Writing Tips: The internal antagonist
Posted April 01, 2014 in
In every fictional narrative – whether book, film or television – the main character faces at least one external antagonist. This player blocks the main character’s efforts to get what they want.
But in many narratives the main character is blocked by another kind of antagonist. This antagonist comes from inside and is the internal antagonist. The internal antagonist makes it harder for the main character to get what they want.
There are two kinds of internal antagonist: the character flaw and the circumstantial flaw.
In The Bourne Identity, an action thriller starring Matt Damon, Jason Bourne has lost his memory. He doesn’t know who he is. He isn’t even sure his name is Jason Bourne. His amnesia is his circumstantial flaw. He must work through his amnesia, following the clue trail, risking death as his external antagonist tries to stop him, until he finally discovers who he is and what he used to do for a living, before he lost his memory.
The detective in a murder mystery will have a circumstantial flaw: his ignorance. He doesn’t know who the killer is. He works through his ignorance, acquiring clues of various sorts, interpreting them, getting it wrong at times, until he finally identifies the killer and his ignorance vanishes.
Then there is the other category of internal antagonist: the character flaw. Elizabeth, the heroine of Pride and Prejudice, has a character flaw that makes it harder for her to get what she wants. This flaw is her prejudice against Mr Darcy, who refused to dance with her at the ball where they first met.
Her goal is to see her sister Jane married to Mr Bingley. She does everything she can to promote the match―everything but the one thing that is most likely to bring about the happy event. Darcy is Bingley's best friend. He is opposed to a match between his friend and Jane.
If Elizabeth had made an ally of him, instead of being prickly and hostile, she could have persuaded him to remove his opposition and actively encourage the match. But her prejudice against Darcy blinds her to his many good qualities. She cannot like him. She pushes him away. And so he continues to oppose the match.
It is only after she has recognised her character flaw, her prejudice, and started to correct it, that she sees in Darcy the best man for her. She is friendly to him and kind to his sister; and so at last he removes his opposition and Jane and Bingley are united at last.
Darcy has a character flaw: his pride. He opposes a match between Bingley and Jane, since it would form a connection between himself and a family he regards as far beneath him.
Darcy is also attracted to Elizabeth. He wants her despite her lowly connections.
But when he proposes marriage, she rejects him on account of his pride. Thus, his character flaw has come between him and the one thing he wants. It is only when he starts to correct his flaw and become a better man, more open and tolerant of others, that he wins Elizabeth.
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Sydney Smith is a writing mentor, teacher and author of short stories, essays, and The Lost Woman, a memoir of survival. She is currently writing The Architecture of Narrative, a book about how to plot and structure fiction. Sydney's next blog comes out on May 1.