A Tale of Two (or more) Stories Example: WATCHMEN by Alan Moore
In my previous post, I discussed a common problem in writing: trying to tell more than one story within one story. Typically, this is made apparent by having more than one protagonist and/or more than one problem for the protagonist(s) to face.
This happens all the time. It is so common, that professionals do it constantly. Pixar did it in Ratatouille. Christopher Nolan did it with The Dark Knight. And even the It-guy of comic writing, Alan Moore, did it in Watchmen… (Note: If you haven’t read Watchmen, there are spoilers below.)
First, a little vocab:
1) “Protagonist” = the character responsible for handling the main problem and the one most in need of change, emotionally.
2) “Mentor” = the protagonist’s conscience. They are the prevailing side to the thematic argument. They voice the lesson that must be learned by the protagonist in order to change for the better.
(Update 10/31/09 — see the Eight Character Roles for more)
Many people have argued with me that Rorschach is the protagonist, but I disagree. Dan Dreiberg is the protagonist.
The Comedian’s murder is the catalyst Dan needs to change from a complacent wimp to the embodiment of Rorschach’s message, “Never Surrender” (theme). Rorschach already embodies this theme; he has no room for change. It is Dan that needs to change.
Therefore, Dan Dreiberg is the protagonist of Watchmen and Rorschach is the mentor.
The entire structure of the story is built around Dan gradually incorporating Rorschach’s message: Dan saves people from a burning building, he defies the warnings of the police, he breaks Rorschach out of jail, and even confronts Adrian Veidt on Adrian’s turf.
Each act of deviance builds upon the other so that when Dan ultimately makes his final choice to either succeed or fail at embodying the theme in the face of certain adversity, his experiences within the story will support that decision and he will have changed for the better.
In the end, Dan folds, repeating his mistake to be complacent to the wills of society, as though he hasn’t experienced a thing, and Rorschach is given center stage as a false protagonist.
We watch as Rorschach continues to embody “Never Surrender” and Dan wilts away. Bummer.
It is my suspicion that Alan Moore lost his focus and forgot that Dan was the protagonist.
It’s entirely understandable. In the final chapters, a great deal of effort was spent on grounding the rather odd logistics of Adrian’s crime. In the cloud of the murder mystery (not to mention all the other stories he was writing at the time), Moore could have easily forgotten that the point of the story is not the murder mystery itself but what it means to Dan’s mid-life crisis, resulting in a finale that has two protagonists instead of one.
So, you see? Even professionals make this mistake! Fortunately for Moore, readers either don’t notice or are forgiving enough to enjoy Watchmen for it’s numerous strengths. But, I wouldn’t recommend relying on that.
I hope that helps!