This is the fifth installment in a series analyzing the humor, heart, and zany plots of various Pixar films. The focus is on applying these principles to children’s stories, however, writers of all genres can benefit from Pixar’s literary genius, so I highly encourage you to have a seat and prepare to write like the wind!
What do you call a story without an antagonist?
Every story needs an antagonist as much as a protagonist. Who would show Mr. Incredible how much he needed others if Syndrone wasn’t ready to corner him into a spot of helplessness? How would the ants ever learn to stand up for themselves if they didn’t have someone to stand up against? Who would our readers hate if no one was there to stop our protagonist from winning?
However, an antagonist doesn’t always have to be a person in a black cape. Sometimes they can be a teddy bear that reeks of strawberries, a purple monster who looks like a lizard from the prehistoric age, or even a kid who wears skull shirts. But sometimes, an antagonist doesn’t have to be a physical entity since the greatest antagonist is the one living within our characters.
The Real Antagonist
Some may wonder if a villainless story can be nothing less than monotonous, particularly for children’s fiction. Kids adore a good bad guy (pun intended) who they can slash in pieces with their toy swords. Would kids even want to read a book without a villain? Think of all your favorite stories—would you have enjoyed them as much if they didn’t have a villain? What would have Peter Pan been without Hook, Star Wars without Darth Vader, or Cinderella without the evil stepmother?
But if you step back for a moment, are the villains really what draw people into the story? More importantly, are they really what’s causing the conflict? Let’s observe the Pixar movies and dig into the scripts to find the root of the friction. Was Sid truly the villain? Or was it Woody’s obsession with being Andy’s favorite toy? Was Syndrone the villain or was it Mr. Incredibles desire to become super again whatever the cost? Was Hopper the villain or was it the ants’ fear and cowardice?
Conflict rarely starts with the villain—the weed is first planted in our characters. The villains purpose is to cultivate that problem, irritate it, and make it grow larger until it’s like that gossip weed from Veggie Tales.
Look at all the movies Pixar has made without villains—Finding Nemo, Cars, Inside Out—and these became a smashing success. Why? Because the antagonist within our characters is what connects readers to our story and is more powerful than Darth Vader and Kylo Ren combined. Joy struggled with her controlling nature, McQueen wrestled with his selfishness and arrogance, and Marlin fought against his overprotectiveness. Think about it. Whenever an enemy comes into our own lives, we are battling more than just a person. We’re also combatting doubt, fear, hate, and more, and that is the hardest part of the fight. In addition, an inner antagonist is more relatable because people struggle with their flaws and sins every day. A Cruella DeVil we only fight once or twice in a lifetime (which is probably a good thing).
6 Ways to Increase Conflict Without a Villain
So you’ve got internal conflict going, now what? Your character’s problem will remain stagnant unless you stir the waters. When you don’t have a villain, you’ll need to use your creativity to find new ways to magnify the battle waging within your character(s). Obviously, the best method is to keep your characters from accomplishing their goal (just as any hard-hearted antagonist would) by adding external conflict such as:
•Giving them the opposite of what they want. If your character wants only to keep his son safe, take his son away from him. If your character wants to win the race, make him tie with three other cars. If your character is simply trying to keep their human happy, let Sadness run wild and turn all the memories blue. What does your character hate most in the world? What drives him/her insane? What do they cherish most in the world? What would happen if you took that away from them? Throwing the polar opposite in your character’s face will force them to react which leads me to my next point.
•Giving them what they want and let them pay the consequences. After you’ve doused your characters in some ice water, they’ll do anything to regain whatever they lost without thinking about the drawbacks. Let your character take the path they insist upon taking, only to realize later that it’s swarming with jelly fish. Let your character rush to California so he can be the first racer to arrive, and let his driver fall asleep while you’re at it. Let your character keep the memories away from Sadness’s touchy fingers and get sucked up into the tube and dumped into long-term memory because of it. Oftentimes what our characters want isn’t what they need and you can show them that by tripping them with their own stupidity.
•Place them far from their destination. Where does your character want to be? Place them as far from there as possible, whether physically or metaphorically, and strap them for as long as you can. If your character wants to be in California, strand him in no car’s land with a court ordering him to fix the road he’s wrecked. If your character wants to return to headquarters, send her into the maze of memories. Sometimes though, you can leave your character where he/she is at and instead take their goal far away from them (as in the case of Finding Nemo).
•Introduce them to an irritating character (or two, three, or five thousand). Why is it that Pixar sidekicks tend to be the opposite of the protagonist? Because that is a sure-fire way to annoy the protagonist, and a character with a different perspective will help them to see the truth about themselves. Another reason is simple that writers are evil and we like to torture our characters. So if your character is an introvert, send an extrovert his way who can’t even remember her own name. If your character wants to win the race, have him meet an old truck who cares more about having fun than winning. If your character is happy all the time, give her a pessimistic coworker. You can even give these annoying side characters their own set of inner conflicts that challenge the protagonist’s.
•Throw them in the middle of a natural disaster. And if you can’t put in a natural disaster, toss them in an unnatural one. Rip their homes out from under them or cause a mind quake to knock their personality islands into the memory dump. How do your characters respond to the tragedy? Does it make them feel sad, happy, discouraged, confident? What will they do if it should occur again?
•Set a mountain in their path. When all else fails, drop a rock the size of a boulder in their way—or a shark, greedy birds, a cute car, a wrecked road, or abstract thought. Make a list of all the possible things you could use to stop your protagonist. Then pick out the best (or rather, the worst) ones and make them bigger and so impossible to move so that your character must either turn back or climb over it.
However, all these external conflicts must enhance/irritate the inner conflict and show the protagonist the real problem (just as a villain would). When Nemo was kidnapped, that showed Marlin the impossibility of always keeping his son safe. When McQueen was stranded in Radiator Springs and became friends with Mater, he learned to slow down and enjoy life. When Joy journeyed through Riley’s head, she realized that growing up has its joy as well as its pains.
Villain or No Villain?
How do you know whether to have a villain in your story or not? First off, ask yourself about your character’s greatest flaw. Can you make that your story’s antagonist without the help of a villain? If your story has an antagonist, how can you make that relate to the true conflict? How would your story work without the villain? Is your story already interesting and creative by itself? Is there already a lot of external conflict in the plot?
One way to tell if your story needs a villain or not is how prominent the character’s inner conflict is. If Inside Out had inserted a villain, it would have distracted viewers from the true conflict inside Joy. Likewise, in Cars, a villain would’ve seemed extraneous given the heavy character problems of Lightning McQueen. If your villain is simply there to make trouble for your protagonist and never forces him to see the real conflict, you’ll probably want to cut the villain or find a way to use him more meaningfully.
The Greatest Antagonist You’re Ever Gonna Get
I’m a worrier. Aberdeen is arrogant. We struggle with those flaws more often than I’d like to admit (and Aberdeen won’t admit). My worry has caused more trouble than an earthquake. The same works for your characters. Their emotions, flaws, and sins are what really causes all the mess in the first place. We all have villain inside of us we need to conquer, and the sooner we show children that, the better. They’ll learn we all have the potential to be the villains of our own stories, but in the end, we can overcome that villain.
Or we can become writers and be the ultimate villain who’ll torment readers and characters for years to come.
I hoped you enjoyed this fifth post to our Pixar series! Each month Aberdeen and I will break down different concepts into further depth. Please join us next month as we show what Pixar teaches about crafting realistic and meaningful friendships.
For the the rest of the posts in this series: