Written by JJ Barnes
The Protagonist of your story is the main character. It’s their story you’re following. You join them at this point in their life because something has changed that makes this period of time interesting.
At the Inciting Incident, their story begins. They become motivated to go and accomplish a goal; that is their active conflict. You follow them until that conflict has been resolved, and they either have what they want, or have to accept that they can’t.
Your Protagonist needs an Antagonist. The Antagonist is the person or thing that stops them from being able to go and get what they want. If they could accomplish their goal without any real challenges, then there’s no story. It’s the Antagonist that throws obstacles and challenges in their way for them to overcome. It’s the Antagonist that makes their story journey interesting and entertaining.
I’ll be demonstrating how to write these characters well using Disney film, The Little Mermaid as an example.
Ariel – Protagonist Of The Little Mermaid
In The Little Mermaid, Ariel is a perfect example of a Protagonist. As soon as you meet her, you learn what she wants. She sings that she wants to be a part of the human world. That’s her goal. That’s what is about to change in her story. She may have wanted it for years previously, but you join her now because she is going to actively pursue it.
Ariel is a likeable character but she is flawed. This makes her relatable. Whilst she doesn’t always make good, or smart choices, she is always a good person. She tries to learn from her mistakes. Ariel’s clear story goal, and relatable personality, mean the audience is drawn in. They want to see if she gets what she wants.
The Inciting Incident Of The Little Mermaid
The Inciting Incident of The Little Mermaid comes after Ariel has fallen in love with Eric, and her father has destroyed her cave of human treasures. Those two things push Ariel from passive mode into active.
Prior to that she longed to experience the human world, but she doesn’t take any steps to achieve it. This tells the audience what the story is about; Ariel wants to become human. And it tells the audience why it matters; she’s in love.
Ariel Pursues Her Story Goal
Others try to stop her and get in her way, but Ariel is determined. She wants to become human, and she wants to be with Eric. She is willing to risk everything, her life, love and soul, for the chance to accomplish her story goal. Her willingness to risk her life to achieve her story goal gives it high stakes. The audience knows what the risk of failure is; her soul.
One of the reasons Ariel is such a successful Protagonist is her relentless motivation towards achieving her goal. At no point does she get distracted or stop caring. She is focused. You know what Ariel wants, you know why it matters to her, and that story is never dropped.
Ursula – Antagonist Of The Little Mermaid
Ursula’s story goal is to rule the seven seas, and replace Ariel’s father, King Tritan. Ursula uses Ariel’s goal against her, and against her father, to achieve her story goal. Just as Ariel is motivated throughout, Ursula too is motivated and unrelenting.
Ursula’s Story Goal
Ursula becomes active when she sees the opportunity to exploit Ariel, and gives her the opportunity to go to land. She offers her human legs in exchange for her voice, knowing that it is Ariel’s singing that Eric had fallen in love with. Part of her spell is that, should Ariel fail to be kissed by Eric, then Ursula gets to own her soul.
This motivation might sound somewhat unsubstantiated, after all, Ursula has no use for Ariel’s soul. However, you later learn she intends to trade Ariel’s soul for King Tritan’s, exploiting Tritan’s love for his daughter as a way of gaining power. She has a clear focus, and a clear plan. She keeps her head in the game and goes after what she wants.
The Relationship Between Protagonist And Antagonist In The Little Mermaid
Ariel and Ursula are captivating in their roles as Protagonist and Antagonist. They are both motivated, both driven, and both make one another’s life a challenge. If either was to become less motivated the other would be able to succeed easily. It is their equal levels of determination that cause the story to have so many ups and downs.
Ursula is constantly throwing obstacles in Ariel’s way to ensure Eric doesn’t kiss her. That keeps Ariel’s story busy and entertaining, as Ariel must overcome each obstacle to accomplish her goal. Each effort Ursula makes to block Ariel pushes Ariel to get stronger and smarter. Ariel maintains her persistence to win the love of Eric, and manages to hold his attention despite Ursula’s interference. The two are locked in conflict.
Ariel wants to kiss Eric and live forever on land, Ursula wants to stop her and own her soul. They cannot both have what they want, but both are equally motivated to accomplish their goal. This conflict remains locked until the climax when, after an epic showdown, Ariel ultimately gets the ending she worked for. She remains human, she achieves the love of Eric.
How To Recreate This In Your Own Story
The main piece of advice to take from The Little Mermaid is the importance of motivating your characters. If your Protagonist and Antagonist are equally motivated, and their goals are in conflict, your story will work. By giving them clear goals your audience can see what the story is and why it matters. By keeping them in escalating conflict your story will move forwards and be entertaining all the way to the climax.
More From JJ Barnes:
I am an author, filmmaker, artist and youtuber, and I am the creator and editor of The Table Read.
You can find links to all my work and social media on my website: www.jjbarnes.co.uk
Buy my books: www.sirenstories.co.uk/books
Follow me on Twitter: @JudieannRose