Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Antagonist 101

Although I learned quite a bit from the short fiction workshop I took at the Southampton Writers Conference, it was the screenwriting workshops that resonated with me. Namely, the various discussions about character. I had already known that I was more character-driven than plot-driven when it comes to novel-writing, but these workshops reinforced just how comfortable a place that is for me to be.

Two of the most eye-opening moments for me came about as the result of conversations about antagonists. The first time, my screenplay adaptation instructor Stephen Molton asked me who the antagonist was in Ordinary World (I had chosen this work to adapt). I had to think about this. Remember, I'm trained in rhetoric, not literature. This stuff doesn't come as quickly to me.

"Um, I think it's Andi's grief," I replied, my voice full of uncertainty.

Stephen, the nurturing teacher, clarified that grief was certainly one obstacle in the way of Andi's intention. (And then, a blast from the past: "man vs. man", "man vs. nature", and "man vs. himself" emerged from the memory vault marked "7th-grade English".) But there was a more obvious antagonist.

David.

Of course. He's the guy who always pushed Andi's buttons, first as Devin in Faking It. Literally, the antagonizer. I had never thought of him as such because I had always believed antagonists to be villains with sinister motives; and quite frankly, Devin/David never appeared as such to me.

Eye-opener number two came on the heels of this revelation in a second workshop with Will Chandler who mentioned, almost in a by-the-way fashion, that "the antagonist never thinks s/he's the antagonist; s/he always thinks s/he's the protagonist."

And just like that, my world opened up. Of course. Of course! No wonder David never appeared to be the antagonist. He even fooled me into thinking he was the protagonist (well, one of them). This revelation brought with it a new pair of eyes with which to see my current "cast" of characters in my latest novel-in-progess. It opened up possibilities in terms of exploring their depth, their motivation, and their perceptions. It made me excited to (re-)visit them.

And if that wasn't enough, Stephen, with super-screenwriter x-ray vision of his own, saw another antagonist, "the one hiding in plain sight," as he called it, that could be developed for the Ordinary World screenplay.

Can you guess who it is?

So, to sum up, here's what I bring back to my novel-writing: when getting to know my characters, it is key for me to ask what my protagonist wants (intention) and what's in the way of her/him getting it (obstacle). It is key for me to identify my antagonist not necessarily as the villain (although s/he very well may be), but perhaps either as one of those obstacles or, more literally, the antagonizer. And as I explore my antagonists' psyches, it will be key for me to listen to them make their case for protag status. No doubt I will learn plenty from them when they tell me. And so will you.

15 comments:

Larry said...

I am thinking Andi herself...

Elspeth Antonelli said...

Wow! How exciting to be able to see your work from a completely different angle! I'm sure this new knowledge will be a great help as you continue to climb the mountain known as "New Manuscript".

Anonymous said...

David immediately came to mind. Yes, Andi made a career of her grief, but there is no timetable for that sort of thing. David kept pressing.

I also think Sam is lurking as the antagonist.

Pam P

Susan said...

Nice! I've always bristled at the us vs. them world of protags and antags...but your description allows for more depth. Sam was one of the first antagonists I thought of, but it all depends on what motivation and goal of Andi's your focusing on at the moment, eh? If a goal is moving past grief, then Sam (or the memory of Sam, so then it's really Andi, isn't it?) is a clear antagonist.

Fenny said...

I vote Sam, too. And it's nothing to do with my Seaborn/Lyman 2014 shirt, either :-)

Elisa said...

Wow -- love the responses and the way you're all thinking! Sam would make an interesting antagonist (especially if we turned OW into a paranormal romance, hahaha). And Andi definitely got in her own way. I won't reveal who it was just yet, but stay tuned...

And Fenny, where can I get one of those shirts?

Fenny said...

http://www.cafepress.com/SeabornLyman2012

:-)

Elisa said...

Answer: the drunk driver

I was floored. Keep in mind that this is for screen adaptation. We discussed ways in which to bring the drunk driver more into the story (an attempt to contact Andi, a confrontation in the courtroom, etc.). Needless to say, I was intrigued by the idea.

I also considered Andi's mother as the antagonist (for the screenplay), and that could tie in even more to Faking It.

Cool, yes?

Larry Leitner said...

I can picture all sorts of ways that the drunk could be brought into the screenplay. Nice!

Fenny said...

When is this movie going to hit my cinema screen - and do I get an invitation to the premiere?

Elisa said...

Fenny, not only will you get a personal invitation, but there will be hats.

:)

Elspeth Antonelli said...

No, no, hats are for handing out for the first day of shooting.

Fenny said...

But I took it as read we would all be invited to the first day of shooting and would get our hats then.

Anonymous said...

I'll be a gofer for the production. I may be in a wheelchair, but I'll run it until it can't run no more!

Pam

Elisa said...

Ok, so we've got the crew, and we've got hats. That's a good start.