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Must-have Traits For A Compelling Antagonist
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What is a story? At its simplest a story is about a person (or occasionally an animal) who wants to achieve something - that's the protagonist. Standing between the protagonist and their goal is the antagonist.
The simple truth is that every great script has a great antagonist, a powerful force that is preventing the protagonist from reaching their goal.
This antagonist is typically a character, although there are occasional stories where it can be something greater, like a force of nature - example include 2012, The Day After Tomorrow, or Dante's Peak.
In other films it is not so much a character as a chain of events set in motion that conspires against the hero - Thelma and Louise is a good example of this.
However, in most scripts the antagonist is a separate character, and that means that you, as the writer, have to make key decisions in order to get this character right. In order to maximize the impact of the antagonist on the screenplay there are certain key traits that they must display.
Your script will only be as weak or strong as your main characters, so your antagonist must be as strong as possible. With a strong antagonist comes a real feeling that the protagonist won't reach their goal - that's important because it engages your audience, draws them in so that their hopes and fears rise and fall with the fortunes of the protagonist.
Whether you call them - bad guys, villains, or antagonists - there are three key traits that you can use to ensure that they are strong:
They Must Be Hated: Really good movie villains are the meanest, cruelest characters you can imagine - the more despicable they are, the more the audience will want them to be defeated, and the stronger will be their engagement with your story. As much as we want the protagonist to succeed, we must also want the antagonist to fail.
Anton Chigurh in No Country For Old Men is a great example. He is a totally ruthless killer who flips a coin to decide people's fate and kills his victims with a cow gun. Because he is so hateful, we want Llewelyn Moss or Tom Bell to kill him.
They Must Be Strong: A big reason that we root for the hero is because they seem so likely to fail - we love to support the underdog. Even if they are powerful in and of themselves - like James Bond or Indiana Jones - they are always up against odds that seem overwhelming.
Thus in Star Wars, we have an antagonist - Darth Vader - who seems almost invincible. As the audience we are constantly wondering how on earth Luke can ever defeat him. Similarly, in The Matrix, Agent Smith seems too strong for Neo. We are therefore drawn into the story, wondering how he can ever survive against him.
The Antagonist Must Be The Opposite Of The Protagonist: This is sometimes portrayed visually - good cowboys in white, bad cowboys in black - but it must also must be presented in terms of their personalities, their ideology. Luke and Darth Vader are an obvious example, but you could also look to a film like Inception - Cobb is determined to escape the dream world, certain that he knows which is dream and which is reality. Mel is determined to keep him in the dream world, convinced that the world they have created is the real one. Opposite philosophies, opposite actions - result? Guaranteed conflict.
By building an antagonist who is Hated, Strong, and The Opposite of your hero, you will create a screenplay that people will relate to and enjoy.
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