We go to the movies and turn on the tv to root for our heroes, but the best movies and television have an antagonist that keeps you on the edge of your seat.
Great stories are built around great obstacles. If things are going smoothly for your characters then nobody will be sucked in. The antagonist is the source of conflict. Conflict creates drama. While we've covered internal and external conflict writing in this helpful primer, we haven't talked about how you manifest conflict specifically in your story.
Learning to write GREAT antagonists is how you can make your story a page-turner.
We all know antagonists as the villains in movies, but can you clearly define what’s an antagonist? Because that's the first step towards writing a truly great one.
Today we’re going to go over the antagonist definition, we'll learn about some antagonist examples, and get to the heart of the true antagonist meaning.
So throw on your black hat, whip out your maniacal laugh, and clench your fingers tight.
Let’s dissect some antagonists.
What Is An Antagonist?
It’s easy to think of antagonists are just the “bad guy” in lots of movies, but really what they’re there to do is apply pressure to the protagonists. Antagonists are an opposing force.
They’re not just the famous female villains and famous male villains, they’re usually the whole reason the story happens.
And sometimes they even win!
Let’s take a look at the etymology of the word before we get to their uses in a story.
The word antagonist comes from the Greek word, “antagonistes.” That roughly translates into “opponent, competitor, villain, enemy, rival.”
Consider how those words aren't all unfriendly. A competitor or rival can simply push you to be better than you are.
For the most part, the antagonist is the person or obstacle standing in the way of the protagonist.
Who Is the Antagonist?
So if you’re trying to fill in who’s the antagonist, first decide some things about the world, and then you'll know who naturally fits within it.
Does the antagonist have to be a person?
Look at projects like The Perfect Storm, The Last Man On Earth, and Castaway.
When you’re doing a screenplay that’s man v. nature when it comes to forms of internal and external conflict, your antagonist is nature. In a movie like The Revenant, your antagonist can be both man and nature.
Still, most projects we write have human antagonists or human-ish. Like aliens, anthropomorphic monsters, and/or toys that come alive.
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Let’s check out some antagonist examples in movies to set your script up for success.
Antagonist Examples In Movies
A prototypical movie antagonist is "the big bad", a famous female villain or male villain whose goal lines up in direct contrast to the hero’s goal.
That’s easy to define in comic book movies like Captain America: First Avenger. The antagonist in that movie is the Red Skull, and his Nazi horde.
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Of course, in a lot of adventure and action movies, the antagonist is clearly defined. You get your Hans Gruber, Thanos, and Joker.
But antagonists aren’t always as easy to define.
What about a movie like Good Will Hunting?
Aside from having such a random pun title, this movie is a straightforward drama. It’s about a genius trying to decide whether or not he should leave his friends behind while dealing with an entire life of trauma.
So who’s the villain here?
You could argue that both Sean and Lambeau have villainous tendencies. With Lambeau more focused on what Will can do for him.
Still, the antagonist in this movie might actually be what Will carries inside himself.
Once Will can forgive himself for his childhood traumas, and learn that it’s not his fault bad things happen, he’s able to accept the good things happening in his life.
Remember antagonists don’t have to be mustache-twirling jerks. Sometimes it’s better to figure out the deeper antagonistic obstacle for your characters.
What are some of your favorite movie villains of all time? Let me know in the comments.
Movies are great, but in television, you need antagonists for the week, the season, and the series.
Let’s look at a few antagonist examples in television.
Antagonist Examples in Television
Television is a behemoth when it comes to antagonist examples. Television series are either procedural or episodic. Procedural shows have a similar plot every week, so if you're a show like SVU or Criminal Minds, you might have an antagonist of the week.
While a show like Bob’s Burgers also has a funny situation of the week, it also employs an ongoing antagonist in Jimmy Pesto, Bob’s rival.
Episodic shows, like Breaking Bad, usually have an on-going villain or antagonist. In Breaking Bad, there’s a duality to it.
Walter White’s ongoing antagonist is money and family problems, while Heisenberg’s antagonists are the DEA, Gus, the Mexican Cartels, and eventually White Supremacists.
And isn't Walt a kind of antagonist in his own right? In terms of his relationship to some of the other characters in the story?
Breaking Bad did a great job of having both a seasonal villain and perennial ones, like the Gretchen and Elliot.
Still, limited series like True Detective are built around one antagonist.
Sure, there are antagonistic elements, but they’re always on the hunt for the big bad antagonist.
What are some of your favorite antagonist examples in television history? Let me know in the comments!
Summing Up What Is An Antagonist
Now that you know how to craft the proper antagonist, flip back and check out our post on protagonists that pop off the page.
We’re also conducting a ten-week free screenwriting seminar. Join in and get your antagonists on the page!
Regardless, I hope you’ve come to understand how to write a great antagonist through our antagonist examples.
I can’t wait to see what you put on the page!