“Surprise Your Protagonist” by Joan Y. Edwards
Many antagonists are villainous and block the main character’s progress through evil plots and actions.
Takafumi says a protagonist fails when through memory loss, negligence, or just plain ignorance, they don’t understand the severity or are unaware of the problems surrounding them. Their lack of understanding and inability to grow and change as a person defeats them. This protagonist is her own antagonist.
Chris Soth says in Million-Dollar Screenwriting – the Mini-Movie Method to make sure that after your protagonist fails twice, hit him with an unknown strength of his antagonist. Surprise him.
What a neat idea! You’ve seen it take place in top notch novels and movies. This is a cool way to add intrigue, heightened interest, and believability to your own stories. In real life, experiences you didn’t see coming threw you a curve ball. Things you didn’t know or understand. Things you thought didn’t concern you or wouldn’t affect you. You underestimated the power of the antagonist or problem in your life. You the protagonist are unaware of the danger, the antagonist has or will put in place for you.
This surprise and feeling of weakness or inability to stop the force of the antagonist creates great emotional turmoil within you. When you put the life experiences that create make you cry, scream, or laugh and other emotions in your stories, your writing engages your audience. Like you, the characters in your stories are surprised and overwhelmed, too.
Your job is to figure out what the best surprises would be to carry your plot to a stressful climax and a satisfactory ending. Your readers want to see how your main character handles the stress you’ve written to surprise the daylights out of him. The element of surprise could also lead your main character to solve the problem facing him, too.
Let’s take my story of Flip Flap Floodle. a little duck who takes off to his grandma’s house to show her how well he can play on his new flute. Flip starts out knowing that Mr. Fox is a known problem in his neighborhood. However, he believes that the fox will like his song and let him go. Easy, Peesy!
Surprise! Surprise! Surprise for the protagonist! What Flip doesn’t know is that Mr. Fox won’t like his song, and will eat him.
Flip’s story and stories that are not tragedies follow up with a big surprise for the antagonist that overrides and derails him and enables the protagonist to be the victor, rather than a victim.
Flip’s strength was that he didn’t give up and continued to play his flute even inside the fox’s belly which helped his mother find him to help in his weakest moment. She was a strength for Flip that the fox was hadn’t considered. He underestimated the power of a worried mother duck.
The ultimate goal for a story is for the protagonist to do it for himself. However, sometimes in life we need someone to help us. In some stories, the protagonists have help. They don’t do it all alone, but they do part of it.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
Thank you, Pixabay, for allowing me to use this picture.Snow White is unaware that her stepmother wants her killed until the huntsman tells her. She is naive and trusts everyone. The dwarfs and animals chase the wicked queen away. The prince awakens Snow White from her coma induced by the Poisoned Apple given by the evil Queen. Snow White had help.
My Cousin Vinny
Police in a small town in Alabama accused Vinny’s cousin and his friend of killing the clerk in a convenience store. They didn’t know that Vinny didn’t have any experience as a trial lawyer. Vinny believed he could win the case alone; he didn’t need his girlfriend’s help. He didn’t need anyone’s help. When it looks like the boys will be declared guilty, he discovers that his girlfriend’s pictures of the tire tracks of the getaway car and her testimony in court are essential to prove the boys not guilty. He needs help.
Let’s look at stories in which the main character learns a surprise strength of the antagonist late in the story when the antagonist is a trickster: disguised as good, he does evil.
Hansel and Gretel
Hansel and Gretel didn’t know that the witch planned to eat them. Gretel outsmarted the witch by pretending not to understand what she wanted her to do and pushed the witch into the oven.
The Little Mermaid
In the Brothers Grimm classic, “The Little Mermaid,” Ursula tells Ariel that she’ll make her human so she can marry the man she loves, but there’s a hidden agenda. Ursula really wants Ariel’s voice.
Surprises can be good or evil. Antagonists can be a little good and a little evil, too. To me, Rumpelstiltskin goes from being helpful to not being helpful. The King planned to chop off her head if she didn’t spin the straw into gold. How was the Miller’s daughter going to live if Rumpelstiltskin didn’t save her? After the Miller’s daughter became Queen, she had a child. Rumpelstiltskin came to claim it. He was compassionate. He told her that if she guessed his name, he would let her keep her child. The Queen went to the woods and overheard Rumpelstiltskin chanting his name and bragging that no one would ever guess it. When the Queen guessed his name, Rumpelstiltskin got so angry that he destroyed himself.
Protagonist is unaware of the power of the antagonist.
I love the movie, The Proposal. Determined to retain her position as editor in chief of a publishing house, Margaret forces her assistant, Andrew to temporarily act as her fiancé so she can renew her work visa and stay in the USA. She is unaware that she’ll fall in love with Andrew and his family. She’s unaware that the U.S. government agent will track her down wherever she is to prove her engagement is a farce.
So write and give your protagonist challenges that really surprise him and inspire them to use a newly learned or hidden talent within him to defeat the antagonist. Put the noose around the antagonist’s neck. Put the squeeze on him.
People Love to See the Defeat of an Antagonist
- Chris Soth. Million-Dollar Screenwriting – the Mini-Movie Method: https://www.amazon.com/Million-Dollar-Screenwriting-Mini-Movie-Chris-Soth-ebook/dp/B00P5VN8VM/
- Chuck Wendig. “Things You Should Know about Antagonists:” http://terribleminds.com/ramble/2012/07/24/25-things-you-should-know-about-antagonists/
- Keith Cronin. “Agonizing over Antagonists:” http://writerunboxed.com/2015/05/12/agonizing-over-antagonists/
- M. J. Bush. “Writing the Perfect Flaw:” http://www.writingeekery.com/flaw/
- Nancy Curteman. “10 Ways to Increase Suspense in Your Mystery Novel:” https://nancycurteman.wordpress.com/2011/01/27/10-ways-to-increase-suspense-in-your-mystery-novel/
- Takafumi. “Maeda Jun, or The Failing Protagonist:” https://plsnohate.wordpress.com/2017/06/07/maeda-jun-or-the-failing-protagonist/
- Wikipedia. “Rumpelstiltskin:” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rumpelstiltskin
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