“Writers need to feel this connection to these characters too – it is only through your characters that audiences can connect with your story and theme.” – The follow up article to “Insights: Character Driven Storytelling” by Ian Kennedy, WriteMovies Director of World Wide Development.
CAUTION – this article contains a number of significant spoilers about recent films from popular franchises…
I’ve noticed an increasing number of films recently which achieve a powerful thematic resonance with audiences, by connecting their protagonist and antagonist so that they become flipsides of the same coin. I call this ‘twinning’, because it makes the protagonist and antagonist into almost twins of each other: both began from the same origin but then went off in opposite directions in life – and now come into direct conflict, which becomes the central conflict of the film.
The key is that the protagonist and the antagonist are identical in some important respect of their personal background, but have decided to take their lives down different paths from there. Twinning creates a connection between the protagonist and the antagonist, and so our empathy for the protagonist also helps us experience their connection to the antagonist. This becomes a very powerful driver of the plot, and gives us a much closer connection to the theme of the story than we could gain otherwise.
We see some obvious examples of twinning in the superhero genre. In Marvel’s THOR franchise, we see it almost literally with half-brothers Thor and Loki – two demi-gods (based on the Norse Gods) playing out archaic supernatural power struggles in the modern day setting of Earth. This is an unsubtle example of twinning, but the characters and their similarities and differences are still strong enough to drive the plot. The twinning in BATMAN BEGINS is much subtler, though. Bruce Wayne and Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson’s character) are both trained by the same organization, the League of Shadows. They both have the same set of training, skills, and goals, and Ducard acts as Wayne’s mentor. But they differ hugely on their morals and ideology. When given the task by Ra’s al Ghul to kill a man, Wayne declines and destroys the headquarters of the League, but he saves Ducard. Ducard then travels to Gotham and destroys Wayne’s home, just as Wayne destroyed his. Wayne and Ducard have the same upbringing, so to speak, and both recognize that the world is deeply rotten and needs transformation. But while one wants to save civilization without destroying it, the other wants to destroy it to start anew – and this is the conflict that drives the story.
Another example can be seen in the Harry Potter franchise, between Harry and Voldemort. When Harry is just a baby, Voldemort tries to kill him, but for various reasons, Harry survives and the killing curse backfires on Voldemort. From then on, Harry and Voldemort have an enduring magical connection – they share the same material in their wands, they share visions, and their spells literally connect during duels. The connection between the two characters opens up the opportunity for all kinds of plot developments that would be improbable otherwise, and this twinning between Harry and Voldemort is what drives the central conflict of the entire series. Both Voldemort and Harry are orphans, born with powerful magical powers. But while Voldemort decides to use his powers for evil and dominion, Harry is compassionate (in spite of his bitter upbringing) and uses his powers to save others. This twinning reaches a neat conclusion when Voldemort is killed by his own death-spell backfiring, thanks to Harry’s use of a ‘disarming’ charm – even in their fatal final battle, Harry remains reluctant to use his powers to kill others, and it is Voldemort’s own malice that literally kills him. This is the third time Voldemort has attempted to directly kill Harry and had it backfire on him, and this time at last resolves their conflict.
James Bond films also use twinning in their recent films. Twinning is used very effectively in SKYFALL, in which we can view M as the protagonist. This is the story of two spies who she has created, and abandoned – one comes back to destroy her, the other to save her. They gain the same training and are brought up within the infrastructure and operations of MI6; M is their creator. Then – because of the impossible choices that her job compels, and the dispensible nature of her operatives – she is later forced to separately abandon each of these two agents and leave them for dead. Both survive – and it is at this point that they go off on very different tangents. Silva becomes embittered and insane and he begins to plot the downfall of MI6 and M herself. Meanwhile, Bond metaphorically comes back from the dead, retrains at MI6, and goes back out into the field – he becomes M’s savior. M has created these “twins”, she is the link between them, but their goals and feelings towards her differ drastically. And the contrasting use that Bond and Silva make of their impressive MI6 training creates a fascinating game of cat and mouse: Silva wins the technology and PR war throughout Acts 1 and 2, so Bond has to bring him out into a totally different environment in order to triumph in the climax. At his ancestral home Skyfall, Bond makes use of much older technologies and environments which (especially in the case of the Goldfinger Aston Martin DB5) creates a richly satisfying connection between the Bonds of past and present – and generations that have grown up with them all.
There is a direct connection between these characters – they are different sides of the same coin. There is a thematic cohesion and connection between the protagonist and the antagonist that can only come about through the twinning of two main characters. Writers need to feel this connection to these characters too – it is through these characters you try and tell your story and the theme of your script. The Writer, much like M, is the creator of both the protagonist and antagonist, which creates the connection between these two characters. If, as the writer, you don’t feel connected to your protagonist, or don’t provide a convincing counter-argument to them through an antagonist, the audience cannot be expected to do so either.
The follow-up Bond film, SPECTRE, tries to follow the same formula with a different kind of twinning, far less successfully. In SPECTRE, the twinning is more literal between Bond and Blofeld, who we eventually learn grew up together as step-brothers. Blofeld hates Bond, although it isn’t clear why exactly – resentment of the ‘cuckoo’ that entered his ‘nest’, presumably. However, the twinning here bears little other relevance to the plot or the actual character motivations of either Bond or Blofeld. On many levels, SPECTRE is less satisfying than SKYFALL, in spite of the heightened stakes and backstory provided for the plot. The disconnect between the twinning and the story itself is the main reason. It feels forced and fake.
Action movies (like most of the examples above) provide clear examples of how twinning can heighten our sense of connection to both the main characters and to the central conflict of the story, especially in genres which hinge on extreme or unlikely premises. But in subtler ways, twinning is an extremely powerful tool for binding us to your story in any genre. STEP BROTHERS provides an obvious example of how the same trope can be applied to comedy – it may be worth rewatching that movie after reading this article, to see all of the different ways that the main characters are twinned together in order to create the theme and the central conflict (and development) of the story. There’s not much subtlety to it in this example, but it worked at the box office.
If you think this approach could help you tell the type of story you’re trying to tell, ask yourself:
- What powerful qualities make my protagonist and my antagonist the same? And what equally powerful qualities make them different?
- How can I tie these qualities to both the theme and the action, by making them into the driving forces in my story?
Of course, theme is a much richer and more powerful tool than this one (quite reductionist) idea can ever encapsulate. And a powerful idea like this can quickly turn into a frustrating cliché, if everyone takes guidance like this too literally. The key to making this feature work is subtlety. Don’t make it too obvious or literal what twins your characters. See if you can make it subtle, haunting and unique instead.
For more Insights articles check out “Insights: Genre and what it really tells us” and “What Your Scripts Have Been Telling Us: January to June 2016”.