Antagonist vs. Obstacle Character

Recently a writer asked:

As I strive to understand the main character/obstacle character dynamics, I am left wondering where does the antagonist fit into this new theory of story?

I believe I understand what you are getting at with the obstacle character, but it seems that something is missing…the antagonist!

I see that the selection of antagonist is available as a character type, but I do not see where one plots out the antagonist storyline. Isn’t the Main Character/Protagonist vs Antagonist storyline just as important?

My Reply:

The characters in a story represent the facets of our minds. That’s why we call the structure of a story the Story Mind. Archetypes are our broad personality traits, while the Main Character represents our sense of self. The Obstacle (or Impact) character is that part of ourselves that plays “devil’s advocate” when we are trying to determine if we want to change our minds about a particular issue. If we do, the Main Character is convinced by the Obstacle Character’s argument and changes. If we don’t, the Main Character sticks to the old view and remains steadfast.

Protagonist and Antagonist are two of our personality traits. Protagonist represents our Initiative – our desire to change the status quo. Antagonist represents our Reticence to change, the desire to keep things as they are or return them to the way they were.

Often the character that fulfills the Protagonist function is also the character chosen as the Main Character. So, not only is this character the Prime Mover in the effort to change things by achieving a goal, but he (or she) also represents the audience position in the story. Such a character is the basis for the stereotypical “hero.”

Similarly, the character who functions as the Antagonist is often chosen to also represent the Obstacle Character’s opposing paradigm, world view, or attitude toward the “message issue” of the story. This creates the stereotypical “villain.”

More sophisticated stories split these functions. Sometimes, as in the story To Kill A Mockingbird, they are completely split. In that story, the Protagonist is a small town lawyer (Atticus) whose goal is to free a black man wrongly accused of raping a white girl. But we don’t see the story through his eyes. Rather, we experience the story through the eyes of a child – his young daughter named Scout.

The Antagonist is the father of the girl who was ostensibly raped. He wants justice to take its normal course for that town, which would be a conviction based on race. He wants the status quo. This fellow, Bob Ewell, is opposed to Protagonist Atticus’ goal. So, the plot’s logistics revolve around these two characters.

But Scout, as Main Character, has her devil’s advocate voice that is her obstacle in the passionate story regarding the message issue. The character that has the greatest impact on her worldview, the greatest obstacle to maintaining her preconceptions is Boo Radley. Boo is a mentally challenged man who lives down the street in the basement of his parent’s home. All the kids in the neighborhood, including Scout, know him to be a monstrous “boogey man” who feasts on small children. But that is just a rumor based on fear. In fact, he is quite gentle and protective of the kids who never meet him directly. He looks out for them, but they don’t see it and despise him. Only when he rescues Scout from a vengeful Bob Ewell does the truth of his caring nature come out. Scout must change her mind about Boo.

In this manner, while we root for the virtuous Atticus, we are suckered into being prejudiced ourselves as we identify with Scout and accept her prejudices without any direct evidence or experience of our own. This is clearly a wonderful use of the technique of splitting all four characteristics.

In other stories, the Protagonist character is also the Main Character but the Obstacle Character is the Love Interest and the Antagonist is the rival. Such an arrangement is the classic “dramatic triangle” in which the logistics of the plot regarding the goal are fought out between the Protagonist/Main Character and the Antagonist rival, but the passionate argument regarding changing one’s nature is developed between the Protagonist/Main Character and the Obstacle Character Love Interest.

The film Witness does it a bit differently. The female lead, Rachel is the Love Interest, but also the Main Character. We actually see the story through HER eyes, not through the eyes of John Book (the Harrison Ford part). Rather, Book is the Obstacle Character, the one who tempts Rachel to abandon her Amish traditions and community to run off with him to the land of the “English.”

The corrupt police captain (Book’s boss) is the Antagonist. So, the plot revolves around Book against his boss, and the passionate story about changing one’s mind revolves around Book and Rachel., but it is seen through HER eyes.

So, the Antagonist is quite important in Dramatica, as is the Protagonist, Main and Obstacle characters. What Dramatica brings to this part of story is a clear understanding of how these logistic and passionate attributes of the Story Mind can be distributed in other ways than just as the stereotypical hero and villain.

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