Series of Articles
Writing the Antagonistic Hero
When the drive to prevent puts you on the wrong side of success
To most, the idea of Protagonist and Antagonist is clear cut and simple: the Protagonist is the "good guy" and the Antagonist is the "bad guy." But what happens when the efforts to resolve conflict put both good and "not-so-good" forces against one another. Who is the Antagonist and who is the Protagonist? Connnecting motivation to the Goal of the story is the best way to delineate both sides and to ensure a story that doesn't fall apart at the end.
How to Train Your Inciting Incident
Understanding that what incites is something easily definable
When it comes to the construction of a solid story, there seems to be some confusion over how it actually begins. In an attempt to generalize and make easily accessible the idea of the initial plot point, many have reduced meaningful storytelling to a generic assumption that can cause confusion among new writers.
Often referred to as the Inciting Incident, this first plot point is typically described as the moment when the Protagonist’s world is turned upside-down, forcing them to react and engage in the story. At first glance, this principle sounds reasonable and helpful in the creation of a story.
Assumptions That Beg Questions
Robert McKee describes it as something that “radically upsets the balance of forces in the protagonist’s life.” Blake Snyder calls it the “Catalyst” and describes it as a life-changing event that happens to or is witnessed by the Protagonist. John Truby defines it as an exterior event that causes the hero to take action. But what about a film like How To Train Your Dragon, where the assumed “Protagonist” (Hiccup) is the one who upsets the apple cart that is the world around him?
The Problem With Dragons
In How To Train Your Dragon, problems begin when young Hiccup inadvertently wrecks havoc on his hometown of Berk. As a result, the Vikings watch helplessly as many of the dragons escape with talons full of Nordic livestock. Nothing happens that Hiccup reacts to. A bomb doesn’t explode, a meteor doesn’t crash to the ground. There is no external incident that Hiccup is reacting to. In fact, the way it is presented it seems like raids like this happen on a pretty consistent basis.
If Hiccup had stayed put like he was told, the marauding dragons would not have made off with a majority of the Viking’s supplies and things would have continued on as they always have. His act of disobedience ignites the story’s central inequity and inspires the drive to train new recruits. But if Hiccup is the instigator of the story’s problem, how can the Inciting Incident be something that happens to him?
Confusing the Protagonist with Main Character
The problem lies with the popular notion the Main Character is also the Protagonist. These two concepts of story are not always one and the same. The Main Character represents the audience’s eyes into the story. The Protagonist is an objective character archetype whose main function in a story is to solve the Story Goal. In How to Train Your Dragon, Hiccup is the Main Character. His father, Stoick, is the Protagonist.
Protagonists are motivated to pursue the Story Goal and to consider the importance of doing so. Antagonists are motivated to prevent or avoid the Story Goal from happening and inspire others to reconsider their own motivations. The former sounds exactly like Stoick, the latter Hiccup. But wait…Hiccup as Antagonist?
The Central Inequity Creates The Story Goal
Hiccup’s opening attempt at glory breeds chaos, inspiring Stoick to pursue a new course of action. This new course, or Story Goal, can be described as Training the next generation of dragon killers. Why isn’t the Goal to find a new way to live with dragons? (thus securing Hiccup as Protagonist). Well for one, that motivation doesn’t really arrive until further along when the Second Act begins. Protagonists are motivated towards the goal from the very beginning of the story’s problem. Secondly, he isn’t so motivated to pursue a new way as much as he is to learn as much as he can in order to avoid having to kill dragons. Objective character functions are unchanging and consistent throughout the entire story. Understanding that, it is clear that Stoick is on a course of pursuit throughout, while Hiccup is motivated to avoid it.
In essence then, those original interpretations of the Inciting Incident were correct--the event does upset the Protagonist’s world, requiring them to pursue a course of action to resolve it. Their error was in assuming that the Protagonist is always the Main Character.
The utility (or futility) of the Central Dramatic Question
The central inequity is often referred to as a dilemma facing the Main Character: How can Hiccup learn to destroy these beasts at the same time he is befriending their most deadliest ally? While this question is interesting from an audience’s point-of-view, when it comes to writing a story, it becomes a little less than useful. Instead of thinking of it as creating a Central Dramatic Question, the Inciting Incident should be seen as something that sets up the story’s drive to resolve its central problem.
Thinking of this inequity as a Central Dramatic Question only becomes helpful after the fact, when looking at the story from the perspective of the audience. This is why many look to the works of story gurus and see them as counter-productive or unnecessary during the process of writing. On the other hand, thinking of this inequity as a problem that wishes to be solved becomes significantly more productive when sitting down to write. Suddenly the author knows what problems are at hand and can devise scenes that explore the best way to resolve them.
What an Inciting Incident really is
David Mamet comes closest when he speaks of “disordering events.” If stories are all about solving problems, then it only makes sense that there should be some genesis of that problem, some point at which the inequity of the story is created. This inequity exists because of the Inciting Incident.
Trying to establish it as something connected to the Protagonist, particularly when there is confusion between Protagonist and Main Character, can only serve to muddy the waters of effective and meaningful storytelling.
Without the Inciting Incident, there would be no story
Inciting events can come from anywhere and from anyone. Defining precisely what the reason for this initial spark is and the result of its introduction into the story can go a long way towards clearing up any inconsistencies within previous understandings of story. All this event must do is create the problem within the story at large. Whether it is something that happens to the Main Character or something they brought upon themselves, all that matters is that an inequity is created that every character in the story finds themselves wanting to resolve.
::: expert Advanced Story Theory for this Article The Inciting Incident--or more precisely the first Story Driver--is tied to the Objective Story Throughline. As this is the domain of the Protagonist, it only makes sense that he or she would have some reaction to this initial upset. That much is clear and explains where this notion that it must be something the Protagonist reacts to comes from. But the purpose of such a dramatic device isn’t so much to make a connection between the Objective Story and the Protagonist as much as it is to set the initial inequity in motion. That is the purpose of the initial plot point. All else follows from this change. :::
When Failure Becomes a Good Thing
Not every story needs to work out for the best. In fact, one could argue that greater truth can be found in stories that closer approximate the bittersweet moments in life.
In How To Train Your Dragon, things don’t quite work out the way Hiccup had intended. While smiles abound and the music swells, there still seems to be a sense of loss. The reason why this is goes far beyond the obvious physical changes: something quite meaningful has transpired.
Protagonist vs. Antagonist
As mentioned in the previous article on How to Train Your Inciting Incident, the Goal of this film was to Train the next generation of dragon killers. Stoick, as Protagonist, pursues this Goal with unrelenting courage and steadfastness. His son Hiccup, as Antagonist, works to prevent this from happening, balancing the years of tradition he wishes to honor with his instinct to protect the very same beasts he has been tasked with killing.
Major Plot Points develop the original problem
Hiccup’s interference in the opening sequence upsets the balance of things on Berk. With this Inciting Incident creating the central inequity of the story, what further events develop it and propel the story towards its eventual resolution?
- First Act Turn: Hiccup cuts Toothless free
- Midpoint: Astrid discovers Toothless, Giant dragon revealed
- Second Act Turn: Stoick forces Toothless into revealing the dragon’s nest
While Hiccup’s refusal to kill the Monstrous Nightmare is the larger event of the Second Act, that shift from the first half of this act into the second is more a series of actions that drive the story forward thematically rather than one central sequence. These actions alter the exploration of one way to solve the story’s central problem to another. Plot Points don’t always have to be one singular event. In fact, thinking of plot events this way almost certainly guarantees that a story will come off mechanical and plodding, and sometimes episodic. Instead, plot points should be seen as forces that shift the dramatic focus of each structural act into a new area.
The Four Acts of Dragons
As revealed in the article on The Reason for Acts, there are four major contexts from which every problem can be appreciated. Taking the above assessment of the Story Goal and Plot Points found in How to Train Your Dragon, the Act order becomes readily apparent:
Following Hiccup’s initial blunder, the Vikings continue to Do what they have always done, namely mounting excursions into the unknown and training new recruits.
The Second Act turns with Hiccup’s act of defiance against his heritage and begins what Snyder would lovingly call the “Fun and Games” moment — the montage of young Vikings Learning their trade. This is the Act where Hiccup asks all his questions, further complicating the young one’s training and increasing the tension formed by the original inequity.
The multi-layered approach to the Midpoint slides the story into the structural Third Act, forcing the characters to come to a better Understanding of what is really going on. Beginning with Astrid’s understanding of why Hiccup has been acting so strangely and culminating with the revelation of the dragon’s unholy alliance with an even bigger dragon, the second act flows from Learning to Understanding. It peaks with Hiccup’s decision not to kill the Monstrous Nightmare, a decision that leads the Vikings (particularly Hiccup’s father Stoick) to mistakingly view Hiccup as a traitor.
Finally, the fourth and final structural act begins with Stoick’s demand that Toothless reveal the hiding place of the dragons. This action forces Hiccup and the others to decide to do something really crazy. As with Star Wars, this final act is all about two forces trying to achieve victory over the other.
Only things don’t work out quite the way they did in that seminal sci-fi classic.
Why is it that the ending of this animated “kid’s” film has such a bittersweet feeling to it? Even though they defeated the giant dragon, it still doesn’t have that same overwhelming victorious feeling that Han and Luke experienced way back when. Is it simply the physical changes that came as a result or could it be there was something else more meaningful going on? Examining the structural fallout from the attempts to resolve the story’s central problem grants one the answer.
Hiccup’s personal issues revolve around his diminutive appearance and his relatively unimportant place among the other Vikings. In other words, he doesn’t fit in. In fact, people refer to his physicality as the reason why they can’t take him seriously (“You just pointed to all of me.”) The resolution of this angst comes with his father’s admittance that they were wrong all along, Hiccup was exactly what they needed.
But at what cost?
Hiccup’s resolution came only as the result of his father’s failure to train the next generation of dragon killers. This is why it looks like a victory when the kids come riding in on dragons and defeat the big bad guy. Hiccup, as Antagonist, has won. He has prevented the Protagonist from achieving the Story Goal. Sure, it comes as a result of killing an even bigger dragon, but the story was about learning to kill the very beasts they came riding in on.
The film feels bittersweet because of the way the story is constructed. A Personal Triumph story is defined as one where the main Objective Story ends in Failure yet the Main Character resolves their personal issues. How to Train Your Dragon fits this description perfectly. Personal Triumphs feel bittersweet because the dividends of such an experience outweigh the failure of achieving the original goal. Not every failure can be seen as a loss.
The Consequences of Failing
When failure is met, consequences must be dealt with. Without consequences, there can be no motivation towards solving the problem. Consequences though, as can be seen in this film, are not always negative. While the structure of a story is both objective and logistically sensible, how it is portrayed and woven into the fabric of the story can be tempered with the subjective artistry of the writer.
Driven to prevent the original Goal from succeeding, Hiccup manages to come up with something even better--adopting the dragons as pets. His new idea resolves the tenuous situation between the dragons and Vikings (at least these dragons), but only as a consequence of failing to resolve the story’s original problem. The audience can sense this innately and explains clearly while the film doesn’t have that overwhelming triumphant feeling that Star Wars had.
Plot points that serve the story’s message
Major story events are more than simply progressive complications that increase tension. They drive a story forward, increasing the central inequity to its eventual breaking point, and eventually end up forcing the Main Character to deal with his or her own personal issues. When the efforts to resolve the story’s problem ends in failure, the Protagonist by definition loses, the Antagonist wins. How the Main Character ends up emotionally though determines whether the film is an all-out Tragedy or simply another case of Personal Triumph.
How To Train Your Dragon fulfills the tenants of the latter, establishing itself as something quite special among the typically upbeat companions in the animated film genre.
Advanced Story Theory for this Article
How To Train Your Dragon is a wonderful example of a story with an Outcome of Failure and a Story Judgment of Good. With further clarity in its depiction of a Steadfast Main Character and an Objective Story Concern of Learning (what else would a film with that kind of title be!), the storyform presents itself with appreciations that resonate strongly.
The Consequence of Conceiving--coming up with the idea of adopting the dragons as pets--shines as a meaningful result of failing to achieve the original Story Goal. Stoick’s problem of Non-Acceptance, Hiccup and his drive to Protect, and the Issue between the two of them revolving around Deficiency (certainly there is a feeling that someone is lacking!) all add up to a film that is much more than wonderful art direction and sincere character animation.
Steadfast, Stop, Do-er, Male, Action, Spacetime, Failure, Good, Physics, Learning, Preconditions, Non-acceptance
What It Means to Fail
Every story is an effort to resolve some kind of problem. The Protagonist’s success in this endeavor is largely determined by whether or not the appropriate solution is found.
Many stories, and not surprisingly many of Hollywood’s favorites, tell the tale of a Protagonist who injects the solution into the story’s problems, thereby bringing order and balance back into the lives of the characters. Stories of Triumph and Personal Triumph abound with Protagonists who win and Antagonists who lose. It is within the other side of the equation, the Personal Tragedy and Tragedy, where the success of these two dramatic opponents switches hands, leaving the original problem intact.
Failure is more than giving up
In his insightful treatise on play-writing, Backwards and Forwards, David Ball elaborates on what it means when a story ends:
Stasis comes about at the close of the play when the major forces of the play either get what they want or are forced to stop trying.
Stasis returns when the original problem is solved, thereby dissolving the original inequity. There are several stories, however, that do not regain this balance and do not return to a point of stasis. Hamlet, Amadeus, and Se7en are three prime examples of problems that linger on far beyond the last credit. It is less a case of the characters being forced to stop trying and more that a solution to the original problem was never found, or at the very least, was never employed.
Identifying the source of all problems
In How To Train Your Dragon problems exist because of the refusal of some characters to compromise. At first, this refusal only comes from Hiccup. His act of disobedience within the opening sequence sets the story off and forces Stoick, as Protagonist, to take the necessary action required to return things back to normal. As covered in the article How to Train Your Inciting Incident, Hiccup’s chaotic influence interrupts the tender balance between dragons and Vikings, ultimately driving Stoick to pursue the Story Goal of Training the next generation of dragon killers.
This inability to compromise though, can be found everywhere and not simply within Hiccup himself. Stoick’s refusal to allow Hiccup to train, the initial refusal by Toothless to take Hiccup on as a rider, Hiccup’s constant repudiation of traditional Viking teaching within the ring, Astrid’s resistance to Hiccup’s relationship with Toothless and the subsequent romantic flight that begins with Toothless’s initial rejection of Astrid…all of these are clear instances where standing one’s ground creates friction within the world of the story, friction that affects everyone.
Such friction becomes a good indicator of a story’s central problem.
Every problem carries with it its own solution
No matter what the problem is, its very existence automatically supplies the corresponding solution. If the problem is an overabundance of emotion as it is in The Godfather (Sonny’s overreaction, Don’s feeling about drugs), then it only follows that the solution would be a reliance on rational thought (as supplied by Tom Hagan and used to great success by Michael). If the problem is a repressive state of control as it is in Casablanca (exemplified by the Nazi’s presence and their willing benefactor Renault), then it would make sense that the solution be found in freedom (the rousing rendition of “La Marseillaise” and of course, Ilsa and Laszlo’s escape). Identify the problem in a story and the corresponding dynamically opposed solution will present itself.
If the problem is a refusal to compromise, as it is in How To Train Your Dragon, then the solution would be a call for more tolerance, an acceptance of what is presented. But isn’t this what happened in the film? Didn’t Stoick come to accept his son for who he is?
Separate Throughlines and Their Solutions
Complete stories require that there be four throughlines. Beyond the obvious Main Character and Objective Storylines, there also needs to be someone who challenges the Main Character’s way of seeing things. This becomes the third throughline. The fourth and final throughline is covered by the relationship that develops between the two. In Dragon, this challenging character throughline is shared among three characters: Stoick, Astrid and Toothless. While each has their own motivations and place within the main story, their place within the structure of the story is the same: to force Hiccup to doubt his resolve.
In the end, Hiccup stands his ground (as all Steadfast Main Characters do), forcing the others in the relationship to change. Both Toothless and Astrid fall early, but it is Stoick’s change that carries with it the greater emotional resonance. His acceptance of Hiccup as his son resolves the problem within his own throughline. It does not, however, solve the problems within the story at large.
The reason for stories
These four throughlines provide an audience with an opportunity to look at problems from different perspectives simultaneously --something they cannot do in their own lives. This is the power of stories, and of movies, and the reason why audiences continue to seek out this experience time and time again. By assessing the outcomes of separate throughlines dealing with the same problem, an audience member can acquire some greater meaning to the order of things.
Failing to resolve the main story problem
So while Stoick was able to resolve his throughline by finding a greater tolerance for his son, in the larger picture that refusal to compromise persisted.
Remember in that previous article how Stoick was identified as the Protagonist and Hiccup the Antagonist? For Stoick to win, to successfully achieve his goal of Training the next generation of dragon killers Hiccup would have had to accept the Viking way and done away with all dragons. By mounting one of their heads above the fireplace, Hiccup would have employed that solution of tolerance the main story needed for a successful resolution.
But the story’s structure called for a completely different outcome.
Arriving at the final battle atop dragons wasn’t a sign of tolerating the dragons, it was a continuation of the mayhem originally begun by Hiccup. In effect, the kids were misbehaving, refusing to accept the training that Stoick and the others had hoped to instill in them. While they ultimately managed to save the day in the end, they did so by rejecting the Viking way.
Problems that persist
When a story ends in failure, the required solution was never employed. As explained in When Failure Becomes a Good Thing, the consequences of failing to reach the desired outcome can be painted in a more positive light as they are in How To Train Your Dragon. While the solution may be employed in one throughline, this does not necessarily guarantee a successful outcome in every throughline. By mixing success and failure within the separate perspectives on a story’s problem, an author can construct a meaningful dissonance that provides an audience with a memorable and lasting experience.
:::expert Advanced Story Theory for this Article The storyform for How To Train Your Dragon finds Non-Acceptance as a Problem in three of the four throughlines: Objective Story, Influence Character and Relationship Story. While failure is the outcome of the Objective Story (as described above), success is to be found in the Influence Character and Relationship Throughlines. Stoick’s Acceptance of his son shortly before his final attack on the huge dragon naturally rounds out his throughline and gives us a very clear example of a Change Influence Character. Their relationship finds resolve in Stoick’s Acceptance of Hiccup’s idea of how Vikings and Dragons should live together (proof of which lies within the closing sequence).
Interestingly enough, the storyform calls for Hiccup’s Problem to be Protection. As a Steadfast Main Character, this Problem will be seen more as a source of the Main Character’s drive rather than a problem to be solved and nowhere is this more evident than within the young Viking’s explanation for why he didn’t kill Toothless. As he explains to Astrid, he looked into the dragon’s eyes and saw himself (a prime candidate for the “You and I” montage if there ever was one), driven to Protect someone as helpless as he himself felt. In a more complex and extended story, the Solution of Inaction would have been seen in moments where Hiccup would have doubted himself and perhaps done nothing to protect a defenseless creature. With a running time close to 90 minutes, this sort of sophistication and nuance within a Steadfast Main Character falls by the wayside. :::