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This has been on my mind for a while. The subject of antagonism. And as I am discovering, it’s one heck of a subject. It’s the biggest I’ve run into yet in screenwriting. I’m not sure why this seemed to be the theme of this week, but probably stirred on by the critical questions asked in the screenwriting group on FB, regarding people’s loglines they wanted feedback on. What does the protagonist want, what is his goal in the story? And who or what is going to stand in his way, does not want him to reach that goal? And some referring to that antagonist as simply the villain of the story. And then I started to think about that. Is that true? Is that all? Is it that simple?
What about stories where it’s not so very clear who the bad guy is or the villain and whether that is the same as the antagonist, the one or what trying to stop the protagonist from reaching his goal. I got confused. In my story I had not thought specifically about the term ‘antagonism’ yet. Up till now, I just thought about the main characters, what they are up to, and yes, some characters that might work against what they want, but I had not defined yet how strongly or how big a role they would play in the story and which one of those is, if any, a big threat for their goal. I did however think about some of their internal struggles and how that could stop them from reaching their goal. I mentioned it as ‘internal forces of antagonism’ in my 3-month-goals in week 7. And then I thought, can the protagonist not be his own antagonist as well? Are we ourselves not often the ones that keep us from reaching our goals?
I already talked about certain obstacles that have kept me from doing what I want to do in the ‘about’ section, if I remember correctly. And throughout the past years, I’ve been thinking about this, how we often look outside ourselves for external reasons or obstacles why we’re not getting what we want. And of course, lots of external reasons can contribute to struggles to get somewhere, but I’ve also come to realize that a lot of times what is keeping us from reaching our goals is none other than ourselves. We ourselves are often our own biggest antagonists. Our fears, our stubbornness, our insecurities, our comfort-ness with our current lives, however not rewarding it might be. And we cannot put that on anyone or anything else outside ourselves. In screenwriting terms this can also be referred to as a conflict, ‘man vs. self’ and that that’s not an internal antagonist and some even argue that there is no such thing as internal antagonism and that an antagonist is and always has to be an actual someone or something fighting the protagonist, externally. The villain.
I can’t remember everything that Robert McKee says about the subject in his book Story and his Story Seminar, but I do remember such different things about it, than that it’s simply the visual villain in the form of a person or a thing. Not that he is the sole authority on it or no one else has anything sensible to say about it, but running into such different, opposite opinions about it started to confuse me. But it’s good that this happened. It was probably time for me to dive into again. In hindsight just picking up the book Story again would’ve probably prevented this confusion, as I’m just reading one quote from the first page of the chapter on it, confirming what I do believe antagonism is: ‘Forces of antagonism doesn’t necessarily refer to a specific antagonist or villain…by forces of antagonism we mean the sum total of all forces that oppose the character’s will and desire.’ For me, this includes the ones that are part of ourselves. I will have to reread the chapter again, as I really want to do this right in my screenplay. I’m at least glad my gut feeling is supported by someone who does know a thing or two – being a huge understatement of course – about storytelling and screenwriting.
In one article I read that it is good to have a visual character as ‘the symbol’ of the internal antagonist, so we the audience can see it and the battle between the protagonist and the antagonist, which is in fact the same person, becomes more visual, tangible, between two clear opposite forces. I do like that idea. This doesn’t mean, in my opinion, that the external form IS the antagonist, but rather a symbol of it.
A podcast on the subject, found on StoryWonk refers to the subject of internal antagonism as university level and difficult to execute well. Robert McKee says something similar about the level of difficulty in his book Story. Well, you know me, I don’t easily shy away from a challenge. And there is only one way I want to do this stuff, as I shared before. The right way. What if…I get this very difficult part of a screenplay right? In this very first screenplay. On top of everything else in the screenplay of course. I think I just set myself a new Mount Everest in the land of screenwriting. I am funny. Like I needed higher goals on this journey.
To be continued.