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Author Topic: Protagonist/Antagonist or vice versa?

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Have there been any stories done with two main protagonists who are on exactly the opposite side?

I've seen stories done where they seem to be on opposite teams, only to discover they are really after the same goal. Or perhaps one of them sees the 'error' of their ways, or for some other altruistic motive, gives up and helps the other.

But I'm not talking about that. Are there any stories where the good guy and the . . . other good guy are directly opposed to each other.

What I want to do is write such a story where these characters never actually meet each other, but go on influencing events in each others' stories. Until the final climactic confrontation on which EVERYTHING rests for each hero. I want the reader to sympathize with BOTH, to truly want BOTH characters to win, but have it be utterly impossible.

About the closest story I can come up with is the movie "Heat". I really truly wanted BOTH Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro to win in that one. And really, neither one does. They both lose, even though umm . . . one of them wins. (don't wanna give the movie away for anybody who hasn't seen it)

And in all truth, DeNiro's character kind of makes himself the bad guy at the end, but STILL, I was torn.

Anyway, I want a situation like that. Where the reader doesn't know who to root for.

Any thoughts? Possible? What are the pitfalls? Are there any stories that exist I can look to for guidance?


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I never read a story like that, but I think for it to work the characters might not have to meet but maybe should have some sort of history. I think if you keep them separate the reader will choose a “good guy” and “bad guy.” I really have no idea how one could pull this off, but it sounds like something you’ve given a lot of thought and if you decide to go in that direction it shouldn't be too much of a problem for you.

One of the themes I like playing with is making people sympathize with the antagonist. Unlike what you’re attempting the guy is totally evil, but while the reader might not agree with it, they at least understand it. Kind of like Milton in Paradise Lost (Dear God, that sounded pretentious) where Lucifer was portrayed as the classic tragic hero.


[This message has been edited by JOHN (edited August 05, 2002).]

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As you've set it up, no I've not seen anything like that-- but think that it's a great idea and certainly a worthwhile challenge for you! AND yes, totally agree with on Heat. Boy, I sure wanted De Niro's character to win...

The closest I can come to your scenario is Sean Russell's "The One Kingdom," which I HIGHLY recommend. It's a great epic, beautiful prose, engaging characters, a REALLY well-drawn villain, and a great "rogue" hero. This book the first of a series... In this book you have what I would say are 3 groups of protagonists: the Knights and their rogue agent, Alaan; a princess and her supporters; and 3 traveling young men who just happen to get caught up in world events. Everyone interacts (eventually) with each other, but no one (except Alaan) sees the big picture to know why... Ultimately, for the most part, everyone is in it for themselves and the conflicts that they see surrounding them. Only Alaan sees how these disparate conflicts actually intermingle, and only he is trying to use everyone towards a common end.

I suppose another similar example would be George RR Martin's "Clash of Thrones" or whatever the 1st book of his trilogy was called (another exceptional epic). All of your protagonists (and really, all of the antagonists) are in it for themselves and may interact, but not for some noble common good (or common evil, as the case may be).

Anyway, I think it's a great idea and wish you a lot of luck with it!!

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This is such an excellent question!! I am having a similar problem right now in the novel I'm working on. I have a father-son-ish relationship, where both characters have major flaws that rub each other just about raw. But these two men are both, at first, pretty much good, but a little proud and blind and maybe too passionate about their own causes. At some point, I want to raise one up as protagonist and the other as antagonist. However, I want the readers to wonder throughout if the whole story could be told the other way around, but without hating me for choosing the one over the other. Is this entirely too much to hope for?
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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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What I want to do is write such a story where these characters never actually meet each other, but go on influencing events in each others' stories. Until the final climactic confrontation on which EVERYTHING rests for each hero. I want the reader to sympathize with BOTH, to truly want BOTH characters to win, but have it be utterly impossible.

Nate, this sounds like certain tragedies: where one wins and the other loses catastrophically (which could be the case since both can't win) and the winner finds out how much that winning cost. Sort of like what is called a pyrrhic victory, where the one who "wins" still has to pay a high price.

I wonder what kind of diametrically opposed conflict you could come up with that would be sympathetic on both sides. I've seen cases where there are people diametrically opposed, and totally convinced they are right, but neither comes off looking very good. Example might be the person who believes militantly in the right of a pregnant woman to kill her unborn baby opposed to the person who believes militantly in the rightness of blowing up abortion clinics and killing doctors who perform abortions. (By "militantly" I mean that they are also willing to hurt anyone who disagrees with them.)

A more sympathetic possibility might be someone whose life or the life of a loved one depends on research on animals being opposed to someone who believes that animal rights are more important that people rights.

Hmm. Would you have to have extreme ends of the spectrum in order to have the kind of complete opposition you're looking for?

I'd be interested in knowing what conflict you have in mind.

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Actually, I'd be happy to elaborate.

This is still in VERY early stages, so it's a bit cliche. I'm going with OSC's principle of 'the first thing you think of is a cliche' and trying to come up with better stuff.

My first thought was two 'platoon leader'ish types on two opposite sides of a battle/war/armed conflict in any era. (though I had sci-fi-ish thoughts in mind) As with many wars, these two guys don't really care as much about the "why" of the war as they do about staying alive, and keeping as many of their men alive as possible.

Such a story could EASILY be written to make us sympathize with both characters, as our sympathy doesn't necessarily depend on US hating the enemy along with them.

Perhaps the final conflict is a battle over . . . a comm tower. Hero 1 is desperately trying to get a squad inside to relay the latest intelligence which will enable reinforcements to deliver a final crushing blow to the opposition. Hero 2 is frantically trying to destroy the tower because communications relayed from there are costing him the lives of his men.

Perhaps that's a bit simplistic. Actually, it IS a bit simplistic. I want something more meaningful. Something that brings these two men face to face with each other. Something that IS tragic, just like you said. In fact, "Heat" is the PERFECT example of what I want to do. I want that final image of two men who HAVE to do what they do, who have no other purpose in their lives, who don't really hate each other, but who in the end can't stop fighting each other because it would make their lives, their suffering meaningless.

I love that movie. Everybody loses, EXCEPT Kilmer's character . . . the ONE character in the story who really, truly cared about someone other than himself. At least, I like to think that in the long run he didn't lose.

Anyway, I had some thoughts of tying it in with that other idea I had . . . about the two separate stories, the same story, from different POV characters. Here was an idea that came out of that.

Char 1 is fighting to destroy "the big bad corporation" (I know, cliche city) but wants to save one person deeply involved with it. Char 2 wants to destroy the same person (perhaps physically, perhaps legally, psychologically, etc. I haven't decided) who is vital to the survival of the corporation, but wants to keep the company running.

Don't ask me what the rationale would be. Obviously, Char 1 would be personally attached to "the person", but hates what they're doing, and are hoping for a "return to the light" kind of situation. Char 2 believes in the corp and what it stands for NORMALLY, but sees "the person" as having warped it or abused it, causing her (char 2) great suffering and personal distress.

Just an idea. Of course in the end, "the person" dies as does the company in a glorius towering inferno (again, perhaps literally, perhaps figuratively) and both characters lose . . . and win.

That's kind of what I had in mind. I think the whole 'opposite sides of the law' thing could work, but being so acutely conscious of what my inspiration is for this story, I think I'd end up writing it a bit too much like a certain movie.

Anyway . . . was gonna run this by the BCers when it was a bit more developed. I hope they don't think I've been holding out on them. *grimace*


P.S. (Editing this in later) I took a moment and reflected on the origins of my screenname, specifically, the movie War Games.

I could have a story where a good ol' Professor Falken type creates Joshua (an artificial intelligence) as an emotional replacement for his dead son. Unfortunately, as all AIs eventually do, this one becomes evil and goes on a rampage (where to begin listing the stories *rolls eyes*) and Hero 2 starts trying to kill it. Our professor is convinced he's managed to stop his AI from doing evil (it's tricking him) and we sympathize with him because to erase this program would be like killing his son all over again. Hero 2 KNOWS it's Joshua (the AI) still causing mayhem and that the only way to stop it is to destroy it. Then again, this isn't really the same type of story, huh? Since there is a villian . . . Joshua.

Well, it was worth a try. That actually might make a decent story sometime.

-Nate (again)

[This message has been edited by Falken224 (edited August 07, 2002).]

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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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I've heard about an X-Men story that is sort of similar to that. Wolverine is hired to protect someone that Electra is hired to kill.

While I don't know anything about the object of their opposing jobs, if it's a villain, the story might have a pretty simplified ending, but if the character is ambiguous--a not-particularly-nice guy whose life serves an important purpose, even if he doesn't really deserve to live.

It occurs to me that while Wolverine and Electra are fighting over this character, someone else could come in an kill him/her, making the whole battle moot. But maybe that's too obvious. Electra and Wolvering could have to team up (sort of) to fight off whomever the third party is, though, and that could get a little interesting.

As you said, not the first thought, or the second. What might the third or fourth thought be here?

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I guess the only thing I have to say is that maybe you could build both characters up equally and not let the reader immediately know that they are from opposing factions, so we do not have a predefined notion in our heads. Let us know both their trials and losses, so that we can grow closer to them. In the movie Face/Off, when Travolta's character (Sean Archer) is in Cage's (Castor Troy) body, and Troy's brother is killed, I felt true remorse for Troy. The same when his wife dies. There is solid feeling there. I know that Woo didn't exactly give us grounds to like Troy at the beginning, but if he had, then the Kleenex would've had to make an appearance.
In conclusion, make us hurt for both characters. That, I feel, is the emotion which causes us to cling to others no matter what their role....and gets us into trouble more often than not, it seems.


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Another story that takes a similar approach: the movie _The Fugitive_ with Tommy Lee Jones and Harrison Ford, where Ford's character is wrongly convicted and escapes, to spend his energy looking for his wife's real murderer, and Jones' character is bound and determined to recapture the 'killer' and put him in jail, where he 'belongs.' In this case, both characters are doing what they believe is absolutely right.

So the question is... though the one-armed man and the crooked doctor are really the antagonists, what would define Tommy Lee Jones' character? Is he an antagonist or is he something else? He can't be a protagonist, because we the viewers are NOT wanting him to succeed at all. We spend the whole movie wishing he would listen to Ford's character and believe he's not the real killer.

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