Protagonists and Antagonists – who needs ’em? 3


When I started this blog I wanted to try to keep it ‘writing related.’ I have deviated a few times – the first time I wrote about my roof leaking I justified it because the day before I’d written a scene where my character awakes to discover the roof over his bed leaking. The coincidence struck me. And I find coincidences very intriguing.

Well, I had another coincidence happen last night that had me sitting thinking into the early hours this morning.

My family sat down last night and watched The Prestige starring Hugh Jackman, Christian Bales and Michael Caine. And may I say … WOW! An intelligent movie about the world of magicians that makes you pay attention to every frame from the very beginning. It jumps back and forth using flashbacks, and my husband said he found it a bit disconcerting when he saw it the first time (he’d seen it before while I hadn’t), but I didn’t find it difficult to follow. The plot twists and turns and at several points, I’d announce “I’ve got it, I know who Lord Caldlow is” or “I know how they did that; I know what happened” and my husband would chuckle and say “keep watching.” I love movies that keep me guessing. (Yes, I was right about Lord Caldlow. No I wasn’t right about what happened. Well, not the first time anyway.) I did finally figure it out toward the end, and then had to applaud the writer and screenwriters because they followed the tenets of magic. The movie even opens with Michael Caine’s character saying: “Are you watching closely?” The audience sees what is happening from the very first frame, but they have to be paying attention and not allow themselves to be distracted. I was paying close attention, and I almost missed it and it gave me a great “OH MY GOD! They told you right there in the–“(no, I’m not going to spoil it – watch the movie and figure it out yourself) moment when I finally solved not ‘who did it’ but how.

But one thing that made me sit up and take notice was a comment my youngest son made: “I’ve never seen a movie that has no protagonist.”

He’s right. By the time the movie ends, you realize that Hugh Jackman’s and Christian Bales’ characters are obsessed to insanity with having the ‘best trick.’ Neither can be viewed as the protagonist – you really can root for neither, which is my definition of a protagonist – a good guy. (And there’s a hint/spoiler in this paragraph *G*)

Now here’s the coincidence. I go back to my computer after the movie to check my email and find my writing buddy/mentor, Blue Sue, has sent me an email about something she’d seen on another group saying that stories don’t have to have antagonists. Talk about a coincidence! I’ve just had a discussion about whether a story needs a protagonist and here she’s emailing me about not needing an antagonist to tell a story. I love coincidences like that – talk about spice of life.

The article Sue quotes mentions one of my all-time favourite short stories “The Gift of the Magi” by O. Henry. For those not familiar with the classic – that story tells about how a woman wants to buy her husband a Christmas gift, but she only has $1.87, so she sells her hair, which falls almost to her knees, in order to buy him a chain for his pocketwatch. He comes home and reveals that he has pawned his pocketwatch in order to buy her ivory combs for her to put in her hair that he is so proud of. No antagonist, no anger, no complex plots, just a story of selfless love.

So a story doesn’t have to have an antagonist. Yes, it’s got to have one or the other, but not both. Wow! But would that type of story sell in today’s market? Or have we been so programmed to want action/adventure that a quiet story of love and devotion wouldn’t be looked at? I hope not.

As I lay in bed last night, I thought about antagonists. Did Sleepless in Seattle, one of my favourite romances, have an antagonist? I don’t think so. The Lake House? Can’t think of one. Yeah, stories don’t have to have an antagonist. I know that’s no surprise to most, but it confirms my faith in a story I wrote a few years back about a couple who marry hastily and then discover there are a lot of differences they’d not considered, both cultural and in their expectations, that they have to overcome for their marriage to survive. I’d love to redo that story now without feeling I have to put in an antagonist in order to create a good story.

(As a sidenote, I remember listening to The Gift of the Magi being read over the radio one Christmas Eve when I was about 8 — the narrator had a deep resonant voice like James Earl Jones, and I was listening on an old 1950’s style radio that was as big as a wardrobe, so the bass really resounded through me. Probably another of the reasons I love that story – what better way to spend an evening when the snow is falling softly outside muffling all other sounds, than having a story read by a professional while you’re snuggled up in bed.)

And Happy 16th, Curly! I can’t believe you’re old enough to drive already, my lovely little boy.


3 thoughts on “Protagonists and Antagonists – who needs ’em?

  • Sue L

    Happy Birthday Eric!

    My youngest turns 11 in a few days so we’re partying here as well.

    yeah – I’m still turning the protag/antag thing over in my head, but it’s making me a little dizzy. 😉

  • Leah Braemel

    I’m wondering about the antagonist thing — the Gift of the Magi is a short story, would the premise carry over a novel-length story? And the ‘no protag’ would not work in a romance obviously – readers want a happy ending. But in a dramatic story – a murder mystery such as The Prestige is – it worked well. Rather disappointing because I like being able to root for someone and the person I was rooting for ended up being pretty horrific. And the one who walks away isn’t much better.

  • Robyn Mills

    Learning to drive…. oh the memories. (She shudders and thanks God that to date no limbs, lives or serious injuries have resulted.)
    I’m intrigued enough to get The Prestige out.

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