I love October! There’s a phrase in Japanese that goes “Reading Autumn” and I grew up reading all sorts of really great stories during the Halloween season. I haven’t had time for reading much lately, but made time to re-watch the 1988 film, Beetlejuice. (IMDb)
I think my Girls in the Basement were prompting me to do it, because afterward, I realized it had a very similar conflict structure to the story I’m working on.
From the beginning, Barbara and Adam Maitland show a lot of spunk, determination and love. There’s a hint of tragedy in the beginning, but all of their life is quickly overtaken by the fact that they wake up in their house after a car accident, and realize they didn’t survive the crash.
These are our main protagonists. In the first few minutes of the film, they fight a little with Barbara’s sister (who wants to sell their beloved house). They win the immediate battle by shutting her out, but lose the war when they die. The sister sells the house to Antagonists #2.
Antagonists #2 have a lot more going on than Barbara and Adam. Team Maitland basically speak and act with one heart and mind, often led by Barbara. But Charles and Delia Deetz? They have different goals entirely. Delia wants to be an important and influential artist. Charles initially just wants to recover his health from a nervous breakdown, but as he begins to feel better, his ambition to connect people to real estate returns. All that Team Deetz has in common is love, and even that is called into question. They support each others goals in the abstract, but are too busy with their own goals to actively help each other out. Delia wants to gut the house and turn it into a showcase, while Charles compromises by staking out one calm and peaceful room, and letting Delia turn the rest of the home into Horror House on the Hill.
Our ghosts, Barbara and Adam, are aghast. Restoring their home into the cozy, comfy, country aesthetic is one of their main goals, and now they’ve been invaded by the living who are doing terrible things to their project. It’s a nice flip in the typical ghost story – the dead are uncomfortable and discommoded by the living. The living don’t care and pursue their own (somewhat unrealistic) goals without noticing the ghosts at all.
In the course of fighting the Deetzes, Barbara and Adam bring Beetlejuice into the mortal realm, so to speak. Beetlejuice is the third antagonist in the story. His goal is to escape the world of the dead, and he has to marry a mortal to do it. He chooses the Deetzes’ teenage daughter, Lydia, as his ticket out.
Now we have some tricky shifting in the conflict lines. Four teams (Team Maitland, Delia, Charles and Lydia) must unite to defeat Beetlejuice. I’m not sure where to place Juno, the Maitlands’ after-death case worker. She’s a very important part of the puzzle, but she switches teams, too, between antagonist and protagonist. She’s a Fount of Knowledge who can thwart or help the Maitlands, depending on whether their plans are foolish or solid.
In the end, the protagonist team is definitely led by Barbara. Everyone has a place in the puzzle, but the big showdown is finally between Barbara and Beetlejuice.
There’s a super epilogue, which wraps up a lot of loose strings, and confirms what we suspected during the story.
A very interesting thing is that in the cartoon sequel that followed the movie, Lydia and Beetlejuice pair up to fight . . . I’m not sure what. I’ve only seen a couple of episodes. But the shifting alliances are very important to keeping long stories – particularly series – interesting.
Too many characters is something I struggle with as a writer. I really like a complex plot where we have more than one protagonist, but I’m not always sure how to juggle all of them. Do you have any tips or tricks for writing with multiple protagonists?
All I can say is watching Beetlejuice helped flip a switch in my mind. Particularly, I need to think more about how my primary couple and my secondary couple can successfully compete and then successfully join forces. I will look at introducing an outside Grand Antagonist that helps to unite the two couples into one force. And I won’t worry too much about the side-characters, particularly if they are functional characters. The Fount of Knowledge. Or maybe The Bumbling Wrecker of Plans? And like Beetlejuice, it’s OK for characters to end the story with their needs met – even if they are antagonists at some point in the story.