Danny Manus, chief story consultant of nobullscript.net discusses creating compelling and interesting protagonists – is creating compelling and interesting antagonists.
Your antagonist needs to be almost as emotionally complex as your hero. Simply wanting to thwart the protagonist isn’t interesting enough.
List 5 important character traits, how those traits are exemplified in your plot, how they are going to change and most importantly – what their backstory and motivations are for doing what they are doing.
Write down 5 moments in your villain’s life that have brought them to the point they are at in beginning of the script – the reasons they are so hell bent on achieving their goal.
If your antagonist does not have an important and relatable motivation for their actions and emotions, they will not be as believable. There should be something so innate – so driving – that no matter how much they are defeated or rejected, your villain should still think they are in the right. In doing so, they engage the audience by creating empathy.
Let’s examine some of the best villains in film history (as voted on AFI) – Hannibal Lecter; Norman Bates; The Wicked Witch; Darth Vader; Glenn Close’s character in Fatal Attraction; Kathy Bates’ Annie Wilkes in Misery; Gordon Gekko in Wall Street; and Jack in The Shining, etc.
Or as they could be categorized – manipulative sadistic cannibal; severe mommy issues with cross-dressing tendencies, ego-maniac seeking revenge for the death of her sister, severe abandonment and identity issues and possible borderline personality disorder, obsessive love addict and stalker with sociopathic tendencies towards small animals, paranoid obsessive bipolar sadomasochistic stalker, greed-obsessed supreme narcissist with fears of being ordinary, paranoid alcoholic with writers block turned cabin fever psychopath.
Are your antagonists that complex? Have you figured out ingenious and strategic ways to bring out their issues in your story?
These are backstories, motivations, psychological profiles and connections for these antagonists who could have otherwise just been random crazy guys who like to kill.
When you write – or rewrite – your script, you do a pass while looking through the eyes of your antagonist. While ROOTING for your bad guy. This is a great exercise for a number of reasons – it will allow you to not only flesh out your antagonist as a character and help track what they are doing in the story to give your hero obstacles, but it will also let you see how what your heroes are doing affects THEM. By looking at your story and structure from the antagonist’s POV, you will see how the story is progressing from their side. It’s a great way to get a different perspective on your action.
Think of it as the VILLAIN’S JOURNEY rather than the HERO’S JOURNEY.
Instead of being the hero on the journey, be your villain waiting for your hero to come. As your hero is losing, don’t forget that your bad guys are winning. You’ll be able to track how your hero’s actions at the turning points, midpoint, and their “all is lost” moment is reflected in the actions and emotions of your villains and what these moments make your bad guy do.
Your midpoint should affect your antagonist’s plans in some way.
And while your antagonist may not have the same type of character ARC as your hero, where they do a 180 reversal and are pro-active in the change, they DO change. By the end of MOST stories, they’ve either been defeated and accept it, they have seen the error of their ways, they are killed or they make a strategic retreat with a greater determination to thwart the hero.
If your story has no human antagonist – like if you’re writing a disaster movie or creature feature where the antagonistic force is a meteor, tidal wave, alien or a three-headed octopus – then you can do two things. Try to give as many human characteristics to your non-human antagonistic force as you can. Make them a bona fide character. Then create a secondary antagonist that IS human to give your heroes a more tangible obstacle and someone to take their anger out on. For instance, the character trying to personally benefit from the disaster rather than helping. Films like Twister, 2012, Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow, etc., all employ secondary human antagonists.
No matter what genre you write, what story you create, what journey your main characters embark on, there is always an obstacle – a force, a villain, a bad guy – trying to stop them. And often times, films become iconic because of these antagonist characters more so than for the heroes. So, if you can create truly compelling, visual, and engaging villains, it will make your story and heroes shine even more.