What is an antagonist? The simplest explanation is that an antagonist represents the opposite of the protagonist. But there’s much more to the term than that. By understanding how antagonists are used in screenwriting, we’re better equipped to handle story conflict in our own scripts.
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What’s the Antagonist Meaning?
What does antagonist mean?
So, what does antagonist mean? Well, an antagonist means trouble for the protagonist (central force) of a story. There are plenty of different ways that screenwriters use antagonists to ~antagonize~ their protagonists.
Writers also refer to antagonists as “adversaries” or “adversarial forces.” This next video is taken from a lecture with professor Eric Edson of California State University, Northridge. Here, Edson breaks down adversarial forces in movies like The Fugitive, The Silence of the Lambs, Sideways, and more.
Edson makes an important point with his breakdown of Sideways by saying that antagonists don’t have to be villains (at least in a prototypical way)! They can be anything that oppose the protagonist. In Sideways, the primary antagonist is a character who appears in only two scenes – but her influence on the protagonist is omnipresent.
What is an antagonist?
An antagonist is the force of a story that the protagonist contends with; whether it be human, natural or supernatural. Every protagonist needs an antagonistic force. Derived from the Greek word agonizesthai, “antagonist” literally translates to English as “to contend with.”
Characteristics of an Antagonist:
- Juxtaposes Protagonist
- Often Villainous
- Halts the Progress of Protagonist
What’s the Antagonist in Cinema Look Like?
Antagonist character examples in film
What are some antagonist character examples? Here’s a list of antagonist character examples in movies:
- The Joker in The Dark Knight
- Darth Vader in The Empire Strikes Back
- Saruman in The Lord of the Rings
- Voldemort in Harry Potter
- Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs
- Scar in The Lion King
- Hans Gruber in Die Hard
- Captain Hook in Peter Pan
- Gordon Gekko in Wall Street
- Hans Landa in Inglourious Basterds
- Agent Smith in The Matrix
We imported these characters into StudioBinder’s storyboard creator software in order to create a filmic moodboard. You can download the mood board below and reference it at any time for character design inspiration!
All of these antagonist character examples are villainous in nature – but it’s important to note that not all antagonists are villains! We’re going to cover non-villainous antagonists in a bit, but first, let’s break down the “bad guys.”
What is an Antagonist in a Story Who’s Evil?
What is the villain antagonist?
Most antagonists tend to be villainous by nature. These characters represent a polar opposite view of the world than the protagonist. The villain protagonist will also do anything possible to impede the progress of the protagonist.
One classic example of the villain antagonist is The Joker in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight; everything about his character is supposed to instill within us a sense of villainy.
This next video from Lessons From the Screenplay explores why The Joker is a perfect antagonist for The Dark Knight.
The Joker is a character who works to generate chaos in Gotham. His entire existence serves to juxtapose Batman, the protagonist of the story.
Another similar example is Saruman from The Lord of the Rings, a character who impedes the Fellowship’s journey to destroy the one true ring of power.
We imported The Fellowship of the Ring script into StudioBinder’s screenwriting software to see how Saruman betrays Gandalf – and how he reveals he’s working to stop Frodo’s journey. As you’re reading, think about how Saruman is highlighted as an antagonist.
Although we knew before this moment that Sauron was an antagonist, we weren’t quite sure what role Saruman was going to play. But in revealing his villainous plan, we see that Saruman is the most direct character antagonist to the Fellowship.
What’s the Antagonist Definition of Morality?
How the moral antagonist is used
The moral antagonist is almost always used to oppose an anti-hero. What’s an anti-hero? We define an anti-hero as “a narrative protagonist who is defined by their own self-interest… who often feels rejected by society, and veers down a self-destructive path that results in isolation or death.”
Frank Abagnale (Leonardo DiCaprio) from Catch Me If You Can is a great example of an anti-hero – but he’s also a person who we sympathize with on an emotional level. This is because we’re allured by his intellect and empathetic towards the travails he endured as a child.
Abagnale’s primary antagonist is Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks). We as an audience are largely inclined to align ourselves with Carl’s morals as he searches to capture fraudster Frank Abagnale. Carl is portrayed as sensitive and well-intentioned, which helps us to connect with him even though he’s the antagonist.
These two characters operate against one another in a game of cat and mouse. Carl wants to believe that Frank will show virtue. In the next scene, the conflict between the two characters comes to a head.
Throughout Catch Me If You Can, we see clear examples of how a protagonist and an antagonist work against one another. Frank is an anti-hero protagonist and Carl is a moral antagonist.
What is an Antagonist in a Story Externalized?
How to make the world an antagonist
Usually, a character confronts internal (conflict within themselves) or external (conflict with the world or other characters). Both are great options because internal and external conflict can energize your story.
Although rare, there are cases of stories in which the antagonist is an environmental force. This environmental antagonist is rooted in the age-old conflict structure of “man vs. nature.”
This next video from The Take shows us how the central power conflict in The Birds is layered with subtext. It also shows us how Hitchcock communicates conflict in a terrifying way.
In this Hitchcock classic, Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hendren) and the people of Bodega Bay are inexplicably attacked by crazed birds.
“The birds” represent the antagonistic forces of nature, while Melanie is the protagonist of the story.
What makes this conflict work so well though is how, in many ways, it’s entirely inexplicable. This conflict results in a sense of the supernatural – and it activates the mind of the audience to guess as to what the subtext means.
What are secondary antagonists?
In any given story, there can only be one protagonist. However, there can be a countless number of antagonists. In some films, there’s a primary antagonist, and then several secondary antagonists.
One of Quentin Tarantino’s best films, Kill Bill, has a primary antagonist and several secondary antagonists. The primary antagonist is Bill himself; the secondary antagonists are the members of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad.
In this next scene, we’ll see how Quentin Tarantino writes secondary antagonists into his Kill Bill script through the use of The Bride’s “Death List.”
One helpful trick is to think of secondary antagonists as the mini-bosses you face in a video game before getting to the final boss.
In Kill Bill, The Bride has to face-off against these secondary antagonist mini-bosses before getting to the main antagonist final boss.
What is an Antagonist These Days?
What is the function of an antagonist in a story today?
Now that we’ve looked at some modern and historical examples of antagonists in film, it’s fair to assume that we’re ready to answer the question: what is an antagonist? An antagonist is simply an opposing force to the protagonist, physical, environmental, or psychological.
What are the benefits of understanding the function of an antagonist? The most important benefit is that it helps us to decide which types of character conflict will work best in our own scripts.
If our protagonist is a hero, then the antagonist must be a villain. If our protagonist is an anti-hero, then the antagonist must be a moral antagonist. If our protagonist is at odds with the world, they must be suffocated by it; and so on and so forth.
But to fully understand character conflict, we need to look at protagonists as well.
Protagonist vs. Antagonist
What is a protagonist and antagonist?
Here’s an example of how conflict is created and resolved with a protagonist and an antagonist.
The protagonist: Character A wants thing X.
The antagonist: Character B wants thing Z.
Things X and Z are opposite each other.
Let’s plug in for those variables, working with The Lion King.
The protagonist: Simba wants justice for his murdered father.
The antagonist: Scar wants absolute power over the pride lands.
Notice how these two things work against each other? This is because the protagonist vs. antagonist struggle is the most common example of character conflict. The moment in which these characters and the things they want clash is called the climax.
What is a Protagonist?
Protagonists and antagonists work against one another in a contentious, yet symbiotic relationship. We’ve gone over the different types of antagonists with examples from film and television, so let’s do the same with protagonists. With examples from Star Wars, Tenet, and more, we break down how protagonists are used in screenwriting so that you’ll be ready to tackle character conflict in your own scripts.