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If Writing Musicals Was A Person...

I wanted to take a moment to discuss the idea of a "villain" today.

Something I always observed about my work is that my protagonist is usually in a battle with themselves, rather than an external opponent or antagonist.

I sent out a script for review to a script coverage professional.

The comment I received back basically told me that I needed an antagonist to make the story work. A villain.

I got angry about the comment, because I didn't want a villain in the story - it was clearly Man vs Man and a villain would take away from that...

Or so I thought.

It's now been about 5 years since I received that comment. And I think I finally understand what was intended.

It goes back to the "I want" moment.

In good musicals, the ones that stick with you after you leave the theatre. The main character has a WANT. But they also have a JUST DESSERTS moment near the end. John Truby describes this as their TRUE WANT in his book "Anatomy of Story".

This JUST DESSERTS moment is when the character gets what they NEED rather than what they WANT. In some stories they get their WANT and the NEED is a bonus and we, the audience get a "happy ever after." In other stories, the character does not get their WANT because they have evolved and realize their NEED is more valuable.

Now, coming back to the point of this post.

The job of the opponent or antagonist is to bring the NEED out of the protagonist.

Using the MAN vs MAN approach, this isn't easy to accomplish. The entire story would take place in the internal mind of the protagonist and that isn't easily dramatized in a musical that is primarily visual. The concept does work amazingly in fiction however.

So... a villain allows us to conflict with the main character and force them into changing or evolving to realize their NEED over their WANT.

In my work, Man vs Man, I had to take the internal conflict -- in this case it was about "fitting in" and finding their tribe, into a person. A villain. My villain would have to embody the internal conflict.

What does that mean? It means, taking a entire over-arching concept and condensing it into a person. Kinda like those memes you see online that begin with "If (insert thing) was a person..."

In one picture, we all instantly understand what is being communicated.

And that's the job of your villain. You must find a way to make audiences instantly recognize what your main character is up against. And you must do it in a way that shrinks large concepts down into a person.

What's that line you hear all the time? It's in the specifics that make it universal.

As an example, Dolores Umbridge from the Harry Potter stories -- JK Rowling was able to establish the concept of Oppression and Big Brother into one horrible person. Even more horrible than the main villain of the story -- Voldermort.

Some examples from musicals include:

Judd (from Oklahoma) represents a darker side of a community that is facing optimistic change and unknown challenges in their new position as a State.

Bernardo (from West Side Story) stands in for all manner of gangs, businesses and organizations that represent change to the status quo.

Audrey II (from Little Shop of Horrors) represents our obsessions that get out of hand.

Each of these examples of villains is a stand in for a larger concept that if used literally would bog down the story and make it un-relatable to the masses. Intellectual lecturing vs entertainment.

Now that I finally understand this concept, I have wholeheartedly embraced the idea of having a villain in my stories and it's made the writing process much more enjoyable.

When combining this concept with my main character it looks something like this...

Main Character WANT vs Villain = Main Character NEED

Seems simple enough now, but like I always say, our minds have to be at a level to understand the next level. Maybe I'll write about that at some point.

Alan Saunders,

Friends told me I was late to the game for writing musicals, even though I've been writing them almost my entire life. so this blog is my journey into writing professionally for the stage.

Check out for how-to articles and resources for writing your own musical for the stage!

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