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.
If you have something valuable to add or some interesting point to discuss, I’ll be looking forward to meeting you on Mastodon!