THURSDAY'S SCRIPT TIP:

NICE ANTAGONISTS


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 Jeff Nathanson's CATCH ME IF YOU CAN Tom Hanks plays a friendly FBI Agent on the trail of Leonardo DiCaprio's kid criminal. Hanks isn't a tough guy like Elliott Ness, he's not taking on the mob, he's in the check forgery division. In fact, he IS the check forgery division. He wears glasses, wears a hat and is so soft spoken that when he finally does get a couple of other men on his team he has to use the f-word get their attention. He is so gullible, DiCaprio actually cons HIM in an early scene... and then again and again throughout the movie! Despite being the nicest character in the movie, Hanks is the antagonist. The story is told from DiCaprio's point of view (the criminal), and Hanks is the character out to catch him. Hanks will not give up until DiCaprio is behind bars. He even works on Christmas Eve trying to capture DiCaprio (a running gag in the film).

Just because Hanks is a nice guy and an officer of the law doesn't mean he can't be the antagonist.

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. A guy that works on Christmas Eve to capture you is the biggest hurdle I can imagine.

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?

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.

Story is conflict, so our antagonist (or force of antagonism) is critical to the story.

A novel can focus entirely on an internal or emotional conflict because we can get inside a character's head - we can't do that with a movie, so we must have an external conflict or find some way to externalize the conflict. Film stories require *visual* conflicts.

You will have a human antagonist or some force of antagonism (that is physical in nature - because we need to see it for it to show up on film), even if you are writing a romantic comedy or straight drama. Something needs to bring the conflict.

YOU AND YOUR BELLAMY

Probably the majority of romantic comedies have a "Bellamy" - a character who is going to steal the one true love away from the protagonist. That might be Tim Robbins in HIGH FIDELITY or Cameron Diaz in MY BEST FRIEND'S WEDDING. This character is named after an actor, Ralph Bellamy, who played this role in a bunch of 1930s and 1940s romantic comedies. Bellamy was not some evil antagonist scheming to steal the leading lady away from the leading man, quite the opposite. Bellamy was the stuffy, boring, "safe" guy who offered emotional stability (and financial stability) to the leading lady. When the leading man was someone like Cary Grant, who often played romantic leads who were wild and unpredictable and just a little dangerous, a somewhat boring antagonist makes sense. Bellamy never had to plot to steal the leading lady, he was the perfect potential husband. Just because you're the antagonist doesn't mean you're not nice.

Sometimes it's not a lover that is stealing the one true love, but a boss with a job that requires a transfer or some other *action* that will remove protagonist from love interest. If you give your character a choice between love and duty, and make duty something that we can *see*; that duty becomes a force of antagonism that tears apart the relationship. Jimmy Stewart in REAR WINDOW is a photojournalist who is constantly being sent to some dangerous foreign land to snap pictures and can't imagine having a wife like Grace Kelly tagging along with him in a war zone or a jungle. Usually in a case like this we have the character planning on leaving before they meet the love interest, or a job physically coming in the way of the relationship as in HIS GIRL FRIDAY - where Cary Grant is a newspaper reporter in the middle of a hot news story. The force of antagonism needs to be something we can see, not just something in the character's mind. And as a force of antagonism, it must be able to create ongoing and escalating conflict. It can't just be something that kicks in at the end of Act 2, it has to *be* Act 2.

In HIS GIRL FRIDAY Newspaper editor Grant tries to lure his best reporter (and the woman he loves) Roz Russell away from Bellamy with the ultimate story - a man who will be executed the next morning who may give his final interview to a sympathetic female reporter. This escalates when the man says he's innocent, and escalates again when he escapes, and escalates again when Russell hides the escaped prisoner in a desk in the press room... and continues to escalate when the reporters return along with a couple of cops. That's the *job* part of HIS GIRL FRIDAY's conflict...

The "Bellamy" part of the conflict is Russell's fiance who keeps trying to pull her away from the story and away from the city so that they can be married. He has a train ticket, and the train leaves at a certain time, and Bellamy keeps showing up again and again to take her away. Grant comes up with scheme after scheme to get rid of Bellamy, but they guy keeps coming back! Bellamy is arrested and shanghaied and sent on wild goose chases... but keeps returning like a human boomarang. He is *determined* to marry Russell no matter what. *Determined* to get her to quit her reporter job once and for all and become a housewife. He keeps getting in the way of Grant's plan to keep her involved in the news story. Bellamy is not very bright, not cunning at all, and nice instead of evil... but the *perfect* rom-com antagonist.

The antagonist is the most important character in any script because they bring they bring the conflict. Take a thriller, mystery, crime story - let's use CSI or LAW & ORDER TV shows just for the heck of it. Without the antagonist - the killer - there is no story. These shows are a hunt for the killer, who is clever at either escaping from capture and/or obscuring their trail. So we have kind of a cat & mouse story - but we often do not know the identity of the killer until the end. That doesn't mean they aren't there, and that the protagonist isn't battling to find them. But without the killer - the L&O cops or CSI: BARSTOW team are just sitting around playing cards. Without the antagonist - the killer - there is no show.

JAWS without Bruce the shark? TWISTER without the twisters?

You need conflicts that can be seen - or they won't show up on film. Usually that's a human villain or some physical force of antagonism, but - because humans are emotional - there is also usually an emotional conflict that the protagonist is struggling with. The antagonist can be the nicest character in the screenplay, but they have to be the one person or force that comes between the protagonist and their goal.

A good villain does everything for a reason and doesn't make silly mistakes. They may be the nicest person in the story, but they are also the one person who comes between your protagonist and their goal - the person who will not rest until they have achieved their own goal, even if it means the protagonist ends up an old maid or in jail for 20 years. Without an antagonist you don't have a story!



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