How to use the connections between the PROTAGONIST and the ANTAGONIST to make stronger character arcs that reflect upon your THEME.

Wow, we really went deep into this theme stuff, uh? And we could definitely keep talking about it in many other ways, but for now we’ll end this discussion reflecting upon the most important connection between characters in a story.

Yes, we’re talking about the connection between your protagonist and your antagonist.

If you remember what we talked at the beginning of our series of posts about theme, we talked about how the antagonistic line is built upon the lie the protagonist believes about himself, regarding the goal they must achieve, right?

For example, if a character believes he can’t escape a prison like scenario he’s currently in, meaning that the lie he believes is that he can’t escape, the antagonist of the story should embrace this idea and actually be the embodiment of it.

In a physical, tangible way, the antagonist of this story would be something like a prison warden, someone who’s mission is actually to make the lie into a truth.

Okay, so we have…

A protagonist that believes he can’t escape the prison he’s in.

An antagonist whose mission is to not let anyone escape.

Now, let’s say that the goal of the protagonist is to survive long enough to be reunited with his family on the other side. And also, that each moment he spends in prison the more he realizes that staying there will eventually mean his demise, either being killed or his mind distorted in such a way that even getting outside wouldn’t be enough to “get out of prison”.

Let’s do a bit better than that, mostly because we need to build compelling characters that audiences can relate to, but also characters that can inspire. So, we’ll give our protagonist the latent ability to “creatively survive many situations”. Maybe he’s unknowingly brave and quick minded, and so, even thinking he can’t escape, every obstacle he faces proves to be a test to all the abilities he needs to make the grand escape in the end.

But! Let’s not forget the antagonist here. For every obstacle the protagonist surpasses, consequences deriving from the antagonist should be harder, putting them both closer and closer into a frontal conflict.

Maybe the protagonist starts as an unknown person in the prison, yet each time he surpasses an obstacle he becomes more and more famous, up to the point of having to face some prison guard or similar authority and actually succeeding in defeating them (usually a mid-point situation). At this point, the prison warden will make the protagonist feel his power, usually in the form of a harsh punishment.

Now, you can build two lines from this event, right? Either the protagonist faces a death like scenario by which his spirit is completely broken or he experiences death in such a way that the doubts he had about being able to escape dissipate via a “the worst has already happened” scenario.

Maybe even the whole prison gets inspired by the mid-point win from the protagonist, shifting the balance of power and making the truth underneath the whole story clearer, that one can be free even as a prisoner.

But we can’t let the protagonist know about it yet, before that, we need him to find the courage to meet the antagonist in his own lair, maybe staging a riot with fellow prisoners that gives him a chance at going into the prison warden’s office and meeting him face to face.

Now, let’s say that the protagonist plan was to sacrifice his life in the whole riot thing, just to be able to get to the prison warden, to make him understand that prisoners are also human beings, in a way making peace with this place he used to think of as the end of his life, having found many beautiful people in it and having changed as a person by being there.

And so… we come to the climax at last, where our protagonist goes into the prison warden’s office to face him, only to find his family there, waiting impatiently to meet him again.

WHAT!?

A hard choice one might say, if the protagonist surrenders himself, he would probably make amends to some degree with the warden and wouldn’t have cross a line long enough to lose his family or the possibility of meeting them again. But what about his new family, the prison mates, what about the revolution he just started inside those cold walls?

Let’s go back a bit, remember this?

  • A protagonist that believes he can’t escape the prison he’s in.
  • An antagonist whose mission is to not let anyone escape.

So, what’s the truth our protagonist learn a at the self-revelation?

Maybe the thing about the whole conflict is that to be free is to be willing to pay the price for it, if we take into consideration that the protagonist wrongfully believed that he couldn’t escape and if we chose fear of pain as his weakness, then…

Let’s say that beyond the fear of pain there’s freedom, but one has to be willing to pay for it to have it.

Let’s go realistic then, let’s say that the protagonist surrenders himself and takes full responsibility for the riot, adding years to his sentence. Let’s also say that the family manages to get the prison warden fired (for the sake of balance) and that, inside prison, the protagonist becomes a true leader, paying his due time and freeing himself from that fear he had, by choosing to actually stay in this hell on earth and thriving inside.

Okay, I admit there must be a million plot holes in our story, mostly on the antagonist side, so let’s try to fill in the gaps now.

First, take into consideration that the more similarities you can draw between the protagonist and the antagonist; their personalities, methods, goals, backstory, interests… the more possibilities you’ll have to explore the exterior conflict.

In our case, the external conflict is about power and control over the prison’s politics.

So, maybe our protagonist used to be a “warden” type fellow, or maybe both characters are influential people, natural leaders. Maybe both share this fear of pain or both are family driven characters, just that the families they fight for are opposites (while the conflict is ongoing).

Many antagonists have an ideological opposition with the protagonist of the story, they both think opposite about the world and how things should be. Maybe the protagonist of our story thinks he was wrongfully accused and the prison warden thinks everyone who falls into prison is guilty without a doubt.

Yet, even if they have this ideological opposition, you need to make their conflict close and personal to really make the antagonism work. Maybe the prison warden was affected by the protagonist’s alleged crime and so he takes it as his personal endeavor to make our protagonist understand his culpability, essentially breaking his reality.  

Also, keep in mind that your antagonist’s plot goal should represent a direct challenge to your protagonist’s thematic orientation.

The prison warden’s goal is to not let any guilty man escape prison without paying for their crimes (yeah, I retconned his goal…).

The protagonist’s thematic orientation is to understand that to be free is to choose to be (also retconned, remember that this is an ongoing process).

It is a direct challenge because the prison warden wants to prove that the protagonist is guilty and wants to take his freedom away. Yet, the protagonist’s journey is to understand that he’s always free, as long as he chooses to be and no matter where he is.

So, let’s also rectify the protagonist’s lie at the beginning of the story.

We said it was “he believes he can’t escape”.

Let’s say now that it is “he believes himself to be a prisoner”.

And let’s think a bit about the antagonist, a prison warden that wants to make prisoners pay for their crimes and doesn’t let any guilty man go out of prison without having pay for their crimes as he sees fit.

A man who takes justice into his own hands… (Prisoner of his ghost).

VS

A man who comes to the understanding that freedom is choice. (Free from his ghost).

I know, many things can be fixed to make this relationship work in a more compelling way, but I have to say that the exercise of looking for connections between these characters helps a lot in clarifying how they work and how the whole conflict of the story goes. So, I encourage you to use this questioning method to gain further knowledge about your characters!

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