Accuracy and consistency in our understanding of the mechanism behind story paves the way for a brighter tomorrow.
Teaching narrative structure to subsequent generations is key to our survival as a species. Understanding the mechanism by which we fool ourselves into taking actions and making decisions for what we assume are the "right" reasons allows our children to avoid the blind injustices of the past. Tantamount to this education is an accurate appreciation of narrative dynamics and structures.
Innacurate analyses keep us locked in the Dark Ages.
In his book The Pleasures of Structure: Learning Screenwriting through Case Studies, Julian Hoxter identifies Stoick–the Viking commander and father to Main Character Hiccup–as the Antagonist of the animated movie How to Train Your Dragon:
At the start of the movie the protagonist, Hiccup, is shown to be different from the rest of his tribe. In fact, he’s so different that the other Vikings are the collective antagonists of the story. Their antagonism is embodied primarily in the person of Hiccup’s father, Stoick. Even though Stoick is the antagonist character, what Hiccup really has to overcome is centuries of Viking “thinking” and tradition that Stoick stoically represents.
What Hoxter refers to as "antagonism," Dramatica sees as the Obstacle Character Throughline’s point-of-view. The Obstacle Character’s primary role in a story is to subjectively challenge the Main Character’s point-of-view and justifications.
The Antagonist, on the other hand, objectively prevents the efforts to achieve–regardless of "good guy" or "bad guy" status.
A subjective point-of-view wavers back and forth throughout a narrative until it arrives at a final resolution. The emotional considerations of adopting or remaining steadfast to a particular perspective demand the undulations of indecision.
In sharp contrast, the objective view remains fixed. The forces of initiative and reticence must stay consistent throughout to lock down the dispassionate point-of-view that grants greater understanding.
Functioning narratives require both the subjective and objective points-of-view. When only one persists, or the other lies incomplete and deficient, propaganda creeps in and absconds with our integrity.
One of the first things a writer learns when studying the Dramatica theory of story is this idea of splitting the definitions of Protagonist and Main Character. The Protagonist is the player responsible for pursuing and considering the Story Goal, while the Main Character offers an intimate and personal perspective of conflict in the story. The Protagonist symbolizes the objective motivation of initiative; the Main Character provides a subjective point-of-view.
Most of the Western storytelling tradition combines these two narrative concepts into a player commonly known as the Hero of a story. John McClane in Die Hard, Luke Skywalker in Star Wars, and Peter Parker in Spider-man: Homecoming all function as Heroes in their respective stories.
Some Authors prefer a different approach to their storytelling. Calvin Joyner (Kevin Hart) in Central Intelligence, Red (Morgan Freeman) in The Shawshank Redemption, and Paterson (Adam Driver) in Paterson all function as Main Characters in their stories while leaving the Protagonist duties to someone else. Bob Stone (Dwayne Johnson), Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins), and Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) pursue the Story Goals in those stories, respectively.
Knowing the difference between these two concepts of story makes it easier to identify the actual source of conflict within a narrative. Blending Protagonist and Main Character blinds us to the realities of our justifications, leaving us victim to our ignorance.
The same difference between objective function and subjective point-of-view exists with the Antagonist and the Obstacle Character. Unlike the Protagonist/Main Character combo, the Antagonist and Obstacle Character often find themselves split in most Western storytelling.
In Star Wars, the Empire functions as the Antagonist while Ben Kenobi serves up the challenging Obstacle Character point-of-view. In Central Intelligence, the CIA plays Antagonist while Robbie Weirdicht (Johnson again) provides the Obstacle Character perspective. Stand by Me gives “Ace” Merrill (Kiefer Sutherland) the Antagonist role while Chris Chambers (River Phoenix) plays Obstacle Character.
The Antagonist prevents and forces others to reconsider the efforts to achieve the Story Goal. The Obstacle Character offers the alternative perspective towards solving personal issues–a perspective that uniquely challenges and impacts the Main Character’s point-of-view.
When placed into the same player, these forces of narrative combine to create a Villain. Both The Dark Knight and Batman Begins serve up choice examples of this alignment. Ra’s al Ghul (Liam Neeson) acts as both Antagonist and Obstacle Character to Bruce Wayne in the first film:
RA’S AL GHUL
Like your father, you lack the courage to do all that is necessary. If someone stands in the way of true justice...you simply walk up behind them and stab them in the heart.
And the Joker works as both Antagonist and Obstacle Character to Bruce Wayne in the second film:
To them, you’re just a freak, like me. They need you right now. But when they don’t, they’ll cast you out, like a leper.
The result of meshing Antagonist with Obstacle Character veers more towards the operatic–grandiose declarations of both the subjective point-of-view and the entropic nature of real antagonism.
Hoxter identifies Stoick as the Antagonist. Stoick is the Obstacle Character to Hiccup’s Main Character. Put Obstacle Character and Antagonist into the same Player, and you create a Villain.
Does Stoick come across as villainous in How to Train Your Dragon? Does he compare to Ra’s al Ghul or the Joker regarding ornate rhetoric?
For that matter, does Hiccup deserve to stand alongside Luke Skywalker or Peter Parker in the Hall of Heroes?
Or could this indicate a level of sophistication in the narrative too advanced for outdated models of thinking?
I love teaching story. I taught Story Development at the California Institute of the Arts for seven years, I presented the Dramatica theory of story at several Weekend Workshops over the years, and I created and still offer the Subtxt Apprenticeship Program for students around the world.
I even teach my kids story.
My daughter Katie, a sophomore in high school and a brilliant artist and storyteller, recently asked me Who is the Protagonist in How to Train Your Dragon? Sensing something not quite right, she wondered if I could explain to her what was going on.
Of course, one hopes that the Search feature still works at the top of the site. Failing that, my series of articles on the film:
broach the subject in a straightforward and considered manner.
But then again, this is my 15-year-old daughter.
Texting is the fastest way to get an answer out of dad.
The following is a complete transcript of our conversation from beginning to end.
Astrid. It’s Astrid. Maybe Why father. I have two tests to study for. Why would u do this to me. Now I’m going to FAIL because I’m trying to figure this out.
Because this is infinitely more important. Muawahahahaha
No. What is the Goal of the first movie?
To make Vikings and dragons live in peace. Or y’know. Understand each other
That’s the goal from the very beginning? Or is that how Things turned out
Ok the goal is to end the war with dragons. And that’s how it turned out anyways. WAIT do you mean everyone’s goal or hiccups goal??
The goal of a Story is the goal everyone is concerned with. It creates problems for everyone
Oh. The goal is getting rid of the dragons
So the dragons destroy the town and the goal then is to kill them all?
Where do you see evidence of them trying to kill dragons throughout the entire story
Like in almost every scene
So if they stopped trying to kill dragons all their problems would go away?
Wait hold on. Give me a second to think
Yeah actually. If they stopped fighting their problems would go away
How many dragons do they actually kill in the movie?
Uh. None Cus it’s a kids movie? 😅 I’m so lost
They kill one. Is the story about how hard it is to kill that one dragon?
WAIT hold on. Ok the problem is. Ok hold on. Everyone is concerned about the village. Right?
They’re concerned about the future?
Cus stoic says winter is coming I have an entire village to feed and stuff
Right so what’s the problem then
The food shortage. WAIT AND THE DRAGONS HAVE TO FEED THE BIG DRAGON
So if they stopped feeding the dragon and stoic stopped the potential food shortage would their problems go away
Shoot.. z. Hold on I’m consulting with Ben
Ah yes. The family trade!
Ok. Can u give me a hint The tiniest hint.
What’s the name of the movie
How to train your dragon. “Toothless doesn’t like hiccup but then he does” -Ben
What do they spend a ton of time doing that causes a ton of problems
Training dragons. Well hiccup at least
Are all the problems caused by training dragons?
Ben : “yes because hiccup is all like aw dad it’s not what it looks like”. Ok wait.
Here we go...
Can you give me a QUOTE that gives me a hint. Wait don’t
You’re super close
The problems are caused by hiccup like all the time. If the antagonist is hiccup I’m gonna throw my bed out the window
You’re not the only one who feels that way 😁
ITS NOT HICCUP IS IT??? if it is then that’s super cool
When Hiccup screws up the village at the beginning what do the Vikings set out to do?
Get rid of the dragons for good
Ok you mean like what they do immediately?
What is the activity they engage in that creates problems?
What is Astrid and Snotlout and all the other kids excited about?
Ok but is the majority of the film about how hard it is to fight dragons?
What’s the actual conflict. What happens in the first half of the movie?
Dragon training pretty much. And training.. dragons
What is dragon training?
Training against dragons
Yes!!!!!!!!!! That is what is causing conflict. Now who is FOR it?
Ok so training against dragons And hiccup training the dragons The teens
Who leads the charge and orders it?
If the bad guy is gobber I’m gonna cry
Gobber doesn’t order it
There are no such thing as bad guys or good guys
Who pursues the training?
Oh yeah ok I’m seeing what ur saying Astrid?
Who takes the initiative?
Who wants to train the next generation of dragon killers?
Really? He’s the one who orders it?
OH. Stoic. I thought u meant who was physically training them
Excellent! Stoick is the Protagonist. The one who Pursues and makes people Consider the Goal. Now
NO. NOOOOO. NO NO NO
Who is AGAINST it?
NOOOOOI. NO NO NO I DONT LIKE THIS. STOOOOOOOOOP
Who Prevents it?
Who is motivated to Reconsider? There you go.
Oh my god I hate you I hate dreamworks. I hate Jon Powell. Childhood is gone. Goodbye dragons. I’ll never say the word dragon again
That’s my girl.
As you can see, I prefer bringing the student (or daughter) to a point of realization, rather than simply shouting proclamations from a bully pulpit. This approach works wonders in the Subtxt Apprenticeship Program and excels within Deliberate Storytelling.
Stoick is the Protagonist as he pursues the training of the next generation of dragon killers. Hiccup works to prevent this effort and is therefore the Antagonist.
Subjectively, Stoick is the Obstacle Character, Hiccup the Main Character.
Maintaining these definitions across multiple narratives allows us to make meaningful conclusions as to their outcomes. We’re not always the agents of our own lives. Very often we work against initiatives, sometimes out of fear—sometimes because we want to defend those who cannot fend for themselves. Understanding that success honors the resolute—and the forces of antagonism—shows us the way towards gaining a greater acceptance for all.
That’s why our children deserve an accurate understanding of narrative structure.
We all instinctively get story. We know when it works and we are aware when it sucks.
Dramatica is simply the first understanding of story that honors that instinct and parses our gut into discrete, identifiable points of narrative.
The more we know ourselves, the better our decision making.
Teaching narrative is more than a responsibility–it’s an obligation towards transforming the quality of living for those yet to be born.
Let’s tell them a good story.
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