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Characters, Narrative & Mind

By Melanie Anne Phillips
Creator of StoryWeaver

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The Story Behind the Contagonist

“Contagonist” is a name invented by Dramatica co-creator, Chris Huntley, to describe an archetype we hadn’t seen identified in our writing classes at USC.  Here’s how the notion and the name came about:

When creating the Dramatica theory of story, we began with characters – archetypes to be specific.  We jotted down all the familiar ones – Protagonist, Antagonist, Reason, Emotion, Sidekick, Skeptic and Guardian.  But we had a problem…

First of all they all paired up except the Guardian: Protagonist/Antagonist, Reason/Emotion, Sidekick/Skeptic (faithful supporter / doubting opposer).  But the Guardian (essentially a helper/protector who is also the voice of conscience) just hung out there alone.

We suspected that stories had symmetry (though we didn’t know for sure at that time and none of our instructors had ever said anything about that).  But, we really didn’t know what this missing character should be, or what to call it.

When we were initially deriving our archetypes from the original Star Wars movie (episode IV – the original one) and saw that Protagonist/Antagonist were Luke/Darth (or so we initially thought).  Reason/Emotion were Leia/Chewbacca, Sidekick/Skeptic were the Droids/Han Solo and the Guardian was Obi Wan.

But then, if Darth was the antagonist, what role did the empire under the command of the Gran Mof Tarkin play?  After giving it much thought, we realized that while Darth comes off, especially in the opening scene, as the quintessential melodramatic villain, he is quickly relegated to the role of henchman for the Empire.

So, at first, we thought that the last archetype was Henchman.  But after more thought, we realized that a Henchman was more like a Sidekick to a Villain.  But after even more thought we determined that there was only one Sidekick, but he might be associated with either the Hero or the Villain.  For example, Renfield (Dracula’s assistant) is actually the Sidekick in that story (a faithful supporter) even though he works for the bad guy.  And so, we concluded that a henchman was just a Sidekick in wolf’s clothing.

But then we realized that Darth wasn’t just a pain in the neck to our heroes, but he was also a thorn in the side of Tarkin and the Empire.  Darth chokes one of the other commanders and he is the one who comes up with the plan to let the Millennium Falcon escape with a homing beacon, which leads to the demise of the Death Star (“I’m taking an awful chance, Vader,” says Tarkin.  ”This had better work,” indicating it is Darth’s idea.)

So, if Darth screws up both sides, we realized he was similar to the archetype of the Trickster.  But, he also represented the dark side of the force – the temptation of the dark side.

And then we had it.  Darth was actually the opposite of Obi Wan.  Rather than functioning as Obi Wan’s help and conscience, Darth represented hinder and temptation – the exact opposites.  So Obi Wan /Darth represented a pair of archetypes, completing the symmetry of that part of story structure.

But – what to call that character?  He wasn’t really a trickster, but more like a monkey wrench in the plans of both sides.  And, he was also the tempter.   So, Chris considered that this new archetype was against both the Protagonist and the Antagonist, and cleverly named him the Contagonist.  Con (against in one language and with in another) Protagonist/Antagonist: Contagonist.

Since then (some 22 years ago as of this writing), I’ve seen the word creep into a number of literary discussions on the Internet that don’t mention Dramatica at all.  So, I suppose that’s a good indicator it is becoming part of the overall language of story.

Now, if only my spell checker would recognize it!