Black Swan–Inner & Outer Demons

For the past several weeks, we have been talking about the antagonist. Whenever I blog about the antagonist, I always get, “Well, my character is the antagonist. She is her own worst enemy.” We have discussed this somewhat in an earlier blog. Virtually all protagonists, at the beginning of the story are their own worst enemies. That is called character arc. If properly plotted, all protagonists would fail if pitted against their enemy in Act One. It is the story that makes our protagonists grow, mature and rise to become heroes and heroines.

Ah, but what if our protagonist literally is the antagonist?

This is when a proxy can be extremely helpful. Even fancy Hollywood directors know that.  There will be a character who represents that side that must be conquered in order for the protagonist to be triumphant. One of the best examples of this I have ever seen is the movie Black Swan. Spoiler alert if you choose to keep reading (will try to minimize spoiling the movie if you haven’t yet seen it).

In the movie Black Swan, the protagonist Nina is very literally at war with herself. She is a high-strung perfectionist who has clearly not been allowed to grow up like a normal young woman. Nina is cast to take the place of an older dancer who is retiring (not so willingly). Nina must embrace the light and the dark, but can this good girl unleash the darkness pent inside, yet keep her sanity?

This is the big question presented in this psychological thriller.

For those not in the know, Swan Lake is basically a tragic fairy tale. A young girl is bound by a curse to become a swan forever, and true love is the only thing that can break the spell. The cursed girl (Odette-the White Swan) finds hope in a young prince, but her evil twin sister (the Black Swan-Odile) seduces him away. Faced with defeat, Odette kills herself.

In the movie, Nina wins the role as the lead in “Swan Lake” and is perfect for the role of the delicate White Swan, Odette, but then progressively loses her mind as she becomes more like Odile, the Black Swan.

Nina does great with uptight, naïve innocence, and is perfect White Swan material. The problem is that Nina’s big life goal is to be perfect, BUT Nina needs to learn that true perfection is a mixture of order and chaos.

The Black Swan is a sexualized role. The Black Swan is a raw, visceral temptress. Nina can’t relate. She is too repressed by her overbearing mother who is living vicariously through her daughter.

Nina is her own worst enemy.

Ah, but here is where proxies come in handy, because a movie with Nina arguing with herself would be weird and probably boring.  Aronofsky and the screenwriters came up with a brilliant solution which had me sitting on the edge of my seat all three times I watched the movie.

Their solution? Lily.

Mila Kunis plays Lily, Nina’s rival for the role of prima ballerina. Nina, coincidentally, has a rather intricate flower tattoo (black lilies) on her back that, in the right light, looks like a set of black folded wings. Lily is everything that Nina longs to be. She is beautiful, wild, carefree, and doesn’t have some weirdo narcissist mother making her go to bed by 9.

If you guys have followed my series about structure, then you know the antagonist (or a proxy) MUST be introduced before the turning point into Act One.

Normal World–> Inciting Incident–>Turning Point Act One

This is based off the four-part model—Normal World, Act One, Act Two, Act Three. In screenplays, Normal World usually gets condensed right into Act One. In novels the reader needs more time to get grounded; ergo a 4-part structure.

If Nina is her own worst enemy, how can we introduce her as a protagonist AND an antagonist? We can’t. We need a proxy. We need Lily.

How does the director introduce Lily, yet still hint that the core antagonist is Nina? He uses a tad of camera trickery.

Nina is taking the subway into the city. She is wearing a pale pink coat and a white fluffy scarf, her hair up in a prim ballerina bun. Out of the corner of her eye, she spies what looks like her twin, only the “other Nina” is wearing a black coat and dark gray scarf (not so subtle symbol there). Nina never sees her “twin’s” face, only sees that the girl has on iPod ear buds. In every way, though, this girl looks like the photo negative of Nina….her dark “other half.”

In the next scene, we are introduced to Lily and see she has on ear buds. This cues the viewing audience that Lily is the “twin” Nina spied on the subway. Lily is Nina’s “black swan.” Lily is the main antagonist. Lily represents everything that Nina longs to be.

Yet, is Lily the only antagonist? Not by a long-shot.

To really understand the other antagonists in this movie, we need to get to Nina’s core issue. What is Nina’s problem? She longs to grow up but she is afraid, namely because her overbearing mother does everything she can to keep her a “little girl.”

While the director Thomas is daring Nina to explore her sexuality and discover her wild side, Mom is busy buying Nina more stuffed ballerina bunnies for her pink little girl bedroom. Nina is being pulled against to polar extremes.

Repressed naïve little girl vs. wild sexual temptress.

Even though Nina is her own worst enemy, I challenge you to look at each of the scenes in this movie, and there was almost always an outside antagonist driving her arc, exposing the soft and tender parts that Nina was trying so hard to cover. She is a girl who needs to control and the thought of losing control terrifies her. But, to dance the Black Swan, that is exactly what she must do. She must be able to balance order and chaos. She must be able to keep control and lose control all in the same moment.

Can she?

Thomas is pushing her to let loose. He even says, “The only person standing in your way is you.” Mom is doing everything in her power to force Nina to stay a “little girl.”

Lily is showing Nina everything she could be…but isn’t.

The entire movie is a battle of two questions–Is Lily out to get Nina and take her part? Or, is Nina losing her mind?  The core question, however, is whether Nina can be both White Swan and Black Swan without fracturing. And that part I will leave out. This is an excellent movie and well worth studying.

Suffice to say that movies have leeway that novelists do not. Nina is pitted toe-shoe to toe-shoe with her rival, Lily. This is where the camera work is very cool. Ever so often, we see Lily, but then there is a flash of Nina’s face…hinting that Nina is pitted against her own darkness that she has tried so hard to keep contained. A darkness, that, once let out of the box, has the power to destroy her.

What can we learn from this? If we can’t use the fancy camera trickery, then why bother studying this movie? Study conflict and scene antagonists.

Thomas and Mom represented the two sides warring for little Nina’s heart and mind. Lily was a brilliant proxy and made for a formidable BBT (Big Boss Troublemaker). In the Big Boss Battle, Nina had to stand up to Lily (the Black Swan) and claim that she could dance both parts. According to narrative structure rules, Nina must utterly defeat/kill the BBT, which she does.

But who dies? Lily or Nina? Watch the movie 😀.

As far as a book that explores inner demons, Dennis Lehane’s Shutter Island is one that I would highly recommend for study, and is a very similar psychological thriller. What about you guys? What books or movies would you recommend? What did you like about the movie? What didn’t you like? Are there other movies you would advise we watch for study?

I love hearing from you! And to prove it and show my love, for the month of April, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. If you leave a comment, and link back to my blog, and mention my book We Are Not Alone in your blog…you get your name in the hat THREE times. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.

I will pick a winner every week for a critique of your first five pages. At the end of April I will pick a winner for the grand prize. A free critique from me on the first 15 pages of your novel. Good luck!

Note: I am keeping all the names for a final GRAND, GRAND PRIZE of 30 Pages (To be announced) OR a blog diagnostic. I look at your blog and give feedback to improve it. For now, I will draw weekly for 5 page edit, monthly for 15 page edit.

Important Announcements

Will post last week’s/ month’s winner on Friday (Sorry, last week I was sick with a bad cold and there are a lot of names to tally. THANKS :D). Check back, please.

May 9-13, 2011, I will be teaching an on-line Building Your Author Brand with Social Media Class for only $15 to support the wonderful Long Island Romance Writers.

My new book, “Are You There, Blog? It’s Me, Writer” will be out in less than a month!

Until next time….

In the meantime, if you don’t already own a copy, my best-selling book We Are Not Alone–The Writers Guide to Social Media is recommended by literary agents and endorsed by NY Times best-selling authors. My method is free, fast, simple and leaves time to write more books.

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  1. #1 by Heather Sunseri on May 2, 2011 - 1:41 pm

    I loved the movie, Black Swan, and had thought about many of the points you make here. I’m so thankful you wrote this into such a well-laid-out post like this, because there was definitely a great deal to learn from this movie regarding foreshadowing and character arcs, and much, much more.

  2. #2 by Terrell Mims on May 2, 2011 - 1:44 pm

    Great blog. It really opened up this movie to me because it thought it royally sucked. I knew that Lily was the proxy antagonist, but on the whole I just thought the movie was boring. I never liked Nina so I didn’t care if she died or not. Now I will go back and rewatch it with a different viewpoint from what you shared.

  3. #3 by Anna Silvernail Sweat on May 2, 2011 - 1:51 pm

    This is such an excellent blog and Black Swan is a riveting example of what you’re defining here. I think the Harry Potter series did a good job of making the ever-good protagonist, Harry, explore his darker side by linking him in so many ways, particularly through Occlumency or a mind-link, with Voldemort. We all like our heroes to be a little naughty because that makes them relatable. No one is all good. We also like to empathize with our villians because it’s inconceivable to us that someone could be purely evil. Thanks for doing this series. It really makes you think.

  4. #4 by Damian Trasler on May 2, 2011 - 2:32 pm

    Black Swan is about dancing? That’s it, you’ve ruined the surprise….
    What’s interesting about this post is hearing how a movie can do a successful internal struggle, something that I’ve always thought of as novel territory. In a novel you have the option of the internal monologue of the protagonist, or drawing the reader’s eye with pinpoint accuracy – put your character in The Albert Hall (Or Carnegie Hall, if you prefer) and they can spot an enemy or friend across the crowd with a sentence. And like you’ve pointed out, in the movie Lily is used as a proxy, but I bet, watching the movie, she doesn’t feel like an artificial device – I bet she feels like an essential cog in the clockwork driving the plot, eh?

  5. #5 by Julie Musil on May 2, 2011 - 2:48 pm

    I haven’t seen Black Swan yet, but I love these writing lessons. After I read PLOT & STRUCTURE, I now pick out the structure points in movies. It’s a great way to pound the lessons in. By the way, I didn’t read the book SHUTTER ISLAND but I saw the movie. Wow.

    • #6 by Author Kristen Lamb on May 2, 2011 - 3:00 pm

      The book will give ways that you can have the protag as his own worst enemy, yet not reveal it. I cried at the end of the book. Way darker ending than the movie.

  6. #7 by Jess Witkins on May 2, 2011 - 3:34 pm

    I’m impressed with how clearly you’ve critiqued Black Swan. None of the reviews I had read on the film illustrated the conflict like you did and it makes so much sense. I saw the film before the Oscars and I remember thinking ‘wow, that was intense,’ but the small things the director was able to do to parallel moments of Nina’s battle are really amazing. Like Nina’s twin in the subway tunnel changing to Lily with earbuds in at practice. I wouldn’t have consciously thought of that after one viewing. Thanks for dissecting the film to illustrate a helpful tool about antagonists. Very cool.

  7. #8 by Cynthia Robertson on May 2, 2011 - 3:59 pm

    I haven’t seen the movie, Kristen, but now I want to. This post really got me thinking about my MCs inner demons, and how to bring those forward. I will add you to my mashup.

  8. #9 by Tamara LeBlanc on May 2, 2011 - 4:46 pm

    I stopped reading your post when u warned a spoiler alert. I’m sorry…I’m one of those nuts who shoves my fingers in my ears and hums really loud when someone tries to discuss a TV show or movie I haven’t seen, but intend on seeing.
    I will watch Black Swan today, and comment on what I know will be a fabulous blog post later.
    Thank you soooo much for the warning:)
    Have a great afternoon!
    Tamara

    • #10 by Author Kristen Lamb on May 2, 2011 - 4:50 pm

      Actually I don’t think I ruined anything, but let me know your thoughts anyway😀.

  9. #11 by HannahFergesen on May 2, 2011 - 5:22 pm

    You have a way of dissecting writing and explaining what works and what doesn’t that is so helpful – I learn more from you than any creative writing teachers I’ve ever had. None of my screenwriting teachers or fellow film students were able to clearly explain why Nina was her own antagonist, and how Aranofsky made it work.

    • #12 by Author Kristen Lamb on May 2, 2011 - 5:25 pm

      Cool! Yeah, I love breaking apart movies and figuring them out. What worked and why? What didn’t work and why? I am so happy you find my posts so helpful. Thanks😀

  10. #13 by nrhatch on May 2, 2011 - 6:52 pm

    Wonderful, wonderful post, Kristen.

    Black Swan and Shutter Island are terrific examples to illustrate a character arc somewhat outside the norm.

    Enjoyed both. Enjoyed revisiting them through your thoughts. Thanks!

  11. #14 by Janice Hardy on May 2, 2011 - 7:11 pm

    I’m really enjoying your series on antagonists. I’ve always loved the “villains” more than the heroes, and how you’ve broken down and explained how anatags aren’t always the bad guy is wonderful. I bet you could use the proxy antag on a thematic level to show various aspects of your character arc growth as well. This has given me a few cool ideas on how to layer my protag in my WIP. Thanks!

  12. #15 by DLFowler on May 2, 2011 - 7:44 pm

    Thanks – that helped be get past a sticking point in my current draft. Playing one chatacter’s arc against another’s.

  13. #16 by educlaytion on May 2, 2011 - 8:06 pm

    You watched Black Swan 3 times? Oh the darkness grips at your soul K-Lamb. Definitely a page turner of a movie. Wait, is that a thing? Shutter Island also good. Love the twisted characters and movies do teach a lot about writing.

  14. #17 by Irene Vernardis on May 2, 2011 - 8:27 pm

    I haven’t seen this movie, although I’m very familiar with the Swan Lake and various versions.

    From the description though, it doesn’t seem so explicit to me regarding protagonist – (self) antagonist issue.
    Odile in any case is a completely separate character from Odette. She is the daughter of the evil sorcerer Rothbart who have cursed Princess Odette into a swan. Odile is an evil character, not human nor swan, just disguised as Odette when meeting Prince Siegfried. So the antagonism in this story is about the two females trying to win the prince’s heart, one good and one evil.

    Lily sounds the same from the description, a completely different character, not a projection of the (self) antagonist of Nina, but an antagonist on her own.

    Lily might be everything that Nina longs to be, but she is a differrent character. Human beings want to have or be something they are not. This is an ancient struggle with one’s self.
    Lily is a model for Nina, not a projection of Nina’s self. Lily would be the antagonist if she would prevent Nina from becoming like her. But it doesn’t seem like that. It seems that Lily tries to prevent Nina from dancing both roles. That’s a different antagonism.

    So two issues:
    1. Antagonism of Nina with herself, trying to become what she wants to be and struggling with all the internal conflicts she has, which prevent her from that. However, that is not a sign of a protagonist – antagonist, IMO of course.🙂
    2. Antagonism of Nina with Lily, which is about the roles, and everything that entails.

    Two different things, two antagonisms in the story. However, two characters linked to one antagonism, not both. Of course, in my opinion.

    I think that a very good depiction of a protagonist – (self) antagonist is the book “Primal Fear” by William Diehl, in my opinion an excellent book. The movie with Richard Gere, having the same name as the book, is a very good transfer of the book. While I was reading your post, that book came to my mind and related.

    Sorry for the long comment and thank you for a very interesting article🙂

    • #18 by Author Kristen Lamb on May 2, 2011 - 8:42 pm

      In this version–the one in the movie–there are twins. This is explained early in the movie, so it sets the parameters for this version and this story.

      The antagonist is whoever stands in the way of the protagonist’s goal. Nina is her own worst enemy in that she is rigid and perfectionistic. That works for the White Swan, but the Black Swan–which she will also dance–must be more carefree and primal.

      Lily is the perfect Black Swan and threatens Nina’s position as the company’s prima ballerina. Nina replaced the older dancer with no warning, and she now knows it can happen to her too. It is scary being at the top, with every dancer wanting your role.

      Nina wants the director’s devotion, but Lily is getting too much attention. This is what makes Lily the antagonist (outwardly). The reason Lily also represents the Inner demon is she embodies the very essence that continues to elude Nina–raw sexuality. Nina has to conquer the darkness in her and bring both into the same space for her to dance the part she has been given.

      • #19 by Irene Vernardis on May 2, 2011 - 11:27 pm

        “The antagonist is whoever stands in the way of the protagonist’s goal.” Right.

        “she is rigid and perfectionistic” – these are inner conflicts, not enough to define antagonism. It would mean that every time there are inner conflicts, it would make one’s self an antagonist in a story.

        “must be more carefree and primal.” > that’s the resolution to the inner conflicts above, if she wants to dance the role.

        Nina’s self regarding the dancing of the black swan role and her inner struggle, are not clear enough to define antagonism with one’s self.
        She might actually antagonize only Lily over the second role and not herself.

        So it’s not a clear depiction of a self-antagonist.

        • #20 by Author Kristen Lamb on May 3, 2011 - 12:12 am

          You need to see the movie. She literally IS her own antagonist. It is a psychological thriller and there is a very good reason that this movie has won so many awards. There are many bad things happening that seem to be Lily, but all is not what it seems. It’s a great flick. I hope you check it out😀.

  15. #21 by Delorfinde on May 2, 2011 - 8:34 pm

    I really want to see this film, even though I know what happens. My parents won’t let me as my sister told them it’s too disturbing for someone of my age…! I’m really annoyed, as one of my closest friends saw it and said it was amazing. He’s a couple of years older than me, though. I can’t wait for it to be out on DVD as they can’t stop me then…

  16. #22 by Amanda Hoving on May 2, 2011 - 8:43 pm

    That movie haunted me for days afterward. I wrote a post about it, too, called, “Stories That Make You Feel All Squicky Under Your Skin,” but I haven’t published it, yet, since all I had to say so far was well…that it made me feel squicky😉 I like your take on it. Definitely a complex character and situation that can teach writers about adding depth and conflict.

    • #23 by Author Kristen Lamb on May 2, 2011 - 8:46 pm

      My husband and I have been talking about it for a week. It makes you wonder about the Nina before the beginning of the movie. I wonder if she was always struggling with psychosis, but she had been able to keep it under control by being rigid and maintaining control at all times. I wonder if the director challenging her to let go of control opened the demon out of the box that had been there all along, even if only barley contained.

  17. #24 by Gene Lempp on May 2, 2011 - 9:03 pm

    Great post Kristen! Three times, wow, did that with Pandorum in the space of 24 hours but it is not along the same theme as this post. Interesting how when a characters inner struggle is the main drive of the story that there still have to be a series of other antagonists to drive them to the climatic choice. Outside of a psy-thriller however, I’m not sure this would work. Shutter Island was fantastic by the way, haven’t watched Black Swan yet, but my wife told me it was very good, have to check it out soon.

    Have a great day! Peaceful Journeys!

  18. #25 by Jami Gold on May 2, 2011 - 10:49 pm

    I haven’t seen this movie, but I’ve heard enough about it to understand the gist of the story. Thanks for pointing out how the other characters drove her character arc too. That makes a lot of sense.

  19. #26 by Jodi on May 3, 2011 - 12:06 am

    I think there is so much we as fiction writers can learn from well-written movies. Your post was a great example of that – extremely insightful and practical. Thanks! Off to rent Black Swan now …

  20. #27 by Tanya Ruckstuhl-Valenti on May 3, 2011 - 12:23 am

    Story structure aside, I hated the close up of all the self-inflicted wounds in this movie. I get that the director was trying to keep our interest but found it rather like lighting a candle with a blow torch.
    I loved your explanation of protagonist/antagonist as a driver for the story and the evolution of the main character. Thank you.

  21. #28 by Maery on May 3, 2011 - 2:13 am

    Black Swan was one of those movies that I didn’t know what I thought about it. You raised a few points I hadn’t thought of. I do think it’s a movie that is worth watching more than once to catch all the subtle messages, but I’m not sure that would make for a good book. Regardless, some good thoughts on the elements of story.

  22. #29 by Marilag Lubag on May 4, 2011 - 9:28 am

    Now I’m curious about the movie. Before, I’m just familiar with the title. Now, the little snippet makes me think about actually watching it.

    This somehow answers my question of being my own worst enemy. Somehow, I like the idea that the person I’m facing in the mirror is my own villain (but not the twirling mustache kind).

  23. #30 by Naomi Bulger on May 9, 2011 - 7:58 am

    Thank you Kristen, this is fascinating, and a concept I’d not really thought through before. Right now I’m working on a novel in which the main character is his own worst enemy. He believes he is surrounded and beset by enemies and, like Nina, this brings out a dark side of his nature that threatens to destroy him (and others). But until now, I had been working so hard at making my antihero sympathetic that I didn’t realise I was backing myself into a place where my villain and victim were one and the same. Then I read this post. TA DA! Lightbulb switch! I need a proxy! Thank you for helping me get out of a dull cycle and back on a fast-moving, forward-looking track!

  24. #31 by Kyla on November 26, 2011 - 11:32 am

    Interesting. I wouldn’t have thought of that. I’m not very interested in writing a psychological thriller anyway, but it’s a very fascinating concept. Makes me think of a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde kind of problem.

    Anyway, thanks for the great article. Have a great day, and happy writing!

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