was picking up on some level. (Several head smacks while reading.)

I think the casting of Keitel helped with what you're talking about, too. His screen persona is a tough guy, often a bad guy. That could be in the back of viewers' minds throughout, lending an element of menace between the lines, when all he wants is to help them.

Oh, yeah. I'm going to want to read this when it's ready.

Judith said...

Always love your take on writing and learn from it. Looking forward to your new book.

Les Edgerton said...

Thanks, Rob, Dana and Judith. This book is a labor of love! I've actually had offers twice before with advances offered of $10,000, but pulled it as the publisher wanted me to compromise things I didn't believe in. I think I'll probably end up publishing it myself. I've done dumb things before... But, for instance, they wanted me to put in "exercises" and my take on exercises is that they're busy work for teachers to give students so they can do what they really want to do--read a novel... Some are okay, but most seem to me to be mostly busy work and a load of crap... Just my contrarian take on things...

Dana King said...

I can see why they want exercises, so they can market it as a textbook. Thing is, if the instructor decides exercises are necessary, he or she will better be able to come up with things best suited to the class in question than you cab with generic questions. Insisting on the exercises seems to be a tacit way of saying too many instructors are too lazy to come up with their own exercises for us to be able to make any money off the book.

Les Edgerton said...

Agreed, Dana. BTW, this is funny--I mentioned that some might disagree with my take on terms like "heroes" and "villains" and it seems one did, as one person took themselves off my "Followers" list... Perhaps I came across as a villain to that person...

As to exercises, most seem useless to me and a waste of time. Mostly busy work, used primarily to kill time and not have to actually teach something. In a class where actual teaching is going on, exercises would mostly eat up valuable time, methinks... It's kind of like practicing the scales in an attempt to get to Carnegie Hall... Just throwing this out, but I think learning to create a symphony might stand one in better stead...

Graham Smith said...

Thanks Les
There's some cracking advice in there which has made me re-exmine my own WIP.

My own antagonist is neither evil nor overtly villainy, they're just pursuing their goal as is the main protagonist.

Les Edgerton said...

Thanks, Graham--this means a lot coming from you! Same with the other writers who've chimed in here. I appreciate it, folks.

Anonymous said...

Hooked... Best craft book ever. I recommended it often and can't wait to see this new one you're working on. Best of luck to you and I'm waiting impatiently!

Les Edgerton said...

Thank you so much, Nikki! I appreciate it and just glad it's been of help to you in your own writing.