It’s Antagonist April, and all this month, I’ll be doing a deep dive into those characters that give our heroes and main characters opposition to their goals. This week, we’ll explore the characteristics of an antagonist.
There Can Only Be One
A story is filled with many characters and connections, but “the most important is the relationship between the hero and main opponent” (Truby 88). Notice opponent is singular, and that’s essential to remember as you develop this particular character. Even if the antagonist has others assisting them, it’s important to know that one person is the driving force causing all the chaos.
Since “the main opponent is the one person in the world best able to attack the great weakness of the hero,” they may employ a variety of helpers to assist them in their quest for destruction (Truby 89). Even if you have several oppositional figures in the story, you have to know who is in charge and who’s running the show.
Let’s look at two films where who this primary antagonist is can be up for debate.
While we’re made to think that Catwoman or The Penguin are the film’s primary villains, I would argue that Max Shreck is the main antagonist. He “creates” both of Batman’s adversaries – one on accident, one intentionally – all to further his own corruption and political schemes. He even has interactions with Bruce Wayne where it’s clear they are at odds about Shreck’s involvement with The Penguin and his gang.
Since we can’t have three main villains running around, I vote for Max Shreck. Thoughts?
The World is Not Enough
I encountered another intriguing debate on Calvin Dyson’s James Bond channel. In this Bond film, you have two intertwined villains, but which one is in control? Check out the video to see Calvin’s analysis:
I believe Elektra King is the main villain of the film. She may have initially been a victim of Renard’s, but she seems to be calling the shots and out for vengeance against her father, M, and others who get in her way. Elektra uses Renard and his connections as a terrorist to get the resources she needs to complete her plans.
Plus, if the antagonist’s goal is exploiting the hero’s weaknesses, King does an excellent job manipulating Bond and making him believe she is a femme fatale while messing with him throughout the story.
Since “both hero and opponent believe that they have chosen the correct path, and both have reasons for believing so,” having a singular character in opposition is vital for a story to work effectively (Truby 90). Obviously, they can have others working for them, but ultimately the buck stops with them.
Things Aren’t Always Black and White
An antagonist isn’t always bad; likewise, a protagonist isn’t always good. In fact, “most [antagonists] do not think of themselves as villains or enemies” (Vogler 74). The antagonist is the hero of their own story; those who attempt to stop them are in the wrong.
We want the antagonist to “challenge the hero and give [them] a worthy opponent in the struggle,” but if the protagonist’s goals are ill-advised or problematic, does that make the antagonist the good person in the situation (Vogler 72)?
It’s important to note that this binary relationship isn’t predicated on the concept of good vs. evil. Characters can have ambiguity and grey areas that can show a darker side of the protagonist and a lighter side of the antagonist. Neither character should be one-dimensional, which allows you to create an antagonist with “some charming or thoughtful qualities” (Edson 58).
Humanizing the Antagonist?
Should we have sympathy for the opposition? Empathy? Should we be able to relate to their frustrations with the world and why they want to stop the hero? Often these characters are given pretty out-of-touch plans that make it hard for audiences to relate to them. Often, we may be amused by their plots, but ultimately, we know that good will triumph over bad and the world will be righted again.
But what if the antagonist is a father who experienced the loss of one child in his past and is opposed to his daughter going down a similar path? Or is the antagonist a best friend who warns the main character about dating someone they are suspicious of? Both situations can lead to audiences finding sympathy or empathy with the antagonist and wanting them to succeed or be right in their concerns.
Once again, we covered a lot, but there’s more to come! Antagonist April continues on Friday. See you then!
Edson, Eric. The Story Solution. Michael Wiese Productions, 2011.
Truby, John. The Anatomy of Story. Faber and Faber, 2007.
Vogler, Christopher. The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers. Michael Wiese Productions, 1998.