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Editor's Note: The following article on character perspective is excerpted from Chuck Wendig's new book Damn Fine Story. Great storytelling is making readers care about your characters, the choices they make, and what happens to them. It's making your audience feel the tension and emotion of a situation right alongside your protagonist. And to tell a damn fine story, you need to understand why and how that caring happens. Learn how in Wendig's book.
by Chuck Wendig
We like to think and talk a great deal about protagonists and antagonists, and that’s not a bad way to look at things, exactly. But it’s vital to realize that those two terms are purely a matter of perspective.
What I mean is this: Your protagonist is the agent of change in the story. The protagonist is the one with the primary problem in need of a solution. …
Your antagonist is the opponent of the change sought by the protagonist, and quite possibly the agent of the dreaded status quo. The antagonist is part of the protagonist’s problem, either as a complication to the solution or as a direct adversary seeking to countermand any efforts to fix the problem.
One is the hero. The other is the villain.
… [But] here’s the problem with viewing every story and every character through the protagonist versus antagonist lens: Every character believes himself the protagonist.
Parallel and Perpendicular Characters in Star Wars
Not every character views himself as the hero, exactly, but at the same time, very few characters likely view themselves as the villains. Sure, we understand that Luke Skywalker is our Good Guy Protagonist and Darth Vader is our Bad Guy Antagonist, and, clearly, that works well enough.
Consider, though, that Darth Vader does not necessarily view himself as evil. If we take the story from his perspective, he is trying to protect the stability of the galaxy from a band of terrorists. We also learn that Vader may be trying to undermine The Emperor.
In other words, Vader has his own problem, and his own solution to that problem. The Empire’s status quo has been disrupted by these terrorists, since that bun-headed jerk, Princess Whatshername, sent the Death Star plans down in a droid so they could be intercepted by Obi-Jerk Kenobi. So Vader plans to retake the plans and quash the Rebellion—but then he’s sidelined by some womp rat–killing teenager (complication!) who ends up a Jedi (complication!) and oh crap is also his son (complication, plus now he has an internal limitation given this sudden pull to the light)! The stakes are raised and changed! Vader shifts his own tactic—now it’s not about shooting down that flyboy in the X-wing, but rather, urging him to the Dark Side so that the two of them can take on Palpatine together. And wait, there’s a sister? And it’s that jerk, Princess Whatshername? Complications, limitations, stakes changing, heads exploding!
Point being, Vader doesn’t know he’s evil. Sure, sure, there’s that whole thing with blowing up an entire planet, but, to be fair, the rebels blow up an entire battle station. And while there’s a difference there in the magnitude of civilian casualties, it’s still worth looking at from different points of view. …
Characters are complex. They all view themselves as being right—and often righteous—in their pursuit of goals and solutions. If we expect that characters are all fully formed, each with his or her own set of problems and solutions (and challenged in turn by complications and limitations, some shared, some unique to them), then we start to see an emergent storyworld full of individuals with competing desires. We don’t see a single character moving in a single line—We see dozens, even hundreds of character sharing the same narrative oxygen, each moving with and against each other.
It’s the direction of that movement we should focus on.
In a web, some threads will connect at intersections and go in different directions. And some webs will hang alongside each other. So instead of protagonist versus antagonist, let’s talk about parallel versus perpendicular.
Parallel means two lines traveling in the same direction, with the same amount of distance between them at any point on each line. (Think two lanes of a single highway traveling ever onward. Each lane goes in the same direction, but never do they converge.)
Perpendicular means one line traveling in one direction while another line intersects it. (Think one car traveling forward, another car T-boning it at an intersection.)
Luke and Leia are parallel characters. They both (roughly) share a single path, and they don’t really deviate. They are on the same side of this war. Their precise problems and proposed solutions aren’t always the same, but for the most part they are moving in the same direction.
Luke and Vader are perpendicular. Their quests are at odds with one another.
Now, the cool thing about a perpendicular relationship is that the shape it makes is a t. And when you turn the t on its side, it’s still a t. Meaning, each character can be viewed, depending on the perspective—or the way you tilt the t—as being the one whose quest is interrupted. Vader interrupts Luke’s quest, but Luke interrupts Vader’s, too.
Characters do not need to remain parallel or perpendicular to one another, either. We need to think beyond protagonist/antagonist as our outer limits for what characters can be. …
The In-Betweeners: Non-Parallel, Non-Perpendicular Character Perspective
You might wonder—is there an in-between? Is there some remixed mash-up of both perpendicular and parallel, a directional symbol that is a little bit one, a little bit the other? In math, lines are either parallel, perpendicular, or neither; can that be true for characters? And what role would that serve?
When two lines are neither perpendicular nor parallel, they still intersect, but they don’t travel along the same slope, and they don’t form a ninety-degree angle. This speaks to two characters who are not directly competing, but who are also not uniformly allied—and yet, they are headed toward some manner of intersection—each path inevitably crossing the other’s.
Look no further than Vader and The Emperor.
Both serve the Empire. Both work together, with Vader in a loosely subservient position to Palpatine. The Emperor is subservient to no one, and the papery old goblin-wizard does whatever the hell he wants. As soon as Vader makes the offer to Luke—“Join me and together we’ll totally stab that old goblin-wizard in the face” (pretty sure that’s an exact quote, by the way)—then we know that Vader and Palpatine are not necessarily on the same page. They will, as all Sith do, betray each other. The apprentice will slay the Master, or the Master will detect the coming betrayal and kill the apprentice to make room for a new apprentice (likely Luke). If you read the Star Wars novels and comics … you will see even more signs of how troubled the Vader/Palpatine relationship is. They are moving together, but still toward conflict. Neither parallel nor perpendicular—even though each wants the other to think that their relationship is perfectly in parallel.
Read more in Chuck Wendig's new book Damn Fine Story. Wendig is the New York Times best-selling author of Star Wars: Aftermath, as well as the Miriam Black thrillers, the Atlanta Burns books, and the Heartland YA series, alongside other works across comics, games, film, and more. A finalist for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer and the cowriter of the Emmy-nominated digital narrative Collapsus, he is also known for his popular blog, terribleminds.com, and his books about writing. Damn Fine Story is his second writing reference book with Writer’s Digest.