Thursday, July 9, 2009

What makes an interesting protagonist (Part 4): A worthy adversary

Let's say you're single-mindedly determined to accomplish something and what you want and what you need are potentially at odds. Are you an interesting protagonist?

Not yet.

You're missing one critical thing that makes your story interesting. Difficulty.

Without difficulty, you're not accomplishing something, you're just doing it. And who wants to watch you do something you're perfectly capable of doing?

Not me.

The tougher the struggle, the more interesting the story. In other words, as determined as the protagonist is to succeed, the antagonist needs to be even moreso to make the protagonist fail.

That's not to say that the antagonist has to spend every minute devising ways to thwart the protagonist. In fact, a super powerful antagonist doesn't even need to try. In 'Finding Nemo', the antagonist is the ocean. It's so vast and powerful that it doesn't even need to be aware of a little clown fish trying to find its son.

In films where a hero faces an actual enemy, the enemy needs to be stronger than the hero. And not just stronger. You want your hero to be up against somebody so powerful, so experienced, with so many more resources and so few scruples about destroying the good guy that you wonder how your hero is ever going to survive, much less triumph.

Think Luke Skywalker versus Darth Vader, for example. Or Harry Potter against Valdemort.

The more unlikely your hero is to emerge victorious, the more satisfying the story is when he does.

I know what you're thinking. You're thinking, "Brian, if my antagonist is unassailable, how can my protagonist ever win?"

Good question. There are two answers. One is what's called "deus ex machina," which is a fancy way of saying "Wow! That sure was lucky!" Remember 'War of the Worlds'? Not the original, but Steven Spielberg's 2005 turd?

The other answer is for what appears to be the hero's weakness to become the very strength that vanquishes the antagonist.

That same formula is at work in both 'The Bad News Bears' and 'Life is Beautiful'. And yes, I know how weird that sounds.