Here we are, Day 11 of FiYoShiMo. We’ve come out of the basics of character development, and now we get to look at the biggest character types in writing.
A protagonist is a story’s main character (from the Greek, protagonistes). It’s who we follow throughout the course of the story. I think we can all agree to that. Sure, you can make a point that the protagonist (also called a protag) is the character who interacts with the story’s plot, but since we’re following the plot over the course of the story, it seems obvious.
The protag’s opposition is the antagonist (called an antag), and when you look closely the antagonist is often placed in direct opposition to the protagonist. I say “often” because the plot isn’t the only point of intersection between protagonist and antagonist, but we’ll talk more about that in a few paragraphs. Let’s start with a breakdown for both protag and antag.
Note: Why don’t we refer to them as tagonists? Hmm.
Protagonists are not only our main characters, but they embody the beliefs and motivations the audience or reader is meant to see as “good”, because we make a binary assumption that protagonists are on the positive side of things. Maybe because they both start with p, or maybe because the majority of protagonists sit at the far end of the spectrum for good versus evil. What the protagonist believes, what the narrative reinforces, what their dialogue demonstrates, is a character philosophy and a set of motivations that we’re to agree with and get behind over the course of the story. The tricky part here, as we’ll talk about, is divorcing yourself from the idea that protagonist equals good, antagonist equals bad. A protagonist is the main character, period.
There isn’t a lot of flexibility in that binary, even if you subvert the assumption that all protagonists are good guys. Television shows like Leverage, or a movie like Payback feature characters who are on the face of it, bad people. They’re criminals, but because they go against other criminals, or help the greater good, they’re our goodguy protagonists. This leads to the question – what makes a protagonist a protagonist?
The protagonist needs the majority of attention in the story. We’re over their shoulder, maybe we’re in the head, we follow their actions closer than any other character, and depending on the POV you create it, we lens the plot through their descriptions and their reactions. Because we experience this character more than any other, this is who we invest in as a reader and an audience. It’s their roller coaster on which we’re passengers. In part then, “screentime” or “storytime” makes the character a protagonist.
A sympathetic protagonist is a character who we can relate to and agree with whatever they’re doing in the story. We want to see them succeed, because we can project ourselves into their place, and possibly, we’d make the same or similar decisions. The agreeing part is critical, because when we can’t agree with the majority of their decisions (we’re never going to be 100% in line with them, there are too many variables), the protagonist is termed unsympathetic. Whether or not we relate to them is secondary, because it’s possible that many elements exist in the story that makes it difficult to do so. We don’t easily relate to Yoda, because we’re not Muppets, we don’t have the Force, and we generally don’t live in a swamp talking to ghostly Alec Guinness.
One of the challenges I pose to writers when I give seminars is this: could they take a character we relate to on some level, even if we don’t agree with them, and build them as a protagonist, but not a good guy? Where some people stumble is on the “relate” part, because they make an assumption that relate can mean to agree with, but relating to someone means being able to put yourself into their experience, consider their thoughts, then viewing their actions. As we talk more about it, I take it one step further, by posing a question – Could you make Stalin (or Hitler, or any dictator) a protagonist, without creating an alternate history?
This is proof of how ingrained our protagonist-is-the-good-guy assumption is. It’s hard to perceive a guy who killed millions as a good guy (hint: he wasn’t, he killed millions), but since protagonist just means main character, it’s possible to center the story around him. How? Think about a biography. Yes, even non-fiction has protagonists.
Going to the other side of things, the antagonist is in the story to oppose the protagonist. I move A, they go B. A lot of assumptions and binaries dominate the protag-antag relationship. Let’s look at a few:
Assumption: The protagonist has to do something to counter everything the antagonist does. No, they don’t. If the antagonist has their own plan, and it has a series of steps, not every step has to correspond to whatever the protagonist has done. Yes, the protagonist’s later steps (any step after the first point where the antagonist and protagonist cross paths) will be somewhat in reaction to the antagonist, but some steps won’t have an opposing partner. Some can’t. If the antagonist is robbing banks, and stops to also rob an armory to get weapons, the protagonist can secure the last bank without also stopping to defend the armory. The lack of direct parity (the name for the move-countermove concept) gives a story extra tension and increased stakes for later conflict.
Assumption: Both the antagonist and the protagonist need to be complete opposites. No, they don’t. This is a holdover from early media, where the good guys wore white hats while the bad guys wore black. Again, the binary here is at times true, where you have a criminal and a lawman, or a victim and an attacker, or something with a power dynamic. However, there’s interesting story fodder in the space where the characters aren’t diametrically at odds. I tell people, “Every character thinks they’re the protagonist, and you can too,” which is an effective tool for avoiding the more moustache-twirly cliche packed baddies.
Binary: The antagonist can only do bad things, while the protagonist can only do good. Not true. What a character does is based on their motivations, philosophy and skills. All three of those things are a wide range of variables. Also, this is the binary where we seem to forget that “good” and “bad” are subjective. You might think my dislike of peas is bad, while I think your liking cheesecake is stupid.
Binary: Ultimately, a protagonist will always defeat the antagonist. Nope. It’s nice to see. It’s encouraging and rewarding (I just saw Creed, and I do love an underdog-makes-good story), but media where the good guy wins aren’t the only media out there. Look at the first Rocky movie. He doesn’t win the fight. He may win over the crowd, he may impress Apollo, but he doesn’t beat Apollo. The protagonist only needs to complete their arc and resolve the plot. Resolve isn’t a synonym of “win”.
The same way we’ve mapped protagonists over the last few days, do the same for the antagonist. But PLEASE, PLEASE don’t hold them within the goodguy-badguy dynamic while you do it. The antagonist is a character just like any other.
Where the two characters intersect tells a reader a lot about what sort of story to expect. Many of us are taught that at the climax of the story, the two characters have to square off: Luke duels Vader, the scrappy sports team faces their rivals for the championship, the previously fired lawyer squares off against his old employers in the big court case. This set up is called a direct opposition, or direct confrontation. While it’s not always a physical brawl, it is an encounter that puts both protag and antag in the same space and sets them against one another.
In order to reach direct confrontation, the plot features many scenes and developments that set the characters on a collision course. As the story unfolds, one character is often one step behind, or analyzing consequences to predict future events (a detective at a crime scene, for instance, since the crime already happened, but it may leave indicators for what comes next). While the antag may not be in the same space for the these moments, the antag’s presence is felt through what is said and described. In keeping with the idea that an antagonist perceives themselves a protagonist, make sure the antagonist is somehow looming or is felt in any scene where they’re not directly involved.
Sometimes though, there isn’t direct confrontation. Often this happens because the antagonist isn’t personified, or because the antagonist is conceptual. In a story about civil rights, the primary antagonist isn’t the town mayor, it’s the concept of segregation. Our racist bigoted mayor is an agent of the antagonist, someone who buys into the set of beliefs and takes appropriate actions to further those beliefs. This kind of development is an indirect confrontation. People run the mayor out of town, or stage protests, or change the legal system somehow, so the mayor is out on her ear, and segregation suffers defeat. Eliminating the agent doesn’t eliminate the antagonist fully, it only reduces the danger the antagonist poses. Think of antagonist-agents as horcruxes: it won’t stop Voldemort, but it does make things easier.
Note: If you’re wondering now if the protagonist has agents, we’ll talk about them tomorrow on Day 12, since they’re not called agents.
It’s through the plot that the protag and antag have the most intersection, either in quantity or quality. An example of a quantity of intersection is a detective stopping a serial criminal, since there are a number of scenes where they oppose one another, it’s the cat-and-mouse atmosphere. An example of quality intersection is Moriarty against Holmes, where you don’t see Moriarty until practically we’re at the Falls, but we see Holmes’ reactions to Moriarty’s presence throughout the story.
By reducing dependence on polar characterizations, by challenging binary assumptions and hopefully shedding cliches and archetypes, you’re opening yourself up to create characters that feel vibrant and dynamic, not just static templates. They occupy a world wherein they have agendas that conflict, and from that tension, a story arises.
Spend some time today mapping your antagonist. After we talk secondary characters tomorrow, it’s onto plot for a few days after that.
See you tomorrow