As my monthly writing week winds down, and I find myself still struggling with scenes between my protagonist and antagonist, I wanted to share a few insights on what’s working, what’s not, and what I’ve learned in hopes that it will be helpful to at least one of you.
I admire Lajos Egri’s book on playwriting, The Art of Dramatic Writing, for its advice on the sacred narrative relationship between protagonist and antagonist. In short, you sit down to write when you have an inkling what you’re trying to say. From that intention, you create a character who is most likely to struggle to see that truth expressed in his or her own life. That’s your protagonist. Then you pick the character who is most likely to oppose the realization of that truth in your protagonist; this is your antagonist. Their agendas clash, and assuming they are both well-motivated enough to keep pushing for their own success, they will keep clashing: from whence comes conflict. A story with meaningful conflict becomes interesting.
This comes about as close to a creed for manifesting conflict as a creedless heathen like me will accept. And yet I’ve gotten continually stuck when writing scenes between my protagonist and antagonist. These scenes are important, yet for years, they have struck me as arbitrary and “talky” no matter what I try. These scenes are like magnets, attracting every stray thought about the story’s meaning, and forcing them into my characters’ mouths. Yuck. And my antagonist comes across as flat—a mere villain, not the hero of her own story.
Something Egri wrote returned to me with new weight yesterday. He said that antagonists don’t have to hate the protagonist; that in fact, some of the most wrought conflicts grow out of affection.
That’s it, isn’t it? Why would two people bother with each other if they didn’t care about the other, at least on some level? To relegate their motivations entirely to an external agenda is to be writing a film, not a novel. Robert McKee says almost exactly the same thing in the first five minutes of a long interview (posted below), and hearing Egri’s observation confirmed, I will be working on my protagonist/antagonist scenes in the coming week.
Watch Robert McKee’s thorough interview about storytelling in our time here. His book Story is one of the texts I use with my editing clients.