Stewart Farquhar holds Screenwriting and Advanced Screenwriting certificates from the Professional Program at The UCLA School of Theatre Film and Television. Stewart has analyzed over thousands of scripts for private and studio clients. Follow Stewart on Twitter @stewartfarquhar.
With apologies to the Indo-European romance linguists amongst us, many of the scripts that cross my desk suffer from Antagonista Incognita or even worse Antagonista Que Falta**.
A sentient protagonist does not exist if there is no viable and active antagonist. The antagonist can even be manifestations of the protagonist’s self-destructive behavior and / or tendencies. Regardless of how manifested, one must exist.
You may find a dictionary or thesaurus helpful as we continue.
The long standing admonition that conflict sells is true. No, it’s not a rule. Interpersonal and environmental conflict is a fact of life. Tried talking to your Bank, Cable Company, Cell Phone Company, and boss or planned a trip in concert with the weather lately? Many times the experience makes you wish you had a “Staples Easy Button” that you could push to make euthanasia retroactive. An efficient way to clear these miscreants and their progeny, maybe others from the gene pool or at least your space. Antagonism is the engine for change.
Without a strong, active antagonist what you have is a collection of scenes that amount to no more than vacuous vignettes void of significant attachment to the humanity it was meant to stimulate and entertain. A collection of verbal still-life that doesn’t possess the essential slice of life. Its void of the evocative presence we feel from a Norman Rockwell painting.
Where do you get the inspiration for a viable true to life antagonist?
Short of the characters created by fatuous public relations / marketing drivel from one of the networks, studios or agencies designed to promote the latest fanboy / fangirl reboot, what about the sanctimonious sack of sycophantic road-kill who took your promotion / significant other/ last cookie that you just knew was yours? Use that angst, anger, emotion and character behavior, squeeze it all into a pustulent zits, and then eviscerate the contents all over your paper. You can clean up the messy overspill later.
Notice the introduction of an antagonist or antagonistic point-of-view? As a reader you now have an emotional response. Sometimes referred to as an attitude.
Keep detailed notes on the people or situations that wound you to your core, your very essence. Then recall what you did, had to learn or the resources you accessed to squash that lugubrious, soul-sucking “Death Eater”.
If you keep a library of these perspicacious yet acrimonious “dingleberries” you will never be at a loss for the basis of a realistic antagonist. Mix or exaggerate characteristics to match your character’s journey.
For example: Think of some of today’s pompous, self-indulgent politician(s) who have neither experienced poverty nor poor health and who have access to the public largess, corporate or private coffers, or some combination, to bolster them if they do. Some of these professional, snarky reprobates complain that the poor are just lazy. A small percentage of the poor may be lazy. Then again, some may suffer some physical or mental incapacity received in service to their country. This same bell-curve distribution of industrious to lazy or incapacitated, also exists in each segment of society. Congress is no exception as this recent 2016 presidential cycle has borne out.
From a pay-for-play politician, or a self-centered, jet-setting female socialite who inherited a fortune, to the abandoned mother of two with only a high school education who works three jobs just to care for her family and buy a car. Who is the lazy one here, the one who slants the rules to favor their political donors, the one who inherits and squanders, or the one who works and saves to care for her kids?
We could even include recent corporate malfeasance. How do you feel about these situations? Use that feeling.
The system (antagonist) decides that one is better than the other. A version of this dichotomy was explored in the movie Trading Places (1983) by Timothy Harris and Herschel Weingrod.
Assignment: Who is / are the antagonist(s) / protagonist(s) as defined in Trading Places?
Use these types of examples from your life or those you know (not as compelling). Understand, that an antagonist somehow connected to you carries personal emotion. This validated emotion creates an antagonist who will resonate with the audience.
Your story is stronger if both antagonist and protagonist each work toward a goal that throws them into the same space. An old but good example is Die Hard (1988) by Jeb Stuart and Steven E. de Souza, based on the novel by Roderick Thorpe. Simultaneously, and in the same space, the protagonist works to save family while the antagonist strives to steal. On many journeys, antagonist and protagonist could both be after the same result but using different methods. Then again, both character’s long-term and short-term goals could be different. Here, the conflict is heightened because one character is somehow in the other’s way and their goals are contradictory.
Whether the antagonist is a person or not, the unpredictability in behavior and / or environmental circumstances ramps up the stakes. Disaster movies, man / woman against the system, nature, space, aliens, or themselves are some examples. The coolest one of which is still Cool Hand Luke, (1967) by Donn Pearce and Frank Pierson. The Sting (1973) by David S. Ward is a strong second. As is Alien (1979) by Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett and their ilk. I grant there are others, however these examples are strong examples of diverse antagonist development. Fortunately, this was before the era of cookie cutter, copycat comic book characters flooded the market in order to cater to the lowest common denominator.
SPOILER: The antagonist is not always a person or external condition. In fact, he or she may not even be a villain (a typical villain is usually a one or two-dimensional caricature). The antagonist could be someone who, by action or example, forces the protagonist to face the flaw and change. A fleshed out three-dimensional buddy. It could just as well be a personal, internal or external body change that the protagonist would rather not undergo or accept. Think Frankie, the tragic protagonist, in Million Dollar Baby (MDB) (2005) by Paul Haggis and F.X. Toole. Who is Frankie’s buddy who forces the change? From the Greek definition, is MDB a comedy or tragedy?
No matter in what form the antagonist appears, in today’s market on page one the protagonist MUST be so affected as to be caught off balance and unaware. S/he then struggles to create some sort of equilibrium / comfort zone. This is not a “rule” just a damn good idea if you expect your script to be read or the “Butts In The Seats” to appreciate all your hard work.
For the protagonist, new skills, resources, or alliances must be developed, discovered or forged. The same holds true for the antagonist (if it’s a person) who also must continually adjust and who grows stronger and even more unpredictable. This growth and unpredictability is how the protagonist may succumb. It keeps the audience’s attention.
If a person, your antagonist must be motivated by either their goal or an action / inaction on the part of the protagonist or some combination. If not, all you have is a “Paper Tiger”.
When you write from the character’s vs. writer’s objective, understand that an antagonist is the protagonist of their own story. It is extremely important that they should, at some point and from their perspective, appear to succeed as the “HERO” of their own journey. It’s even better if they, if only in their mind, appear to have control over the protagonist.
The antagonist must create a strong empathetic response, not necessarily a sympathetic one, in the audience. To accomplish this, it is the writer’s responsibility to have a detailed knowledge of the antagonist’s backstory (history) and psychology then draw on them for character behavior.
Both antagonist and protagonist must be present or be evident in each scene in order to justify that scenes inclusion in the script. The antagonist creates the tension that displays or reveals the intensity of the protagonist’s inevitable success or failure. This resolution invokes the audience’s cathartic release. Out of Scene. Out of Story.
By now it must be obvious that the strength of the antagonist and his / her goals is the active yeast that raises the story to an intensity worthy of an audience’s attention. Without a present, active, and strong antagonist all that remains is a collection of flat meandering scenes that masquerade as a “story of interest.”
Now we have the Who Wants To Be A Millionaire question: How do you connect to your audience on a variety of levels?
Answer: No more Antagonista Incognita or Antagonista Que Falta.
Create a dynamic viable Antagonista Fuerta e Importante *** that / who is an emotional or physical threat your protagonist’s very status quo existence and in some manner forces a change.
And yes, common usage words may have been easier to read. But where’s the fun with that? Now you have an opinion or an emotion; the purpose of this piece. ;-}
* Hidden Antagonist
** Missing Antagonist
*** Strong and Important Antagonist
Get more help crafting the perfect villain with Kathy Berardi’s webinar,
The Craft of Writing Great Villains