The Shattered Protagonist

Arabian Mishaps)

In the Disney animated film Aladdin, our protagonist is a lowly street thief who dreams of a better life. From the very beginning he speaks longingly of having enough wealth to live comfortably and not be pushed around by the palace guards.

When he is offered a job to retrieve a lamp for untold riches he jumps at the chance, but the operation doesn’t go as planned. By the end of the job Aladdin finds himself alone, buried in an underground cavern, with no way out. All he has to show for his efforts is that one, little lamp he was supposed to deliver to his employer.

But then, of course, he realizes that this is no ordinary lamp. It is actually the home of an all-powerful genie, who will grant Aladdin three wishes. Aladdin quickly uses the first of these to make himself into a prince, and then makes a dramatic entrance to the city, riding atop an elephant with a magically-generated entourage of a thousand servants!

At long last Aladdin seems to have come into life he always dreamed of. He has wealth, he has security, he has respect, and he is able to catch the attention of the woman he loves. Yet ye soon finds out that he has traded one set of troubles for others that is far more dangerous. The palace guards may not be a thorn in his side any longer, but now he’s in the sights of the royal vizier Jafar.

Jafar proves to be a much more capable foe, and soon he has stolen the magical lamp, taken over the kingdom by force, and blasted Aladdin into exile. For Aladdin, it would seem that getting everything he wanted didn’t actually actually get him everything he wanted!

Everything You Ever Wanted)

Compare that to the similar experience of Billy in Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. Billy has spent his whole life dreaming of joining the ranks of the most powerful supervillains in the world. At the start of the show his alter ego, Dr. Horrible, has finally caught the attention of Bad Horse, who is the leader of the prestigious Evil League of Evil. Billy might be allowed into the league himself, but only if he can prove his worth with a particularly dastardly deed.

At the same time Billy gains the notice of someone else he has been vying for the attention of: Penny, the pretty girl he sees every week at the laundromat. Penny is a completely selfless and giving soul, and the more Billy spends time with her the more her sunny disposition clashes with his lust for world domination.

This dilemma is all resolved, though, when Billy’s nemesis, Captain Hammer, start developing a romantic relationship with Penny. Billy is now doubly motivated to kill Captain Hammer; on the one hand so that he can enter the Evil League of Evil, and on the other so that he can pry Captain Hammer and Penny apart. He hatches a plan to assassinate Captain Hammer, which goes remarkably according to plan…until he gets cold feet at the moment of pulling the trigger.

His hesitation gives Captain Hammer a chance to retaliate, which indirectly results in an explosion going off. The blast cripples Captain Hammer, but also kills Penny, who was hiding nearby. The press interprets the event as an intentional and evil deed, and Dr. Horrible is immediately ushered into the ranks of the Evil League of Evil. In the show’s final musical number he sings that he has finally gained everything he ever wanted, but as his thoughts turn to Penny his expression becomes one of numb brokenness.

Need vs Want)

There are plenty of stories where the heroes knows exactly what they want, pursue it, and at the climax of the tale finally achieve it. But many other stories have learned to add a layer of nuance by making what the heroes want be different from what they actually need.

Aladdin wanted wealth, but he needed self-acceptance. Billy wanted the position in the Evil League of Evil, but he needed love. If the hero learns to give up what they want for what they need, then the story has a happy ending, such as with Aladdin. But if they don’t, then the story becomes a tragedy, such as with Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog.

Accepting Loss)

Of course there are other cases, too. Sometimes what the hero wants isn’t strictly opposed to what he needs, but he still don’t get it anyway. In these cases the story isn’t about how the main character learns to sort out his priorities or achieve success, it is about how he deals with failure.

This is the situation of Kunta Kinte in Roots. Kunta is a youth in Africa during the mid-18th century, but he is kidnapped and brought to America as a slave. He then proceeds to make one escape attempt after another, never losing his fire for freedom, even after the front of his foot is chopped off as punishment for trying to run away.

But as the years go by Kunta falls in love with another slave, marries her, and has a child. Now he is divided between his continuing desire for freedom, and his desire to be with his new family. For a time he wavers between the two, but ultimately chooses to remain with his wife and child.

The story isn’t trying to say that Kunta “wants” freedom but “needs” family, more like he needs both but can only have one. He must make a choice between them, and that’s just the way it is. No matter what his choice there is a significant loss, and he must make his peace with that.

Another story, Of Mice and Men, is also about characters who don’t get the things that they want or need. The story opens with George Milton and Lennie Small, traveling companions who forever dream of settling down on their own piece of land.

Unfortunately, they are in the thick of the Great Depression, a time that ate hopes and dreams for breakfast. For a little while it looks like they might actually realize their plans, but then tragedy arises, and Lennie dies at the hands of George, taking with him any hope for a brighter future.

How to Respond)

Failures are interesting in a story, because the way that a characters responds to them reveals the deepest layers of their personality. It is most often in their deepest disappointment that you learn who they really are.

In my own story I just had my protagonist meet a terrible setback. He has spent seven years bringing a prototype weapon to the westernmost province of the United States. All this time he has imagined being welcomed as a savior, but what he finds just the opposite. The people are afraid that his plan will backfire and they want nothing to do with it. Now he has to decide how he will react to this setback. Will he surrender his plan and find a new purpose…will he wander aimlessly away…or will he harden his heart and press on regardless? Well, if you’ve been paying attention to his character you already know that he’ll choose the latter. He is going to persist, even in the face of broken expectations, willingly shifting from an ally of the city to its foe.

Who Even Are You?

The Mysterious Man)

The 1941 Alfred Hitchcock film Suspicion was a bit of a surprise to its audiences. Its main star, Cary Grant, was known for always playing a heroic or romantic lead, but the advertisements for the picture suggested that this might be his very first turn as a villain!

And though the film begins with Cary Grant’s character, Johnnie Aysgarth, being presented as a humorous, playful bachelor, there is also a sense of insincerity and foolishness about him. For example consider the very first scene, where he is called out for being in a first class train compartment with a third class ticket. He tries to laugh his way out of the situation, but eventually has to bum some extra change off of the lady he is sharing the compartment with. That may not seem like much of a concern at first, but awkward flubs with money become a defining characteristic of the man. After he wins the heart and hand of Lina McLaidlaw, she discovers that he has absolutely no money to his name, and is hoping to siphon money out of her rich parents instead!

But more surprising than Cary Grant playing such a shifty character is how natural a fit he is in the role! At this point Cary Grant had established a career defined by charisma, suaveness, and humor. In this film, though, he is outright immature and selfish, and he plays it very well, spending half the time with a stupid grin while everyone else is trying to have a serious conversation with him.

Worse than a freeloader, though, Lina starts to believe that her husband might actually be dangerous. As the burden of his debts continue to grow, he starts exhibiting some darker behaviors, which get her wondering if he wouldn’t kill her for the insurance money! Most concerning is a scene where he speaks with Lina’s friend, a murder mystery novelist, about whether there are any untraceable poisons.

The whole thing escalates to the climatic scene where the husband and wife are driving along a cliffside road. Lina’s door falls open and Johnnie reaches over. Lina recoils in horror, believing that he is trying to push her out. He sees this and breaks down in anger, asking if she is so repulsed by him that she would lunge away, even when all he is trying to do is pull her back to safety?

At last the truth comes out, about how he has been so ashamed of himself, so miserable that he has dragged not only himself, but also his wife, into financial ruin that he has been considering suicide. Yes, he has been a flawed and dishonest man, but he is not the remorseless killer that the advertisements would have had us believe. The couple drive for home together, resolved to face their challenges together.

Suspect Again)

Interestingly, Cary Grant would revisit the suspicious lead two decades later in 1963 with Charade. This was one of his very last films, and up to this point he still had never played a villain. Would this be his one take at being the bad guy?

This film opens with Regina “Reggie” Lampert discovering that her estranged husband, Charles, was murdered while on a train from Paris. This opens up a series of revelations to her, culminating with her learning that Charles was actually a spy, and that he had in his possession a considerable amount of wealth which several governments and his former colleagues have been trying to reclaim.

Coincidentally, Reggie makes a new acquaintance right before she hears of her husband’s death. Peter Joshua, played by Cary Grant, seems totally disconnected from the drama surrounding Reggie’s dead husband, but he soon becomes embroiled in her efforts to deter Charles’ former colleagues, who now suspect her of knowing where the missing money is.

Reggie is growing more and more emotionally attached to Joshua, her only friend in a quickly-shifting world. But then a great emotional blow comes when one of Charles’ former colleagues tells Reggie that Peter isn’t the man he is pretending to be. Joshua is trying to get the money from her, just the same as the rest of them.

Reggie confronts Peter and he admits that he lied about his identity. He now tells her his “true” identity: Alexander Dyle, whose brother had died on a former mission with Charles. But later in the movie that identity will be revealed to be a lie as well. Reggie had been falling in love with Peter/Alexander/whoever he is, but now she wonders if he won’t betray her as soon as it serves his interest to do so.

Everything culminates in a shootout between Cary Grant’s character and another man who may or may not be the actual murderer of Charles Lampert, the man who was presumed to have died in that former mission. Reggie is caught in between the two men, unsure of whom she should trust. Finally she follows her heart, joins sides with Cary Grant’s character, and this proves to be the correct choice. Together the two of them manage to overcome the would-be assassin, who was the last surviving agent who had intended Reggie any harm.

And then, in the film’s final scene, it is revealed that Cary Grant was a US government agent all along, who had been working undercover to solve this whole case. So once again Cary Grant’s halo remains intact, even if it came dangerously close to falling off!

The Pleasure of Being Unsure)

Of course, it is very unusual for the audience to not know whether a lead character is the hero or villain of the story. Virtually every story establishes these roles right from the beginning, making it clear who exactly you should be rooting for and who you should hate. Some stories might reveal a surprise betrayal later on, but typically those come from supporting characters, not the main protagonist.

Both Suspicion and Charade are unique in making the audience spend the entire film with a lead character that they still don’t know the loyalties of. Both of these films must walk the razor-thin line of giving their female leads more and more reasons to distrust Grant’s character, but not so much as to actually abandon him altogether. The tension can only continue if they stay both near to and fearful of him at the same time. It is truly remarkable how each of them manage to pull this off so well.

In my own story I introduced a main character that audiences will immediately assume is the hero. He is at the end of a great quest, has come to rid the land of a great monster, and will free the community that is living under its terror. He is like Saint George come to kill the dragon, clearly a heroic character.

But as the story goes along, the more suspect Nathan becomes. Bit-by-bit we have learned that he lies, that he steals, and most recently that he even kills! The three core qualities of a story villain.

My hope is that the audience will be conflicted and intrigued, wanting to finally get to the bottom of who this guy actually is. But unlike Cary Grant’s characters, the answer won’t be so black and white.

Always Opposition

Sad Song)

My parents grew up during the height of film musicals and so our video library was full of classics like The Sound of Music, Singin’ in the Rain, The King and I, and West Side Story. Of all these films, West Side Story was my favorite. It was cool. It had action. It had good guys and bad guys.

The only thing that upset me was how sad the ending was! Tony and Maria want to get out of the ghetto, and they get so close to accomplishing that dream, but then at the end a simple miscommunication dashes all their hopes to pieces.

Every time we watched it I would somehow hope that the ending would change. This time would be the time that Riff and Bernardo decide to keep it a fair fight instead of pulling out their knives. This time the Jets wouldn’t torment Anita until she lies to Tony that Maria is dead. This time Tony would hold on to faith just a little bit longer, rather than running into the night, calling for Chino to gun him down.

But of course, none of those alternate-endings ever played out. The same tragic tale of self-destruction was the same each time. It had to, because that was the whole point of the story. West Side Story without its sad moments would be absent its whole message about the cycle of violence. If the Jets and the Sharks ever make friends with one another, then that’s the end of the movie right there. West Side Story is expertly crafted to make us want peace, but to bring those feelings alive in us it can never have any peace of its own.

The Need for Conflict)

Much has already been written about the need for conflict in a story. Opposition is considered the lifeblood of every narrative, whether based in a villain, or a situation, or even within the protagonist’s personal flaws.

This is represented in a very interesting way with the Star Wars series. Here there is an all-connecting power, the Force, which comes in two distinct flavors: light and dark. It is therefore not strictly a good power, it fuels both the heroes and the villains. In fact, whenever one side grows more powerful than the other the Force seems to surge to the other side, keeping things in balance.

This is a most fascinating construct. It seems to imply that the Force is almost a sentient being, one that wants there to be epic stories, legendary heroes, and diabolical villains. In short, the Force wants what every audience wants as well.

The concept of the force is derived from real-world ancient eastern philosophy, such as the notion of yin-yang, which insists that opposition, good and evil, must live together, and only through their interplay is life able to exist. Even western philosophies have similar ideas, such as in Christianity the pairing of a divine spirit with a carnal body to create a life that is constantly at odds with itself, yet which is able flourish and grow through the conflict.

Many stories have explored the idea of conflict being necessary for happiness. In the Twilight Zone episode A Nice Place to Visit, Henry “Rocky” Valentine finds himself shot to death after a robbery, and wakes up in an afterlife where his every wish is immediately granted. He is amazed that he somehow made his way to heaven, and for a while enjoys getting every break he couldn’t have in life. Money, luck, romance…it all comes effortlessly and on-demand.

After a while Rocky gets sick of life having no edge, though. He wants some risk, some danger. His host says they ought to be able to accommodate that. Things can be arranged so that Rocky will lose a few times at the roulette wheel, or he could be chased by some policemen that he will forever evade. Rocky says that’s no good, he’ll know it’s all a sham. He wants real danger and real stakes. He wants conflict.

Rocky becomes so bored that at the end of the episode he asks to be let out of heaven and to go to the other place instead. At this point his host laughs, and announces that Rocky has been in “the other place” all this while. Rocky’s hell is to live without any opposition.

Make the Conflict Real)

Unfortunately some writers have taken the lesson that “every story needs conflict” too far and made everything into a conflict. The mentor is gruff and doesn’t want to train the new talent, the kids at the school are jerks until the new kid proves his worth to them, the super-secret organization isn’t going to admit the applicant until she gains their trust. Of course, that’s all well and fine so long as your story’s central conflict is actually about reawakening the disillusioned mentor or befriending the kids at school or gaining admission to the secret society.

So it works for Daniel LaRusso to be bullied at his new High School, because The Karate Kid is all about him gaining the power to stand against those miscreants. And it works for there to be tension between Paddy and Tommy in Warrior, because their story is all about how a father makes amends to his son while coaching him. And it works in The Pursuit of Happyness for Chris Gardner to face stiff competition when trying to land a job as a stockbroker, as that story is about the man’s struggle to lift himself out of poverty.

But if these things aren’t what your story is actually about, then don’t shoehorn in meaningless scruples that distract from your main conflict. The 1997 film Men in Black is about James Edwards being welcomed into an intelligence organization that deals with extraterrestrial threats. Thankfully the writers of this film understood that the central conflict is not about James getting into the top-secret organization, but the enemy he must track down after he has done so. So rather than put James through a meaningless uphill battle to even land the job, they have the organization reach out to recruit him all on its own. It lets us skip past any unnecessary drama and get right to the meat of the story.

Applying the Concept)

In my own story I just introduced a new conflict when Nathan Prewitt started to see that the leaders of New Denver weren’t enthused about destroying the nearby giant worm. But they aren’t be contrary for no reason. As the story goes on, their opposition is going to become even more pronounced, and it will be the last and final opposition that Nathan must overcome in his quest to kill the beast.

In short, every story needs conflict, but the conflict needs to actually be meaningful to the heart of the story. Identify what it is your protagonist is really fighting against, and spend your time on that battle, rather than on meaningless periphery battles.