Last week, Ray Rhamey blogged about creating good bad guys–antagonists we can empathize with or relate to, who are the heroes of their own stories. Consider Dolores Umbridge from the Harry Potter series, who was so worthy of our hate. But didn’t you get that she believed in her cause wholeheartedly, that she felt she was doing the right thing even as Harry bled and scarred himself through her punishment?
“The character is quite heightened and big, and yet you want her to be true,” said David Yates, film director for Order of the Phoenix. “Imelda (Staunton, the actress who played Umbridge) can square that circle. She can give you a vibrant, vital character and someone who’s real as well.”
Square that circle is a great way to conceptualize a well-written antagonist. Their edges can make them feel as real as a jagged cut to the skin.
While there are definitely shades of grey to be explored with any fabu villain, there’s one in particular that I find the most interesting: the contagonist.
So what is a contagonist? First off, it’s a term coined by Dramatica, a program you can purchase to assist you with story building. I’ve never tried Dramatica, and I’m not advocating it; in fact, some have said it can be confusing to use. But regardless of any of that, the dynamic pairs concept Dramatica explores interests me. The idea is simple: create pairs of characters whose roles are to counter one another for built-in tension and conflict. There is, of course, the protagonist-antagonist pairing, but there may be other pairings as well: reason and emotion; sidekick and skeptic; and finally, guardian and contagonist. I’m going to focus in on just the contagonist, but you can read more about dynamic pairs HERE and HERE.
According to Dramatica Theory, the contagonist is one of eight archetypal characters:
This character works to place obstacles in the path of the Protagonist, and to lure it away from success. Because this character works to hinder the progress of the Protagonist, we coined the name “Contagonist”.
If you’re sitting there wondering how a contagonist differs from a regular old antagonist, here’s what Dramatica says about that:
Because the Contagonist and Antagonist both have a negative effect on the Protagonist, they can easily be confused with one another. They are, however, two completely different characters because they have two completely different functions in the Story Mind. Whereas the Antagonist works to stop the Protagonist, the Contagonist acts to deflect the Protagonist. The Antagonist wants to prevent the Protagonist from making further progress, the Contagonist wants to delay or divert the Protagonist for a time.
…Often, Contagonists are cast as the Antagonist’s henchman or second-in-command. However, Contagonists are sometimes attached to the Protagonist, where they function as a thorn in the side and bad influence.
The job of the contagonist, they say, is to sway the protagonist away from his or her goal, to hinder him or her for at least a little while. The antagonist isn’t concerned with “a little while,” rather they’re interested in stopping the protagonist, period.
So if the contagonist is an archetypal character, we must be able to see it in action in plenty of well-known books and flicks, right?
Consider Darth Vader, who wants to lure Luke to the dark side. And what about the Wizard from the Wizard of Oz, whose duplicitous stunts prevent Dorothy from completing her quest. Boromir wants the ring, sure, and he’ll try every trick in the book to get it, but he isn’t really a bad guy. Hannibal Lecter is full of puzzles, but he wants Clarice to succeed in the end, doesn’t he? Especially if it leads to a delicious lunch. And speaking of delicious, isn’t Snape arguably the best contagonist ever written? Who is the contagonist in Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence–Ellen or May? Hmm. And in The Thorn Birds, are Ralph and Meggie contagonists each to the other?
Who are your favorite contagonists? Is there a contagonist in your wip?
Write on, all!