SCRIPT NOTES: Can the Protagonist Be the Antagonist?

WGA writer, Michael Tabb has written for Universal Studios, Disney Feature Animation, comic book icon Stan Lee, and other industry players. Follow Michael on Twitter @MichaelTabb.

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Alex may be a vicious, demented character in A Clockwork Orange, but is he both protagonist and antagonist?

Alex is a violent, demented character in A Clockwork Orange, but is he both protagonist and antagonist?

I am flattered when new writers try to pitch me their ideas, and I often hear them say that his or her protagonist is also the antagonist. So let’s address that possibility. Is there a case for man being his own worst enemy in a script? We all know a fatal flaw can do a character in, but does that make him the villain?

There are four ways in which one might consider a protagonist to be his or her own most antagonistic force. They are:

  1.  Something or someone from inside the protagonist is what creates the film’s conflict.
  2.  When the inner journey dominates the visual story (focusing on a character’s personality flaw).
  3.  When nobody else is there to oppose them.
  4.  The protagonist is just plain wrong or evil.

Let’s take them one at a time.

The Wolfman

The antagonist inside the protagonist in The Wolfman.

The first example stems from a situation where there are two sides to a leading character (for example: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde or Fight Club). Having written a werewolf film, I see those “beast within” stories as an allegory for one person’s dark battle with impulse control. As a classic example, The Wolfman can easily be seen as a metaphorical struggle with alcohol abuse. At night, he indulges in base, raw, uncensored actions while being under the influence and not in his right mind. He wakes the next morning disoriented with no clue of the violence he committed the previous night. I am going to kibosh this one right out of the gate. This carnal beast is actually inside the protagonist, but it is not the protagonist any more than a patient with cancer is his own villain. The inner beast acts independently from the protagonist without their consent or influence; therefore, they are not one in the same. These antagonists are totally separate characters even though they share a body with the protagonist.

Second, many dramatic films center on inner journeys instead of outer journeys, which might bring a young writer to believe that a personality flaw can be an antagonist. Speaking of acting under the influence, let’s look at Leaving Las Vegas. Don’t be fooled by first blush thoughts; alcoholism is not the antagonist. This is the story of Ben’s slow battle with suicide in the wake of extreme loss. It is a personal battle with the will to live. Through his love interest in the film (Sera the prostitute), the script revolves around the big central question: can new love ever replace the void left by a broken heart? The answer is no. We never get over certain traumas, just ask anyone with P.T.S.D.

Ron Kovic goes to war with an ideology in Born on the Fourth of July.

Ron Kovic goes to war with an ideology in Born on the Fourth of July.

This might bring to mind Born on the Fourth of July, where Ron Kovic struggles with the ideology of blind patriotism in wartime. What antagonizes heroes who face an inner struggle is something outside of themselves. Ron is guilt-ridden and full of self-loathing over the war, which fuels his rage as he battles the ideologies of a patriotic nation with a superiority complex, having never lost a World War (or any war for that matter). When a protagonist cannot reconcile with the actions he has already taken, a fight begins… But in a film, that fight must be shown and exemplified by elements outside of himself with an antagonist and other obstacles. He is fueled by his experiences, not fighting with them. Only by taking the war outside of himself and battling an external nemesis (the societal thinking that he bought into in his youth, which put him in that wheelchair) can he start to heal and forgive.

Rudy Ruettiger has his share of personal obstacles in Rudy, but does that mean he's his own antagonist?

Rudy Ruettiger has his share of personal obstacles in Rudy, but does that mean he’s his own antagonist?

I have heard the point posed that the protagonist’s own limitations in Rudy are his antagonist. Again, asking if a trait or flaw be an a nemesis. This film is the true story of one man’s struggle to prove anything is possible with enough heart. He faces the one antagonist that is the opposition to all dreams… Reality. In order to go to Notre Dame, Rudy needs money and a solid GPA. To play football, he needs size and strength. Rudy has none of those things. He fights endlessly against the realities of his poor socio-economical background and physical limitations, but he is still not fighting himself.

This may be hard to grasp, but there is a very specific difference between obstacles and antagonists. Obstacles are things a protagonist must overcome while an antagonist is something with an iron will to accomplish something that renders your protagonist’s outer journey impossible. Cancer spreads; fire consumes; storms rage. Whether personified though human characters or not, antagonists act. They do something. Rudy fights almost everyone else to overcome the obstacles, but his limitations have no will of their own to directly oppose him. Rudy is battling society. He refuses to accept labels, opinions and misconceptions of what he is capable of accomplishing. The admissions board, the coaches, his own family… societal thinking on body types and how far someone can rise due to their sociological upbringing is the antagonist. Rudy’s willpower overcomes a world that is constantly saying, “No. be realistic. Stay where you are and don’t bother.” That no hope philosophy is the enemy.

A volatile character at the end of their rope in Leaving Las Vegas.

Ben Sanderman is a volatile character at the end of his rope in Leaving Las Vegas.

Whether it’s Ben proving that “life goes on” is a lie, Ron’s battle with blind patriotism, or Rudy’s personal battle to exceed expectations, it is actually a common misconception that turns out to be the nemesis. These misconceptions are personified by the living characters (who firmly believe they are correct) that surround the protagonists and affect them. So when an inner journey is in the spotlight, the antagonist can be equally intangible and elusive. These protagonists fight beliefs or ideologies that do not hold true under the scrutiny of these protagonists’ specific conditions. The ideology is best described as a publicly held, common misconception. Yet it’s never enough to only have only an inner journey and inner conflict.

The antagonist is the role that directly opposes the protagonists’ outer journey. It takes a physical force to stage that external battle of wills with a hero. Each of these movies have separate characters that do that for every protagonist. For example, Rudy’s external, outer journey is to play football for Notre Dame. He must fight with every fiber of his being to get the coaches to let him play in a season game. So, no dice on protagonist also being the antagonist in an inner journey based script because there is still, always an outer journey. That mission requires an antagonistic force in the physical world, working against the protagonist’s goal (even when that outer journey is not the film’s primary focus).

The protagonist battles a horrifying situation in Buried.

The protagonist battles a horrifying situation in Buried.

Third, we might wonder about films where there is nobody around to oppose the protagonist. Films like Gravity, Castaway, or Buried. We can dispel this one quickly. The protagonist is fighting a situation every step of the way. Whether trapped on an island, in outer space or a box six feet under, the antagonist keeping them from their goal is the situation. That situation is a powerful, external force threatening their goal of survival or reunion with loved ones, just like a battle against the elements or a disease.

Sgt. Martin Pendergast sets out to stop the protagonist on a hunch in Falling Down.

Sgt. Martin Pendergast sets out to stop a family man that has snapped in Falling Down.

Finally, let’s discuss movies where the central character is clearly a bad guy. Such characters can be horrific people, but they still have their own antagonists (opposing force), often represented by the law. Alex in A Clockwork Orange faces-off against rehabilitation as represented by his probation officer and the Minister of Interior. William Foster’s goal of reuniting with his family is thwarted by Sgt. Martin Pendergast in Falling Down. Detective Donald Kimball is never able to arrest serial killer Patrick Bateman in American Psycho. So even then, the protagonist is not the antagonist. Like stated in my article on antagonists, the physics of Newton apply. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction. What is interesting to note about these types of characters is whether they survive or die, like most antagonist’s, they have no character arc. If the central character does not arc, they are not a straight up protagonist. This brings them into the rare breed characters known as failed protagonists. This is nothing new either. For example, Shakespeare’s Richard III and Macbeth fall into this category. So even in the rare situation where it seems at first blush that all rules are off, and the leading character acts like an antagonist, they still have an external opposing force outside themselves with which they must do battle.

nightcrawler

Lou Bloom does more than report the bloody, tragic news in Nightcrawler.

We live in an edgier world now, so unlike the good, old, Elizabethan era, such central characters do not always die at the end of a tragic story. Shakespeare measured tragedy through the eyes of that central character, so his or her death was the very definition of tragedy common to that era. Today, tragedy is sometimes measured by the audience’s reaction to it.

A scribe like me says that some of these characters continuing to live unpunished is actually a greater tragedy than if they die. Getting away with horrific acts is even more tragic to an audience in some cases. That said, this article is not about the changing landscape of tragedy in storytelling. So let me just wrap up this final attempt at explaining the protagonist/antagonist in one body theory… Whether the script centers upon a sympathetic, failed protagonist that dies (like Vincent Vega because he refuses to arc and follow the good advice presented by his partner, Jules Winfield, in Pulp Fiction), or the downright nasty, failed protagonist who lives to kill again (like Lou Bloom in Nightcrawler and Tom Ripley in The Talented Mr. Ripley), they all have external adversaries that they must face. Those antagonistic characters do have the will to stop the protagonist and serve as counterarguments to the premise on a visual, external basis in order to be clear to an audience.

The Deer Hunter wrestles with the question of if an actually comes out of a war.

The Deer Hunter wrestles with the question, “Does anyone actually come out of a war?”

In every great, cinematic story I can conjure, the protagonist wages war with something that personifies the premise’s counterpoint in order to make the writer’s point clear. Film is not a book where we can spend the whole time in someone’s thoughts, listening to an endless barrage of inner monologues. That would be boring. We must see the fight unfold in order to understand it. Actually witnessing ideals being put on trial as battles wage… It engages viewers and allows them to observe the internal conflict in a tangible way. It makes it so that an audience understands the application of the story’s premise in real terms they can see and touch. It triggers an actual catharsis, which takes place within the movie-goer when done extremely well.

Sometimes a picture requires no explanation. If you know your cinema, it speaks for itself.

Sometimes all you need is a picture, and that picture needs no explanation for cinema lovers like us.

Think about it logically for just one second. If the protagonist were the antagonist, what does that look like? It’s important to be able to picture something in a visual medium. Stories are about conflict. No separate, outside, opposing force means there is no external conflict, which means there isn’t much of a story to watch. Protagonists wrestle with something outside themselves just as Jacob wrestles with another unspecified being in The Bible before he finally faces his brother as an adult. Yes, it may represent an inner struggle, but an antagonist must be a separate entity. Why? Films are a visual medium, and a separate personification of the enemy is the only way to visually show a struggle.

Iago plagues Othello with jealousy and doubt in the Shakespearean, tragic tale that gave birth to the green eyed-monster.

Iago plagues Othello with jealousy in the tragic, Shakespearean tale of man’s green-eyed monster.

Hundreds of years before movies, Shakespeare always tried to give the protagonist’s enemy a face. Iago defeats Othello through manipulation of man’s paranoid tendencies toward romantic jealousy. You can call this character a provocateur if you prefer, but he does the antagonizing.

Don’t get me wrong, I can totally understand why so many keep trying to pitch the script where the protagonist is the antagonist. It sounds so tormented, pithy, edgy, and cool. It just doesn’t work logistically or cinematically. So, in the final analysis for at least this WGA writer, the answer to the protagonist also being the antagonist is a constant and unequivocal no.

In my next character study from the writer’s perspective, I leave the character we “love to hate” behind and explore what is most frequently the worst conceived and most poorly designed character by amateur writers… The Love Interest.

Two high school boys create their idea of the perfect woman, who changes their lives forever, in Weird Science.

Two high school boys create their idea of the perfect woman, who changes their lives forever, in Weird Science.

9 thoughts on “SCRIPT NOTES: Can the Protagonist Be the Antagonist?

  1. weex

    Hi everyone,
    A post from Paris…

    I thaught your talks are very intresting… I would add my little contribution / question :

    You talk about a protagonist, that could become the antagonist.
    What about when, the antagonist, is INSIDE the protagonist, at the same time… Like the devel side of everyone, or anything else due to a specific state of mind, drugs comsuption, or science intervention…
    Don’t you think some movies have this already in them ?
    A few samples from me that you can complete with pleasure please… :
    Bad lieutenant
    Hollow man

    And i’m sure you will find much more… Please do ; -).

    weex

  2. Victor Grippi

    What about Birdman, this year’s Oscar best picture? It’s all inner conflict with the protagonist as far as I’m concerned. He’s both protagonist and antagonist. He’s battling his ego trying to shake loose the self-image of a comic book superhero and his internal insecurities to do something meaningful with his life. It’s all inner conflict.

    And please don’t say “the situation” is the antagonist. Situations are containers we put stories into. Every story has a container: stranded on an island, lost in space, wrongly accused and on the run in the big city, stuck in a war, etc… They are not antagonists in the story sense. They are not tangible.

    1. Michael TabbMichael Tabb Post author

      The Birdman is the antagonist with everything he represents to the protagonist. He is a constantly reappearing, haunting figure given a separate physical being outside of the hero itself, even if it’s a part of him.

      Second, you and many script gurus are mistaken that a situation can’t be the antagonist. All stranded and disaster movies are situation based antagonists. Many people overthink this, and you are in the majority. Gravity, and Castaway nave no physical opposition to their journey if not the situation. Yes, they have inner journeys, but they also have an outer journey where the only thing in their way is a situation. Don’t get me wrong, not all films in these genre have no antagonist. Independence Day is a disaster film that has aliens as the antagonist. That said, specific circumstances can be antagonists.

      The antagonist is the force opposing the outer journey, which needs to be clearly defined and kept separate from the inner journey.

      There is no other character purposely trying to make the protagonists fail in Gravity or Castaway. Everyone wants to help. Now, those films can have antagonists. In The Martain, Teddy Sanders is the antagonist.The opposing force to the physical task at hand is the antagonist, and in the absense of another character sabatoging their goal, the situation is that force. There’s a famous Sherlock Holmes quote, “Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.” If it’s not a person antagonizing the outer journey… And an outer journey must be phycicalized externally by its definition, what remains is the situation itself.

  3. brianking

    Great article… answered so many questions…

    Is it also unwise to write the logline from the POV of the antagonist, instead write it from the POV of the protag/hero?

    1. Michael TabbMichael Tabb Post author

      This is a very good question, Brian. Now, I am all for breaking the rules when necessary, but loglines are not like a script. They are sales tools meant to convey story and its perspective to potential buyers. Selling the antagonist front and center in the logline is like when marketing people do that thing we all hate in trailers. When they take every funny line from the movie, put it in the trailer, and sell you on the film being a comedy. Then once you start watching the film, you find the film isn’t very funny at all. It was false advertising of tone to get people to show up at the theater. Even if that film was good, audience members often don’t like it because they paid to see what was advertised. Sell the perspective and story the script follows. Otherwise, even if it’s good… the buyer will have been mislead by how you sold it to them. As a side note, I often find when a writer feels driven to tell a logline from the antagonist’s persective that it means your protagonist needs some work. It’s fantastic that you have written an antagonist that’s so good, it’s demanding to be acknoledged in the logline. That said, you still have to make the protagonist an even better character than that. You just raised the bar for yourself by writing a great antagonist. Now you have to rise to that challange.

  4. Bonzohead

    Good article.
    What about Deckard in Blade Runner? Ostensibly the hero, he is plainly the villain as he cold bloodedly guns down the replicants who want nothing more than to survive. As Batty says to him at the end, before he saves him,”Aren’t you the Good Man?”

    1. Michael TabbMichael Tabb Post author

      I understand what you are saying, and I deal with this in my first two articles. Just because someone is the protagonist, that does not make them either a hero or a good man. Please feel free to check those out for a detailed response. I hope you find them helpful.

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