One of the biggest mistakes most new writers make is they don’t understand the antagonist and how antagonists are used to drive plot momentum and ratchet up the stakes. Without true antagonists, there is no way to generate dramatic tension. One of the “outs” many writers try to use is “Well, my protagonist is his own worst enemy.”
Yeah, um no. That’s therapy, not fiction.
All stories need two types of antagonists:
The Big Boss Troublemaker
Since the term “antagonist” confuses a lot of new writers, I came up with the term, BBT. If the BBT is something existential (like alcoholism) then it needs to be represented by someone corporeal. In WWII, the Allies weren’t fighting fascism, they fought HITLER. Concepts need a FACE.
Often allies and love interests will provide the scene conflict. Protagonist wants A, but then Ally wants B.
Today, we’ll use a “My protagonist is his own worst enemy” story to prove my point. We are going to talk about the movie Flight. I could write 20,000 words about this movie. It is some of the most brilliant writing I’ve ever seen and Denzel Washington definitely earned the Academy Award nomination for this (he should have won the award, but that’s my POV).
Denzel Washington plays an airline captain who’s somewhat successfully hidden a very dark secret. He’s an alcoholic and drug addict with an ego the size of Mt. Everest. Early in the movie we know alcohol has already cost him dearly. He’s divorced and estranged from his son. Yet, he’s in denial. He’s able to put on a sober, confident face for the world and hide his demons beneath smiles and bravado.
Whip might have continued flying his entire career half-drunk and hopped up on cocaine, except for one problem…he saves a plane full of people from dying and is hailed a hero. When storms, combined with a major mechanical malfunction send his plane hurdling toward certain death, Whip calmly executes maneuvers no other pilot could duplicate, saving all the passengers but four.
We are introduced to the BBT EARLY
This is critical. I read way too many new pieces of writing and, 50 pages later, have no idea what the story problem is. The BBT must appear early. We have to know what the protagonist is up against. In Flight, we see the BBT in the opening scene, the bottles of booze all over the hotel room, the lines of coke Whip snorts before getting ready to fly.
The BBT is clearly addiction. Whip is his own worst enemy.
The Inciting Incident Challenges the BBT. Conflict has a FACE.
Had Whip flown just another routine flight, he would have continued drinking and drugging. Had everyone died in the crash, he never would have had to face his demons. Ah, but he saves the day and is hailed a hero.
Every crash, by law, is investigated.
When Whip is sent to the hospital, his blood is drawn and it shows that he was practically pickled while flying. Also, later in the investigation, three small empty bottles of vodka are discovered in the crash (bottles he drank right before the crash).
Now we have the core story problem, and the BBT has a face—THOSE RUNNING THE INVESTIGATION.
If there was no investigation into the crash, Whip would not have to change. He wouldn’t have to see the hard truth of what he is…an addict. The crash (and ensuing investigation) creates the story problem and tension mounts as the union, the owner of the airline, the NTSB, and the FAA exert outside pressure.
Make the flaw complicated.
I think what makes Flight a particularly brilliant example is that most everyone knows that, had Whip been sober, he likely would not have been able to successfully execute the daredevil maneuvers that saved the passengers.
Likely it was a mixture of the alcohol that relaxed him combined with the cocaine that heightened his senses that allowed him to save the plane. A sober pilot would have crashed everyone into a fireball of death.
Why is this important? It generates enablers. Whip is pulled between two extremes. One side wants the truth and wants accountability. The other side? They’re willing to turn a blind eye, fudge the truth, and pursue legal loopholes to save Whip from jail time. They are feeding his bloated ego (which is a HUGE source of his problem).
This creates scene antagonists on each side.
Friends are willing to lie for Whip to spare him from jail. Others are offering him a drink or some drugs. These “allies” offer Whip an opportunity to keep self-destructing. Since in these scenes, he’s trying to remain sober, the “friend” offering him a drink is the antagonist.
The other side? They want the truth. Where did the vodka bottles come from? Someone needs to answer the unanswered questions and justice needs to be served for the four people who did die. The more questions they ask, the more Whip needs to drink.
His lawyer can’t afford Whip to be seen drunk if he hopes to keep him from going to prison, so he’s working to keep him sober. In these scenes, Whip wants to get blitzed, but his allies won’t let him near the liquor cabinet. Thus, these allies are standing in the way of his goal to drink, which creates tension and makes them antagonists.
His lawyer, girlfriend, and close buddy are all working to keep Whip sober, but as the pressure mounts and the stakes get higher, Whip’s addiction only gets worse. The investigation (story problem) is exerting the pressure that is opening the boil of his flaws.
On the other side, the more Whip self-destructs, the more the enablers step in. His best-buddy Harling is always there with any drug he needs for the situation, any upper or downer Whip requires to maintain the facade that he doesn’t have a problem.
The Protagonist in Act Three MUST Make a Choice
Since the BBT is alcoholism, it MUST be defeated in Act Three by a choice. I won’t tell you that choice, because I wouldn’t want to ruin the movie for those who haven’t seen it yet (I haven’t revealed anything you wouldn’t see in the trailer).
Whip MUST defeat addiction. Question is, “Can he?”
His arc is from self-destructive addict in complete denial to someone who takes on his demons, no matter the cost. The ANTAGONIST is the NTSB. No investigation? Life continues as normal. The addict isn’t tossed in the crucible.
What this means is that a character being his or her own worst enemy alone is not enough. There MUST be a story problem that generates the tension and change. With no story problem, there is no way to have dramatic tension. It just becomes a character being TDTL (Too Dumb To Live). We don’t have a novel, we have self-indulgence that will bore readers or irritate them.
What are your thoughts? Can you think of other examples that did the whole “He is his own worst enemy” thing well? What are your questions? Below is the trailer if you haven’t seen the movie. Watch it. Study it. It is sheer brilliance.
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At the end of March I will pick a winner for the monthly prize. Good luck!
#1 by J Moraski on March 18, 2013 - 9:43 am
Thanks for this post. Very helpful.
#2 by Fiona Ingram (@FionaRobyn) on March 18, 2013 - 9:50 am
I loved the film. I also thought the writing was spectacular; the layering phenomenal as those tiny clues reveal the cracks in the façade. Great secondary players. I agree – he should have won an Oscar.
#3 by JoAnne Potter on March 18, 2013 - 10:05 am
This is exactly right and helps me confirm a current story situation. The protagonist has to be flawed or he is not human. But his flaw alone won’t move our story. There needs to be a BBT outside of him that brings his flaw to a crisis point. Yes. Liking this very much.
#4 by Tan Ya Hui on March 18, 2013 - 10:06 am
Awesome post. Just when I’m trying to think of a antagonist for the story. Thanks for the post!
#5 by Tami Clayton on March 18, 2013 - 10:11 am
Excellent example of the BBT in all its forms. Thanks for such a thorough explanation!
#6 by lindaghill on March 18, 2013 - 10:14 am
That was extremely insightful and it made me think about my own novel. Somehow I think I found the right track without realising it, but now that I do I will surely keep it in mind when I write my second draft. Thanks!
#7 by lindaghill on March 18, 2013 - 10:16 am
Reblogged this on lindaghill and commented:
Excellent advice about your antagonist!
#8 by reneemaynes on March 18, 2013 - 10:18 am
Just watched the trailer and was thinking that the only thing we like more than having a hero, is proving he’s not that heroic.
#9 by David Erickson on March 18, 2013 - 10:24 am
Without crisis, there is no story. But the crisis has to be large enough and complicated enough to keep the reader reading. We are all a mix of good and bad traits, which gives us writers a lot to work with.
#10 by DebraBurroughsAuthor (@DebraBurroughs) on March 18, 2013 - 10:36 am
As usual, Kristen, you are right on point. I love it when you give such easily relatable examples that we can see in our mind’s eye. It makes it all the more memorable. Great job!
#11 by Ruth Ann Adams on March 18, 2013 - 10:47 am
This makes perfect sense, Kristen. A character may have a tragic flaw but you can only clearly see this flaw as it relates to other characters in the story. Otherwise, there is really no story to be told. Thanks!!
#12 by Dawn Chartier on March 18, 2013 - 10:59 am
I haven’t seen this movie yet, but I will soon… Love Denzel…Thanks again for more great info, reminding me of what I’m lacking…lol
#13 by Carl on March 18, 2013 - 11:04 am
I think this is applicable to pop writing, but there are many examples of hero vs. own demons without external antagonist that work well, and in fact work better because the plot is not some artificial construct. I would agree that most people are not engaged in that type of writing and it is not a good strategy for pop writing, but that does not mean it is wrong or necessarily bad. It just takes better creativity.
As an example, most alcoholics are haunted by their own demons and don’t need external conflict in order to “hit bottom” and head into recovery. Their story may not be as interesting to the masses if there is not a plane crash and an investigation to antagonize the hero, but their story might be more psychologically thrilling to a group of educated readers.
#14 by Author Kristen Lamb on March 18, 2013 - 12:08 pm
With all due respect, I don’t agree. Though maybe you could provide some examples, because I can’t think of one, even in literary writing. No plot. No outside story problem, no crucible. Then it becomes an essay. Something has to drive the character arc, and what drives that arc is an event that forces change or forces reflection and contemplation. How else can you generate stakes?
Even Proust (who was one of the most self-indulgent literary writers) had an outside event that was driving change and reflection. “In Search of Lost Time” was propelled by the decline of the aristocracy and the rise of the middle class during the Third Republic in France.
#15 by Roger Doering on March 18, 2013 - 11:23 am
My protagonist is a martial arts master among other things. He is sort of a priest. Not aftaid of anything even death (He has bumped against that a few times), My editor suggested that I need to have somethng – anything- to make him vulnerable otherwise the story is boring. It is taking a complete rewrite.
#16 by Author Kristen Lamb on March 18, 2013 - 12:04 pm
Even superheroes have flaws. No flaw? we can’t relate. No risk of failure so no stakes.
#17 by Borednicole on March 18, 2013 - 12:01 pm
I think the idea behind this film is brilliant. A pilot with ongoing addiction issues somehow manages to avoid a horrific crash by performing an impossible maneuver in a most calm and professional manner, while under the influence. He saved people’s lives and even though it was proven the near crash was a result of mechanical problems, he was put under the microscope because his blood tests. Great concept. But something about this film didn’t sit right with me. After a while I felt like the “addiction will screw up your life” theme, was being shoved down my throat. Some of it felt really forced, especially his son. I’ve seen people do way worse things to their kids than being an addict (and he was obviously a functioning addict), and they still speak to their parents. He was a jerk, no doubt, but he wasn’t a complete dead beat slime bag. I just didn’t get it. I think they needed to show a stronger reason for his son to dislike him so much. He was hailed a hero in the media…what did his son think of that? Didn’t fit IMO. But I think the writers were more concerned about the end scene which for me would have been awesome if I bought into their relationship…but I didn’t. But the thing I really didn’t buy into was the trial. It felt forced. Big time. I never believed for a second it would have gone down like that. After preventing a horrific crash and hiding the blood tests I’m sure they would have told him he had to retire, no more flying…be lucky you got away with it as long as you did but no more. Anyway, that’s just my opinion. I can understand why a lot of people loved it. I usually try not to dissect films but this one bothered me. 🙂
#18 by hcfbutton on March 18, 2013 - 12:21 pm
I haven’t seen the movie Flight, it looks good. I was thinking that a great movie that put a face to being your own worst enemy might actually be ‘Fight Club.’ Cause it’s kind of literal in that sense.
#19 by Author Kristen Lamb on March 18, 2013 - 12:30 pm
Black Swan uses the same technique. Both GREAT movies. Two of my faves.
#20 by annerallen on March 18, 2013 - 12:48 pm
Brilliant post as usual, Kristen. I’m bookmarking it and sharing it with a writer friend who REALLY needs to read it.
#21 by Lisa Hall-Wilson on March 18, 2013 - 12:48 pm
Got me thinking about Cast Away with Tom Hanks. Got pretty creative with putting a ‘face’ to the BBT in that movie.
#22 by Author Kristen Lamb on March 18, 2013 - 12:54 pm
WILSON! Made me cry. But in the instance of Cast Away, the BBT wasn’t existential like addiction, religion, racism, fascism, etc. Elements are real threats and tangible. But, the addition of Wilson gave depth to the story. The other BBT was loneliness, which IS existential and ergo the need for “Wilson.” Humans aren’t meant to be alone. It makes them crazy and eventually give up and die. A true “survival movie” lacks depth without a “human” element. Otherwise, why not just watch Bear Gryllis?
#23 by Diana Beebe on March 18, 2013 - 12:53 pm
I love how you explain the BBT and antagonists. I can’t hear it enough. 🙂
#24 by Dennis Langley on March 18, 2013 - 1:21 pm
I will be coming back to this post from time to time to rethink what you’ve said. There is a lot process from it.
#25 by sheilaenglehart on March 18, 2013 - 2:00 pm
Kristen, I’ve been wrestling with my current work’s lack of antagonist and your “putting a face” on the problem shoved my needle back into the groove. Fortuitous timing. Many thanks!
#26 by Tannis Laidlaw on March 18, 2013 - 2:18 pm
All writers need to be reminded of this advice, me too, of course. But I have to say too many writers use alcoholism as the flaw (especially in police procedurals). Not that I’m knocking FLIGHT – that story had addiction as its core – but just the flaw-to-make-my-character-less-perfect. There are many many flaws outside of alcoholism (just do a straw pole of divorced women!).
#27 by caroleditosti on March 18, 2013 - 3:58 pm
I don’t agree that alcoholism is the antagonist. The antagonist is Whip. How can he be both antagonist and protagonist? We like him. Secondly, all the elements in the film, the music, the casting of Denzel in the title role, the casing of John as his nefarious self and foil to health, the plot twist of flying the plane upside down (symbolic as well) yet which is an unexpected cool thing, yet logically and organically real (because cocaine makes you sharp and he counterbalances the dullness of the alcohol with the sharpness of the coke…) all of it combined make an interesting plot and fine characterizations. Stories can have antagonists, but if they are not organically real (Whip’s desire to continue with his desire for alcohol because he has managed to find a way to get around it with the coke) HANG IT UP. What made this film’s protagonist interesting is that the alcoholic enabling syndrome was so organically realized…also important was that WE LIKED THE PROTAGONIST and the tension is created because we like him and want him to succeed and yet know he is going to fail but find ourselves happy when he fails because he’s cool when he is really failing (music selected, supporting characters, cinematography-editing all add to this) I think the characterization was drawn excellently….BECAUSE IT WAS ACTED BRILLIANTLY. Great as a film…I can’t imagine the linearity of words succeeding like this film did. Two different mediums…can’t compare it. I mean of course, you can compare it, but the the antagonist is Whip and when he finally is able to admit he is an alcoholic…it is because he makes a decision and we must cheer him on for it…he has started on the road to reconciliation with himself…because of love. He has allowed his love for the dead girlfriend to rise up. To say alcoholism is the antagonist completely simplifies the complexity of the characterization portrayed by Denzel…and the characterization revealed by the screenwriter. For that reason, it’s fine for a simple discussion here, but it belies the complexity of the screenwriter’s skill and effort as well as Denzel’s.
#28 by caroleditosti on March 18, 2013 - 4:12 pm
In review of what I dashed off, I would clarify that the conflict is “man vs. self.” (include after the question how can Whip be both antagonist and protagonist) The reason why we like Whip is because we empathize with him and he has many admirable qualities which we see, yet, like us, he has the weakness of a compulsion, which, unless we are too perfect to admit, we also may have. Pick your compulsion. Tell me you don’t have one…it may be a matter of degree…but unless you are walking on water, you are flawed. Whip is in a position of power over life and death of others; it makes his compulsion all the more dangerous and makes us tense about when he is going to lose it because of how he is coping…alcohol effects straightened out with the cocaine. We are drawn in as I discussed above to our own contradictions: we like it he fails (gets over…he’s cool) yet know it is bad. Therefore, when he comes to the epiphany at the end, here is a fragmented soul reaching out to become whole, to receive deliverance, prompted by honoring the reputation and memory of a loved one who he has indirectly killed. Denzel Washington is a man of faith. I can’t help but wonder to what extent he had input into the film. Surely, he understood the complexity of the characterization and the character. Marvelous.
#29 by Jennifer's Journal on March 18, 2013 - 5:52 pm
Hi, Kristen. I found this post incredibly helpful in terms of my own WIP. In fact, I read it twice to make sure I got all your points. Am bookmarking for reference. Thank you!
#30 by Caroline Clemmons on March 18, 2013 - 7:21 pm
Kristen, this is a terrific post. I’m so glad you’re back to writing tips and not politics. I know you’re entitled to your political beliefs, but that’s not why I follow your blog. This was great! Thanks.
#31 by Author Kristen Lamb on March 18, 2013 - 7:56 pm
Huh? I think you might have me confused with someone else. I’ve never written about politics. All of my posts are craft, social media and inspiration.
#32 by Elle Carter Neal on March 19, 2013 - 1:56 am
You explain this stuff so brilliantly. I really, really finally get it now 🙂
#33 by Shah Wharton on March 19, 2013 - 7:05 am
I’ve never seen this movie but have to find it somewhere. My hubs is a pilot, for one thing. 😀 Love how you took it apart for us, to show us each element. X
#34 by KM Huber on March 19, 2013 - 10:53 am
When it comes to the BBT, nobody explains it better than Kristen Lamb. Yet another stellar post, Kristen, and while I do not compare your posts (although I bookmark them and visit them more than my family), this is “the post” on how to plot any novel. Again, you are so generous, and we are so fortunate. Beautiful essay, cogent, and just damned fine.
P.S. Nearly 40 years after being assigned Proust’s “Swann’s Way” in college, my reaction remains the same–no–and I am an admitted 19th century romantic. Yet, the idea of Proust actually having to deal with the BBT might be interesting.
#35 by Aaron Freeman on March 19, 2013 - 4:07 pm
An excellent analysis. Thank you.
#36 by danielocceno on March 19, 2013 - 5:30 pm
Have to re-read after breakfast. It deserves more than just a quick scan thinking I know how to use Evelyn Wood’s (SPEED) Reading Dynamics program techniques. I took a class back at college, but I dropped out anyway. I could not remember what I looked at.
#37 by pamelacreese on March 19, 2013 - 8:54 pm
“One of the biggest mistakes most new writers make is they don’t understand the antagonist and how antagonists are used to drive plot momentum and ratchet up the stakes. Without true antagonists, there is no way to generate dramatic tension. One of the “outs” many writers try to use is “Well, my protagonist is his own worst enemy.”
Yeah, um no. That’s therapy, not fiction.”
Loved this post, it speaks to so many stories I have read/critted over the years. I have a protagonist who often is his own worst enemy but I also made certain both his inner conflict AND the actual antagonist were introduced in the first few pages.
I wonder if it is wrong to enjoy seeing how those opposing forces play off each other? I certainly enjoy the process.
Thank you again for this lovely series of articles. It is very helpful to learn, and relearn, the craft, and I look forward to the next post each time.
#38 by danielocceno on March 19, 2013 - 9:15 pm
Only 20K, but I will look for it on HBO Asia or Cinemax Asia or Star Movies Asia. I have not seen it. I saw “Déjà Vu” – a 2006 American crime action thriller back in (I think) February when I was brainstorming on what to write next. I developed a Time Travel idea because I remembered “Somewhere in Time”. But still re-reading. Being called to eat lunch.
#39 by Psychic Witness on March 20, 2013 - 12:53 pm
Reblogged this on Psychicwitness' Blog and commented:
I have to say this is one of the best blogs I’ve read about driving the plot and creating tension.
#40 by Daniel Escurel Occeno on March 20, 2013 - 11:59 pm
“I think what makes Flight a particularly brilliant example is that most everyone knows that, had Whip been sober, he likely would not have been able to successfully execute the daredevil maneuvers that saved the passengers.
Likely it was a mixture of the alcohol that relaxed him combined with the cocaine that heightened his senses that allowed him to save the plane. A sober pilot would have crashed everyone into a fireball of death.”
Dangerous suggestion, I would need to watch the movie first. The viewers might not have been shown that the hero was an F.B.I. agent sent to investigate a possible intentional crash and he replaced the pilot and the evidence of drug and alcohol abuse could be from the mechanics or the real pilot. The F.B.I. agent had to remain deep undercover and accepted his fate from the investigation in order to get, to the truth. His blood workup could be intentional to flush out the sharks. It is sometimes why some complain about the movie did not show what the novel tried to portray. Was there a novel? But I like the teaching suggestion.
#41 by cassidy on January 8, 2015 - 1:12 am
it would be great if people could help compile a list, which i have been searching the internet for hours trying to find, of all the movies where the Protagonist and antagonist is the same person..
fight club kind of…..
Leaving las vegas..
thats all i got.. i know there are many more
#42 by Author Kristen Lamb on January 8, 2015 - 10:22 am
Yes, but the alter self has a proxy that represents the dark side. I.e. The creepy rabbit in Darkko.
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