Can a Protagonist evolve into an Antagonist?

“I prefer to look at it in Jungian terms: The Protagonist’s shadow has emerged from latency and because the Protagonist has not confronted and dealt with that psychological dynamic in a healthy, appropriate manner, that inner power takes over.”

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In my current Core III: Character class, one of the writers Simon Brown asked this question on our forum discussion boards:

So this is my question: in “possession” films where a character’s personality is taken over/subsumed by something “evil” or “demonic” or whatever … does the protagonist become the nemesis? And if so do we then end up (ideally) switching the protagonist to someone else?

It seems to me these type of stories are a special case. One example would be The Shining — the Jack Torrance character is the protagonist at the beginning of the movie but once the evil forces/entity that haunts or indeed “is” The Overlook Hotel he becomes the nemesis and from then on we’re rooting for Wendy and Danny.

I also wonder whether some of these films can only work with an initial co-protagonist/ensemble setup? I mean you could argue with The Shining Danny is the protagonist all along.

This was my response:

Good question, Simon. To begin, we have to acknowledge that stories and the characters within them are organic. They exist within their story universe as unique individuals where they don’t think of themselves as ‘protagonist’ or ‘nemesis,’ they are simply who they are. So whenever we use terms like ‘protagonist’ or ‘scene’ or ‘subplot,’ these are tools for story analysis and development, by definition artificial in nature. That’s my standard caveat for any of these type of discussions.

When we say ‘Protagonist,’ we are referring to a character who provides some or all of these narrative qualities:

Fundamentally, the Protagonist is the character through whom the script reader experiences the story, we ‘live’ vicariously through them.

Note: The term ‘Protagonist’ is value neutral. Yes, we often associate them with being a Good Guy/Gal, but that is not necessarily the case. Antiheroes can be Protagonists such as in the movies Scarface or American Psycho.

Now, what do we mean when we refer to an Antagonist (I prefer Nemesis)? Bottom line, this is a character or dynamic which provides opposition to the Protagonist, specifically with regard to the Protagonist’s conscious goal, what they hope to achieve in the Plotline.

In possession stories, such as you note, if the Protagonist succumbs to the demonic power, I don’t see that as the Protagonist becoming the Nemesis, rather the demonic power is the Nemesis. The Plotline question is who’s going to win the battle for control: Protagonist or Nemesis? If the Nemesis wins, such as in the case of Jack in The Shining, then Jack is still the Protagonist, he’s simply lost the battle against the Nemesis.

I prefer to look at it in Jungian terms: The Protagonist’s shadow has emerged from latency and because the Protagonist has not confronted and dealt with that psychological dynamic in a healthy, appropriate manner, that inner power takes over. See also Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. He gives in to his madness and becomes a vigilante (in his own mind). He’s still the Protagonist, even if he’s ceded authority to his shadow instincts.

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That said, the psychological experience of the viewer in a movie like The Shining is likely to pivot from whatever connection we may have had with Jack early on to Wendy and/or Danny because as Jack becomes more and more malevolent, under the influence of his shadow, we relate less to him and more to his wife and son. We are worried about their safety. So experientially, that shift may make us think of Wendy and/or Danny as the story’s Protagonist(s) in Act III, and if you want to look at the story that way, that’s fine. I still think of Jack as the Protagonist throughout, his fall from grace and descent into madness needs to be told fully and to his frozen end point to complete the morality tale The Shining is about addiction / obsession.

While I suppose there may be cases where the Protagonist does in actuality become the Nemesis, it would be a rarity. When people think that’s the case, my guess is they’re missing the point that whatever internal psychological dynamic which ‘takes over’ the Protagonist functions as the story’s Nemesis because it opposes the will of the Protagonist.

As I said up front, ultimately this is all semantics. Tell the story you want to tell. If in your mind, the best way to do that is to think of the Protagonist becoming the Nemesis, so be it. Whatever best supports your story-crafting and writing process.

Takeaway: Can a Protagonist transform into a Nemesis? Possibly, but highly unlikely. That said, screenwriting theory and terms are tools, not rules. Write the story you want to tell the way you want to tell it which maximizes its impact.

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