Questionable: How do you decide what your main plot is and who your antagonist is?

AG wrote:
So when is the decision to beef up your villain into the antagonist, and when is the decision to shrink the villain so that the focus is on the primary relationships? I remember that a common complaint has been that Marvel villains are weak, but for several of those films, that worked, since they didn’t get in the way of the primary relationships. But when does the complaint that the villain is weak become an actual issue?

There’s a lot to unpack there. I’ll tackle the first question at length and then hit the second on the way out.

Let’s start with the difference between a villain and an antagonist. A villain is a value judgement: This person is Bad. An antagonist is a role in a conflict: This character blocks the protagonist from his/her/their goal. Many stories have antagonists that are villains, but some are more complex than that. Macbeth is the protagonist of his story, but he’s also the villain by the end (big character arc into Hell). So when we’re analyzing story, it’s better to stick to roles (protagonist/antagonist) and avoid value judgments (hero/villain).

With that in mind, I’m thinking your first question is more along the lines of “When is the antagonist of the external action plot primary, and when is the antagonist of the love story primary?” And if that’s what you were going for (apologies for recasting the question), it depends on what story you’re telling.

So what story is Venom trying to tell?

We have two choices, Eddie vs. the Evil Scientist or Eddie vs. Venom. There is, as always, Eddie vs. Eddie as the protagonist fights his inner demons, but since that’s played out literally in the Eddie vs. Venom conflict, we’re going to just merge those two.

So let’s start with Eddie vs The Evil Scientist
• Protagonist: Eddie Brock
• Goal: Save people through investigative reporting
• Antagonist: Evil Scientist
• Goal: Save people by merging humans with aliens so humans can escape to live on other plants after we trash this one.
• Conflict: The Evil Scientist is one of those we-had-to-destroy-the-village-to-save-it kind of guys, so the rising numbers of homeless who are dying in his experiments draws the attention and opposition of Eddie.

There’s a nice symmetry there, plus while Eddie truly cares about people, at heart he’s an we-had-to-destroy-the-village-to-save-it kind of guy, too, since he takes the info from his girlfriend’s computer without thinking of the danger that will pose for her, accepts the help of the Evil Scientist’s minion without protecting her, and crashes a window in the lab to set free a screaming homeless woman he knows, only to inadvertently cause her death (Moral: If you’re female, don’t go to Eddie for help). Both Eddie and the Evil Scientist think they’re helping people but people are dying around them, especially on those dumb car chases; as a cop says later, there are bodies all over the city, so nice job on saving people, you jerks.

Unfortunately, the script as written does nothing with either of those parallels. Instead it sticks the Evil Scientist with long speeches, which could be a character trait once, but after that just becomes the place you fast forward through. So the Evil Scientist half of the equation is speech, big chase after Eddie, speech, big chase after Eddie, speech, get infected by an Evil Alien, big chase after Eddie. It lacks interest. More than that, it doesn’t push the action because, after the first half hour, there’s a new guy in the plot and he’s got the wheel now.

That would, of course, be the Eddie vs Venom plot.
• Protagonist: Eddie Brock
• Goal: Save people through investigative reporting
• Antagonist: Venom
• Goal: Take over Earth as an intergalactic Olive Garden to save his people.
• Conflict: Eddie wants to save the Earth; Venom wants to eat it.

That’s a nice tidy conflict. There’s also some symmetry in the conflict which the script lampshades when Venom tells Eddie that they’re a lot alike, he’s a loser on his planet, too. The weakness in this conflict is the weakness in all romantic conflicts, they’re going to have to compromise at the end, but since this is one of those romances where one lover destroys the other lover to set him/her/them free from toxic beliefs, we actually can get a strong conflict out of this: Eddie has to convince Venom to turn on his alien people and help Eddie save his Earth people. Which he does, by doing absolutely nothing. Venom just spends some time merged with Eddie, decides he’s a good guy, and switches sides, the entire HUGE character shift explained when Venom says, “I like you, Eddie.” He also says that Earth is beautiful, but that seems like a weak motivation if your race is starving on another planet they also borked (look! another parallel the movie doesn nothing with).

The thing about picking antagonists is that you have to use them, they’re characters with motivations and agency. The Eddie vs. Venom conflict has all the juice because they’re fighting over his body (“You’re my ride,” Venom tells Eddie) and they’re entertaining as all hell, but the conflict doesn’t make sense—Venom can get another ride, Eddie knows how to permanent evict Venom—without showing the arc of the relationship that leads them to voluntarily choose each other. That arc is the relationship plot, and it’s not on the screen. Meanwhile, the Eddie vs. Evil Scientist conflict makes perfect sense and is on the screen, but it’s so tired (Evil Scientist tries to take over the world, Good Old Local Boy picks up slingshot to stop him) and repetitive that, while it’s logical, it’s ho-hum.

And of course running two antagonists is always problematical: Pick a lane, people.

For example: This story hums whenever it’s Eddie vs Venom, slows to a crawl when it’s Eddie vs Evil, so obviously, we’re gonna pick Eddie vs Venom. But without the Evil Scientist, there’s no pressure on Eddie to bond with Venom, and our Evil Scientist subplot is already a bomb. That subplot picks up considerably when the Evil Scientist runs into Riot, the leader of the aliens, and gets merged. He’s thrilled with the merge (contrast with Eddie, who is not) and there’s a nice moment when Riot says something like, “And then I will do this,” and the Scientist says, “We will do that,” and Riot says, “Right, we,” and everybody in the audience says, “Fat chance, you’re toast, Evil Scientist,” so their subplot conflict could be a nice contrast/foil to the Eddie/Venom struggle that begins with Eddie hating Venom and ends with them bonded. Could be, but isn’t because there’s no time to develop that because of the long running times of the Dick Scenes.

So cut that opening stuff down to five minutes, ten tops since it’s mostly about how the aliens came to Earth and traveled to the West Coast which is an incredible waste of story real estate which could be solved by somebody saying, “OMG, the aliens have landed and they’re on the West Coast!” Then use the time gained to arc the Eddie/Venom conflict-to-compromise, using the Evil Scientist/Riot conflict as a (minimal) foil to strengthen that plot, leading to the climax where Venom sacrifices himself for Eddie and Eddie reaches out to take him back to defeat Riot and the Evil Scientist, the Venom-Eddie team winning because they’ve changed and bonded by choice and the Riot and the Evil Scientist losing because they never understand each other and would never sacrifice for each other. The tweaks to the script to accomplish all of that would be so small (unlike the cuts to the action scenes) that it would still essentially be the same movie, it would just be focused and make sense.

So to return to the beginning:

“When is the antagonist of the external action plot primary, and when is the antagonist of the love story primary?”

Pick the plot that has the juice, the plot where the story bounces because it’s new wine in old bottles, and make that antagonist and plot primary. Take the other plot and make it subplot, parallel to the main plot, supporting it through parallel action and/or as a foil, making it serve the main conflict, a relationship story complicated/echoed/contrasted by an action subplot, or an action story complicated/echoed/contrasted by a relationship subplot.

And to claim my hypocrisy, yeah, that’s what’s been wrong with the Nita book. I was having so much fun worldbuilding and working with nutso secondary antagonists, the I dropped the ball on the relationship story which, as it turns out, is the primary one. I did the same thing that the Venom writers/director did. I didn’t pick a lane and ended up with a weaker story because of it. People who live in glass plots, Jenny . . .

Sidenote: You know that poster up above? It’s a dead giveaway to the story dynamic. Look at how the cast is arranged. Annie, the traditional romance antagonist, is off to the right. The Evil Scientist, Drake, the traditional action antagonist, is off to the left. Who’s in the center with Eddie, looming over him, dominating him? That would be our antagonist.

Or there’s the one sheet poster, that’s practically Spy vs. Spy in it’s simplicity:

Okay, doing story analysis by poster is probably a bad idea from an intellectual standpoint, but it might be fun. As in, “Nita’s front and center on the poster, but who’s on there opposing her, Cthulhu or Nick?” Right, Nick. Sigh.

The answer to the second question—”when does the complaint that the villain is weak become an actual issue”—is “always.” The protagonist’s motivation pushes the plot, but the antagonist’s opposition kicks that motivation higher and continually escalates the pace of the story as it shapes the story to the climax. A powerful antagonist powers a story much better than a weak one.

Oh, and Happy Valentine’s Day. The candy is probably on sale by now.

7 thoughts on “Questionable: How do you decide what your main plot is and who your antagonist is?

  1. I just finished teaching screen play in my film analysis class we are of course we just discussed this. I said pretty much the same thing although slightly different language. I would describe it as your protagonist (who can be a hero or an antihero) is the mainest character Who will go on a journey (real or metaphorical) and undergo a major change (There are some stories with multiple protagonist but they are significantly fewer). The protagonist will have an outer goal and an inner conflict. The climax comes when the protagonist finally meetS or gives up their outer goal and the crisis comes when they conquer or succumb to their inner conflict. The antagonist (not the villain because if we have an antihero the antagonist can be the good guy) is the main is character who is trying to thwart the protagonist from achieving their goal. All other characters who stand in the way are not antagonist but obstacles. So I would say what you said but my language would be that you have to Decide who is the antagonist and who are just obstacles. In romantic stories you also have to decide is this a case of dual protagonists, Where both characters will learn and grow through the relationship. Or is this a case of one romantic partner being the protagonist and one the antagonist. And you’ve got mail we have dual protagonists. In Casablanca, Rick is the protagonist. His goal is to remain uninvolved and neutral and his inner conflict is deep down he cares about people. The antagonist is Ilsa. She is the one who most stands in the way of his remaining uninvolved and neutral. He is a classic antihero and ultimately fails to achieve his goal and succumbs to his inner conflict. Hope this is elucidating and not to pedantic!

    1. Pedantic R Us here, so no problem.

      My teaching on protagonist and antagonist shifted when I moved from teaching lit to creative writing and became a writer. While I agree that there’s one main protagonist and one main antagonist, I see it in terms of plot: that is, there’s one main plot with that one protagonist and antagonist, no others need apply. Any other antagonists who show up are either part of a subplot that has it’s own protagonist, not necessarily the main plot protagonist, or are working as part of the antagonist’s plan, subordinate to him or her. So in Venom, there’s the Eddie/Venom main plot, the Eddie/Evil Scientist subplot, the Eddie/Annie subplot, and then the much smaller Eddie/Mrs.Chen subplot that exists to show Eddie’s character arc. You can analyze the arc for each of those plots.
      I remember one of the professors on my general exams telling me how much my literary analysis changed after I became a fiction writer. You just see story so differently, kind of the way architects must look at houses and see blueprints in their heads.
      I think that’s why I also see protagonist and antagonist in romance stories. If they meet, fall in love, and live happily ever after, there’s no story. You’ve Got Mail has a strong protagonist and antagonist conflict–he’s destroying her mother’s bookstore–and a weak ending–she decides she doesn’t want to run a bookstore anyway–which is why it’s not one of my faves. Same with ensemble stories (not TV series), which I love: there’s always one character who anchors the team–Nate in Leverage, Danny in Ocean’s Eleven, There’s almost always somebody in the center of the poster.

  2. The poster metaphor is strong juju. I love how it calls attention to exactly what you are saying… I, too, liked Venom despite my dislike for action “dick” stories. My husband convinced me I would like it, but he knew when to “fast forward”… lol. Thanks for the analysis and the writer lesson.

    1. Me neither. I’ve tried several of those comic book films, but found them all unwatchable. Apart from the original Superman films – but that was before the special effects took over everything, and the stories got stupidly overblown. I think Jenny’s version of the story for this one has lots of potential: pity it’s told in such a violent and action-driven (boring) way.

  3. The one Marvel film where they had a good antagonist was Black Panther. Killmonger had a genuine and complex motivation, which was a great counterpoint to T’Challa and developed his character and the story until we find out how much he’s changed at the end. I wish they would do more of that.

    1. I thought Winter Soldier was pretty good on antagonists. The first Iron Man. The third Iron Man.

      James Spader was wasted in that one he got stuck in, even though Whedon was directing.

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