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Antagonist and Impact Character in Inception



When I apply the Dramatica Theory of Story1 to novels or screenplays, I don’t do so because I think it’s “true.” I do so because it is an eminently useful model, capable of describing, explaining, and even predicting what’s going on in a given story.

I still haven’t gotten around, after my inaugural Inception entry, to sketching the different sets of rules that become progressively complex in the movie depending on the difficulty level, i.e., depending on how deeply nested the dream levels are—which, among other things, seems to have escaped some commentator or other. What’s been floating around instead, on the web and in my head, is the question of who’s the Antagonist of the story.

Now, Jim Hull’s analyses, which are based on the above-mentioned Dramatica theory, usually make a lot of sense (even if I happen to disagree from time to time), but I’m not sure how to map his recent blogpost The Antagonists of Inception on Inception’s archetypal characters. Sure, Fischer’s trained & armed subconscious projections are one aspect of the story’s Antagonist but, wait, Ariadne?

This can’t be. Ariadne is clearly what the Dramatica theory of story calls the Impact Character. What’s the Impact Character’s function? The “simple” description (don’t let the terminology confuse you; also, Dom Cobb is both Protagonist and Main Character in this story) reads as follows:

Just as the Antagonist opposes the Protagonist in the Overall Story, the Impact Character stands in the way of the Main Character in the Subjective Story. Note we did not say the Impact Character opposes the Main Character, but rather stands in the way. The Impact Character’s purpose in the story is to represent an alternative belief system or worldview to the Main Character. This forces the Main Character to avoid the easy way out and to face his personal problems. (25)

You can’t find a better description of Ariadne’s character and its function in Inception than that. So who’s the Antagonist? Frankly, I thought that was obvious! Mal, of course, is the story’s Antagonist. What does the Antagonist do? It’s this:

The Archetypal Antagonist is diametrically opposed to the Protagonist’s successful attainment of the goal. Often this results in a Protagonist who has a purpose and an Antagonist comes along and tries to stop it. Sometimes, however, it is the other way around. The Antagonist may have a goal of its own that causes negative repercussions. The Protagonist then has the goal of stopping the Antagonist. (25)

If that doesn’t apply to Mal, I wouldn’t know what does. I can even see both aspects involved, where the first variant in the “dream world” mirrors the second variant in the “real world” (i.e., Dom’s flashbacks). In the “dream world,” Mal actively tries to prevent Dom from reaching his goal, right from the start in Saito’s test set-up to the mission proper, using every trick and every power at her disposal up to and including killing Fischer.

Mal, of course, is a “part” of Dom Cobb’s mind. But with Fischer’s projections, we have already identified part of the Antagonist as being not a “real” character in that sense. What we have here is a distributed Antagonist, consisting of projections that span the spectrum from mindless thugs to a sophisticated schemer.

In other words, part of the Antagonist is part of the Protagonist (who, in this case, is identical with the Main Character). And why shouldn’t it! To quote Dramatica again (Protagonist and Antagonist are, within the theory, both “Overall Story Characters” or “Objective Characters”):

[A] player is like a vessel into which we place a character (and therefore a set of character functions). If we place more than one Overall Story Character into a single player, the player will have multiple personalities. For example, the dual characters contained in the player DR. JEKYLL & MR. HYDE, or the many personalities of SYBIL. (24)

Nothing prevents the placement of both Protagonist and most of the Antagonist into the “player” Dom Cobb, and that’s exactly what the script does. Mal, moreover, as the vessel for the “Archetypal Antagonist,” enacts an “archetypal role” as Cobb’s personified guilt—which is the central motif of the story and what the story-as-argument is about.

The more I think about it, the fiendishly cleverer Christopher Nolan’s script becomes.

1 Philip, Melanie and Chris Huntley. Dramatica: A New Theory of Story. Glendale, CA: Write Brothers, 2004. Special 10th Anniv. Ed. 

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6 Responses

  1. Totally agree with you that Ariadne is supposed to be the Impact Character, though there is a bit of a handoff that occurs in regards to that function with her and Mal.

    Mal, however, is the Contagonist of the story – tempting Cobb to take another path, and throwing up roadblocks that hamper his progress towards the ultimate resolution of the Goal.

    An Archetypal Antagonist is made up of the motivations of Avoid(Prevent) and Reconsider. While it appears that she momentarily takes the element of Prevent in her shooting of Fischer, this is not a consistent characteristic of her throughout the rest of the story, nor is it an accurate interpretation of her motivation. Instead, it is the mindless drones/protectors of Fischer’s mind that carry that element throughout, in each Act, without fail.

    Mal is the Contagonist of the piece which means she is motivated by Temptation and Hinder. Her attempted stabbing of Ariadne in Paris and her getting up from the chair in the opening set piece are examples of a character motivated by Hinder, not Prevent. The Goal of the Story is to infuse Fischer with a new understanding. With this in mind, it is clear to see that Mal was not motivated to Prevent or Avoid this Goal from happening — instead, she was driven to Hinder Cobb’s mission because she had other plans for him.

    A Contagonist makes the progress towards a successful resolution of the Goal more difficult, yet could care less about the Goal itself. Mal was not concerned with Fischer and the mission to plant the seed. She wanted Cobb for her own.

    In the climactic scene, with Fischer out on the balcony she tempts Cobb to join her. If she was an Archetypal Antagonist her speech would have been more about getting Cobb to reconsider the mission, the dangers of inception, rather than a plea for him to take the easy way out. Ariadne, on the other hand, was always trying to get Cobb to Reconsider the dangers of proceeding, which is why she can be seen as taking up the other half of the classic Antagonist.

    It’s a subtle difference, but an important one to make. These characteristics should always be seen in context of their relation to the Goal, otherwise they can easily be tweaked to satisfy any argument.

  2. I have to digest that. Plus, I’m off tomorrow for a few days. I’m thrilled this discussion got started, and I have a few ideas already. I think. :-)

  3. Jim, I would fully agree with you if I agreed with your basic premise about what constitutes Inception’s “ultimate resolution of the Goal.” I don’t think the Goal of the Story is to infuse Fischer with a new understanding (and that’s why I also think criticism of the “who cares about these corporations anyways” variety falls flat). I think the Goal of the Story is to unite Dom with his children, his family. To successfully manipulate Fischer’s unconscious so he would break up his father’s corporation is critical in attaining that Goal, but it is not the Goal.

    Mal isn’t interested in keeping Fischer’s corporate empire intact, or helping Saito keep his secret during the test mission, or killing Ariadne in the expository dream sequence. What Mal wants is Dom to join her—getting him to commit suicide to unite with their “real children” in their real world or join her in limbo in Dom’s dream world, respectively.

    And that’s where Mal’s actions go beyond the role of the Contagonist, or Impact Character. Her goal is diametrically opposed to the Story Goal. With respect to the mission, she is motivated less by Prevent than by Hinder, I agree with you. But with respect to Dom joining his children in the real world (no matter if it’s “really” the real world or not, but we never saw the totem wobble in a dream world before), she tries to Prevent and Avoid this Goal from happening. And that makes her, on top of what I wrote in my post, the Archetypal Antagonist indeed.

  4. You’re confusing the Main Character throughline with the Overall Story Throughline. Complete stories require both as the dissonance between the two creates meaning. One throughline provides a first-person intimate look at resolving the story’s problem, the other provides a detached third-person objective view of the story’s problem. While thematically these problems may be of the same type, by definition they can never be the same thing as they are two different contexts.

    What Inception provides is an example of how greater awareness can solve the problems we face in our lives. From a third-person point-of-view we see how Fischer’s awareness of his father’s true affection for him successfully brings their mission to a close. Because of this, he comes to the understanding that what his father really wanted was for him to break up his empire. This is what Cobb as Protagonist was after and he was successful in achieving this.

    From a more intimate first-person point-of-view, we get to see how Cobb’s greater awareness that his projection of his wife could never match up to the real thing resolves the angst he began the story with. This self-delusion, and his preoccupation with whether or not he was dreaming, was central to his role as Main Character.

    By giving us both points of view simultaneously, Chrisopher Nolan gives us an experience we can’t achieve in our own lives, namely the ability to both be inside and outside of ourselves at once.

    This is why so many people went back for repeat viewings and why the film seems so powerful and important: it is giving us the meaning we crave for, yet can’t synthesize on our own. This is the power of great stories.

  5. Oh, right. I indeed overlooked this. And I should have seen it! I even wrote, “Dom Cobb is both Protagonist and Main Character in this story” in my original post.

    But why am I still not fully satisfied with Mal’s role—within the Theory of Story—as Impact Character or Contagonist in the Main Character Throughline, and Ariadne’s as (one part of) the Archetypal Antagonist in the Overall Story Throughline?

    I don’t know. I have to think about that some more. And reread Dramatica, for starters :-)

  6. I think both Impact Character (and therefore Relationship Story Throughline) are not handled with as much finesse as the other two throughlines. Its why the film comes off a bit cold and probably the source of your issues with it.