Princess mononoke - four corner opposition

How the four corner opposition technique can improve your worldbuilding

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Is it possible to have more than one villain in your story? Yes! If you are confident enough in your writing abilities you should add more than one. Maybe even 3.

It might sound redundant to have more than one villain, after all, what is your hero going to do? Act like a character in a boring video game? Fight villain #1, defeat him, move on. Fight villain #2, defeat him, move on. Fight villain #3…. No, this is just repetitive.

More than one opponent doesn’t mean more than one battle, it simply means more than one conflict. Let me explain, this technique is called: The four corner opposition.

THE ANATOMY OF STORY John Truby

John Truby writes about it in his book “The anatomy of story”. Basically instead of having just a linear conflict between Character A (the hero) and Character B (the villain)

HERO VS VILLAIN - four corner opposition

Your story will have multiple conflicts and still keep the villain-hero antagonism as it’s backbone.

Four corner opposition starts with four characters in conflict with each other:

  • the hero
  • the main villain
  • the first opponent
  • the second opponent

The one between the hero and the villain is the most important conflict, but the conflict between the hero and the other two opponents is what gives a shape to the story.

four corner opposition

What this technique does is particularly useful when it comes to the Fantasy genre and worldbuilding because it forces the writer to stretch the imagination and create a world with more than two groups fighting each other.

Also, if you want your story to be more complex, you can give the villains and the two opponents a reason to be in conflict with each other.

When it comes to worldbuilding it’s important to “show off” the world that you have created. But how do you do that? One way is to use the “umbrella” technique that I’ve written about in another post. Another way is to explore the world through the conflict between the characters.

That’s when the four corner opposition technique comes in. In order to be at odds with each other, the characters need a stronger motivation than “I don’t like that guy”.

It might be a political problem, a love story ended badly, a matter of pride, an old grudge, revenge or other reasons. The important thing is that the origin of the conflict is believable and understood by the audience.

For example: In The lion king, Scar kills Mufasa because of envy. Scar himself states (while singing a catchy song) that he hates his brother and wants to be king. Because of this, his motivation is clear to the audience. If we had to cut out the song “Be prepared” and the scenes with Scar and the hyenas, the audience wouldn’t know about Scar’s intentions and would be confused about his actions.

Here’s how Miyazaki, in his masterpiece Princess Mononoke, uses the four corner opposition to show the audience the complex, fascinating world he created.

Princess Mononoke

The main conflict in the movie is the one between Ashitaka (our hero) and Lady Eboshi (our villain). Without the four corner opposition, this would be a pretty straightforward conflict: Eboshi wants to take down the forest for her own gain and Ashitaka takes the side of the wolves to stop her.

But fortunately, we get more than the usual “good vs evil” type of conflict. Ashitaka visits the Irontown and gets to see both the damages that they are doing to the forest and the benefits that the inhabitants have.

Women and men are treated equally and the society is made so that everyone gets to play an important role in the production of the iron (men get the raw material, women work to turn it into iron and the lepers produce the weapons).

As the people of the Irontown explain to Ashitaka, Lady Eboshi created a utopian society where everyone is equal and, unlike the other towns in the land, no one is oppressed by the samurai sent by the emperor or the other lords.

ashitaka vs eboshi - four corner opposition

When he leaves the Irontown, Ashitaka gets to see things from the perspective of another character: San / Princess Mononoke (our first opponent).

San is a human girl who was raised by the wolf Goddess Moro and her pack of wolves. She despises the humans because of what they are doing to the forest and attacks them as soon as they leave the Irontown.

Ashitaka learns from her and Moro that the production of iron is completely destroying the forest surrounding the Irontown, and enraging the animals and spirits of the forest. One of those spirits was the boar that cursed Ashitaka forcing him to leave his village.

He also meets the boar God Okkoto who intends to start a war against the humans to avenge the boars that they have killed.

Ashitaka is in conflict with the wolves and the boars because his goal is to maintain peace, while their goal is to simply get revenge for the wrongdoings of the humans.

The last opponent is the Buddhist monk Jigo who was sent by the emperor to kill the Deer God (the god of life and death) and bring back his head (since it’s rumored that the god’s head grants immortality).

He has a cynical view of the world. He doesn’t care about gods, animals or even the humans that live in the Irontown. The task given to him by the emperor is all that matters, and he won’t give up until he really has no other choice.

Jigo is in conflict with San and Okkoto because the animals are trying to save the Deer God, while he is trying to kill him. There is also a conflict between him and Lady Eboshi: they work together at the beginning but as soon as he realizes that he has no use for her anymore, he leaves her.

The center of his conflict with Ashitaka revolves around the Deer God, the boy is afraid that killing the God will be the end of the forest, while the monk thinks that gods don’t matter in this world anymore.

four corner opposition pm

Ashitaka has a unique role in the story because he is the only one who is trying to reach a peaceful solution instead of trying to destroy the others. Ironically, his goal of avoiding conflict puts him in conflict with everyone else.

The fact origin of the conflict here, is the fact that each side has different values and that they put their values over everything else:

  • San and Okkoto are blinded by rage
  • Lady Eboshi thinks about the good of her people but forgets about everyone else
  • Jigo only wants to accomplish his mission, no matter the cost

pm four corner oppoistion

Since he has been cursed, Ashitaka can see with his eyes how much suffering hatred can bring, so he vows to do his best to maintain peace.

I want to see with eyes unclouded by hate.

Fortunately, in the end, Ashitaka’s values are the ones that prevail. Jigo gives up and abandons his mission. Moro gets her revenge by taking away Eboshi’s harm. And Lady Eboshi resolve to build a peaceful village.

Thanks to the four corner opposition technique used in this movie, the audience got to see a world with complicated politics, a corrupt justice system, wonderful creatures and powerful gods.


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