Character and Conflict

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The two most important characters in your book are your protagonist and your antagonist because they’re the characters in conflict.

Agon” in classical Greek means “struggle.”

A Prot-agon-ist is somebody who is first in the struggle, who owns the conflict and pushes it forward, defining it by pursuing a goal.

An Ant-agon-ist is somebody who blocks the protagonist’s pursuit of his or her goal, and in doing so, shapes the story.   Without an antagonist, the protagonist goes straight for the goal, a boring narrative path.  Blocked by an antagonist at various points in the narrative, the protagonist must shift her or his plans, moving in new directions that change the shape of the story.

The important thing about these definitions is that neither one has a moral dimension to it.  The Protagonist and the Antagonist are not the Hero and the Villain.  They are two characters who block each other in the pursuit of goals that are vital to them.   The antagonist’s goal should never be just to stop the protagonist; he should be a complete character in his own right with his own goal, the protagonist of his own story.

Protag-Antag

Protagonist Example:
Cinderella wants to go to the ball to meet the prince and marry him, so she makes a beautiful dress.  When her stepmother sees the dress, she tears it up and locks the girl in her room.  It’s a story about a young girl whose plans to achieve her dream are blocked by a jealous stepmother.
OR
Margaret wants her daughter married to the prince, but her beautiful stepdaughter often outshines the daughter.  When Margaret finds out that the stepdaughter has made a dress that will hurt her daughter’s chances, she rips up the dress, and locks her stepdaughter in her room.  It’s a story about a mother trying to protect her child from a dangerous rival.
If you change the protagonist, the meaning of the story changes because the protagonist owns the story.

Antagonist Example:
Cinderella wants to go to the ball to meet the prince and marry him, so she makes a beautiful dress.  When her stepmother sees the dress, she tears it up and locks the girl in her room.  It’s a story about a young girl whose plans to achieve her dream must change when she’s prevented from going to a ball.
OR
Cinderella wants to go to the ball to meet the prince and marry him, but the prince wants to marry a rich, cultured woman.  When Cinderella gets to the ball, the prince makes fun of her handmade dress and her provincial accent.  It’s a story about a young girl whose plans must change when she is blocked by an arrogant man.
If you change the antagonist, the path of the plot changes because the antagonist shapes the story.

TroubleshootingIf your plot feels weak or inconsequential, chances are your protagonist has an inconsequential goal, or your antagonist is a weak opponent.

For other posts in this unit see The Conflict Unit main post.

12 thoughts on “Character and Conflict

  1. (Copy-editor here: sorry.) I’d quibble with ‘wants to go to the ball to meet the prince’: ‘meet’ doesn’t work for the second example. The fact that the prince is arrogant doesn’t stop her meeting him; her dream is obviously to do more than just meet the man. Or I suppose you could make him such a greedy snob that she’s not allowed in unless she can demonstrate she’s a benefactor of the royal opera house, or something.

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  2. I’m writing my lecture on character right now. I’m stealing your Greek breakdown. They love it when I teach them the Greek etymology of these words. They use it to score dates at frat parties. 🙂

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  3. I didn’t realize the protagonist and antagonist are NOT the hero and villain. I mean, one could make the antagonist a morally-reprehensible character, right? But in the mechanics of story-telling there is, as you say, no ‘moral dimension?’ The actual mechanics, or underpinnings, of storytelling are more a matter of physics and vectors?

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    • ginjones says:

      I think they CAN be the hero and villain in a given story. Say, in Airforce One, Harrison Ford’s character is the hero (and protagonist) and the terrorist is the villain (and antagonist). The mistake comes from assuming they MUST be a hero and a villain in ALL stories, that the person opposing the protagonist must be evil or crazy or ill-intentioned. and that the protagonist is always virtuous and doing the right thing and wearing a white hat.

      It’s harder to make the antagonist well-rounded (can’t recall the details of Airforce One, but IIRC the antagonist wasn’t being particularly layered) if you’re thinking of him/her as “evil.” On the other hand, if you keep in mind the saying that I’ve heard a lot but don’t know where it came from — the antagonist is the protagonist in his own head/story (as are all the characters in the book) — then you’re more likely to give the antagonist some real motivation and personality and characterization.

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      • Right, you as the author get to the assign the moral dimensions. The protagonist/hero and antagonist/villain are the most common, but the protagonist villain is often more interesting (again, Macbeth) and the protagonist anti-hero is almost always more interesting. And I’m a big fan of the layered antagonist; Kingpin in Daredevil is an excellent example.
        If I ever do character as part of this project, the section on antagonists would go into a lot of detail on how the antagonist is often more important than the protagonist which is why he or she has to be amazing to get an amazing book.

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    • You can make the protagonist morally reprehensible. (Macbeth, for example.) You can make them both horrible. You can make them both good people. Or even better, make them both equal parts good and bad. Daredevil on Netflix is a great example of that.

      I think story always has a moral dimension; our values seep into our stories. But we determine how those moral dimensions are distributed, whether good or evil wins in the end, what good and evil even mean in the context of this narrative.

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  4. Leigh says:

    Jenny, I don’t know if I’m having a slow day or if it’s a genuine issue, but I found that I had to read your Cinderella examples several times. I understand the concepts and agree with them, so that wasn’t the source of my stumble. I’ve given it some thought. I think my resistance was connected to the fact you chose Cinderella’s story to frame your examples. When you shifted the antagonist/protagonist motivations and thus the story’s narrative, my brain balked. It was like driving on the wrong side of the road, I couldn’t follow the road map very well because my brain was preoccupied with the sense of wrongness. Who knew? Somehow that fairytale has become imprinted within me and I have a sense of ownership for it. (I blame Walt.)
    Could be my old fart brain, and too many childhood hours spent lusting after Cinderella’s blue ballgown, but I thought I’d mention it. This part did not work as well for me as previous sections.

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    • I think you’re right.
      The good thing about using Cinderella is that you start with a story everybody knows so it’s easy to see the changes.
      The bad thing is exactly what you’re saying.
      I’ll have to cogitate.

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