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 these characters are used in screenwriting, we’re better equipped to handle story conflict in our own scripts. We’ll start with an antagonist definition that may surprise you before highlighting some of the best antagonist examples in recent memory.
Tools For Screenwriters
First, let's define antagonist
An antagonist means trouble for the protagonist (central force) of a story. There are plenty of different ways that screenwriters use these characters to "antagonize" their protagonists.
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.” This doesn't always mean that the antagonist is a villain in the traditional sense, which is a common misconception screenwriters make.
Characteristics of an Antagonist:
- Often villainous
- Juxtaposes protagonist
- Halts the progress of protagonist
Protagonist vs Antagonist
What is an antagonist?
Here’s an example of how narrative conflict is created and resolved between these two characters:
- The protagonist wants X.
- The antagonist wants Z.
- X and Z are opposite one another.
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. You can download and read The Lion King script to see how this dynamic plays out throughout the film.
Types of antagonists: the villain
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 Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz. Everything about her character is supposed to instill within us a sense of villainy.
This next video is a classic scene that shows the downfall of the Wicked Witch of the West.
The Wicked Witch of the West serves as the force that works to stop Dorothy from escaping the land of Oz.
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.
Let’s take a look at a scene from The Fellowship of the Ring to see how Saruman betrays Gandalf and reveals that he’s working to stop Frodo’s journey. We imported the screenplay into StudioBinder's Screenwriting Software to see exactly how this antagonist example was written.
Although we know before this moment that Sauron is a villain, we’re not quite sure what role Saruman plays. But in revealing his villainous plan, we see that Saruman is the most direct obstacle to the Fellowship.
Moral Antagonist Definition
What is an antagonist to an anti-hero?
The moral antagonist is almost always used to oppose an anti-hero. An anti-hero is a character who, like the protagonist, is the central focus of a story, but operates in a criminal or immoral way. Here's a video that explains how aspects of the anti-hero in Nightcrawler are communicated to the audience.
Not every anti-hero has to be as sinister as Nightcrawler’s Lou Bloom though. Frank Abagnale (Leonardo DiCaprio) from Catch Me If You Can is 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 obstacle 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 preventing our hero from achieving his goal.
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 script, the conflict between the two characters comes to a head. NOTE: Hanratty's character name was changed from Joe Shaye in a later draft.
We see that Carl is left with no choice but to place his trust in Frank, which adds lots of nuance to their character dynamic. In the film version, the scene looks a little bit different.
Types of Antagonists
Nature as an antagonist character
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 protagonist's central opposition is an environmental force. This environmental antagonist is rooted in the age-old conflict structure of “man vs. nature.”
This next video shows us how the central power conflict in The Birds is layered with subtext. It also shows us how Hitchcock communicates that conflict in a terrifying way.
In this Hitchcock classic, Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) and the people of Bodega Bay are inexplicably attacked by crazed birds.
What makes this conflict work so well though is how, in many ways, it’s entirely inexplicable. This results in a sense of the supernatural, and activates the mind of the audience to guess as to what the subtext means.
Secondary Antagonist Definition
What are secondary antagonists?
In some films, there’s a primary antagonist, and then several secondary antagonists. A great example of this can be found in Kill Bill, directed by Quentin Tarantino. The primary antagonist in is Bill himself, naturally, but the secondary villains are the members of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad.
In this next scene, we’ll see how Quentin Tarantino writes secondary antagonists into the 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 mini-bosses before getting to the main final boss.
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 Breaking Bad, Hercules, 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.