The relationship between your protagonist and antagonist is a valuable instrument with which to demonstrate the philosophical argument inherent in your fiction. In fact, the primary purpose of your protagonist and antagonist, and how they interact, is to embody the thematic point of your work.
(You… you do have a thematic point to your fiction… right? If not… perhaps that’s a topic for another article…)
How does this work? How can an intentional writer use their protagonist and antagonist as messengers of theme without being preachy or heavy-handed in the act?
Let’s look at a readily available example from popular storytelling to see how this can be done and done right: The Dark Knight, the second in the Christopher Nolan-led The Dark Knight film trilogy.
Spoilers for a movie released in 2008 are directly ahead…
How the Joker Serves as a Philosophical Instrument in The Dark Knight
The Dark Knight is the middle installment of a trilogy, so it’s required that the protagonist be brought down at the peak of their power in order for the third act (the on-the-nose titled The Dark Knight Rises) to offer what is usually (but not always) positive character growth.
The Joker, as performed (embodied?) by Heath Ledger, is that necessary foil.
What Is the Joker?
In The Dark Knight, the Joker is an elemental / primal force. His origin doesn’t matter (a point driven home again and again every time the character offers a different anecdote about how he got his scars) because it’s not necessary that we see him as entirely human. He’s an archetype, much as Bruce Wayne / Batman himself.
The Joker’s purpose is to show Bruce Wayne (and us) how absurd it is to think that one person — especially through force and violence — can impose a subjective interpretation of justice on a world where concepts like justice / injustice are arbitrary constructs applied to impose comforting definitions on objective, uncaring, utterly neutral reality.
What Is the Batman?
At this point in The Dark Knight film trilogy, Bruce Wayne is a deluded, nearly irrevocably damaged, psychopathically compartmentalized nutjob who’s convinced himself he’s a force for order and, if not good, justice. He has an essentially political agenda, and, as demonstrated by his use of city-wide covert surveillance tech, has no qualms about subverting civil rights to impose his will in the service of what he unilaterally believes is the greater good.
That’s fascism, dear reader, and it’s a worldview squirming just under the Spandex of most superhero stories, as we see in Alan Moore‘s Watchmen and The Authority from Warren Ellis, Marc Millar, Grant Morrison, and others.
Break Down to Rebuild
What to do when your “good guy” is dedicated to the point of authoritarianism?
Well, you’ve got to bring him down a peg.
To that end (and, for the purposes of this article, ignoring other philosophical instruments, such as Harvey Dent), Christopher Nolan and David Goyer present the Joker.
The Joker as Philosophical Instrument
Much as Alan Moore chose in The Killing Joke, the Joker is Wayne’s opposite number: pathologically committed to showing Wayne (and the world, but especially Batman / Wayne) that concepts like order and justice are plastic sheets covering a sofa that’s not just rotting as a natural consequence of entropy… it doesn’t care if you sit on it or not, or even if you live or die.
It’s just a sofa.
The Joker of The Dark Knight doesn’t kill or maim or take over crime in Gotham City or even present a seemingly intractable Solomon’s Choice because he’s insane or sadistic or ambitious.
He does it to show Wayne how crazy it is to think the Batman can ever do more than slap a Band-Aid on it all.
Apparently, and to me, obviously, Heath Ledger’s performance in The Dark Knight was informed by The Killing Joke and Grant Morrison’s Arkham Asylum. He completely understood that the Joker was (allowing for the inherent nonsense in the label) an “agent of chaos” whose purpose was to demonstrate nihilist existentialism as a counter to Wayne’s authoritarian attempts to force the illusion of apparent order.
This Joker is the only one in film or television that makes narrative sense in the context of the larger Batman myth, and the only one absolutely necessary to the protagonist’s larger character arc.
Cesar Romero, though a joy to watch, doesn’t count. Jack Nicholson was… Jack Nicholson. Jared Leto‘s meth-head in the first Suicide Squad movie was a literal joke, and not in a good way. As of this writing in April of 2022, I haven’t seen the Todd Phillips film, but from what I can see, it is a social commentary / class division statement; Taxi Driver with a Batman story grafted on.
Nolan / Goyer / Ledger’s Joker is literary, meaningful, and simply legit, and an object lesson in how to use your antagonist as a philosophical instrument.
Characters as Philosophical Instruments Elevate Fiction
To be truly memorable and enduring, fiction must offer more than a gripping yarn.
Fiction must have something to say about what it means to be human.
Of course, if you can manage to say something about what it means to be human while also presenting a gripping yarn… well, that’s the brass ring!
So! Every time you craft your fiction, consider the materials at hand: your characters and their worldviews, their flaws and faults, and, especially, their intention.
Your characters speak for you.
Have you thought about what they’re saying?
Figure that out, and there’s a much better chance your fiction will really sing.
And once you have your argument at the ready, the theme front-of-mind… you will see opportunities for your protagonist and, through conflict, your antagonist, especially, to serve as instruments of your philosophy.
Let’s Talk About It
Writers! Are you making full use of your antagonist as philosophical instrument? Can you think of other powerful examples from literature, film, and other narrative media?
Sound off in the comments!
Want some one-on-one help working out issues like this in your own fiction? Book a Your Story Buddy personal writing coaching session with me!