Oh it’s a Greek Tragedy…

One of the things I’ve been doing this summer is studying the art of story telling. I’m frequently loose in how I approach writing, not working to one style or method, (if I were being romantic about it, I’d describe myself as the Bruce Lee of writing, however in reality it’s purely because I just go with the flow). For instance, I often don’t have a defined antagonist, or I’ll have multiple in succession, (kind of like bosses in video games), or the antagonists will be an organisation of equal parts.

There’s actually nothing stylistically wrong with that par se, however it doesn’t really sit with fashion. Audiences expect a clear antagonist with subordinates, people they can root for or against. Doesn’t matter if it’s the monster of the week, or business men, it all ties back to one individual that sits atop an hierarchy, or goes it solo. Sometimes writers throw twists of a hidden relative, or a behind the scenes bogeyman to fuel a sequel, but they either usurp the antagonist’s power after the main conflict is resolved, or they were always the enemy and the hero never knew.

Meanwhile my protagonists tend to be singular heroes, even when they’re part of a group I paint them as above it, separate from it. I’m not happy I do it most of the time, it’s what my recent writing actually required, it was post-apocalyptic after all, and he was the only survivor in the region. However this peculiar failing on my part has probably been the cause of many stories not being finished as I write myself into a corner no single mere man, (or woman), can escape.

Of course there are ways round this, I could go back and alter the story to add in another character to come to the rescue, or indulge in a bit of deux ex machina, but that would feel contrived to me. That said, recently I’ve seen some excellent uses of this, such as in the film Gravity (I won’t spoil it with details if you’ve not seen it yet), or in Star Wars, (you know the bit in the first film where Obi Wan speaks to Luke at the critical moment, “Use the force Luke”. Both are well reasoned, and don’t feel at all contrived, (to me anyway).

Having one character to carry the whole of the story sounds simple, but if you write yourself in the corner, you’re stuck. Not to mention it’s unnatural, and if it happens in the workplace it’s a very dark day because one employee, with either good or bad intentions, holds a whole business to ransom.

I can admit my failings, it’s the only way to learn to do better. To do better I need to change how I write, so I’ve been studying the how other writers handle their protagonists and antagonists. One of the methods I like it’s a common one in Greek story telling which involves three principle characters:

  • Protagonist, chief actor – who enters into conflict because of the antagonist. They’re the one we follow, identify with, and support… Most of the time anyway.
  • Deuteragonist, the second actor, he’s the supporter or even a minor antagonist, his loyalties, drives, and actions alter independent of the protagonist or antagonist, but in accordance with his own arc/plot.
  • Tritagonist, the third actor, this is your antagonist, the provider of conflict to your protagonist and potentially deuteragonist.

This is quite a simple method, but it has flexibility which is good. You could have the Deutaragonist as multiple people for instance, as long as each part qualifies, if you were on a long voyage, you might have multiple guides along the way, if it’s a war story the second in command could die and be replaced by someone else fulfilling the same function – though each would bring uniqueness to the role.

While looking it at, I did wonder if it’s realistic? And I could easily find thousands of hypothetical examples of this dynamic. One of my favourites is a film called The Sting (1973, starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford), though the con uses many people, and the target has how own people, ultimately the core of the story is protagonist, deuteragonist, and tritagonist, while necessary and intimately involved with events and well characterised and acted, the other characters are superfluous, nice detail, vehicles of convenience. It’s the same with TV homages to the sting as seen in Hustle, Leverage, and White Collar to name a few, so much so, in those homages, previously strong characters are relegated to minor roles.

I’m not trying to belittle other characters importance, certainly while there are good examples of stories with only three characters at all out there, you mostly can’t create a convincing world without other people. However, if you’re to create an arc or a plot for each and every character in your story, if each of them had to have more than a line of backstory, the story would become a diluted mess, and if you only had two fleshed out characters, (the protagonist and antagonist), the story would be just as diluted and weak.

There are many ways you could do your primary characters, maybe the story needs five, maybe it only needs two, all I’m saying is with the two I normally do I get stuck, and with more than three I don’t think I could keep it in course, so I think protagonist, deuteragonist, and tritagonist is a dynamic that I think will work for me.

So this is another challenge for my NaNoWriMo 2014 novel. All being well I’ll have a strong cast of characters, a protagonist that people can invest in, and no plot holes for me to get buried in. So in the plotting I’m doing I’m going to list ten characters, the three summarised above, some key characters to help drive the story on, with enough detail to make them interesting. Thereafter, other characters will be planned as a list of names, and what their role within the story is, and some description notes.

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