“Things” as Characters

By Melanie Anne Phillips

Can things be characters?

A writer asks:

“My favorite creative writing book is ‘Setting’ by Jack Bickham. Use of setting as primary with characters, plot, theme, mood, etc derived from it and interacting with it seems of particular value in science fiction. Where would Deep Space 9 be without deep space and a space station! Setting is certainly the cauldron of my imagination.

So how can I best approach things this way with Dramatica? Do you have any examples where setting has been created as a character?

Can I have two antagonists, for example, one a person and the other a setting?”

My Reply:

In fact, the Antagonist in a story can be a person, place or thing – any entity that can fulfill the dramatic function of the Antagonist.

First, look at the movie, Jaws.  The Antagonist is the shark. It may seem to some that the mayor in Jaws is the Anatagonist, but he isn’t against the goal of keeping the people safe and killing the shark – he just makes it more difficult.  Therefore, the mayor is the Contagonist.

Next consider the 1950s movie with Spencer Tracy and Robert Wagner called, “The Mountain.” Tracy plays an aging mountain climber whose nemesis is the huge mountain that looms over his home and nearly killed him years ago. He hasn’t climbed since. The mountain claims new victims in a plane crash, which may have some survivors.

Tracy is the only one qualified to lead an expedition to rescue them. Wagner, his nephew, wants to rob the plane of its valuables and slyly convinces Tracy to lead the expedition on humanitarian grounds. The mountain is the Antagonist and Wagner is the Contagonist, because he makes it more difficult.

In the movie, “Aliens” (the second film in the series), the Aliens themselves are the “Group Antagonist” and the Contagonist is Burke, the company man, who makes it more difficult.

In the movie, “The Old Man & the Sea.” Anthony Quinn is the Protagonist, the Great Fish is the Antagonist, and the Sea is the Contagonist, as it makes the effort more difficult.

In a short story called, “The Wind,” which appeared in an anthology released by Alfred Hitchcock, the wind itself it the Antagonist, having sentience and stalking down and eventually killing an explorer who accidentally stumbled upon the knowledge that the winds of the world are alive.  The narrator of the story is the Contagonist, as he is the friend of his hapless friend, the explorer, who refuses to believe him and therefore makes things more difficult.

These examples illustrate that all of the dramatic functions (such as Protagonist, Antagonist, and Contagonist) need to be represented, but can easily be carried by a person, place, or thing. Still, there is only one Antagonist, and the other negative force is usually the Contagonist.

There are two exceptions to the “rule” that there should be only one Antagonist. One is when the Antagonist is a group, as in the “Aliens” example above, or with an angry mob or the Empire in the original Star Wars movie. The other is when the function of the Antagonist is “handed off” from one player to another when the first player dies or moves out of the plot.

A hand-off is different than a group insofar as all the members of the group are fulfilling the same dramatic function at the same time as if it were a single entity, but in a hand-off the characters fulfill the function in turn, each carrying forward the next part of the job like runners in a relay race.

 

So, while it is possible to have more than one antagonist in a story, that character function can easily be fulfilled by a person, place or thing (including setting).

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