How to Create a Powerful Antagonist
Episode #4 of the course Getting started screenwriting by Jurgen Wolff
In the previous lesson, we looked at how to create a powerful protagonist. In this lesson, we’ll cover how to create an equally strong antagonist.
Who or What Is the Antagonist?
The antagonist is whoever or whatever is trying to stop your protagonist from achieving their goal. Often, this is another person, like a serial killer who wants to prevent the detective from finding her, or a man who wants to win your protagonist’s girlfriend away from him.
Sometimes the protagonist is opposed by a system or a law. One example: a slave fighting for her freedom. However, the system would be represented by one or more individuals like the slaveholder or a sheriff.
Nature can also be an antagonist, especially in disaster movies: tornadoes, earthquakes, fires, meteors, floods, volcanoes, etc. Usually, there’s also an antagonist in the form of someone who doesn’t believe there’s a danger (“There’s no way that meteor will strike the earth!”) or has a vested interest in not letting it get out that there’s a danger (“People will not come to my resort if they think there’s a big shark on the loose!”).
Animals like bears, wolves, and sharks can be powerful antagonists. Sometimes they have special powers or seem to take on human qualities, like a shark that seems to be after revenge. In science fiction, aliens are typical antagonists.
A protagonist will often have more than one antagonist. In action films, where the hero is up against a Mr. Big, they will have to fight several minions, and only in the final showdown will there be a fight with the ultimate antagonist.
Your protagonist may even be their own antagonist. For instance, it could be a person fighting their addiction. Because this isn’t a novel in which we can hear the character’s thoughts, there is usually a character who represents the addiction, such as a fellow addict who keeps luring the protagonist back.
What Makes a Great Antagonist?
For us to get emotionally involved, the antagonist has to be at least as strong, and ideally, stronger, than the protagonist. That way, we will worry about how it’s all going to turn out. Even though logic tells us the protagonist will probably prevail, our emotions will let us forget that for the moment.
The qualities of a strong antagonist are similar to those of a good protagonist. Yes, you can have a Dr. Evil who is bad just for the sake of being bad, but it will be a much more involving character if what they want is more relatable.
Just like your protagonist, the antagonist may have an external and internal goal. A serial killer’s external goal could be killing women who reject him, but his internal goal may be overcoming the memory of being tortured by his own mother, for instance. Knowing this doesn’t make us approve of his actions, but it does make him more real, and the more real he is, the more we’ll be drawn into the story. If an animal is the antagonist, we will relate more if we see that it is fighting for its own survival.
Sometimes an antagonist is a distorted reflection of the protagonist. They are similar but took different paths at some point, and now they are pitted against each other. Just like your protagonist, your antagonist must be fully committed so that compromise is not possible.
But does the antagonist have to be evil? Absolutely not. In more sophisticated films, the antagonist is not necessarily bad. You could have a conflict between divorced parents, both of whom want custody when one of them is moving across the country. They could each have equally compelling arguments for their side. Whichever way it goes, the resolution will be bittersweet.
These are the elements that make for a powerful antagonist. Of course, both your antagonist and protagonist have to be part of a compelling story. In the next lesson, you’ll discover how to structure that kind of plot.
Save the Cat! Goes to the Movies: The Screenwriter’s Guide to Every Story Ever Told by Blake Snyder
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