Screenwriting Good Guys, Bad Guys; Protagonists, Antagonists


Like everything in the universe, characters in screenwriting obey the law of opposites attract, as Paula Abdul once sang.

Screenwriters need polarized characters to create tension, conflict, excitement and interest in their screenplays. It’s also about generating physical energy balance. Energy naturally flows from a higher energy state to a lower one, creating turbulence along the way. Therefore conflict is impermanent. Think of the problem as the higher energy state and the resolution as the lower one. The universe isn’t static. The pendulum always swings. Yin and Yang. There can’t be darkness without light.

New age and physics musings aside, bad guys are often referred to as antagonists or villains in screenplays. They be can rivals, enemies, obstacles, internal blocks, or forces of nature in your movie script.

In pure opposite theory, the villain differs from your protagonist or hero in every way. Superficially, yes, but on a deeper level, no. A mirror reverses all your features , but it is still your face. The attraction is undeniable. Think of them as a bickering couple. If they disagree on everything, there’s no reason for them to be in each other’s lives. Unless they both want the same thing. Now, we’re making progress. If they both want the same things in your film, then they have a point of commonality. Now the hero villain paradigm shifts slightly.

Back to our bickering couple. They love each other enough to stay together and they expend extraordinary levels of energy fighting. The same applies to our heroes and villains. They ultimately have the deepest respect for each other. They have to or our audience will walk. Consider Batman and The Joker. Why? Because they need each other. Why? Because each possesses character traits that are desirable to the other. In essence, they complete each other.

The villain represents the dark side of the hero’s character. The villain forces the hero to face their fears and inadequacies, and subsequently grow according to their character arc. In our Batman example, he represents order, certainty and boredom, while The Joker represents chaos, uncertainty and excitement. Which life would you rather lead?

Ensuring the villain has desirable character traits is vital for them to connect with your audience. Our friend Hannibal Lecter is highly intelliegent, articulate, challenging, thoughtful, charming, handsome (although he should do more ab crunches), gentle…  Sounds like the perfect date, except for his table manners. We empathise with him. Most importantly, Clarice Starling needs him to face her demons, which are elegantly manifested by Mr Lecter.

It’s not enough to base your story on heroes and villains sharing a common goal; to win the trophy. They race, one wins, game over. Boring. Make your opponents worthy of our time and ensure they share the same internal goal with your hero with antithetical action. Since heroes traditionally must endure great suffering, danger and sacrifice after answering their call to adventure, the villain must provide it in abundance. The greater the villain, the more worthy our hero.

Villains need dimension, oftentimes more than your heroes, because they need to work harder to obtain audience interest. They need a philosophy, vision, humanity, a sense of history and a purpose. They can’t just be bad without a compelling reason. They need a perspective.

The typical conflict triangle has the following apexes; the hero, the victim and the villain. In the middle lies the problem or central conflict. Just as the hero needs the villain to grow, so does the villain. What becomes of the villain after the story? Do they learn the error of their ways? Do they collaborate? Or do they go to jail and concoct and even grander scheme to outwit the hero? These outcomes generate stronger movies.

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