Monday, October 4, 2010

What does your antagonist want?

Opposites may attract, but in good storytelling they repel.

However, a well-rounded antagonist does not simply seek to quash every forward movement of your protagonist. In fact, from your antagonist's point of view, if she is written well, she will consider herself the hero of the story. That's because to her, she is the hero of her particular tale.

As I sit and watch the New England Patriots take on the Miami Dolphins in Monday Night Football, I'm reminded of the best example of equal and opposite forces, trying like heck to get what they want: to win the game. From the Pat's point of view, they deserve to win; yet Miami feels they deserve to win. But there can only be one winner. And do we viewers care? Judging from the cheers and jeers from the fans, I'd say we're vested in the outcome of this particular tale.

So not only must you make sure your audience empathizes with your protagonist, but you must give your antagonist more than just a two-dimensional personality, so that even if for only a moment, we can see from the antagonist's point of view. We may not agree with your antagonist, but perhaps we can comprehend his actions and his do-or-die goal.

Storytelling is about keeping us absorbed in your tale. Developing good, well-rounded characters is a sure bet that we'll care...and we might even stay with your story till the final FADE OUT.


  1. I really like this post. I completely agree about your point with the antagonist. Some of my favorite films have a complex antagonist, but I can almost always understand his/her's point of view. The Patriots example was a nice touch!

  2. There are so many movies that suffer from an underdeveloped antagonist...yet so many that thrive with a wonderfully developed one that no one seems to notice. Maybe thats the point, not noticing and just enjoying? A great example is The Dark Knight. The Joker, as well as Harvey Dent's goal, are very clearly defined and heighten the time pressure.

    I think a movie that fails at this would be the third Spiderman movie. It's hard to take the villains seriously at all in that sequel....actually that whole movie was pretty bad

  3. This post it so right! The best story contains an antagonist and protagonist that both have do-or-die goals; where the antagonist truly is a hero in his/her own heart. This makes the clash between the two characters all the more compelling. Oddly enough, reading this post made me think of the chick-flick The Devil Wears Prada. The antagonist, Meryl Streep's character, has an amazing scene where she breaks down the barriers of her character and opens up about the divorce she is going through to the protagonist Anne Hathaway. She reveals what created her "hard exterior" and even causes the viewer to empathize with her. Well anyways, it thickens the plot and makes a great story.

  4. A one dimensional, mustache twirling generic bad guy can be one of the worst cliches to fall into. If the antagonist doesn't have any personality outside of being evil, it's hard to think of them as a real character. They just become an obstacle, and heroes exist to defeat obstacles. It's boring to see, and we know that the good guy will win. Once a villain gets a personality and motivations, they become more real, and as a result more threatening.

  5. This is a really good tip. Personally I get excited when as a viewer im allowed a glimpse into the mind of the antagonist. I find it especially interesting when they are portrayed in a way most people can really identify with. Although this may make the viewer feel a little unsure and even torn between the "hero" and "villian" of the story, it adds a certain kind of depth to the characters/story.

  6. I hate cliched villains more than anything. Antagonists that really get me paying attention are those who are just as well-developed as the main character.
    For example, in the Phantom of the Opera, the Phantom is your antagonist (well, depending on your point of view.) But he has believable reasons as to why he's the way he is. And when it comes down to it, he's really just lonely. He's an example of a villain that is better developed than the main characters, actually.

  7. I enjoy any movie where I am able to clearly understand the antagonist's point of view, especially when I can root for him/her. I watched a movie recently concerning religious extremists and some of their despicable acts against humanity. You would think that no person could justify any of the those actions, yet by clearly depicting the antagonist's point of view, I could not argue that I would have done anything different had I shared any of those same beliefs. The power of Storytelling!!