Heroic Refusal by Proxy in ‘How to Train Your Dragon’
Usually in the second half of the first act and angle of a screen story the protagonist debates with herself and with others in her social world whether or not to take action to resolve the story problem that is plaguing her. The beats typically play out a move on her part from resistance to an initial, but usually only partial, acknowledgment that something has to be done and (sigh) Muggins here has to do it.
In my ‘W’ model of story structure I think of this half angle as a move From Rejection to Acceptance and I call its constituent beats: shan’t and oh all right then.
Sometimes, however, a pesky protagonist tries to bypass, ignore or delay some or all of these beats. There are a number of possible reasons for this move, including being faced with a situation where there really is no alternative right now other than to be carried along by duty or events. Internal decision making and moral judgments will come later if at all. This is typical of heroic adventure movies like the James Bond series. In this kind of story debate may still occur, but it will most likely revolve around tactics, not ethics.
Another variant is when your protagonist is utterly committed to dealing with their problem – or at least their initial understanding of their problem – from the word go. In stories like this there can be a deferral of internal debate because the Primary Exposition has already done all the setting up of the conflict between sad boy and his world. Just such a sad boy is Hiccup in the wonderful animated adventure How to Train Your Dragon.
Hiccup sucks at being a Viking. What’s more, he knows he sucks and is desperate to do anything to fit in and prove himself worthy to his community. What makes things worse is that his father, Stoick the Vast is the very model of a modern Viking warrior. Oh and he’s also the village chief, so no pressure there.
At the end of the first half angle Hiccup has made a mess of things for the village and generally got in everyone’s way yet again during a nighttime dragon attack. Unknown to everyone else (mainly because they won’t listen to him or believe him) he has also managed to bring down a semi legendary Night Fury dragon with his catapult and he goes off in a huff to find the proof of his deeds so as to impress the village. No shan’t from Hiccup yet, but we still get our shan’t debate beat, only initially by proxy.
While Hiccup is trudging across the island in search of his quarry, we cut back to a meeting in the village hall. Stoick calls for the long ships to go out on a dragon hunt. They need to end the menace once and for all. His fellow Vikings are less than enthusiastic about the idea because past practice has shown these trips never work and everybody who goes on them tends to die. Stoick is losing the crowd so in desperation he offers his direst threat: “Those who stay will look after Hiccup.” Immediately, all the hands go up and the beat has its first moment of rejection. The community would rather face fiery dragon death than Hiccup’s accident-prone inadequacies.
The hall clears, leaving only Stoick and the one-legged village blacksmith Gobber the Belch. Stoick tells Gobber to stay and train the new recruits in dragon killing, but what to do about Hiccup? “Put him in training,” Gobber tells Stoick. Stoick refuses: “From the time he could crawl he’s been different… Even as a boy I knew what I was, what I had to become. Hiccup is not that boy.” Gobber replies: “You can’t stop him Stoick. You can only prepare him.”
Playing the first part of the shan’t beat by proxy responds smartly to Hiccup’s determination to become a proper Viking by showing us the true height of the hill he has to climb. The whole village, with the possible exception of Gobber, has completely written him off. His dream of self-transformation seems hopeless. Stoick is right; Hiccup is not “that boy”. Now he has to work that out for himself and see where the realization takes him.
This happens right before we get to witness the start of a different kind of transformation. Hiccup will reject an opportunity to become a conventional Viking hero in the second half of the beat. He has the chance to kill his dragon but instead sets it free. In doing so, he starts down a path towards a very different resolution to his internal crisis and, thus, of the external conflict between Viking and dragon. The irony is that he will do it just when Gobber has persuaded his father to relent and let him train as a dragon killer.
The proxy beat lets us see our hero through the eyes of others. It clarifies his position and, in the case of Hiccup, teaches us that he could never really be a normal Viking, no matter what he does. (We will see further evidence of this in the second angle when Hiccup does his best to become a warrior.) His only hope lies in changing the definition of normal and that sets up the internal debate and the central conflict yet to come.
The resolution of the shan’t beat involves a near simultaneous reversal from both Hiccup and Stoic that is satisfying because the beat has been split between the two characters and we understand how each comes to his new position. It is also funny because Hiccup ends up reluctantly resigned in oh all right then to accepting what only minutes before he wanted more than anything else in the world: training to kill dragons.
Why is this so important? Well because the village (here embodied in the person of Stoick) is the true antagonist of How to Train Your Dragon. To succeed, Hiccup has to overcome their traditions, expectations and prejudices. The dragons are just an externalization of that central conflict.