Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Four Play

protagonist--a front-rank character in a novel or short story whose agenda propels the narrative toward conclusion, an individual whose actions provoke the actual point of conclusion. A protagonist is often the character with whom the reader most empathizes and accordingly for whom the reader roots.

Most dramatic narrative begins with someone wanting something. (Ishmael wants to get away from it all. Ahab wants to get the whale.) This desire becomes the catalyst for a series of subsequent events in which the protagonist strives for the goal, achieves it or is frustrated in his attempts, or achieves a negotiated settlement with the Fates and/or other characters. It has become a conventional standard for critical readers to ask of the protagonist, What does this person want? Depending of the length and complexity of the narrative, the goals and outcome of the protagonist's agenda are set forth in some detail. Simply put, Ahab wanted revenge on the whale, Gatsby wanted to fulfill a romantic connection with Daisy, and Huck Finn wanted to be free to live the life he chose. In all three examples, extraordinary interventions complicated the expressed agenda of the front-rank character.

It falls entirely within the realm of dramatic possibility that a protagonist may wish for nothing more passionately than to be left alone, but the vital thing for the storyteller to understand is that passivity in a front-rank character has a fatal effect on story. Thus the protagonist's wish to be left alone requires the connective tissue of being left alone in order to do some thing that has exquisite meaning for him. The protagonist must have an agenda that is strong enough to provide forward momentum in spite of and indeed because of opposition from life forces or antagonists.




Stories in which protagonists achieve their goals too easily are not good candidates for holding the reader's interest. This is not so much a matter of reader schadenfreude as it is a matter of the reader wanting to share the moments of insight, determination, and ingenuity that propel the propel the protagonist to have one more try. Given their choice, most readers could accept their protagonist fail miserably after a noble try rather than have the protagonist achieve the goal by accident.

Answers to the following questions can help the writer bring a credible and pliant protagonist forth from the drawing board:

1. Who is he/she?
2. What does he/she want?
3. What is he/she willing to do to effect the goal?
4. How does he/she handle reversal?
5. How is he/she likely to behave after having achieved the target goal?

The answers to the first question are often simple,"a young person in search of a life's occupation," or "a person looking for a mate," of "a person trying to live down a past mistake."

Useful answers to the second question could be "another chance" or the more direct "revenge," or "to set the record straight;" they could also include "justification," "fame/recognition," or "to discover the truth behind an event or individuals involved in an event."

Answers to the third question are rich in story potential: "give up something important," or "assume a new identity," or "step over some moral boundary," which could easily include "commit some previously unthinkable act."

The fourth answer provides the opportunity to demonstrate the resolve and resiliency of the character, while the fifth answer introduces the possibility of a primary ingredient in fiction, irony, which may add layers of meaning and texture to the story. In many ways, the nature of characters is best revealed when there is an abrupt reversal of fortune. A character who suddenly gains power may behave in surprising and revealing ways.

Stories--particularly novels--may have more than one protagonist, but NB, the reader should be able to tell them apart. (See Lonesome Dove, for instance.)


antagonist--a front-rank character in a novel or short story who opposes the agenda of the protagonist. Sometimes a force of nature (See Jack London's story "To Build a Fire) becomes an antagonist, working against the protagonist; similarly a condition can work against a front-rank character (See Jack Schaeffer's Monte Walsh) but more often than not such antagonistic traits reside in one or more characters, who accordingly become Messengers or Representatives (Arthur Miller's The Crucible, Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale.) The antagonist deserves as much attention and complexity as the protagonist.


orbit--the path taken by a story as it moves about a set of characters. Just as a story has an arc instead of mere linear progression of episodes, it also moves through its dramatic universe like a satellite moving about a planet. Some story orbits, particularly those of a plot-driven nature, are circular, seemingly well-balanced between action and intent. Other story orbits are more elliptical in their paths, giving no hint where they will go next, seeming to end on a note of as ambiguous as reality often is.

Once the story is in provisional draft, the writer will have a better sense of the shape of its orbit, making it easier to enhance a particular flavor of the story. For example, the myth of Sisyphus, a mortal who made the mistake of hitting on a woman favored by the god Zeus. As punishment, Sisyphus was bound up by Zeus to an eternal sentence of performing meaningless work; he must push a large rock up a steep hill, knowing that the moment the rock reached the crest of the hill, it would tumble down the other side. When the rock finally came to rest, Sisyphus was to begin pushing it toward the summit once more. That's a pretty simple orbit. Up the hill, over the top, down the other side, and up the hill again. By approaching that orbit at almost any point, we can construct the circumstances for a different dramatic take. 1) Begin halfway up the hill. As Sisyphus pushes toward the top, his wife is trotting alongside him, complaining that he is never at home, doesn't send any money, the kids are asking questions, the neighbors are gossiping. 2) Begin with Sisyphus just short of reaching the top of the hill. People on the other side begin to sound the alarm about the impending disaster when the rock gains momentum then begins to careen down the other side. 3) Start at the bottom where, just before he is about to begin another circuit with the rock, Sisyphus is met by a group of neighbors, all of whom have signed a petition requesting him to push his large rock elsewhere. 4) Also starts at the bottom of the hill. Sisyphus has just approached the boulder, now at rest. Frustrated by the endless and meaningless natures of his task, Sisyphus rebels, storms into Zeus' office, refuses to have anything more to do with the rock. Zeus takes this in, nods his understanding, then directs two of his assistants to transfer Sisyphus to the Prometheus treatment. When Sisyphus asks about the Prometheus treatment he is about to receive, he is told that he will be tied to a mountain side every day, whereupon an eagle will rip out his liver, then eat it, giving Sisyphus the rest of the afternoon and night off, while a new liver grows for tomorrow's lunch. It does not take Sisyphus long to make his excuses before getting back to his rock.

Most stories have orbits of dramatic action that allow for a beginning at any of a number of places. The task of the writer is to chose the existing place in an orbit to produce a desired result or to extend the orbit so that another beginning will work better. The Iliad is only one example of a story that does not begin according to strict chronology; stories may begin at any point of the orbit. The ideal place is a moment where there is enough relevant action to preclude lengthy physical descriptions or extensive backstory.


power--a capacity a character frequently enjoys at the expense of others. The power may be anything from political to financial to sexual; it may also be manifest in terms of social standing, high esteem within a family or organization, or even in terms of talent/ability. It is useful to observe the power dynamic between or among the characters in any given scene; allotting equal power to characters tends to reduce dramatic tension and since life is notably unfair in the way of power distribution, why start making it so within the confines of a story?

Power is often a key element in motivating characters to rebel, escape, seek revenge, or make peremptory moves.

Reversal of power is a delicious story element; it often helps dramatize nuances and the not-so-subtle behavior patterns resident in characters who have been affected by turns of fate. One of the many joys available to a reader is to be present at a scene where a bully or tyrant, still acting under the belief of continuing power, discovers the plug has been pulled. And think how noble a character must feel to have caused a switch from being oppressed to being the one who can walk away from a dramatic reversal without having to exact revenge.

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