Monday, September 13, 2010

Writers Weights: Archetypes and Contagonists (WW2)

Want to exercise your writing chops? This week's Writers Weights challenge focuses on characterization. Answers to the challenge will be posted on Friday ("credit" is still available if you get it in late). If you use this exercise, post a link in the comments, and I'll update the post with your link. Everyone is welcome!

Contagonist Challenge

I've spent many years as an actor at Renaissance faires and one of my recollections was an improvisation workshop that touched on dramatica theory. When I heard an interview on the topic of writing and archetypes this piqued my curiosity and hence this week's exercise. I don't necessarily advocate dramatica, but the goal of this week's challenge is to increase the participants in your stories.

A contagonist is an archetype like a protagonist, a lead character in the story, or an antagonist, the character opposed to what the protagonist is trying to achieve. The contagonist opposes the protagonist but unlike the antagonist, the contagonist is more interested in deflecting or delaying the protagonist. Contagonists can be in league with the antagonist or they can be even allied with the protagonist but not providing much help for that character.

Examples of contagonists include: Darth Vader from Star Wars, Detective Captain Fache from The Da Vinci Code, and Mal from Inception. Darth Vader is probably the most commonly discussed and several of the further research links described that. Skip to the next paragraph if you're concerned about spoilers and haven't seen Inception. Mal is Cobb's (Leonardo DiCaprio's) wife and she makes a good example of a contagonist because her goal isn't to oppose Cobb's attempt to implant a memory but rather to distract Cobb and trap him inside a dream.

The challenge: write a scene of 1000 words or less that includes a contagonist. The theme: lightning.

Further reading:


  1. Chistopher Vogler in his book "The Writers' Journey" describes a similar archetype (actually probably the same one, just with a different name) called a Threshold Guardian. These people serve to delay the hero and to make them work/fight for some prize (knowledge/skill/experience) that they can then use to defeat the villain/antagonist at the end.

    Funny you should actually come up with this exercise as I'm currently writing a short story closley following Vogler's ideas.

  2. @Belinda, that is amusing. Yes, I think it is a similar archetype. Speaking of variations of archetypes, I heard an interview Mur Lafferty did with Tracy Hickman who discussed archetypes and his viewpoint of the contagonist. His view was that this character was the smart character who manipulated things behind the wings but didn't confront the character directly. It is interesting seeing the different viewpoints around this.

    I'm always amused how ideas tend to cluster. I see it in the news where some news outlet runs a news story and then you see it in 2-3 (or more) later that week. [not popular news which makes sense, but a specific story that becomes popular.] You also see this in movies with similar titles occurring at similar times.

  3. This is interesting. I've never heard that rumor before. Can you elaborate on it?

  4. @James, About ten years ago, I heard this from one of the actors who was leading a workshop for Renaissance faire participants on street improvisation. My recollection, now murky and since I couldn't find collaborating documents online I called it a rumor, was that Phyllis Patterson was a drama teacher in the Los Angeles area and taught her classes dramatica theory and then introduced the first Renaissance fair as an opportunity to showcase that theory.

    However, as I spent more time looking for collaborating evidence today, I'm questioning whether this was actually dramatica theory and wasn't commedia dell'arte instead. I find at least one reference in Google Books to Phyllis Patterson and commedia dell'arte. However, looking at the commedia wiki page, it doesn't exactly fit with what faire performers were attempting to do (set in England not Italy, without masks). However, I recall some discussions of archetypes from that. At this point, without further information, I'm worried that I'm elevating this to rumor. I will word this differently above.

  5. OK, thanks. Always interested to hear about the use of Dramatica in other venues outside of film analysis.