Monday, June 15, 2009

What makes an interesting protagonist (Part 3): Conflict between want and need.

I have a theory about stories. A good story is not just about the conflict between a protagonist and an antagonist. You tell a story like that to four-year-olds.

A good story is also about the conflict within the protagonist, between what he wants and what he needs.

I can't think of a better example of this than 'The Incredibles'.

If you haven't seen the movie, stop reading right now and go rent it. I'm serious. It's one of the most perfectly crafted stories ever and I refuse to teach you another thing until you've seen it.

Okay.

Where was I?

Right. 'The Incredibles'. The protagonist is Mr. Incredible. The antagonist is Syndrome. At its simplest, this is a story about the struggle between the two.

But there's more. What defines Mr. Incredible are two things: his want, which is to work alone, and his need, which is to save the world.

Until Syndrome comes along, those two aspects of his character are perfectly compatible. And even though he's no longer a working superhero, Mr. Incredible the insurance adjuster can't suppress his need to save the world –– he just does it one person at a time.

Syndrome changes everything.

First, he forces Mr. Incredible to come out of retirement. Then he forces Mr. Incredible to realize that he can't do it alone.

Ultimately, the conflict that has to be resolved is within Mr. Incredible. He has to decide whether his want is more powerful than his need.

Here's a tip. It never is.

Mr. Incredible's need to save the world is so great that he'll not only work with someone else, but work with his family -- the last people he'd want to put in harm's way.

In a really good story, like this one, by resolving the conflict between his want and his need, the hero experiences growth.

Even a four-year-old knows that.