Tag Archives: antagonist

Simplifying the Story Question

Question Mark

The Story Question

During one of my lectures on storytelling in Sydney, Australia, I remember one student asking me if there was one single piece of information, one pithy piece of advice, I could offer novice writers, which might help them to kickstart their story?

This reminded me of my asking the very same question of one of my mentors at the London International Film School, many years ago. The advice I received back then was the same advice I offered my Sydney students: What does your protagonist want and why can’t he/she have it?

This generic question incapsulates most traditional tales in one single sentence. Answering it involves telling a story in which the protagonist encounters a problem, seeks to solve it, is opposed in solving it by the antagonist, and either succeeds or fails to do so by the end of the story. Chunking these considerations into separate parts, yields, most typically, a three act structure based upon that well known Aristotelian observation that a story has a beginning (what is the problem), a middle (how does the protagonist engage with the problem) and an end (how is the problem finally resolved/unresolved).

Exploring Character

Probing the sentence further we uncover a psychological element: What does your protagonist ‘want’? Exploring your protagonist’s want(s) leads us to consider deeper elements of his/her life such as background, occupation, relationships, psychology, want versus need (see previous post). Some of these elements are typically revealed in the story’s subplot, involving minor characters who are arrayed into two main camps, the protagonists’ and the antagonists’. Typically, the subplot acts as a foil to the plot, highlighting, either by comparison or by contrast, similarities and differences in character, values, goals, as well as strengths and weaknesses of the major characters.

Exploring the Inner and Outer Journey

The question also hints at a dual journey to be undertaken by the protagonist in order to achieve his/her want: Clearly there is an outer goal to be achieved in order to fulfill the want, which, most typically, involves a physical entity or result: get the girl, stop the bomb from exploding in downtown Los Angeles, save the cat (outer journey). But the want involves a need: Why does the protagonist need to risk life and limb to do so (inner journey)?

We can see, even from a brief exploration of this basic question, how probing it yields an individual story that is, nevertheless, based upon a general truth. A typical story is nothing other than the tale of someone who wants to achieve something because of some deep psychological/human need, but is being prevented from doing so by opposing forces.


At the deepest level, individual stories may be summed up in universal structures. One such structure comes in the form of a question: What does your protagonist want and why can’t he/she have it? In answering this general question, you are, in fact, telling an individual story.


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How to Design Your Cast

Cast Design

Cast Design

Having a well-rounded protagonist is of little value unless you surround her with other characters to react or relate to. Indeed, your choice of characters may be one of the most crucial decisions you take in writing a story. Here, it is helpful to remember that each character performs a certain function in your tale. Knowing your story premise–the problem to be solved by the protagonist, allows you to design a cast of characters who test, resist, and assist the protagonist to achieve this goal.

Four Primary Characters

In the book Screenwriting, Raymond G. Frensham suggests that there are four primary character types to choose from:


The job of this character is to propel the story forward. This character’s desire to achieve the goal is a crucial aspect of the story. His decisions motivate his actions and explain why the pursuit of this goal is necessary–given the character’s background, beliefs, desires, and commitments.


The antagonist or nemesis is the character who most opposes the protagonist as the former attempts to pursue his goal. This character is a visible and persistent generator of conflict in the story. Without him it is difficult to muster enough energy to drive events forward.

Occasionally, ambivalent antagonists, or, anti-heroes are the protagonists of the tale, such as Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver or Jake La Motta in Raging Bull (Robert de Niro).

Mirror Character

A mirror character, also known as a reflection or support character is one who is most aligned with the protagonist. This character type supports the protagonist and adds colour and resonance by helping to make her more credible through dialogue and action. Without this character as foil, it is difficult to create a protagonist who can examine herself without resorting to stilted monologues or static inwardly-reflective scenes.

Romance Character

This character is the object of your protagonist’s sexual or romantic desires–the reward delivered at the end of the journey. The romance character may also, however, support or bedevil the protagonist’s pursuit of the goal–at least initially. This is because without conflict, the relationship degrades into stasis and boredom. Ultimately, however, the protagonist and his love interest end up together to live happily (or unhappily) ever after.

Rules of Thumb

In designing your cast remember the following:

Character types should be introduced by the end of act I; certainly no later than the start of act II.

Each character should stay within his or her character type for the duration of the story. Changing types midway through the story causes confusion and weakens impact.

The antagonist/protagonist conflict is the chief driver of your story.

Exploring your protagonist’s inner motivation and conflict is requisite.


Character types are a way of interrogating your story premise by exploring it from several angles–through the eyes of each character. Although opinions differ about the ideal number of such types, the four types discussed above typically define the lower limit.


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Understanding Archetypes III

This is the third installment in our exploration of Christian Vogler’s archetypes. In previous posts we have looked at the Hero, Mentor, Threshold Guardian, and Herald archetypes. In this penultimate post on the subject, we examine two more archetypes: Shapeshifter and Shadow.




Shapeshifters are difficult to grasp because their very nature is to change and mutate. Shapeshifters take many forms, the most common being the Hero’s love interest, often a fickle woman who toys with his goals and emotions. In Fatal Attraction, for example, the shape-shifting woman changes from lover to an unstable and murderous foe within a short space of time. In traditional fairy tales, Shapeshifters manifest as wizards, ogres, and witches.

Psychologically, the archetype expresses the energy of the anima and animus, as explained in the writings of Carl Jung. The animus is the male element in the female unconscious and the anima the female element in the male unconscious. In theory, both elements are needed for survival and to maintain a healthy internal balance. Suppressing one of them in the opposite sex, as society would often have us do, can lead to instability and breakdown. Often, repression of the anima or animus finds release in dreams and fantasies as opposite-sex gods, monsters, even family members and colleagues. The theory may also explain why we often project our ideal form of lover onto another person — as our desire to map the anima or animus within ourselves onto another. In Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, for example, James Stewart’s character forces Kim Novak to change her clothing and hair to match those of Carlota, a figment of Stewart’s imagination.

Dramatically, the Shapeshifter brings suspense and doubt into the story. Shapeshifters raise questions of faithfulness, love, and betrayal in the life of the Hero. Film noir and thrillers, in particular, abound with this archetype — the femme fatale as the female temptresses and destroyer, echoing the biblical characters of Eve, Delilah, and Jezebel. In the film Basic Instinct Sharon Stone’s character is perhaps one of the most famous femme fatales based on the Shapeshifter archetype. Not all Shapeshifters take the form of the femme fatale, however. In Greek mythology Zeus, a prototypical Shapeshifter, and ruler of the gods of Olympus, is a male. At a more innocent level, shapeshifting forms part of the normal game of love, in which lovers display, exaggerate, or hide aspects of themselves from each other, often dressing up for the role.




The Shadow represents the energy of the dark side -– a character’s rejected, repressed, or unexpressed thoughts, feelings, and beliefs. Psychologically, the Shadow feeds on trauma or guilt that has been suppressed and driven deep into the unconscious. From there, emotions may grow into something monstrous and destructive. Just as the Threshold Guardian represents neurosis, so the Shadow represents the psychosis that hamper and harm us.

At the dramatic level, the function of the Shadow is to oppose the Hero and provide her with a worthy adversary in her fight to reach her goal. In fact, the Shadow is none other than the antagonist who engages the Hero in the life-threatening conflict that drives the story forward.

I mention, as an aside, that each of the eight separate archetypes may find combined expression within a single character — as aspects of that character. This means that the Shadow can manifest in the Hero, and vice versa: a Hero can have dark moments, and the antagonist can, on occasion, act heroically. In the film, The Terminator, for example, the Schwarzenegger character grows from Shadow to Hero within the course of the story and ultimately saves the day. It is this mixing and blending of archetypes that ultimately results in rich and complex characters who endure. That, however, is a separate subject to be dealt with in a future post.


The Shapeshifter is the most malleable archetype in a story. It is typically found in male/female relationships, but it is also useful in portraying characters whose behaviour and appearance changes to serve the needs of the story. The Shadow, on the other hand, represents the obstacles the Hero faces in reaching the goal, but it can also represent the Hero’s hidden and repressed feelings, thoughts, and beliefs.


If you enjoyed this post, or have a suggestion for a future one, kindly leave a comment and let’s get chatting. You may subscribe to this blog by clicking on the “subscribe” or “profile” link on the right-hand side of this article. I post new material every Monday.