Reader Question: Should antagonists think they are the protagonists of their own stories?

May 18th, 2015 by

Reader question from @farrtom via my recent #scriptchat appearance :

Should the antagonist think he’s the protagonist of his own story, or does that make him too relatable?

I provided a brief snippet of a response in the #scriptchat conversation, but there is an important point here worth delving into more thoroughly.

@farrtom: Yes, by all means, the Nemesis / Antagonist should think s/he’s the Protagonist of their story. You know why? Because they are the Protagonist of their own story! Indeed, every character is their own Protagonist. They see, feel, and experience the story universe through their specific senses, their own perspective, and as a result develop their own world view.

So at the very least, you would be wise to spend time when developing your Nemesis character(s) to spend time with him/her/them seeing the story universe through their eyes. Sit with them. Talk with them. Experience how they relate to the other characters, what each represents to the Nemesis. The same questions you ask a Protagonist, e.g., What do you want, What do you need, What are you most afraid of, etc, ask of your Nemesis.

What is the value of these exercises? If you immerse yourself in the life of your Nemesis, you are much more likely to craft a multidimensional character, one a script reader may find compelling. And a more complex Nemesis who we can relate to and understand, even if we don’t sympathize with them, becomes a more interesting, engaging one, a more effective character in the context of the narrative, and an appealing figure for actors to want to play.

As to the second part of your question — does that make him too relatable — I suppose there is a risk a writer may so demystify a Nemesis, the character loses some of their power over our imagination. It’s one thing to be dealing with a mysterious Bad Guy/Gal, it’s another if the character has qualities which remind us of our pipsqueak brother. Then again, maybe not.

“I miss my wives.”

Immortan Joe – Mad Max: Fury Road

If your Bad Guy/Gal is worthy of being a Nemesis, they won’t be much like your pipsqueak brother at all. The more likely challenge in your work is to make the Nemesis more relatable. Why? Because when a script reader can find something within the Nemesis they can relate to, that shrinks the emotional and psychological distance between the reader and the Nemesis. That character is no longer an IT, rather s/he becomes a YOU.

I call this humanizing your Nemesis. It reminds me of that line from a writer I saw somewhere: “Even bad guys have mothers.”

So yes to doing character work with your Nemesis in which you look at the story universe through their eyes as a Protagonist.

And yes to digging into the Nemesis character’s inner life to find dynamics with which script readers and eventually moviegoers can relate.

That path will lead you beyond one-dimensional Bad Guys/Gals… into a world of complex, compelling Antagonist figures.

The primary function of a Nemesis: Opposition!

May 15th, 2015 by

In my current one-week online Craft class – Write a Worthy Nemesis – this is where we began our ongoing forum discussion:

At their core, the main function of a Nemesis is Opposition. If the Protagonist represents forward energy, moving toward a goal, the Nemesis (or Nemeses) oppose that forward energy, push back, threatening to squash the Protagonist’s chances of attaining his/her goal.

There are so many excellent narrative elements which arise from this construction:

— Conflict: P v. N, conflicting goals, conflicting energy, conflicting personalities.

— Raising Stakes: The P may have a long journey in front of him/her to reach the Goal, but with an active Nemesis character(s) working directly in opposition to the P, that increases the odds against the P, which in turns raises the stakes of the story.

— Final Struggle: If the P has a Conscious Goal… and the N opposes the P in reaching that goal… almost invariably this sets into motion the culminating events of the story’s last sequence, a Plotline Point I call Final Struggle. Everything comes down to P facing his/her biggest challenge yet to overcome the N’s negative power / energy / dynamic, all with the Goal in sight.

There’s also this: A great Nemesis can be a role a name actor will want to play, an important real world consideration in trying to get a movie green lit.

So who is the Nemesis? Ask yourself these questions:

— Who or what is providing the most active opposition to the P?

— Who or what is involved in the Final Struggle with the P?

— Who or what exhibits negative energy / dynamic?

As we will discuss, there can be one Nemesis or plenty of them. They can be part of one ‘team’ or the mask of the Nemesis can be passed along from one character to another like a baton in a relay race. A Nemesis doesn’t have to be a human or sentient character, it can be a physical object like the ocean in Cast Away. It can be a psychological condition like cancer or a self-destructive mental dynamic.

But the key is who/what provides the main opposition to the Protagonist. That’s almost assuredly a Nemesis figure.

We have covered a lot of territory so far this week including why I prefer the term Nemesis to Antagonist, the Nemesis as a possible projection of the Protagonist’s shadow dynamic, how zeroing in on a Protagonist’s fears can help inform inform our understanding of a Nemesis, plus a set of insider tips to crafting a Nemesis including making sure they have a plausible world view and the importance of humanizing this key character.

Why so much focus on the Nemesis figure? The reality is that in most movies, the Nemesis is second only to the Protagonist in terms of their importance – to plot, themes, tone, everything.

If your story is lacking drama or edge, take a look at your Protagonist’s path. Are there characters providing opposition? If not, why not? If so, are you maximizing that opposition?

You would do well to spend as much time digging into and developing your Nemesis character(s) as you do the Protagonist. See if you can surface some emotional / psychological connection between Protagonist and Nemesis, then exploit that for dramatic purposes.

If you have a question or concern about the Nemesis / Antagonist character, I’m happy to take up the subject in comments.

Protagonist v. Nemesis: Key to Conflict

April 24th, 2015 by

Your choice of a Protagonist is easily one of the most critical decisions you make because of the character’s dominant influence on a story:

  • The Protagonist usually goes on some sort of physical and/or emotional journey.
  • That journey creates the spine of the plot.
  • That journey shapes the contours of the character’s psychological arc.
  • The Protagonist’s goal almost always dictates the story’s end point.
  • All the other major characters are linked to the Protagonist and his/her journey.
  • Of all the story’s characters, the Protagonist generally undergoes the most significant personal metamorphosis.

Plus there’s this: The Protagonist almost always serves as the primary conduit into the story for a script reader or moviegoer. Symbolically the Protagonist functions as you, often imbued with ‘everyman’ qualities to maximize the character’s reach to the widest possible audience.

But Protagonists do not exist by themselves. Indeed, if conflict is the stuff of great drama, there is perhaps no conflict more compelling than that of a Protagonist versus a Nemesis.

A Protagonist almost always has a conscious goal, what we may call Want, and an unconscious goal, what we may call Need, but there is no conflict, no drama, indeed no story unless someone or something actively strives to block the Protagonist from achieving their goals.

Enter the Nemesis. This character not only functions as a Protagonist’s foe, the Nemesis is capable of generating within the script reader tension, anxiety, disgust, even fear. While we may try to avoid these feelings in our daily lives, we are lured to them in our stories, a safe place in which to experience the ‘darker’ side of existence. Plus the simple fact is most of us find this type of stuff damned entertaining.

Therefore it stands to reason if you can zero in on the core essence of both your Protagonist and Nemesis characters, grasping what binds them together both in terms of plot as well as their psychological connection, you will have discovered the centerpiece of your story at almost every level.

To that end, I have created two companion courses at Screenwriting Master Class: Create a Compelling Protagonist (begins April 27) and Write a Worthy Nemesis (begins May 11). If you are just beginning the process of wrangling a story or you’re stuck in your writing, this is a great opportunity not only to workshop your story by immersing yourself in these pivotal characters, but also learn a process you can use for character development in all of your future writing projects.

For example, I’m sure we’ve all heard these buzzwords about how to craft a Protagonist character: Give them a flaw… Make them sympathetic. Nothing wrong with that in theory, but in practice how that often gets translated is an Outside-In approach to writing, whereby the writer, standing ‘outside’ the story, forces some sort of sympathetic element or flaw ‘into’ a character. In Create a Compelling Protagonist, you learn an Inside-Out approach where the you go into the Protagonist, immersing yourself in that character’s psyche and personal history so a whole spectrum of Disunity elements emerge.

In Write a Worthy Nemesis, you will learn a process to surface three important qualities in your story’s key oppositional figures:

  • Powerful Opposition: More than just obstructing the Protagonist’s path toward their goal, a Nemesis should create an active, crafty and formidable resistance.
  • Significant Opposition: The resistance a Nemesis provides should not be a general one, but rather something tied to the Protagonist’s specific psyche and journey.
  • Entertaining Opposition: The efforts and actions of a Nemesis should not only be powerful and significant, they should also be interesting and compelling.

By the way, the Nemesis can be a psychological dynamic within the Protagonist. It can be a physical object such as the ocean in Cast Away or the boulder in 127 Hours.

Which is to say there is a lot of territory to cover with regard to these two critical characters and in this pair classes, we cover a lion’s share of that terrain.

Each class offers seven lectures (written by me), 24/7 forum feedback, insider tips, 90-minute teleconferences, and the opportunity to workshop your story’s Protagonist (or Protagonists) and Nemesis (or Nemeses). In my view, these courses are a great value.

So consider joining me for either or both of these exciting 1-week online classes. For more information on Create a Compelling Protagonist, which begins Monday, go here. For Write a Worthy Nemesis, which begins Monday, May 11, go here.

Write a Worthy Nemesis

May 6th, 2014 by

If the Protagonist is most often your story’s most important character, the Nemesis is not far behind. Indeed some of the greatest characters in film history have been Nemeses including Darth Vader (Star Wars: Episode IV — A New Hope), the Wicked Witch of the West (The Wizard of Oz), Nurse Ratched (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest), and the shark (Jaws).

If conflict is the stuff of great drama, there is perhaps no conflict more compelling than that of a Protagonist versus a Nemesis. But what makes for a worthy Nemesis? How to develop them?

Following up on my recent Create a Compelling Protagonist course, I’m offering Create a Worthy Nemesis. It is a 1-week screenwriting course that takes a unique approach to developing this pivotal character in that the starting point is the Protagonist. Here are the 7 lecture titles:

Monday, May 12 — Lecture 1: Nemesis v. Antagonist

Tuesday, May 13 — Lecture 2: Shadow v. Light

Wednesday, May 14 — Lecture 3: Fear v. Need

Thursday, May 15 — Lecture 4: Disunity v. Unity

Friday, May 16 — Lecture 5: Overlord v. Underdog

Saturday, May 17 — Lecture 6: Intelligence v. Wisdom

Sunday, May 18 — Lecture 7: Empathy v. Sympathy

Notice the clever theme of v. for versus? There’s a reason for that, one you will discover when you take the class. In addition to the seven lectures that I am writing, there is 24/7 forum feedback, six insider tips, a teleconference, and an opportunity to workshop one of your story’s Nemesis characters.

The most recent Create a Compelling Protagonist session has been phenomenal. In fact, I have extended the class for at least another week because of all the incredible conversations we’ve had along with great workshopping of participants’ Protagonists. I fully expect the my Nemesis class will just as stimulating.

So sign up today right here and join me for a week’s journey into the dark side of the human soul, the place where great Nemeses figures dwell, waiting for you to find them.

Daily Dialogue theme next week: Nemesis

April 26th, 2014 by

Our Daily Dialogue theme next week: Nemesis, suggested by Alejandro.

Think of your favorite Bad Guys and Bad Gals, pick one of their favorite lines or sides of dialogue, and let’s have at it this week, folks!

The usual drill:

* Copy/paste dialogue from IMDB Quotes or some other transcript source.

* Copy/paste the URL of an accompanying video from YouTube or some other video source.

I’d also ask you to think about why the dialogue is notable. Is there anything about the dialogue which provides some takeaway re screenwriting?

Here is our lineup for upcoming Daily Dialogue themes:

May 6-May 12: Lying

May 13-May 19: Advice [Aarthi Ramanathan]

May 20-May 26: Robbery

May 27-June 2: Time Travel Talk [Bob_Reo_Inc]

June 3-June 9: Bad News

June 10-June 16: Flirting [SabinaGiado]

June 17-June 23: Happy Birthday

Hit Reply and see you in comments for your suggestions: Nemesis.

Spec Script Sale: “Nemesis”

November 14th, 2013 by

Warner Bros. acquires spec script “Nemesis” written by Christopher Wheeler. From Deadline:

I don’t recall ever writing a spec script deal story that includes setting someone to do a rewrite. But the Warner Bros deal includes the hiring of a new writer in Craig Rosenberg, the Australian writer who has the Takashi Shimizu -directed 7500 for CBS Films and The Quiet Ones for Lionsgate. How did this happen? Wheeler, the Australian writer who was known as “The Film Pope,” died four years ago at age 40 of natural causes. His script went dormant until Safehouse’s Joby Harold and Tory Tunnell met with Zareh Nalbandian and Jason Lust of Animal Logic and got it going again.

This speaks directly to The Spirit of the Spec: Write a story and put it out there. It can work for you… even if you’ve been deceased for four years.

By my count, this is the 79th spec script sale in 2013.

There were 89 spec script sales year-to-date in 2012.

Screenwriting Tip: Give your Nemesis a plausible world view

May 22nd, 2013 by

Here is a tip from my 1-week online class Write a Worthy Nemesis:

This tip is so simple, yet I constantly read scripts where the writer did not grasp the concept: Give your Nemesis a plausible world view.

Unless a Nemesis is a delusional psychotic, they will have a view of the world that makes sense to them. And frankly even a delusional psychotic will have a take on reality they believe, whether it’s God speaking to them through the neighbor’s dog or aliens invading through the water faucet. Maybe crazy to us, but sensible to them.

For non-psychotic Nemeses, by giving them a plausible world view, a writer humanizes the character. And as noted elsewhere, this brings the Nemesis closer to the reader because if we can understand what they see when they look at the universe, even if we disagree with it, we can share something of their humanity. That makes for a much more compelling Nemesis character.

In truth, it’s really more like this: Go into your character and discover their world view. They have one. It’s much more authentic to let them tell you what it is rather than laying one on them.

However you get there, determine what their world view is and let that inform all the choices you make as to the Nemesis character’s beliefs and behaviors.

This is one of 6 tips I provide in Write a Worthy Nemesis. Combined with 7 lectures [written by me], forum conversations and feedback, workshops where participants develop their Nemeses, and a 90-minute teleconference, it’s a great class. And there’s still time to join in with a terrific group of writers who are taking the course.

For more information, go here.

Write a Worthy Nemesis

May 14th, 2013 by

If the Protagonist is most often your story’s most important character, the Nemesis is not far behind. Indeed some of the greatest characters in film history have been Nemeses including Darth Vader (Star Wars: Episode IV — A New Hope), the Wicked Witch of the West (The Wizard of Oz), Nurse Ratched (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest), and the shark (Jaws).

If conflict is the stuff of great drama, there is perhaps no conflict more compelling than that of a Protagonist versus a Nemesis. But what makes for a worthy Nemesis? How to develop them?

Following up on my recent Create a Compelling Protagonist course, I’m offering Create a Worthy Nemesis. It is a 1-week screenwriting course that takes a unique approach to developing this pivotal character in that the starting point is the Protagonist. Here are the 7 lecture titles:

Monday, May 20 — Lecture 1: Nemesis v. Antagonist

Tuesday, May 21 — Lecture 2: Shadow v. Light

Wednesday, May 22 — Lecture 3: Fear v. Need

Thursday, May 23 — Lecture 4: Disunity v. Unity

Friday, May 24 — Lecture 5: Overlord v. Underdog

Saturday, May 25 — Lecture 6: Intelligence v. Wisdom

Sunday, May 26 — Lecture 7: Empathy v. Sympathy

Notice the clever theme of v. for versus? There’s a reason for that, one you will discover when you take the class. In addition to the seven lectures that I am writing, there is 24/7 forum feedback, six insider tips, a teleconference, and an opportunity to workshop one of your story’s Nemesis characters.

So sign up today right here and join me for a week’s journey into the dark side of the human soul, the place where great Nemeses figures dwell, waiting for you to find them.

Screenwriting Tip: Character work as iceberg

May 9th, 2013 by

In the current 1-week online class I’m teaching — Create a Compelling Protagonist — we have had an incredible experience, more than two dozen writers from all around the world uploading literally hundreds of posts, providing feedback and suggestions for each participant as they workshop their Protagonists. The energy is phenomenal and the quality of the comments equally so.

A question has come up: How much character development is enough?

In theory, I don’t think you can do too much character development. I say this coming from a specific place: Most of the scripts I read that aren’t good enough suffer because the characters are too thinly drawn, not complex enough to be compelling or interesting.

But Scott, I’m writing a genre piece, not “War and Peace.” Do I really need to do that much character development?

Yes, I think you do. Your job is to make your characters lift up off the page and come alive in the imagination of a script reader. To do that, you have to know them in a deep, personal, and specific way.

Otherwise you run the risk of just trafficking in caricatures.

That said, you’re not going to put all of what you know about your characters in the script. Rather most of the background and insights you have about your characters will exist off-screen.

Think of character work like an iceberg:

Iceberg

What you see above the surface of the water? That is what emerges in your script through a character’s actions and dialogue.

What you see below the surface? That is the depth of what you learn about the character when you develop them.

Bios. Questionnaires. Monologues. Sit-downs. Interviews. Archetypes. Whatever tools and techniques you use to go into your characters.

That informs your understanding of your characters.

That enables you to hear their voice.

That brings them to life.

All that content below the surface provides the foundation of what emerges of each character in your script.

So as you develop your characters, especially when you wonder if the effort is worth it, remember this: Everything you learn about your characters is helping to create an iceberg of understanding. The 10% that appears in the script derives from and is supported by the 90% of the work you do to bring that character to life.

Want to up your chops at character development? On May 20, I will be offering the companion class to Create a Compelling Protagonist. It’s called Write a Worthy Nemesis and you can learn about it here. If it’s anything like this current session, it will be awesome! So join me for a great week of learning, writing and creativity!

Stories do not need a Nemesis character

January 31st, 2013 by

I’ve addressed this subject before, but since it came up yesterday in the Pixar and the Craft of Storytelling class, I thought it would be a good opportunity to review these ideas again. One of the class participants Patrick O’Toole posted this in the forums:

It’s amazing that both Nemo and Toy Story have obstacles but not traditional antagonist.

My response:

You can go here to read a transcript I did of Andrew Stanton’s TED Talk when he notes this about the earliest days of the company:

In the early days of Pixar, before we truly understood the invisible workings of story, we were simply a group of guys going on our gut, going on our instincts. And it’s interesting to see how that led us places that are actually pretty good. You have to understand that at this time in 1993, what was considered a successful animated picture Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Lion King. So when we pitched Toy Story to Tom Hanks for the first time, he walked in and said, “You don’t want me to sing, do you?” And I thought that epitomized perfectly what everybody thought animation had to be at the time.

But we really wanted to prove you could tell completely different stories in animation. We didn’t have any influence then, so we had a little secret list of rules that we kept to ourselves. They were:

  • No songs
  • No “I want” moment
  • No happy village
  • No love story
  • No villain

The irony is in the first year, our story was not working at all and Disney was panicking. So they privately got advice from a famous lyricist – who I won’t name – and he faxed them some suggestions. And we got a hold of that fax. And the fax said:

  • There should be songs
  • There should be an “I want” song
  • There should be a happy village song
  • There should be a love story
  • And there should be a villain

And thank goodness we were just too young, rebellious and contrairian at the time. That just gave us more determination to prove you could build a better story. A year after that, we did conquer it. And it just goes to prove storytelling has guidelines, not hard, fast rules.

No villain. And that can work. But not if there isn’t opposition!

One of the eight screenwriting principles I teach in my Core classes is this:

Character = Function.

So when we deal with a Nemesis / Antagonist character, what we really get when we boil them down to their core essence is opposition. They oppose the Protagonist.

But we can get away without having an actual Nemesis if we create a story that provides opposition for the Protagonist.

You mention Toy Story. That’s a classic example where the nemesis function gets passed around from character to character, situation to situation. I refer to that as masks, whereby a character may don a nemesis mask [or protagonist, attractor, mentor, trickster] from scene to scene. If Woody is the P, then at first Buzz is the N. Then Woody’s own jealousy of Buzz acts as the N which creates the circumstances by which Buzz gets knocked outside. Once Woody heads out to get Buzz, the circumstances they deal with including Pizza Planet provides opposition. Of course, Sid the ‘evil’ kid next door dons a nemesis mask. When Woody is trying to get on the moving van at the end, the other toys wear a nemesis mask.

And so yes, stories do not need a traditional Nemesis, however they do require opposition to the Protagonist.

This is yet another way in which using archetypes as part of the story-crafting process can open up the possibility of non-formulaic writing. Instead of a traditional villain, why not explore stories where the nemesis function gets passed along like a baton from character to character, situation to situation?

By the way, this Pixar class has almost 40 participants in it. A terrific group from all around the world. Online environments like that are an amazing way to dig into the theory and craft of screenwriting, and have a heck of a lot of fun in the process.