Stories are lifeless without meaningful Antagonists.
We always want the best for our characters, but unlike a mother giving preferential treatment to her favourite child, writers have to respectfully make life hell for their creations in order to generate conflict that will captivate and mesmerize.
The writer’s best buddy on this quest of preventing the protagonist from achieving his or her goal and finding happiness and eternal bliss is the antagonist.
Although most writers think that the antagonist is the villain in the story, don’t be fooled.
The antagonist is simply a character who causes the greatest change in the protagonist, and sets the protagonist on a path of transfiguration.
Creating Antagonists is dealt with in our upcoming Bootcamp for Screenwriters and also forms part of our The Write Journey correspondence course.
Antagonists are just people.
- People with wants, needs, fears, motivations.
- People with families and friends and their own enemies.
They’re full-blooded, full-bodied characters. They’re not single-minded villains twirling greasy moustaches.
Audiences love to hate great antagonists, a character that acts against and causes the greatest change in the protagonist, but also love to see antagonists in action, raising hell for the hero.
It’s a character that embodies the sum total of all forces that oppose the protagonist’s will and desire. Theirs are clashing motivations. They possess needs and wants that exist in defiance of one another.
The protagonist wants to free the slaves; the antagonist wants to keep them and the power they provide. The protagonist wants to rescue the hostages; the antagonist wants to keep the hostages, or worse, kill ‘em
The best stories draw their strength from the antagonist because the audience is excited when a protagonist faces an extraordinary challenge from a fascinating and complex opponent.
It is sometimes, not always the villain. It is the hero’s opponent, the one who acts against the protagonist.
The dark mirror to Hugh Glass’s journey of survival in The Revenant is John Fitzgerald’s journey into paranoia, recrimination and haunted bitterness. Tom Hardy made for an incredible nemesis, portraying a wounded soul who has fears of the other because he is not capable of opening up to and understanding otherness.
One of the most interesting antagonists is one found within the protagonist, a character that lies dormant within the protagonist. Some of the most powerful characters embody both the protagonist and antagonist.
The Danish Girl is the remarkable love story inspired by the lives of artist Einar Wegener who was married to a landscape artist in Copenhagen, in 1926. Wegener becomes his own antagonist when his wife, on deadline for a portrait, Gerda asks her husband to fill in for a model by putting on a dress so that she can finish the painting. The experience is transformative, as Einar soon realizes that being Lili is an expression of her truest self, and she begins living her life as a woman. When she is given the opportunity by Gerda to dress up in women’s clothes, there is light for Lili.
The antagonist does not have to be human; it can be the creature in Alien, a fire in Backdraft, spiders in Arachnophobia, a monstrous tornado in Twister, a deadly asteroid in Armageddon, or a deadly virus in Outbreak.
In The Walk the towers of the almost-completed and partially occupied World Trade Center in New York in 1974 becomes the antagonist for Philippe Petit, a French aerialist, who surprised the city of New York with a high-wire walk between the towers. For Petit, his story goes beyond wire walking and becomes a universal, inspiring story, a story about an artist pouring his heart and soul into his work. Philippe saw the two towers and he literally drew a pencil line between them and said, ‘I’ve got to put a wire between those towers; I’ve got to walk.’ In his mind, those towers were built for him to create an ultimate performance.
In Room, a solitary, locked, 10”x10” garden shed becomes the antagonist for a 5-year-old boy who is held captive with his mother for seven years. It tells the remarkable story of an exuberant 5-year-old who has never seen the modern world we all know outside the place he calls Room. When the boy makes a thrilling discovery: the outside world, he experiences all the joy, excitement, and fear that this new adventure brings, but holds tight to the one thing that matters most of all—his special bond with his loving and devoted Ma.
The stronger the antagonist, the stronger your protagonist will look.
The writer pours a lot of energy into the negative side of the story to bring the protagonist and other characters to full realisation.
The antagonist is the avatar of conflict. He causes it. His character embodies it. The antagonist is there to push and pull the sequence of events into an arrangement that pleases him. He makes trouble for the protagonist. He is the one upping the stakes. He is the one changing the game and making it harder.
The protagonist must work within the storyworld — the antagonist must, too. All the characters are chained to the world you create. The antagonist may exploit the storyworld, may circumvent the rules in some fashion, but it is not in ignorance of those rules as much as a character-driven contravention of them.
Supreme enemy and subsidiary enemy
The protagonist can also be faced with two antagonists.
In Gladiator Maximus has to battle the evil Commodus, who is the Supreme enemy, as well as his sister Lucilla, who is the Subsidiary enemy. It is the function of the subsidiary enemy to overthrow the supreme enemy, just as it is the function of the supreme enemy to destroy the protagonist.
The writer can also make use of antagonistic forces. It is a force that works against your characters and forces them to make choices, and take action.
- In Leaving Las Vegas the antagonistic force is alcoholism: it drives the character to drink himself to death.
- In American Beauty it is homophobia: This forces the antagonist to take action and act against the hero in the story.
- In American History X the antagonistic force is racism.
- Drug addiction and drug trafficking are the antagonistic forces in films such as Requiem for a Dream and Traffic.