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Without An Antagonist

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Many how-to-write books state that without an antagonist, there is no plot. An antagonist contributes to plot by causing a problem for the protagonist to struggle against and a target which can be battled and defeated decisively, making for a dramatic climax. But, is an antagonist the only way to get these things, or just the easiest? The problem can come from other places than the antagonist. In a mystery, the problem can be generated simply by the protagonist's obsessive need to know something. In other cases the protagonist's struggle may be against himself - does this make the protagonist also the antagonist? What if you have 2 characters and each struggles both against himself and against the other character? Are they bothe protagonists? Both antagonists? Both... both? That's a formula for a romance novel, and I don't know about you, but I would feel odd calling either a hero or a heroine the antagonist. What about an abstract antagonist like a storm? Is it really legitimate to consider an abstraction a character? How do you fight back against wind and rain? If a problem can be created without an antagonist, then that problem can also be solved without confronting an antagonist - but without a confrontation, is the solution to the problem dramatic enough to serve as the climax? Personally I believe that it is possible to use as a discovery, transformation, or decision as a dramatic antagonist-less climax. What do you all think? Can you think of any examples of dramatic, structurally sound books or movies which don't have an antagonist? One example that comes to my mind is the movie _The Hallelujah Trail_. The movie has several distinct factions and leaders: The colonel, his cavalry, Mrs. Massingale, her temperance marchers, newspaperman Horace Greely, Wallingham the wagon train master, his irish teamsters, Oracle Jones, his militia, two indian chiefs, and their indians. Major non-human players are a dust storm, a swamp, and exploding champagne. The problem is caused beause everybody has a strong opinion about what should be done with 40 wagonloads of alcohol. The sneaking and politicking between these several factions make for a very dramatic (and hilarious) movie, with a dramatic climax where the problem is solved when the different factions plans interact in an unexpected way which decisively removes from play the alcohol everyone was struggling over, with no final battle and no one being defeated. A wonderful movie without an identifiable antagonist. So... where can I find a how-to-write book which teaches how to write this kind of story?

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Almost no high level stories use antagonists. The concept of an antagonist is like the concept of having santa clause, where most of the time it is an unnecessary personification. The following is a small list of examples of stories with no antagonists. You may find villainish roles. But 'fighting the villain' is not what the story is about.


The Wedding Banquet, Finding Neverland, Hero, Memento, Catch me if you can, Forrest Gump, American Beauty, Beautiful Mind, Saving Private Ryan, Three Kings, The Aviator, ...

Finding Nemo, Kiki’s Delivery Service, Perfect Blue, Millenium Actress, Monster Inc., Tokyo Godfathers, Beauty and the Beast, Area 88, ...


The most ancient form of writing without antagonists (or even characters) is poetry. So if you know how to write a poem you will know how to write a story without any antagonist.



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An antagonist contributes to plot by causing a problem for the protagonist to struggle against and a target which can be battled and defeated decisively, making for a dramatic climax.

An antagonist is a concentration, manifestation, or personification of a set of believes or a point of view in an argument. In your statement, the Force is what causes the conflict, not the Representation of the Force. An antagonist is a choice of representation for the Force.



When a painter look at a blank canva, they don't compose the painting thinking in terms of characters. You might say that a painting doesn't have a plot. That is not true. For strong paintings, there is still rising action, climax, and resolution, as you discover what the painter is try to convey through the image.

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um...Sure, the classic interpretation of antagonist is of an seperate opposeing character to the storys protagonist...However antagonist in general means more then that:

Quote:

an·tag·o·nist (n-tg-nst)
n.

Something, such as a muscle, disease, or physiological process, that neutralizes or impedes the action or effect of another.



for example Hamlets antagonist was his inability to take early action leading to his infamous "to be, or not to be" monalogue..the "fatial flaws" found in most of shakespears tragities were antagonistic in nature.

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Estok - so how would you represent overcoming Society's prejudice against and non-acceptance of a family without concretizing society in the form of some social leader?

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Hmmm...Writing a story without an antagonist. I'm not sure how you go about doing that. The antagonist is the personification of an idea, or concept that the protagonist is in conflict with. It doesn't have to be a person could very well be something less tangible.

For instance in beauty and the beast the antagonist is Gaston who represents the prejudice and discrimination that Belle and the beast face from society. The defeat of Gaston represents overcoming this obstacle.

In your example of the Hallelujah Trail from your description I would say the 40 Wagon Loads of Alcohol was the antagonist

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how would you represent overcoming Society's prejudice against and non-acceptance of a family without concretizing society in the form of some social leader?


One way you could achieve this by having a wedding being the antagonist. If the two main characters where trying to get married, then societies prejudice could be represented by the two main characters difficulties in organizing and pulling off the wedding.

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I remember a movie, with George Clooney as a sailor in a tempest trying as hard as possible to survive. Would you say that this tempest was or was not an antagonist?

What about charriots of fire? Is the chronometer an antagonist? Is it the time limit? Is it the other runers, that are only discovered rather late in the movie? Is it the solitude the preacher has to face, in order to run? Is it his own pain? Is there nothing to overcome?

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I believe antagonists don't have to be personified or villified, and that challenges can be antagonistic, if the story problem is well defined. I believe the personification can help because viewers need someone to focus on when booing the entity that opposes their hero. I don't buy that without an antagonist, there is no plot. Antagonistic forces can sufficiently raise challenge for the hero for the audience to go along for the ride. Andromeda Strain is an example of this. The andromeda virus itself was relatively innocuous, just attempting to survive as organisms everywhere, not really an embodified antagonist with negatively dispositioned characteristics through willful intent to oppose the team, yet, it gave them all plenty of challenge because of the limitations the writer put into the settings: it happened in a limited laboratory environment, some people were not affected when everyone else died, the lab limitations, such as the laser security system, really put a hitch in progress.

I think it can be done, it's in the plot design approaches and techniques you employ, and how you employ them in concert or opposition to each other.

Adventuredesign

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Original post by sunandshadow
Estok - so how would you represent overcoming Society's prejudice against and non-acceptance of a family without concretizing society in the form of some social leader?


Is your Society a one dimensional Force that only represent prejudice? Who is not accepting a family?


"without concretizing society in the form of some social leader?" This is a non-clause.

Reflection of a society exists in all level of the society. Think about the stories about vietnam war veterans. You don't need social leaders to represent a society. You may get a better result if you don't concentrate society as one being, so that the reader get a better sense that the main character is being 'surrounded' by society and is 'attacked on all sides' like in vietnam, as the main character compare which one is more hellish: to face physical harm and death, or to face the eternal torment of the soul.

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Original post by Estok
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Original post by sunandshadow
Estok - so how would you represent overcoming Society's prejudice against and non-acceptance of a family without concretizing society in the form of some social leader?


Is your Society a one dimensional Force that only represent prejudice? Who is not accepting a family?


"without concretizing society in the form of some social leader?" This is a non-clause.


I wrote that because often a religious or political leader, or occasionally a social queen, is used as a concretization of society. Just like your santa claus example, something must be ok if the grand high mucketymuck says so, even if all the peasants were opposed to it yesterday.

Quote:

Reflection of a society exists in all level of the society. Think about the stories about vietnam war veterans. You don't need social leaders to represent a society. You may get a better result if you don't concentrate society as one being, so that the reader get a better sense that the main character is being 'surrounded' by society and is 'attacked on all sides' like in vietnam, as the main character compare which one is more hellish: to face physical harm and death, or to face the eternal torment of the soul.


But, I want society to change at the climax of the story. How can I, with versimilitude and drama, show a big vague thing like vietnam changing? It's much easier to show the main character changing the king of vietnam, rather than vietnam itself. I'd rather show the characters changing vietnam itself, but I don't see how to do so.

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how would you represent overcoming Society's prejudice against and non-acceptance of a family without concretizing society in the form of some social leader?


Do some research...interacial marrages, homosexual partners trying to raise kids, a family of followers of a minority religion liveinging among families of majority ones...there are tons of modern examples to generate ideas from.

For example lets say the story revolves around a interacial couple (although to be fair interacial marrages are far more tolerated today then they were as recently as the 1970s) say a black man and white woman moveing into a fairly upscale nieghborhood...maybe thier intolerant nieghbors simply shun the family, don't come over to greet them, avoid them at all costs...and maybe those liveing next door call the police and the merest hint that the TV is possably too loud or some other agrivateing activity the intolorant nieghbors become hyper sensitive to.

now there are many ways to dramaticly build then resolve the issue

...maybe a house down the street gets burglerised and the intolerant nieghborhood all think the interacial couple had something to do with it (nieghbors reluctance to let go of racial stereotypes acts as an antagonist)

...maybe a more openminded family down the street becomes friendly, and thier intolerant nieghbors begin to spread rumors of infidelity that come back to affect the interacial couple in some way (personnel fears and insecurities in the relationship act as antagonist)

...maybe a child of a nieghbor gets hurt, and the interacial couple does nothing to help as they incorrectly fear the child is acting inorder to taunt them (possable false suspision the nieghbors are intolerant acts as antagonist)

really lots of ways to do this without putting all your antagonistic eggs in one basket.

just remember its realy only those "how to write books" that suggest an antagonist is a character acting in opposition...in the critical literary world, the antagonist can be anything from ones own thoughts, to vast armadas of warships, to even the existance of life itself.

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I wrote that because often a religious or political leader, or occasionally a social queen, is used as a concretization of society. Just like your santa claus example, something must be ok if the grand high mucketymuck says so, even if all the peasants were opposed to it yesterday.
In general this is an elementary form of representing society, where the people are no more than the followers of the leader. This representation is elementray because it is uni-directional and one dimensional. What you are looking at as a 'Society' is no more than a king and the representation of the king's power.

In the Veteran example, society is not representation of power owned by some leader. To change the sociey is to change the people. For example, in the story, the vietnam veteran can meet some kind of pacifist film director who wanted to make a pacifist film condemning the war, and the veteran was somehow involved. As the production continued the veteran and the director became connected and the director became empathetic. On one hand she was to finish the anti-war documentary, on the other hand she had grown away from her view. The director wished that maybe the veteran would quit the work, giving her an excuse to stop the production. But the veteran never did, and told her that he would not quit because this was what he fought for.



You are correct that it is easier to show the main character changing the king of vietnam instead of vietnam itself. But that just dumbs down the story.

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Estok - I agree that using a leader to represent society would be elementary and dumbing-down. But, how does your vetran, by making a pacifist war movie, change vietnam? I don't want to change what anyone thinks about society, I want to change what society IS.

MSW - Uh, do you have any happy ending exmples? I would see your examples as the problems, not the resolutions of the problems.

Technogoth - A wedding as the antagonist? That's a hilarious idea. ;) The wedding of Murphy's Law maybe. or a more serious example might be an impending wedding to the wrong person, hmm...

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The Veteran example was not about changing Vietnam. It was about changing the US. This transformation is presented through the changing view of the director. The aspect being discussed is prejudice. Changing how the people think about the issue is changing the Society.

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In my point of view you can't have an exciting story without the antagonist.
That would mean you live in a perfect world where you don't care about anything.
You don't have to worry about getting something to eat, you don't have to get some cigarettes (the antagonist would be the closed store e.g.), nobody or nothing tries to kill you ... you don't have conflicts you would have to solve, try to overcome..

Someone mentioned earlier that Forrest Gump has no antagonist: It has.
It is the prejudice (or rather the fact) that everybody thinks Forrest is dumb. He tries to ignore it when he says: "Dumb people do dumb things." ... and as a matter of fact he actually did not do dumb things on second guessing because everything worked out for him ( even shrimp fishing :) ). He actually does'nt know he fights his antagonist.

Quoted from Estok
Quote:

Quoted from sunandshadow
Quote:

An antagonist contributes to plot by causing a problem for the protagonist to struggle against and a target which can be battled and defeated decisively, making for a dramatic climax.


An antagonist is a concentration, manifestation, or personification of a set of believes or a point of view in an argument. In your statement, the Force is what causes the conflict, not the Representation of the Force. An antagonist is a choice of representation for the Force.


[Edited by - hoLogramm on June 3, 2005 1:01:25 AM]

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You read the posts wrongly. Prejudice is a Force. The natural existence of this Force involves characters.



The general definition of Antagonist:

The principal character in opposition to the protagonist or hero of a narrative or drama.


"Stories without antagonist" refers to stories where there is no principal character opposing the main character. Forrest Gump does not have any antagonist.

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I agree on the classical side.

Don Quijote doesn't have a classical antagonist either then (if windmills don't count).

But i really would incorporate the abstract antagonist too because i think that what makes a story identifyable with oneself. It gives much more depth to a plot than a physical person.

Fighting an abstract antagonist is useless .. you will loose, but the main challenge is the ability to cope with it.
e.g. everybody picks on when you're fat or ugly. You can't stop them of doing so but if you can cope with it you look for weaknesses in your opponents and use it against them or at least walk away with a smile because you know that you are better than they ... or if you can't cope with it you would probably commit suicide or become a serial killer.

I would say MSW had a good definition for it.
Quote:

um...Sure, the classic interpretation of antagonist is of an seperate opposeing character to the storys protagonist...However antagonist in general means more then that:

Quote:
Quote:

an·tag·o·nist (n-tg-nst)
n.

Something, such as a muscle, disease, or physiological process, that neutralizes or impedes the action or effect of another.


for example Hamlets antagonist was his inability to take early action leading to his infamous "to be, or not to be" monalogue..the "fatial flaws" found in most of shakespears tragities were antagonistic in nature.


[Edited by - hoLogramm on June 3, 2005 7:52:40 AM]

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When you are in a discussion, you discuss using the meaning within the frames set by the original poster. When the OP used the word Antagonist based on a certain definition, you supposed to communicate using that definition.

The intention of the post is to identify ways to create a story when a certain device is missing. The word Antagonist was used to delineate the missing device.

You are correct that there are other ways to define what an Antagonist is. But none of such discussion benefit the discussion because this thread was clearly not about the definition of Antagonist.

'Antagonist' was used as a classifier to define the subject of the topic. You are diluting the problem statement.

Maybe you are trying to say that an antagonist must exist in order to have a plot. In some sense that is true, depending on how you expand the definition, to a point where any conflict is defined as the crash between an protagonist and an antagonist. For example, for a character who is enjoying life, you could describe the story as a "protagonist [struggling] against and [the absence of enjoyment] which can be battled and defeated decisively", where the 'absence of enjoyment' is the 'antagonist'.

I don't think the goal of this thread is symbolically flatten all the definitions to eliminate the discussion. If you do that, you are just going to force poster to (unnecessarily) rephrase the problem.

This was why I would choose to call the rest of it the 'Force', so that there is no conflict of notation.




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Original post by Estok
The Veteran example was not about changing Vietnam. It was about changing the US. This transformation is presented through the changing view of the director. The aspect being discussed is prejudice. Changing how the people think about the issue is changing the Society.


Ok, but if you were going to come up with an example that was about changing Vietnam, the very essence of Vietnam, how might the vetran cause a transformation like that? Maybe by releasing a virus that killed all the mosquitoes he hated when he was there the first time or something like that?

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what exactly do you want to change about Vietnam?

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Well, if you want me to get into details the Vietnam example isn't very useful, so I'll switch back to the specifics of my story.

I want a team of 4 characters, whose strengths are creativity, strategy, loyalty, and leadership instinct, to use these strengths and some (non cheesy!) magical means to change a society of aliens from rejecting a homosexual family to accepting them. So, thwir group psychology is the specific thing I want to change; and I want to change it dramatically and all at once, not gradually like the pacifist movie woulf change the US's group psychology about Vietnam.

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Original post by Estok
The general definition of Antagonist:

The principal character in opposition to the protagonist or hero of a narrative or drama.


Now define just what a character is...

because a character can be the fish in Finding Nemo, the mechanical beings in Robots, HAL in 2001, the programs and agents in the Matrix, Big Brother in 1984, a bomb in Dark Star, V'Ger in Star Trek the motion picture, the demon in the Exorcist, even a figment of ones imagination such as the title character from Drop Dead Fred...and even the people in the flashback story about another man with memory loss as recounted in Momento...A character can even be a personification of an idea such as Tyler Durden from Fight Club.

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your example is not useful for this discussion, because you already imposed roles and characterization. If you really want to learn, start from scratch.

The ideas here are not about removing characters and replace them with non-character means to deliver the message. It is about choosing between using and not using character to deliver the message. In your example, you had already took the step and chosen to use characters.



If you simplying want to do:

"change a society of aliens from rejecting a homosexual family to accepting them" as a mean of providing a viewpoint about homosexuality, then this story aligns with The Wedding Banquet (1993). The Wedding Banquet is an example of the same concept presented without an antagonist.



Changing from using antagonist to not using any is not just a translation of symbols. It is a redesign, a shift of paradigm. I am not saying that there is no design that will fit your thematics, but designing anew is easier than form-fitting it to the constraints. If you really want to know how it works and how it comes about, start a flesh idea.




Extra: Fairy Tale version of the Wedding Banquet

Keep your Ranma or Urusei Yatsura mind when you read the following:

Design Requirements:
- Characters with Creativity, Strategy, Loyalty, and Leadership, and magical ability
- Aliens that reject homosexual family

As their end of year science projects, each alien student must study a space species and present a term paper about their families. Here comes Mikey the alien who decided to pick humans as the subject. He came down to earth and became part of this 4-member family. Everything was going fine, he studied their interactions, their thoughts, etc... but then he realized that they are a family of the same sex. Time is running out to start over on a different family, but someone, somehow has to be able to have an offspring in order to qualify as a 'family'. So they devised a scheme to fool the judges...






[Edited by - Estok on June 4, 2005 12:16:15 AM]

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I already imposed roles and characterization because I'm trying to get the plot outline for my novel finished. Learning is nice, but not my primary goal at the moment. It's not like I currently have no idea how to write a story with no antagonist; among the stories I've written you'd be hard-pressed to find one that _does_ have an antagonist. I just wanted to discus the subject because I've been reading how-to-write books lately and it seems like _none_ of them are about the type of fiction I'm trying to write. I'm currently interested in getting a climax for my book figured out. I've never seen a good list of what types of climaxes there are so I could pick out a kind to aim for, and it's just tricky to get the climax to go off with a bang if you don't have a single 'bad guy' to focus on. Especially with magic involved, since I have more of a science-fiction mindset and not much experience writing magic.

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