Here is a little model. Think of it as a storytelling model, applied to improv. It’s a bit theoretic, but it can really be applied; see the last section for how this material came about and why it is useful.
While explaining the model I will use plenty of examples for scripted stories. In the second part of this post I explain how I approach this in a workshop context; I typically do not explain the model theoretically, but through exploration and discovery by the workshop participants.
The theory is kind of verbose: it is easier to grasp than it is to explain. The workshop examples in Part II should make everything clear. Until you get to that my apologies, and please bear with me. Or skip the theory and hop over to Part II.
Part I: Theory
Slightly unconventional definitions
The definition of a protagonist is basically “the main character”. Here is the Wikipedia definition:
“A protagonist (from Ancient Greek πρωταγωνιστής (protagonistes), meaning “player of the first part, chief actor”) is the main character in any story, such as a literary work or drama. The protagonist is at the center of the story, makes the key decisions, and experiences the consequences of those decisions. “
For the purpose of this article we will use the above definition. There are a few caveats which we will get to shortly.
The Wikipedia definition of antagonist is the following:
Antagonist: a person who actively opposes or is hostile to someone or something; an adversary. E.g. “the woman was forcing her antagonist’s face into the mud”.
This is the conventional definition, and it is also “intuitively right” : the term to antagonise means (wikipedia) “to cause (someone) to become hostile”.
However, for the purpose of this article I will use a slightly unconventional definition. Here it is:
An antagonist is a character whose motivations, goals, desires or opinions are opposed to those of the protagonist.
The important aspect in this alternative definition is the lack of hostility. Remember, I am in favor of tension to drive a story, but not in favor of (instant) trouble.
An ambiguous relationship
Here’s a weird thing: a story’s antagonist usually believes she is the protagonist of her own story.
So really a protagonist’s antagonist considers the protagonist to be her antagonist and vice versa (still with me?). So what’s the difference?
A character can be a protagonist prior to establishment of an antagonist. A character cannot be an antagonist if there is no character to be “antagonized”. Typically (but not always) the protagonist is going to be the character the audience cares for most. The good guy (protagonist) vs the bad guy (antagonist). But not always: since depending on the point of view a character (or group of characters as we will discuss below) may be considered both antagonist or protagonist, it is not a priori known that the protagonist will “win”.
It is tempting to consider the protagonist to be the good girl and the antagonist to be the bad girl. But take the character of Alex in A Clockwork Orange: the is definitely a mean piece of work. His antagonist is society, embodied by his probation officer and the Minister of Interior. Alex doesn’t really “win” in the story either – be it that the conclusion is left to the viewer. It’s like physics: every force implies an equal opposite force.
As a matter of fact, it is not always a question of winning and losing, but the tension between protagonist and antagonist will result in one of the following:
- Protagonist gets what she wants and antagonist loses.
- Antagonist gets what she wants and protagonist loses.
- They both manage to get what they want, without “losing out” to the other. They may reach a compromise in which no one wins nor loses. Or one character may change opinion, or decide to respect the points of view of the other, thus resolving the tension.
- Neither gets what they want.
Option 1 above is the case of most Hollywood movies.
Option 2 is pretty rare as it is considered to be rather disturbing. An example might be the – indeed rather disturbing – movie “Irreversible” – check the link if you want to know more about that one, or check this earlier post which also uses that move as an example.
Sort-of-examples of option 3 are the kind of movies where 2 very different characters – antagonists to one another if you will – a pitted together against a common uber-antagonist. Of course they succeed, and in doing so, grow less antagonistic to one another. As an example take e.g; 48 Hours with Eddy Murphy and Nick Nolte, or Colors with Sean Penn and Robert Duvall.
Option 4 is even more rare as it is – story wise – kind of pointless.
One or Many?
Both protagonist and antagonist may actually be groups, i.e. more than one person, and it need not always be clear whether antagonis and/or protagonist are multiple persons. Actually it does not matter all that much, as we will see in the examples that follow.
They can be a limited number of individuals, or they may be an unspecified number of faceless characters. Examples:
- Consider Lord of the Rings (LOTR):
- One might consider Frodo to be the protagonist; he is certainly the character the audience relates to most.
- But one might argue that the Fellowship of Nine Companions can equally be considered as the protagonist – of which Frodo is the main one.
- One might consider Sauron the main antagonist.
- At the same time one might consider protagonist to be “all the good guys” – a largely faceless group consisting of Dwarfs, Elves, Humans, Hobbits, etc – and the antagonist “all the bad guys” – again a largely faceless group consisting of Orcs, Wargs, Nazgûl etc. Frodo, Gandalf & friends are in this view merely a couple of known faces representing the overall protagonist; Sauron is then merely a known face representing the overall antagonist.
- In Titanic, one might consider “Rose & Jack” to be the protagonist. Both Jack & Rose are equally important or valuable. Rose’s parents (and their servants) are the antagonist: their objective is to keep Rose & Jack apart. Just like in the LOTR example, one might consider the antagonist be the largely faceless “society” which cannot accept a relationship between Rose & Jack to be acceptable. Rose & Jack “fight” this society (or what it stands for), and Rose’s parents are merely a couple of known faces representing the antagonist.
- At the same time in Titanic, and on another level, one might consider the whole group of passengers & crew to be the protagonist, and the ship to be the antagonist. The antagonist actually “wins” for that matter as most of the passengers & crew perish.
- In the movie Die Hard protagonist and antagonist are pretty clear at first sight: John McClane is the protagonist and Hans Gruber – the leader of the terrorists – is the antagonist. One might also consider the terrorists as a group to be the antagonist, of which Hans Gruber is the main face.
No need to meet
Protagonist and antagonist need not be in the same scenes; actually they do not even need to meet in person. And actually, the audience never needs to meet the antagonist: just knowing it is there is sufficient to create the tension to forward the story. As an example, in LOTR, Frodo and Sauron never meet eye to eye.
No need to be alive
Antagonists need not even be alive. They can be disasters like storms (The Perfect Storm), floodings, meteors, buildings on fire or even fire itself (Backdraft), sinking ships (Poseidon), technology (Terminator), dire situations (Alive) or supernatural (The Day of the Triffids or your run of the mill zombie movie). The antagonist here is merely the force that opposes the goals, values & ambitions of the protagonist.
Crowds as Antagonists
We have seen examples where antagonists are groups; think of Sauron’s army. But in the above example, the groups do have a “known face” (Sauron for example, or Hans Gruber). But even such faces are not absolutely necessary: in just about every zombie movie, the zombies are just that: a faceless group, not represented by a named/faced “heard zombie”. So nameless, faceless crowds can equally be antagonists.
One may wonder whether a nameless/faceless group might be a protagonist? In theory that would be possible but I guess it will be very hard for an audience to relate to a protagonist group that is not clearly represented by a few strong characters.
Protagonists and antagonists are typically the main characters. But there are other useful types of characters as well. Sidekicks for example, are a character’s assistants or close associates, typically with less authority than that character. Archetypal examples are Watson for Sherlock Holmes and Robin for Batman.
There are 2 particular types of sidekicks that can be useful for what follows.
Quirky sidekicks do not add tension, but add lightness. Typical examples are disney movies. E.g. Meeko & Flit with Pocahontas; The Gargoyles for The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Zazu in the Lion king. Reindeer Sven in Frozen, or even Piglet in Winnie the Pooh. For non-Disney examples consider Donkey in Shrek or even bumbling Watson for Sherlock Holmes. These characters can be funny, annoying, silly or perhaps wise, like Yoda in Star Wars.
Shady sidekicks add tension, usually because their motives can be doubted. Examples are Snipe in Harry Potter: is he friend or foe? Another great example would be Gollum in LOTR. In the TV series Vikings there are actually 2 such characters: Floki and Athelstan.
Not every character is protagonist, antagonist or sidekick of course. Some characters are just there for the ride, or provide motivations for protagonist or antagonist. John McClane’s wife Holly in Die Hard is basically just there to raise the stakes for John.
So what is the point? Actually I find it useful to train improvisers to detect what their role in a scene is, and over the years this model has been very helpful to me (and to my students). It came about as a remedy for 2 problems, one common and one less common:
- The common one: Too many scenes start with instant and ungrounded conflict. Learning to establishing clear protagonists and antagonists is a way to slow down improvisers, and create (grounded) tension between protagonists and antagonists.
- Less common: Some groups who use monologues to set up scenes, find that it takes too long before anything interesting happens. The techniques based on this model can help with that.
This may all sound very vague and theoretical – so head over to Part II to see how this can be applied!