MY MOTHER THE ANTAGONIST
by William C. Martell
Your protagonist has a goal... and something has to prevent him from obtaining that goal or your script will only be ten pages long! It doesn't matter whether you are writing a comedy, a thriller, a romance or a drama - if nothing stands in the way of your protagonist and their goal you don't have a story. That makes your antagonist the most important character in your screenplay! They provide the conflict. Without conflict there is no story. Hitchcock said, "The better the villain the better the picture" and that's true. Who can forget Alan Rickman's villain in DIE HARD or ROBIN HOOD: PRINCE OF THIEVES ? Who can forget suave James Mason in NORTH BY NORTHWEST ? But how do you create a great antagonist?
START WITH CONFLICT
Your antagonist creates the conflict in your script, and that conflict has to be something strong enough to carry your story for 110 pages. Something that can go the distance. So your antagonist has to create a problem so big that it will take the whole film for your protagonist to solve it.The antagonist isn't a couple of speed bumps between your protagonist and the goal - he's a towering brick wall. A hurdle your protagonist can't possibly overcome!
In Ron Bass' MY BEST FRIEND'S WEDDING Cameron Diaz is the perfect antagonist. Julia Robert's goal is to break up Dermot Mulroney's wedding so that he will marry her instead. The fiance is the character who gets in the way of that goal... and that makes her the antagonist. If Diaz had been stupid, or plain looking, or not very nice she would just be a couple of speed bumps... but she's perfect! She's pretty and witty and radiant and the nicest character in the whole film. How can Roberts possibly get past her? As you can see, just because a character is the antagonist doesn't mean they have to be a bad person with an evil plan to destroy Cleveland. They just have to be the biggest barrier possible to the protagonist achieving their goal. Not the second biggest, not the third biggest... they have to be the impossible hurdle.
The conflict your antagonist creates also must escalate - things have to keep getting worse, or your script has "flat-lined". If things are just as bad on page 90 as they were on page 30, you have sixty pages of time-killer. Story is CHANGE, and if nothing has changed for sixty pages, there's no story. That means either antagonist must be raising the ante, or your protagonist must be doing things to avoid the conflict which only make it worse (or both).
In MY BEST FRIEND'S WEDDING every time Julia Roberts comes up with a scheme to destroy Cameron Diaz (like the karaoke bar) it backfires and just makes things worse. Things must always get worse before they can get better... and that means your antagonist must be active rather than passive. They'll have a goal, too. In fact, if you were to see the story from the antagonist's point of view, the protagonist would be the one who prevents them from achieving THEIR goal. That means your antagonist's motivation must make sense to the audience, and their plan must be exactly what the audience would do if they were the antagonist. A good villain is smart, clever, and cunning. They do everything for a reason and don't make silly mistakes.
In the Action and Thriller genre the Villain is actually driving the story. The villain is going to do some evil deed and the hero must stop him. In my book THE SECRETS OF ACTION SCREENWRITING I use DIE HARD to demonstrates how the hero is completely interchangeable in action scripts... but the villain's plan is the key to the story. If you remove John McClane from DIE HARD you still have Hans robbing the Nakatome Tower on Christmas Eve... and Officer Al Powell would end up being the hero. If you remove Powell's character, the two FBI Agents might be the hero... or maybe Holly Genero. Somebody has to stop Hans from robbing the safe and blowing up all of the hostages! The most important part of any Action or Thriller script is the Villain's Plan, and the most important character isn't the hero... it's the villain!
DO WE NEED AN ANTAGONIST?
There doesn't have to be a human antagonist, but there does need to be some tangible (visual - so that the audience knows it's there) obstacle. Usually that's a person, because it's much easier to create conflict if your obstacle can talk back to your protagonist.
There are three kinds of conflict: Man against Man, Man against Nature, and Man against Himself. The first two are common in film because we can SEE the conflict. The last is tricky, but can be used in a script if the conflict can be made visible to the audience.
In THE PERFECT STORM the WEATHER is the antagonist, it's a Man against Nature story. But they forgot to make the weather a character. The closest we got was that giant wave. The weather was the antagonist in TWISTER - and each tornado was given a distinctive "personality". The twin tornadoes, the tornado that chases them across the farm, the one that lifts livestock like in THE WIZARD OF OZ . But some silly Hollywood executive thought it would be a good idea to have Cary Elwes as an EVIL meteorologist in a black van... some weird idea of a human antagonist. This might have worked if Elwes had created the twister, or was controlling it, or was talking people into driving into the twister's path... but in the film he was just kind of silly. Antagonists don't have to be people, but they have to be tangible. Since we could already see the tornadoes, Cary Elwes' character was redundant. An evil meteorologist?
Your conflict has to be something that can be visually expressed. We have to be able to record it on film. That leaves out some moral and ethical conflicts (Man against himself), because they are all about what people THINK - and we can't see that. You CAN make some moral and ethical conflicts visual through symbols. You can also make some choices visual by creating situations where physical actions show moral decisions. If two people are running away from an escaped tiger, and one trips and falls... does the other go back to rescue them (and put his own life in peril for a stranger)? By creating a situation where PHYSICAL ACTIONS show decisions we can explore some internal conflicts.
In the Weitz brother's AMERICAN PIE the main conflict is man against himself: our protagonist can't get a girl because he's a geek. We can SEE him not getting the girl. But there are antagonistic characters in the film: the popular guys in high school who ridicule the protagonist for his failures, plus the COMPETITION between the four guys to lose their virginity by graduation night makes his buddies rivals (kind of low key antagonists). If you can't find a way to SHOW the internal conflict, the audience has no way of knowing it exists.
In most romantic comedies the thing that keeps the couple apart is a romantic rival. This is true in MY BEST FRIEND'S WEDDING , PHILADELPHIA STORY , MY FAVORITE WIFE , and practically every other romantic comedy script. But in Jeff Arch's SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE what keeps the couple apart is geography - there's an entire country between them! What prevents the protagonist from reaching their goal is distance - something tangible. Hank's son even shows the distance on a globe in one scene. The conflict is Man against Nature, and Arch found a clever way to make that conflict tangible!
Adventure movies use the man against nature conflict. In Robert King's VERTICAL LIMIT the mountain is the antagonist. It's what keeps Chris O'Donnell from rescuing his mountain climbing sister. There's also an element of Man against Himself, using the mountain as a symbol for O'Donnell's fears that he's no longer good enough. Again: the mountain is something tangible. Just make sure we can SEE the goal and SEE the obstacle. If we can't see it on film, it isn't there.
THAT'S MY MOM - THE ANTAGONIST!
One thing to consider about the conflict your antagonist creates: Will twenty million people pay $9 to see this conflict and it's resolution? Is the conflict big enough to fill the screen? Big can work two ways: it could be as big as an asteroid about to hit earth... or as big as your first broken heart. Physically powerful or emotionally powerful. Alvin Sargent's ORDINARY PEOPLE has no asteroids - but it has a family destroyed by the death of the protagonist's brother. The antagonist is the mother, who loved the brother more and blames our hero for his brother's death. That's a pretty big conflict! Your brother is dead, your mom hates you, and maybe you DID cause his death! So a mom can be an antagonist!
FIGHT TO THE DEATH
The protagonist must battle the antagonist and vanquish him. Battle doesn't necessarily mean a steel cage match to the death with chainsaws and tire irons, but it does mean that only will one can survive.
In Kevin Wade's WORKING GIRL the antagonist is the scheming, back-stabbing boss played by Sigourney Weaver. Melanie Griffith is the smart secretary who came up with a great business idea... and her boss stole it! This film is about the class system in America: Weaver is from the best colleges, while Griffith is a working class high school graduate. Your protagonist and antagonist are also part of the theme - they may be two sides of the same coin. Their DIFFERENCES are what's important. By the end of WORKING GIRL , Griffith and Weaver face off in a board room... and only one comes out with the account. In a way, it IS a steel cage match. Griffith must "destroy" Weaver (in the business world) in order to resolve the conflict between them.
We have to want the protagonist to succeed in his quest to destroy the antagonist. In ORDINARY PEOPLE Mary Tyler Moore was such a cold manipulating bitch, you wanted Tim Hutton to stand up to her. You wanted Donald Sutherland to snap at her. You wanted them to tell her that she was a bitch. You wanted her to be hurt and alone at the end of the film. The audience got their wish! Remember - we're creating an emotional experience within the audience. We want them to cry or laugh or scream. When the antagonist is vanquished, we want them to cheer. The protagonist has been successful. The bigger the villain's destruction the better the movie!
DOUBLE CROSSING FRIENDS
You can have a loveable antagonist. Your antagonist can even be your hero's best friend... But since the protagonist is going to square off against the antagonist to resolve the conflict, they won't be friends for long. Unless the antagonist is lying to your hero's face, all the time he wants to take his place - a back stabber!
Scripts with double crossing friends work because there's a lot of EMOTIONAL content in the conflict. If you find out the guy who has been ruining your life is your best friend, you want to cry and beat him up at the same time. In my cable movie HARD EVIDENCE the hero's best friend ends up as the villain. In order to do that, I had to have a surrogate villain - a guy who could PERSONIFY the conflict - a guy our hero could go into the steel cage with and fight to the death. That way I could continue to have the best friend seem like a best friend... until the hero discovers the truth. When the best friend character is revealed as the antagonist, the hero must go into the "steel cage of conflict" with him... and stomp him!
The other way the protagonist's best friend can be his worst enemy is if he gets into trouble and brings our hero along for the ride. In Mardik Martin's MEAN STREETS our hero (Harvey Keitel) has a cousin with a hair trigger temper (Robert DeNiro). DeNiro is the funniest character in MEAN STREETS, always pulling pranks and having a great time. But DeNiro keeps getting Keitel deeper and deeper in trouble. DeNiro borrows money from a local hood, then refuses to pay. DeNiro keeps insulting the local hood, until the hood decides to kill him... and Keitel is caught in the cross-fire! You might think that DeNiro is the antagonist - he's the guy that comes between Keitel and his dream of owning a restaurant. But that local hood is really the villain. We KNOW the local hood is dangerous. We KNOW that if DeNiro keeps taunting him, the guy will pull out a gun and start shooting. Which makes the best friend NOT the antagonist, but kind of a magnet pulling the protagonist towards the antagonist.
TOO MANY CROOKS
David McKenna's remake of GET CARTER tanked at the box office. The problem? Too many antagonists! Sylvester Stallone is a mob enforcer tracking the scum that killed his brother... and there's no shortage of scum in this film! He beats up or is beat-up-by about a dozen unrelated bad guys. If the antagonist is the person that comes between the hero and his goal and you have a dozen antagonists... wouldn't you also have a dozen goals? That's a dozen stories!
The problem with this new version of GET CARTER is the bad guys don't seem to be connected. In the original 1971 version Carter was climbing a ladder of bad guys to find out who was on top. Each badguy lead directly to the next - there was a que of badguys between Carter and his goal. Your story can only have one villain... but that villain can have as many henchmen as you want. As long as the audience can see that one leads to the next. I'm still trying to figure out why Carter beat up that guy in the kitchen in the new version... Did that guy have anything to do with the story?
No matter what genre you're writing, you'll need an antagonist to stand between the hero and his goal. That antagonist can be the nicest character in the film, the hero's mom, his best friend, even the love of his life! But they must be something we can see. If you can't see a conflict on film, it doesn't exist! That's why we have villains.
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