Monday, September 7, 2009

Protagonist, antagonist & genre

As I mentioned in the review of Reflections of the Shadow, Steven De Souza causes a major scriptwriting uproar by stating in his interview that in genre scripts (action horror, science fiction, perhaps also comedy) the villain of the piece is really the protagonist, instead of the hero fulfilling this role.

Whoa. That kind of sort of invalidates a whole bunch of books and classes right there! But is this statement correct?

De Souza's argument is that in genre scripts, the villain is the active character and the hero is reacting to the actions the villain takes to achieve his/her nefarious goal. And as we all know, the protagonist is the character who is active and drives the story forward.

And when we consider genre movies, we find that in many, many cases it is correct that the villain of the piece is the one who remains active. In Die Hard, obviously, the driving force is the villain's plan. Likewise, all Bond movies start off with a villain with a nefarious master plan committing a criminal act in order to set the plan in motion. The shark in Jaws decides to eat people and continues to do so, always having Chief Brody play catch-up. In Star Wars, the Empire is poised to destroy the Rebellion once and for all, and continues to execute its ostensibly last major assault.

However, if we look at other genres, we find the picture to be less clear-cut. In several Westerns, spaghetti and otherwise, the hero is on the trail of bandits (he might be a lawman or a bounty hunter), and so he's the one hunting down the quarry.
In A Fistful of Dollars, Clint Eastwood arrives in a rundown village run by two clans of criminals living in an uneasy state of equilibrium, and he decides to upset the apple cart and play off both gangs against each other, ultimately eliminating them both. He enters a stable situation and conciously goes about upsetting it.

Similarly, in a lot of police thrillers, the hero is working to catch a killer or unravel a mystery, and often it is this investigation that causes the bad guy to have to take additional steps in order to evade pursuit.
And quite a few horror films have a monster which is unleashed by someone either trying to control and use forbidden knowledge, or by someone innocently breaking some taboo or rule. So there the villain is only activated later in the story - at times quite late, even - and often isn't the real driving force behind the conflict.

It's clear that this 'villain is protagonist'-theory isn't applicable in all cases, even in genre scripts. But there's more.

The protagonist is traditionally described as the active character who takes all the most important decisions in the script. AND - this is really crucial - he or she is the character the audience identifies with and who we 'become' while watching the film.
And there's the missing element in De Souza's claim. Yes, Hans Grüber may be the one who is constantly active in Die Hard, forcing John McClane to react - but while we love watching Grüber, a very well-developed villain played to perfection by Alan Rickman, we certainly don't ever want to be him. Generally speaking, there is no audience identification with the villain of the piece by the mass audience.

Sure, there are some individuals who do identify more with villainous characters, and in some movie series, especially of the horror genre, the villain becomes the main attraction, and the audience doesn't come to watch evil get its comeuppance once again, but to see what gruesome and revolting kills the villain will come up with next (the Saw-, Nightmare on Elm Street- and Friday the 13th-series come to mind). But apart from these exceptions, the villain is not the one who engages the audience's emotions and imagination.

Also, we must not lose track of the fact that the protagonist is the character making the most important decisions during the story, and that the development of their character arc forms the structural spine of the story. In Die Hard, John McClane makes all the important decisions. If he decided to surrender, or to back down and wait everything out, the master plan would go off without a hitch. The fact that he decides to interfere and to keep on interfering, proves that he is the most important character in the entire story.

So, whereas in genre scripts your villain can and usually should be the most active character, the hero remains the protagonist because of the fact that they are always the character through whose eyes we experience the story and who we are emotionally connected to; and because their personal evolution is the foundation of the script's structure. The only time this 'rule' truly does not apply is when you make the villain the focus of your story, and you are presenting the events from his point-of-view.

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