Types of antagonist
[Note: This is a cut down version of a section of my book Write What You Don't Know: an accessible manual for screenwriters forthcoming from Continuum Books]
Well any good hero/ine needs a challenge and that challenge comes from your antagonist. We use the big boy word for their title rather than simply ‘villain’ or ‘bad guy’ because not all antagonists are villainous and bad. Save those words for when they are. Sometimes there are villains in a story but the antagonist is on the side of the good guys.
Think of it this way: your antagonist is the character who provides the greatest challenge to your hero/ine. If you can visualize your wardrobe*, you know that your antagonist is the one trying to break off your hero/ine’s clothes rail (arc) from the walls of the wardrobe (theme) itself. Villains might just be a passing annoyance. They can be hanging off the clothes hangers watching your hero/ines best friend or love interest working away at the wardrobe with their chisel while they wait for the chance to exploit the chaos. Anyway, here are some key antagonist principles to be getting along with.
Your antagonist is at least the equal of your hero/ine.
This must always be the case. Never develop an antagonist who is a push over. Remember, your antagonist is your primary Hero/ine Spanking Machine™ and you know by now that you need to spank them hard, even in a comedy – maybe especially in a comedy. Did I mention this must always be the case?
Your antagonist is fun.
If you are ever in doubt about this, take a deep breath and watch Robin Hood Prince of Thieves 1991 (don’t do this). Put a loaded gun next to you on the couch before you start watching (don’t do this). Whenever you are about to put the gun in your mouth and blow yourself into sweet Costner-free oblivion (don’t do this), what happens? Yup, got it in one, Alan Rickman appears as the villainous Sheriff of Nottingham and brings with him an endless appetite for scenery. Chew on, Alan, chew on.
Your antagonist is a symbolic double or inverse of your hero/ine.
You know how this one works; they are two sides of the same coin, like Batman and the Joker. Whenever we have a line in a movie that goes something like: “we ain’t so very different, you and I,” take a drink. This is an old cliché, but it comes from somewhere interesting and that is the idea that both hero/ines and villains are excessive creatures and are often separated only by ends not means, or maybe means not ends. As with all story clichés what counts is how, not whether you use them.
Your antagonist is all easy answers and the seductive path.
If a life of crime was sold as the hard way to riches, who’d be a criminal? All Luke Skywalker has to do to come over to the dark side is to give into his anger. None of that wandering around in an endless swamp with an annoying force goblin on his back who makes him lift heavy crates and robots and spaceships out of ponds.
Another way of thinking about this principle is as the opposition between certainty and uncertainty. Certainty is easy, it cuts out the need for complex thought and results in easy decisions because a thing either fits the model or it doesn’t. Uncertainty is fraught and complex and can lead to moral vacillation and indecision. Now this can work in reverse also (morally upright hero/ines versus a world of corrupt but tempting relativism) but many villains are absolutists in one way or another. They take reasonable ideas and philosophies to a Manichaean or even Procrustean extreme and become monstrous because of it.
Manichaean = sees (or cynically presents) the world as black and white, good and evil, right and wrong, with no room for grey. George W. Bush frequently presented himself and his administration’s policies as fundamentally Manichaean: in opposition to an “axis of evil” and so forth. Whether that makes him a hero, a villain or just a dangerous fool I’ll leave to your individual judgments. The point, in strict story terms, is that it could be any of the above, depending on your intentions for your character and your stance and philosophy as a writer.
Procrustean = in the terms of this discussion an inability or unwillingness to understand and value deviation from a norm and punishment of that which does deviate. Procrustes is a great villain, a bandit who tortured his captives by stretching them or cutting off their legs so they fit the length of an iron bed. Check him out on the internets.
Your antagonist is sexy.
Sexy does not have to mean physically beautiful. Sexy means attractive in a primal kind of way. Sexy can be all about personality, sense of humour, voice, charm and intelligence. In other words sexy is the full Rickman. Evil can – perhaps should – be sexy. We want our sexy villains to be onscreen and we want them to be given a free hand to be themselves. Genuine people are sexy in their very genuineness and villains often have the luxury of being genuine. Of course, in this context, genuine can also be really horrible and evil.
Your antagonist is flawed.
Well obviously. But the point of their flaws is to offer your hero/ine a way to defeat them. For this reason most antagonists either don’t broadcast their vulnerabilities or defend them with their best troops and it takes effort and commitment to expose and defeat them. Also make their flaws interact nicely with your hero/ines so that, even when they are discovered, they still pose a major challenge. In Brick, Laura would probably have got away free and clear if her greed hadn’t pushed her to steal the brick from the Pin’s place before the meet.
Your antagonist “could have been me”.
This is the antagonist as moral lesson, or the antagonist as fallen hero. This kind of villain exposes the fragility of heroism and the humanity of evil. Think of Harvey Dent / Two Face in The Dark Knight 2008. This is the villain who has given into temptation or provocation in a way we can all recognize – in a way we can’t be sure we wouldn’t give in to ourselves. Think of the way the conflict emerges and very bad things happen after the guys find the ‘free’ money in A Simple Plan 1998.
Your antagonist is ‘real’.
This can be another version of the previous example. Let us identify with and have sympathy for your villain and you give them power. Make them truly human and we will connect with them, for all their evil designs.
Your antagonist is terrifying.
She may or may not be actually monstrous, but scaring our hero/ine is always a good thing, because fear = hard spanking. Remember, love can be terrifying and so can being in the presence of beauty or the sublime. Ok silly example of scary love: remember Garth needing to “hurl” whenever he saw his dream woman in Wayne’s World 1992? This also reminds us that fear can be funny when it is happening to other people. On the other side of the scary coin we have villains like Don Logan in Sexy Beast 2000, who cow everyone else on screen by the sheer force of their terrifyingly twisted personalities.
Your antagonist is immoral or amoral.
There’s a difference and it is philosophical. Immorality is about doing things you believe to be wrong. Amorality is about rejecting or living outside of a moral code of any kind. They both offer a license to our antagonists to do bad things, but they speak of different personalities and world views which you can work into your stories.
A devoutly religious person who breaks the moral code of his faith is immoral in his own eyes but may or may not be immoral in the eyes of the audience, depending on the context. The same character who adheres to his own perverse version of such a code, but whose resulting actions are abhorrent is also immoral in the eyes of the audience while potentially remaining moral in their own eyes. Harry Powell in The Night of the Hunter 1955 is such a man. The same character who has no personal faith but uses religion as a cynical weapon, such as Matthew Hopkins in Witchfinder General 1968, is likely to be amoral.
Your antagonist is redeemable.
They are Darth Vader, not the Emperor. Some of the best antagonists see the light at the end. Usually it is too late to save their own lives – Hollywood loves to punish the bad guy somehow. They may redeem themselves by making a moral choice, helping the hero/ine or understanding the true nature of their former misguided actions.
Your antagonist is irredeemable.
They are the Emperor, not Darth Vader. Some of the best villains are just gleefully awful, so let a true bad seed be a bad seed. Iago is the best character in Othello, as is Edmund in King Lear. The wonderfully Sadeian Count Zaroff in The Most Dangerous Game 1932 hunts humans for sport. He’s not suddenly going to wake up one morning and open an orphanage, unless it is to raise better prey for the chase. Similarly Harry Powell is too wonderful a villain to constrain. I can hear him now, calling out into the darkness of the riverbank: “Children! Children!”
I’m just taking a quiet moment to thank Robert Mitchum and Charles Laughton for that one.
Your antagonist is your hero/ine.
The standard versions of this trope are when your hero is actually villainous as in Macbeth or Hannibal 2001, or Dexter on TV, or when “you are your own worst enemy.” Usually a film will also have another, external prick to kick against, but sometimes a film focuses so strongly on a character’s inner struggles that we understand that turmoil to be the point of the story almost to the exclusion of external factors. Roman Polanski loves a bit of mental turmoil and both The Tenant 1976 and Repulsion 1965 explore this. Or of course there are movies about twins (Dead Ringers 1988), split personalities (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde 1931) and other general Spock-with-a-goatee type shenanigans.
Your antagonist is your hero/ine’s lover or best friend.
We already talked about how many romantic comedies and buddy movies make the central couple their own protagonist / antagonist pair. When Harry Met Sally 1989 does this as a rom com and Planes, Trains and Automobiles 1987 does it as a buddy comedy. What would credulous Fox Mulder have been without skeptical Dana Scully to rein him in when his imagination got the better of him in The X Files? Indeed, what would blinkered Dana Scully have been without intuitive Fox Mulder to expand her horizons towards the “truth”?
Your antagonist almost wins.
If she doesn’t, your antagonist sucks and you are not spanking your hero/ine hard enough. The stakes need to be high and we need to at least half believe in the eventual defeat of all that is good or even all that is romantically hopeful, floppy haired and Hugh Granty.
Your antagonist actually wins.
Because that’s the only way your hero/ine will learn. Because sometimes evil does triumph, just almost never in Hollywood. Wait, that doesn’t sound right. Ah, got it: just almost never in Hollywood movies. The devil and/or the coven in Rosemary’s Baby 1968, John Doe in Se7en 1995 and even sort of protagonist / antagonist Judah Rosenthal in Crimes and Misdemeanors 1989 come to mind as notable exceptions to this rule.
Your antagonist has earned their own theme tune.
Sometimes they actually get one (Darth Vader). Other times they just feel like they could carry one off (Hannibal Lecter). What I mean is your antagonist carries major story weight; write them as if they do and you won’t let them down.
* for a fuller discussion of the wardrobe as a model for theme and character driving cinematic storytelling, see my book!