Story Shots: Good guy antagonists with The Fugitive

When I started this blog, there were several stories I knew that I wanted to cover. The Fugitive, one of my all-time favorite movies, was one of them.

The Fugitive is a 1993 action movie starring Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones wherein Ford’s character, Dr. Richard Kimble, is falsely accused of murdering his wife. When his prison bus crashes, he goes on the run to try to prove his innocence, trailed all the way by dogged U.S. Marshal Samuel Gerard. Sam is the focus of today’s Story Shot.

How it works

Given the above premise, one would assume that Gerard’s character would be painted in an unsympathetic light, most likely as the trope-heavy government dog seeking to squelch the little guy or the battle-crazed military specialist glorying in the hunt.

Gerard is neither. Though he’s hardly warm and fuzzy, he is dutiful, competent, meticulous, charismatic, smart, and morally good. Though he does not consider it his responsibility or duty to prove or disprove Kimble’s innocence, neither does he consider it his job to take justice into his own hands, seeking only to bring in his target and do his job. Anything beyond that, and well, Gerard says it himself best with his famous line…

Why it works

There are multiple reasons why I think the Kimble-Gerard power dynamic works in this movie. First, by setting up Gerard as a good man doing the right thing (stopping a man who is running from the law), it makes it easy for viewers to empathize or even root for him. Even when we know Kimble is innocent and want him to succeed, we don’t necessarily get the same pleasure out of seeing Gerard fail that we would if he were a man of lesser character. It sets up an internal conflict in the viewer while also giving you someone to cheer for no matter which side you’re watching (true villains aside, of course).

Secondly, because we recognize that they are both ultimately good and have the same goal of eventual justice, it creates a desire for reconciliation and teamwork between the two. That’s not to say that readers don’t hope for those things when antagonists are morally bad–who doesn’t love a good redemption story–but it’s a lesser-seen variation of that hope which creates a more memorable impression than the usual formula.

Third, because we are rooting for both the antagonist and the protagonist, it adds a sense of excitement and rivalry. In most cat-and-mouse plotlines, the dramatic questions are fairly simple: Will the protagonist escape the villain? If so, how? If there’s a MacGuffin, who will reach it first? When both the cat and the mouse are equally heroic, however, the questions begin to compound and layer: Will the antagonist catch the protagonist before the true villain or danger is revealed? Will the antagonist save the protagonist or vice versa if the other gets into mortal danger? Will they work together to reach a common goal or defeat a common enemy? Who will ultimately defeat the villain?

Another reason this relationship works so well is that both men are charismatic. Now, admittedly, no small part of this is on behalf of the excellent performances by both Ford and Jones, but what I mean in particular here is that both men have admirable and attractive qualities. Both are positioned as authority figures at the top of their fields. Both balance wits and physical prowess to achieve their goals. Both are shown to be caring, competent, and considerate men (as an example, Kimble puts himself in danger to help patients while on the run and Gerard, despite his tough love approach, puts a coat over his frazzled co-worker after a near-death experience). Now, whether these are romantically attractive qualities to a viewer or not, the fact remains, it does make them extremely likable characters with the kinds of qualities that viewers would like to see triumph over evil in their own lives. This mostly works to compound the “rooting for them both” factor, though it also draws the viewers’ attention in and enforces their hopes that good truly can win over evil (particularly when we’re not fighting the evil alone), a particularly important factor in positive storytelling.

Finally, because both men operate based on a code of moral conduct, it opens the story up to broader relational possibilities. For example, if Gerard was only a battle-starved government goon out to take Kimble down, the only resolutions available for their interactions would be a fight, chase, or capture. Because Gerard operates morally under the law, however, he chooses not to shoot unless he has to. It’s an option, but it’s not the only option. There’s room for them to talk, at least a little, or for Kimble to try to run without everything going up in blazes. Likewise, Kimble’s indefatigable desire as a doctor to help the sick and do no harm both opens up opportunities for him to get trapped in a hard place or leave accidental clues while helping patients and removes the possibility for him to take the decisive action it would take to end Gerard once and for all when given the chance.

Antagonists and villains are terms that often get used interchangeably, but this is a story where the difference is stark. Antagonists are characters or forces that stop the protagonist from achieving a goal. Villains do that but are more negatively morally aligned. By having a morally good antagonist, a writer can impel a broader spectrum of emotion in their audience, increase the number and complexity of driving questions, and give audiences more characters to cheer for along the way.

What do you think? Any other morally good antagonists come to mind? Other reasons this dynamic works? Let me know in the comments, and if you want more short craft lessons like this, sign up for my blog or newsletter in the sidebar (exit mobile-only mode as needed). Thanks!

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