There are many words to describe this key character in a traditional screenplay or film. Here, we’ll refer to this character as the “antagonist” – that is, the entity that resists the protagonist in the pursuit of their goal.
Before we proceed, go ahead and review the role of the protagonist in a traditional film. Understanding the protagonist’s journey in context of classic three-act film structure is a necessary foundation for our discussion of antagonists.
I’ll be here when you get back!
What is an antagonist and why are they important?
All set? Good! Then let’s descend into the deep, dark world of antagonists.
Quite simply, an antagonist is a character who, for one reason or another, wants to keep the protagonist from reaching their goal. Much of the time, the antagonist has a goal of their own, which – if reached – precludes the protagonist from succeeding.
For example, let’s imagine that you’re the protagonist, and your goal is to eat a very delicious-looking cookie that’s been left right smack dab in the middle of the table. It’s a beautiful cookie, perfectly baked, still warm with the chocolate chips melting. You’re planning to walk across the room, take that cookie in your hand, and savor every last bite.
But unfortunately for you, it’s not going to be easy. Because I’m on the other side of the room, and I see that same cookie.
You may not know this about me, but I’m a divine appreciator of cookies. I too see its perfection, so I have a goal of my own. I’m going to walk across the room, take that cookie in my hand, and devour it.
If I get my goal, you won’t get yours. If you get your goal, I won’t get mine.
Of course, we’re all friends, here, so we could just split the cookie – but that’s not the point of our discussion today!
When it comes to three-act film structure and screenwriting, the single most important thing to identify about an antagonist is their relationship to the protagonist’s goal. Let’s take a classic example, The Wizard of Oz. Dorothy wants to get home to Kansas. In order to achieve her goal, she needs to use the ruby slippers on her feet – they’re the only way that the Wizard, whom Dorothy has been told will help her get home, will see her. The antagonist of the tale is the Wicked Witch of the West, who is dead set on getting those ruby slippers off of Dorothy’s feet by any means necessary. If the Wicked Witch gets her goal – the ruby slippers – then Dorothy cannot get hers; namely, an audience with the Wizard and passage home.
As with protagonists, the best antagonists feel real to viewers. We understand their goals and feel that they’re very important and deeply personal to them. As screenwriter Michael Tabb shares:
“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.”
When we can relate to something, we feel in our hearts that we could imagine taking the same actions as someone else, were we presented with the same set of circumstances. So, if we truly believe that a goal means a great deal to an antagonist and we can relate to (or at least understand) it, then we entertain the lengths to which the antagonist goes to achieve their goal. Because we typically root for the protagonist while watching a film, our understanding of and relation to the antagonist’s motivations can heighten the tug-of-war we experience as active viewers.
In other words, if we know deep down how important those ruby slippers are to the Wicked Witch of the West and we believe that she really would do anything for them, then our fear that Dorothy may not realize her goal will grow. The story has a strong emotional spine.
An antagonist isn’t just a character trait.
Now, let’s pause for a minute and talk about what an antagonist isn’t – or at least, what doesn’t qualify a character as an antagonist on its own.
As Lights Film School’s resident screenwriting teacher, I’ve read many scripts in which a character is:
- Someone who teases the protagonist
- Generally unlikeable
- A bully (to the protagonist and/or to others)
An antagonist can possess these character traits, absolutely – but these traits alone do not an antagonist make!
Just because someone is, say, rude, mean, or unlikeable does not mean that they’re acting as an antagonist in a story. Remember, an antagonist is motivated by their pursuit of a goal which, if obtained, will prevent the protagonist from reaching their own goal. Plain and simple. It’s about narrative function, not personal qualities considered in isolation. Remember, an antagonist is defined by their relationship to the protagonist’s goal.
Let’s turn to The Wizard of Oz again. If the Wicked Witch of the West were merely stopping Dorothy every now and then to poke fun at her blue dress, she wouldn’t qualify as an antagonist. But since the Wicked Witch wants something that would prevent Dorothy from getting what Dorothy wants, she’s absolutely the antagonist.
Their opposing goals create conflict, the dramatic engine of many a classically-structured film.
An antagonist isn’t necessarily “evil.”
It’s important to note that an antagonist does not necessarily need to possess negative character traits such as those listed above. For example, in the case of You vs. Me in the Quest for the Perfect Cookie, neither of us is necessarily a bad person. We just both want the same thing, and only one of us can have it.
That makes me your adversary.
The word “evil” gets thrown around a lot when it comes to antagonists. Sure, within the context of some quests, an antagonist could be your textbook, mustache-twirling mastermind hellbent on destroying the world. But they’re not necessarily so. “Look at a film like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” screenwriter Ken Miyamoto urges us. “A comedy”:
“Principal Rooney is clearly not evil, however, if you look at it from the context of the film – namely from the perspective of teenagers like Ferris, Sloane, and Cameron – Rooney is ‘evil’ in terms of representing authority that opposes their will to have fun and enjoy life and school to its fullest. We all know how most teenagers feel about authority, especially a principal like Rooney, so in their eyes at that point in their lives, he’s evil.”
If Ferris Bueller’s Day Off was about Rooney – ie., it opens with Rooney waking up for school that day, tying his tie, getting to his office and readying himself for another day of fulfilling his goal of spreading education to all of his students, including Ferris Bueller – then Ferris himself, a punk kid who will do anything he can to avoid responsibility, would be the antagonist.
An antagonist isn’t always human.
Many antagonists are people with clear goals and understandable, even relatable motivations.
Sometimes, however, the role of the antagonist can be fulfilled by something non-human. When this is the case, the antagonist is often referred to as “the antagonistic force.”
Often an antagonistic force takes the form of something either natural or supernatural. Its “goal” is a simple drive of nature or instinct. In many cases, when a film employs an antagonistic force, the protagonist’s goal is survival.
- A natural event – storms, volcanic eruptions, asteroid strikes, climate change, earthquakes, meteor strikes – that threatens the protagonist or even humanity itself. Think Twister, Dante’s Peak, Armageddon, The Perfect Storm, The Day After Tomorrow, San Andreas.
- A fast-spreading disease, as in Outbreak, Blindness, and Contagion.
- Aliens! Independence Day is a classic. Ridley Scott’s Alien is a Lights Film School favorite. Sometimes the antagonism is only perceived – the result of a misunderstanding – as in Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival.
An antagonist usually isn’t a character flaw.
Some writers confuse the antagonist with a character’s flaw – that is, something within a character’s inner self or personality that could prevent them from reaching their goal. In actuality, it’s very rare that a character is their own worst enemy, particularly in a three-act narrative. Psychotherapist and film and TV professional David Silverman, MA, LMFT writes:
“In movies that look at internal themes and explore rites of passage, such as coming of age (Almost Famous), mid-life crises (10), serious illness (The Theory of Everything), drug and alcohol addiction (Trainspotting), grieving (Ordinary People), psychological issues (A Beautiful Mind), we tend to think that the antagonist is the protagonist himself. Films like those tend to make for great dramatic storytelling, because they focus completely on the central character’s growth through life in transition, something everyone can relate to.
Yes, but you have to look at the films as a screenwriter; which means the protagonist drives the story. The antagonist impedes his progress.
You absolutely need an external storyline in a film that’s about life transitions, as well as an internal storyline. The protagonist has a drive that moves the film forward. Another character impedes his progress, and that character is an antagonist. In a novel you could just deal with a character experiencing loss. But in a film you need conflict that shows up on the screen.
Looking at some of the best films in the ‘rite-of-passage’ genre, it’s apparent the good ones have created an external antagonist (an actual person, not ‘depression,’ or ‘addiction’).
In Leaving Las Vegas, Nick Cage’s character’s drive is to drink himself to death after encountering some tragic losses. A beautiful but essentially broken prostitute, played by Elizabeth Shue, slows him down and almost stops him by offering him compassion, friendship and a place to stay.
In Silver Linings Playbook, Bradley Cooper’s character (dealing with bipolar disorder) comes out of a mental facility driven to get back together with his ex-wife. Jennifer Lawrence’s character stands in his way, and eventually prevails, as they fall in love.
In Ordinary People, a young boy fails to save his brother from drowning and after his death, is wracked with guilt, and eventually attempts suicide. The antagonist in Ordinary People is his cold-hearted mother played by Mary Tyler Moore. She not only holds the boy responsible for his brother’s death, but goes on to make a big show of living her ‘perfect’ suburban upper middle class lifestyle, denying affection to her depressed son. She stands in the way of the boy’s recovery.”
In other words, even when a story seems on the surface to be driven by an internal conflict, the most compelling life-in-transition movies tend to cast an outside force that acts as an antagonist threatening the protagonist’s realization of their goal. The protagonist comes up against them while struggling with their deeper character flaw.
The antagonist can have a character arc, too.
Speaking of which, antagonists can and often do have their own character flaws – and more generally, character arcs.
Remember, as with protagonists, the best antagonists feel real to viewers. They can be fully fleshed-out characters. As writer Chuck Wendig explains:
“The antagonist can have an arc. Should have an arc, actually. An antagonist doesn’t start at Point A and end at Point A. He changes and grows (or sometimes shrinks), same as the protagonist. Don’t assume the antagonist needs to be a static, unswerving face of conflict – have his character shift with changing conditions, have his madness deepen, his hatred or pain worsen, his zealotry catch like a grease-fire.”
For some antagonists, a character arc means going from “good” to textbook “evil” right before our eyes – and in the case of Star Wars‘ Anakin Skywalker; AKA, Darth Vader – all the way back to “good” again. Anakin/Vader was first introduced as a villain in 1977, but his backstory and later whole films reveal that in his earlier years, Anakin was not a villain.
Author Holly Bodger takes a close look at Anakin’s character arc, and it’s a fun read. Essentially, Bodger argues that in Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith, Anakin is a tragic hero who technically doesn’t become an antagonist until the following film. For further investigation of Anakin/Vader, this article is an another great read.
Of course, an antagonist’s arc can be more nuanced. They might start as an enemy and undergo a transformation that convinces them to concede or otherwise help the protagonist in some way, even if they haven’t fully come around to the protagonist’s side. Harry Potter’s Draco Malfoy is a prime example:
“Draco redeems himself for the earlier years of harassment by saving Harry’s life. When Harry, Hermione and Ron are captured by Death Eaters while attempting to hide from Voldemort, Hermione hits Harry with a Stinging Jinx. This hex temporarily disfigures his face, making it difficult to recognize Harry or his famous scar. When taken to Malfoy Manor, Draco’s childhood home, Draco is asked to confirm the identities of each Ron, Harry and Hermione. Knowing well that it is them (as he was the one to torment them the past six years) he does not positively confirm their identities.
For whatever reason (likely atonement) he provided Harry and his friends some time to escape, narrowly missing death. After this incident, possibly to reciprocate Draco’s kindness at Malfoy Manor, Harry saves Draco from death twice at the Battle of Hogwarts. These two characters who once used to rival each other become the ones who save each other’s lives.”
Let that sink in – “these two characters who once used to rival each other…” Draco was Harry’s rival, yes. But Harry was also Draco’s rival. Or, say, in the case of There Will Be Blood – auteur PT Anderson’s stage for an epic money vs. religion showdown that bares the ugliness of greed and ego – Pastor Eli Sunday is entrepreneur Daniel Plainview’s rival, but Daniel Plainview is also Eli Sunday’s rival.
Which brings us to our final, important point:
To the antagonist, the protagonist is the antagonist.
It’s about perspective. Letting us into that perspective is one way filmmakers can rally an audience’s understanding of an antagonist and thereby foster a deeper emotional investment in the movie.
In Wendig’s words, the antagonist is “the hero in his own story”. Wendig takes things to an extreme to make a point:
“People who do bad things often justify their own actions as being somehow positive – Hitler wasn’t just a troll on an international scale. He thought he was the savior of mankind and that his deeply shitty agenda was justified. This isn’t to say that the antagonist’s desires must be noble (‘I had to kill all those people to save the orphanage!’), only that he will have convinced himself of his own nobility. The antagonist thinks he’s right. And doing the right thing. Even when it’s awful.”
Developing a memorable antagonist can be a lot of fun, but for many, it’s also a real challenge. To help you push through those creative blocks, I’ll leave you with a few questions you can ask yourself:
- What is the antagonist’s goal?
- If the antagonist realizes their goal, how is the protagonist and their own goal affected?
- Why does the antagonist care about what they care about? What makes it personal for them? How can I show my audience how personal it is – the lengths to which the antagonist will go to get what they want?
Now excuse me while I
drink your milkshake beat you to the table and grab that chocolate chip cookie before you do!
Lauren McGrail, with
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