By Gideon Strauss

One of the highlights for me of participating in the Q conference in Los Angeles earlier this week was a half-day workshop by Bobette Buster on “Understanding Story and Film: What Themes Speak to Every Human Being?” Bobette is a story advisor to movie companies like PIXAR, Disney, and Sony, and you can find her talks on story online (for example, on the website of a previous Q conference and the DO Lectures).

Bobette offered a compelling analysis of the structure of stories, and illustrated her analysis generously with film clips and complete YouTube movies. My favorite illustrations: excerpts from the documentary Buck; the twelve minute-long 9/11 rescue documentary Boatlift; and eight minutes of astounding footage from the Kruger National Park (watch the Kruger footage to the end!).

I have experienced the power of story in my own life, as a voracious reader from a young age, and as someone personally transformed by the stories I have read (including the reading of the four gospel narratives in my mid-teens). I did not have to be persuaded of the significance of story in general. And anyone who has been paying attention to the growing power of TED talks knows something of the cultural significance of story in our time.

What is sticking with me from Bobette’s presentation – and what is perking in my imagination in relation to my work – is her definition of the antagonist in a story as not necessarily the villain, but as the force (personal or not) that shakes up the status quo of the protagonist’s world, confronting the protagonist with the need to change.

Story physics according to Bobette Buster

Story physics according to Bobette Buster

In movie after movie, story after story, Bobette showed us, her audience, how the antagonist — sometimes a villain, sometimes a lover, sometimes a force of nature — shakes up the world of the story’s protagonist, demanding change of the protagonist, change which the protagonist resists. When the protagonist truly faces the challenge posed by the antagonist, despite their fear, the story shows the protagonist becoming fully alive. When the challenge posed by the protagonist is not truly faced, the protagonist surrenders to the fate of becoming the living dead.

As I listened to Bobette I realized the significance of the antagonist in the stories of our work, our leadership, and the lives of our organizations. Industry-leading companies, faced with the disruptive power of a new, entrepreneurial competitor, have the opportunity of facing up to the challenge and discovering new life, a new path, for their business. Failing to face the required change, they die. Business founders more frequently than most other people have “the failure faith,” as Lewis Schiff calls it in his book Business Brilliant – “a powerful conviction that every setback offers vital lessons that could not be learned any other way” – a willingness to test their imagination against the forces that demand change as a condition of success.

In my own life powerful forces have time and again demanded that I change, and many of these changes have strengthened me. At this moment in my life, I am hoping for imagination adequate to the antagonists I currently face, and the willingness to fail, learn, and try again. This is a different kind of imagination at work than the imagination involved in designing a lettertype that serves a certain kind of text well, or in building a beautiful and functional chair, or in bringing laughter to the shop floor. I am grateful to Bobette Buster for reminding me that this is a kind of imagination without which I cannot become fully alive at work.

Gideon Strauss is the executive director at the Max De Pree Center for Leadership and also editor of Fieldnotes Magazine.

Fieldnotes Magazine is a publication of the Max De Pree Center for Leadership at Fuller Theological Seminary. We would love to hear from you about people, businesses, or other organizations we can interview or feature. Please email The Editor at Fieldnotes Magazine.


One Response to The antagonist

  1. Her idea of the antagonist sounds a little like what Lewis Hyde talks about with the “trickster” character in myths and folk tales.