When the movies for Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy were in theaters and they were everywhere in the media, a friend asked me why they were so popular. Well, Tolkien tells a classic good vs. evil story in the trilogy and gives us memorable characters on both sides. My friend nodded, then told me that he wasn’t a fan of fantasy anyway. To this day, I have no idea if he’s seen the movies or read the books. I was thinking about this conversation the other day after I’d forwarded to him a hilarious story about a man vs. squirrel at Facebook. I laughed thinking how the squirrel was the antagonist in the story, not the man.
That got me thinking: what is good? What is evil? We think we know, somehow, but how do we know? We know from the stories we’re told from birth that teach us morality and our system of beliefs. I’ve been fascinated about turning those beliefs around and seeing the world from the perspective of the antagonist, i.e. the “evil” side. Know thy enemy, so to speak. That shows me that “good” and “evil” depends on one’s perspective. In other words, there really is no absolute, just whatever large groups of people, allied or not, agree on what is good or what is evil…according to their beliefs and perspectives.
Stories and storytelling play a crucial role in perpetuating systems of beliefs. Writers are important in that regard. Their role is perhaps what Joseph Campbell remarked about writers being modern human’s shamans. Writers, being human, grow up learning about their culture’s system of beliefs from their parents and close relatives, then their school, their community, and eventually, in society. They learn from stories these people tell them, stories that carry meaning in their themes. The themes are intertwined with the story, the characters, and the structure. And what is the most important element in these stories?
Entrenched in our belief system is a belief that “good” always defeats “evil,” but evil continues to exist in different forms everywhere. We must be vigilant against evil and know who our friends are. Sound familiar? All of our stories build from this foundation belief. This conflict propels our stories. We’re satisfied readers when the murderer is caught and convicted, dictators are overthrown, Orcs and Goblins are wiped out and the One Ring is destroyed. In literature, we recognize four types of conflict: human vs. God (rare), human vs. Nature (anything in Nature including disease), human vs. human (most common), and human vs. herself or himself (perhaps the most interesting and most difficult story to tell well).
The most common narrative structure also supports the good vs. evil conflict, i.e. the 3-act dramatic structure. In act 1, we learn about the characters and their situations, including the protagonist. At the end of act 1, the protagonist must make a decision/choice/commitment and set a goal that will move him or her into act 2, the “conflict” act. This act is the longest and involves one conflict or obstacle after another that the protagonist must overcome. Often the antagonist creates most of the obstacles as part of the larger conflict, or the protagonist has conflicts with allies. The protagonist reaches a point at the end of this act when all appears to be lost and defeat is imminent, but then she does something, thinks of something, or learns something that gives her the means to overcome the obstacles amassed against her and to enter act 3 and the climax, i.e. the moment when the protagonist achieves the goal set at the end of act 1. After the climax, there can be a “resolution” that ties up loose ends or gives the reader the chance to share the satisfaction of victory with the protagonist and her friends.
In The Lord of the Rings, we have Frodo, the Hobbit, as the protagonist; Sauron is his antagonist. What do they each want? Well, Sauron wants the One Ring in order to return to power over Middle Earth. Frodo wants to deliver that same ring to the fires of Mount Doom in order to destroy it and save Middle Earth. These two are not the only characters in the story, and those other characters support or fight against their desires and goals.
The next time you crack open a novel or attend a movie, think about the story and the conflict within it…..