WGA writer Michael Tabb has written for Universal Studios, Disney Feature Animation, comic book icon Stan Lee, and other industry players. Michael's new book, Prewriting Your Screenplay: a Step-by-Step Guide to Generating Stories, is available now. Follow Michael on Twitter @MichaelTabb and Instagram @michaeltabbwga.
This series of articles that kick off my column, focus on the five major character-types that drive an idea into a full-fledged story. To the working screenwriter, each character-type serves a very specific, unique purpose in the exploration of a script's premise, starting with the protagonist. Now we delve into the second of our five main character purposes. Deep under the text and between the lines, we set out to examine what is often either the most certain-minded character of them all, due to the nature of their role in any writer's script… The Antagonist.
Newton's Third Law of Motion teaches us that for every action there is an equal and opposite re-action. Without action being met by reaction, there is no conflict. Without conflict, a writer has no story. Therefore, our reaction to the protagonist (personifying the writer's premise) is the personification of the counter argument to that premise. An antagonist must be both engaging (forcing a protagonist to take action) and formidable (because the greater the challenge, the greater the victory). This is the context from which sprouts our antagonist.
All characters outside of the protagonist serve the protagonist’s journey. An antagonist’s primary purpose is to be the main obstacle to the hero’s quest (outer journey), motivated by a conflicting goal. That goal is something an antagonist is determined to accomplish for a very good reason. His motives can be self-serving or community-serving. For some characters, such as Magneto in the X-Men movies, it’s both. He defends his fellow mutants from mankind at any cost in an allegorical tale of racism.
The motivation of a well-written antagonist is something the audience should be made to understand (be it selfish or altruistic). It could be anything, so long as it’s clear and means the world to the antagonist. The character's reasons for doing what they do can often be the most emotionally compelling part of the story. This is because audiences understand the antagonist's motivation and ideally, can relate to it. These motives fall generally under those two classifications of personal gain or communal gain. Writers think in those terms because it helps both quantify and identify the core values of the antagonist. It best shows how their brain works.
For example, here are some personal reasons for an antagonist's actions:
- pride (Apollo Creed inRocky),
- sustenance/survival (Dracula),
- glory (Shooter in Happy Gilmore),
- the ultimate thrill (Bodhi in Point Break),
- recognition (Buddy Pine in The Incredibles),
- love (Kimberly inMy Best Friend’s Wedding),
- what they are owed (Commodus in Gladiator),
- power (Miranda Priestly in Devil Wears Prada),
- revenge (Jennifer Spencer in Sudden Impact),
- the highest of standards (Anton Ego in Ratatouille)
Others have communal motives:
- justice (Little Bill in Unforgiven),
- world peace (Ozymandias inThe Watchmen)
- safety of our nation (Col. Jessup in A Few Good Men),
- set an example (Ed Rooney in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off),
- saving a small community from modern, corrupt influences (Edward Walker in The Village).
Traditionally, the antagonist's perspective on communal gain or method of pursuing it is terribly misguided. Whatever the antagonist’s aspiration is, their actions must be grounded in an incontrovertible conviction until the very end, and this goal comes into direct conflict with the protagonist’s mission throughout the story. Yet that is not all the antagonist does…
As the electric bumper against which the writer bounces his or her premise off of like in a pinball game, the antagonist must have the fight and tenacity to be the best counter-argument the scribe can fathom. The antagonist’s actions should constantly comment on the writer’s premise and central question. How?
1) Provide a popular conception or misconception regarding the premise.
2) Personify the antithesis of the author’s premise (and always challenges it).
3) Prove it (which is how we create tragedies in any piece of literature).
A strong antagonist is the key to making the writer’s message and belief clear to the audience as the protagonist struggles with every fiber of his or her being to achieve their contrary goal. After all, if antagonists do not wage a hard-fought war against or for the writer’s premise, nobody will buy into the final analysis of it because it will not have been earned. Any literary scholar worth his or her salt could argue that the antagonist is by far the most important character in any story because they are the embodiment of a strong, constant counter-argument to the protagonist and the script’s premise.
The antagonist may be referred to as the villain or “bad guy,” even though their motives should be grounded in a strong, moral based belief system of right and wrong that simply comes into direct conflict with your protagonist’s outer journey. It’s often forgotten by writers (which is a mistake) that the protagonist does not have a monopoly on morality. The best antagonists get our empathy because we relate to them on a human level.
The nature of creating compelling drama comes when a great writer humanizes an antagonist and then puts the audience in a position to be emotionally invested in that character's failure. The list of motives I used as examples above are not necessarily evil. In fact, depending on their context, the same incentives can just as easily work for a protagonist. Look at such characters as General Hummel in The Rock, Javert in Les Miserables, or Sheriff Teasle in First Blood. Very few concepts are more emotionally engaging than a character willing to do something that we might consider bad for what they consider to be “the greater good.” The climax of The Watchmen is so engrossing and compelling because the antagonist kills so many innocent people in the name of world peace. The moral high ground that motivates an antagonist’s actions may not align with the Judeo-Christian concept of morality, but they obviously hold them just as devout and concrete.
An antagonist’s confidence in their beliefs may crumble under scrutiny at the very end of a story (like Doctor Octavius in Spider-Man 2), but to provide your protagonist with a strong nemesis, their capacity and strength of conviction should not be diminished (nor should they show a diminished capacity to do harm) until the climax (final showdown) of the story is in full swing.
It is an important distinction that the antagonist does not need to change; no character arc is required. Just as they do not have to “change,” the nemesis does not need to be “conflicted.” In fact, it's an antagonist's conviction that gives him or her such power. When the antagonist questions their own actions, they unravel and crumble. When Mr. Takagi refuses to give up the vault's access codes in Die Hard, can you imagine Hans Gruber turning to his men and saying, "You know what... Maybe this really isn't such a good idea, guys. Is money really worth killing anyone over?" Lord Voldemort in the Harry Potter franchise never turns to his Death Eaters for approval of his plans. At no point does he say, "Hey, Lucius, old pal. That Harry was just a baby when I murdered his mum and dad. Am I over-thinking this whole prophesy thing? I mean, the kid is still in high school. Maybe he's suffered enough. Hey, what do you think, Wormtail?" The Sheriff of Nottingham never says, "You know, maybe this Robin Hood fellow is right. Perhaps we really should take care of our poor and hungry whilst we attempt to steal the throne from our absentee king." An antagonist's single-minded surety is one of the things that makes him or her such an unstoppable force.
It makes sense to model an antagonist after a Kamikaze pilot or suicide bomb-wielding terrorist. They show unwavering determination by voluntarily sacrificing their own life for their ideal. In many genres where life-and-death are at stake, a worthy antagonist is often willing to make the ultimate sacrifice to achieve his or her ambitions. An antagonist can (and should) be driven enough to go to that extent if needed to achieve his or her ambitions. To make any journey as heroic as possible, a villain must be so fully committed to their goal that it forces the protagonist to go to lengths they have never had gone to before in order to succeed. That sheer drive and will is at the core of any antagonist.
A nemesis can be on his last leg (such as in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn), but his finger is on the proverbial button that could potentially kill everyone aboard the Enterprise-C as he dramatically quotes the final words of Captain Ahab from the literary classic Moby Dick. A “superior,” genetically-engineered Kahn (defeated… out-thought… and out-maneuvered by Captain Kirk), with his dying breath, triggers certain suicide to accomplish his goal. He is so well written with awe-worthy power, horrific intention, and gravitas, right up until (and through) his dramatic demise.
The antagonist (not the protagonist) must have the greatest willpower, which makes him or her the most powerful character in your story. Let me explain how we know this. Protagonists are traditionally reluctant and refuse the call to action at first. In fact, I suspect most protagonists would have never started the outer journey if they knew in advance what was in store for them along the way. They make a choice that will change their lives irrevocably at the end of act one, but they are usually ignorant of the sacrifices and depth it will cost them in the final analysis. It’s only once they get to the low point of the film (at the end of the second act, structurally) that they truly understand how far they will be pushed, how much they will lose, and how far they will have to go in order to succeed. The same cannot be said for the antagonist, whose conviction is often set and determined long before the hero enters the conflict. All the drama and conflict of the entire story arises from an antagonist’s predetermined decisions and determination to succeed.
Now, not every film is about life-and-death stakes. The other possible thing that hangs in the balance is love. The reason this is an equally compelling objective or pursuit in storytelling is because other than life, it is the one other thing (no matter where you are from anywhere in the world or what language you speak) that people might agree is worth dying to save. Since all films pretty much boil down to love or death as what is at stake, it explains film’s obsession with “sex and violence.” In the instance a story is about love, the antagonist need not put their own life on the line, but they must always be totally driven to succeed. In order to give the antagonist that extra motivation, they will sometimes have more than love at stake if they lose.
Because greed is the antithesis of love, there is usually an element of such selfishness involved in an antagonist’s motivations when dealing with a love-centered story. If it’s romantic love, it could mean the object of affection’s parent won’t leave the antagonist the family business anymore. It could be another romantic suitor. If it’s the love of family, inheritance could be at stake (such as the film Greedy, starring Michael J. Fox). If it’s the love of money, a financial empire or an extravagant way of life that hangs in the balance, just watch any film about Wall Street. Gordon Gekko practically preaches the value of greed. Greed puts jobs and livelihoods on the line in all types of films that do not focus on mortal stakes. Whether it's Edward Lewis' hurtful business practices in Pretty Woman or Norma Rae fighting her employers that refuse to take care of fellow employees.
The point is, even if the stakes are not life-and-death, the antagonist must be fully motivated and totally driven to succeed, willing to go to drastic and excessive measures. Only then is the antagonist a worthy one. In stories where the protagonist is in the wrong (such as My Best Friend’s Wedding), it can be that the antagonist has a superior, deeper, and truer adoration for the love interest than the protagonist. In any case, the antagonist is often more motivated or has more at stake than the protagonist. THAT makes for better conflict.
Without a great, chief obstacle that pushes the hero to extremes, no story can be completely satisfying or fully realized. If the antagonist will do anything to succeed, only then must protagonists challenge themselves to stand in the way of this obstinate force. Only then are they truly challenged to supersede anything they have done before as the underdog to such a force. It’s what demands a protagonist to rise up to new heights like a phoenix from the ashes in the wake of act two's apparent defeat. In short, your protagonist can only be as amazing, daring, and heroic as your antagonist pushes him or her to become in order to succeed. Your protagonist is nothing without them.
The defiant nemesis should also have the upper hand, making the protagonist’s goal virtually impossible to achieve. How exactly that superiority is manifested hey have the superiority is in the hands of the writer. They could:
- Have a better skill set (from fighting skill to cleverness),
- Be more accomplished (from their superior at the same workplace to a scholar or an icon),
- Simply be more powerful (be that power supernatural, physical, or more influential, as would be the case with the leader of a mighty army),
- Be better equipped (via wealth, training, breeding, education, experience, with nothing left to lose, tactical advantage),
- More dangerous by not playing by the same rules (audacity, daring, and their moral code differences are categorized here),
- Or may not play by any rules, due to the drive to achieve their goal (willing to go to any length for success, illustrating a relentless passion to succeed).
Whatever combination of these attributes of superiority you choose, it should stack the proverbial deck against your protagonist. This makes the hero(ine) easier to sympathize with because the nemesis turns your protagonist into an underdog fighting an uphill battle. By definition, that situation forces your central character to be “heroic,” just by waging a war with the odds stacked against them.
In any case, the nemesis is a powerful device that helps the writer challenge and question the point of the film, not just the central character. Metaphorically, they are not only the battle-ready antithesis of the protagonist but the writer as well. When I write a “villain,” I imagine that I have to go toe-to-toe with that character, and they are so formidable on the page that I have to fight them from here in the real world on my laptop. Antagonists push their creators around from inside their own brains and on the paper pages they write. That’s how strong an antagonist can be in a script.
I use the voices of every bully and person who has ever doubted me. Those voices still echo inside us all. On the page is where we can finally stand up to them and stage our stand… Only this time, we get to take my time to mount a well-conceived fight. You know how we always think of the right thing to say hours after the moment happens? In a script, we can plan out and make the point we wish we had made when we were face-to-face with those kinds of people. The people that use, abuse, anger, shame, or humiliate others they think are below them. We can also be bolder and fearless in this world… Do and say the things we never could in real life. It is both cathartic and a bit horrifying when we unleash that energy. Then the writer sets it in a cool place. In what’s become an industry-insiders' cult classic, Swimming with Sharks sets that exact kind of story in the most self-effacing location of all... A Hollywood film studio. Remember, when it comes to protagonists against antagonists, it’s not the size of the dog in the fight; it’s the size of the fight inside that underdog. A well-written antagonist can justify taking shocking, outrageous action.
During the plotting and designing of this character, the writer will need to decide an antagonist’s relationship with the protagonist. The conflict between them can be personal or situational. In some cases it's both. For example, the throne sought by Loki in Thor and the gold depository robbery by Simon Gruber in Die Hard: With a Vengeance both include a personal comeuppance to the protagonists in the process of pursuing their goals. That said, the relationship may simply be situational. Hey, sometimes the protagonist is just in the wrong place at the wrong time. If that is the case, I always make sure any and all coincidences only happen in the first act, otherwise the sudden left turn in the middle of a script reads like the writer didn't properly plan their own plot escalations.
The last major consideration regarding quantifying antagonists usually falls into the latter category of non-personal conflict. That is because an antagonist need not be human. We have seen the creature antagonist a million times, including:
- Animal (Jaws, Cujo, Anaconda, The Birds),
- Earthly monster (Creature from the Black Lagoon, King Kong, Gremlins), or
- Aliens from outer space (Cloverfield, Independence Day, The Last Starfighter, Little Shop of Horrors, Attack the Block).
Other antagonistic forces don’t even have a brain. It simply has a powerful skill and will. It can be a:
- Weather (The Perfect Storm, Twister, White Out),
- Natural disasters (Dante’s Peak, Pompeii, Avalanche),
- Damaged structure or vessel (The Poseidon Adventure, Unstoppable, Airplane!),
- Stranded in inhospitable conditions (Castaway, Gravity, Alive, Vertical Limit),
- Medical issues including disease, epidemic, injury or addiction (The Fault in our Stars, Outbreak, I Am Legend, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Still Alice, Requiem for a Dream),
- Cataclysmic (Armageddon, 2012, The Core),
- Prophetic (Gabriel, The Seventh Sign, End of Days),
- Technology (WarGames, Terminator, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, iRobot),
- Supernatural event such as a zombie apocalypse, or
- A human trait (or internal conflict) like mankind’s inability to show restraint in Wall-E.
All the above have neither a consciousness of their own nor the ability to be reasoned with (if the protagonist so desired). They are in the simplest terms, a relentless, overpowering, driving force with neither a vested interest nor motive to cause harm to the protagonist specifically. There is no mercy. Only a protagonist’s will to fight for life and what they believe in when facing something far larger and greater in force than they could ever hope to wield themselves.
With some of these latter, inhuman antagonists, those stories often have what you might want to call a “secondary antagonist.” This person or organization humanizes the conflict on an interpersonal level. These characters are not the main obstacle to your hero(oine)’s survival/success, and they are therefore not the antagonist to your protagonist. Like the ring in LOTR, there can only be one antagonist. These other characters (like Dr. Jonas Miller in Twister, Carter Burke in Aliens, Eddie Brock “Venom” in Spider-Man 3,or Gollum inLOTR) serve a very important purpose that will be explained in more detail in a future article about character types in scripts. For now, I will simply say that because they become an obstacle to protagonist's mission, but that does not make them the antagonist any more than a typical henchman. They are simply misguided manifestations of the pitfalls our protagonist must overcome like any obstacle.
Lastly, it is important to give a quick explanation of how a well-designed antagonist works. Great villains should exploit a protagonist’s personality flaw in order to gain the upper hand. The personality flaw is at the core of the protagonist’s character arc and often the key to understanding the script’s premise. That means an antagonist preys upon the protagonist’s personal weakness throughout the film’s conflict. This constant pressure and hardship forces a protagonist to change. In a film many people don't realize is structured from the mentor’s point of view, the protagonist in Back to the Futureis George McFly, not Marty. George is the one that undergoes the major character arc. Biff the bully is a perfect weapon to assault George’s personality flaw of cowardice. In the end, George overcomes his flaw, defeats the bully and his life is changed forever. Without Biff, George never changes; without George’s arc, there is no happy ending. It all ties together, and that’s how antagonists work when the script is well structured.
I hope this article shines a light for you on how this screenwriter sees different types of antagonists, what fuels them, and how they work. In my next article, I will answer the question that plagues so many writers. Can the protagonist also be the antagonist?
- More articles by Michael Tabb
- Psychopath: The Ultimate Antagonist
- FREE Creating Dynamic Character Webinar
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on the antagonist's entire storyline,
The Antagonist's Journey