Friday, February 5, 2010


(SPOILERS: Silence of the Lambs, Hellboy, a few other very minor spoilers)

All stories have an antagonist. Sometimes the antagonist is actually the protagonist (man vs. himself) and sometimes it’s a situation (man vs. nature). But most commonly the antagonist is another character (man vs. man). Today I’d like to discuss building this last kind of antagonist.

In many types of stories we refer to the antagonist as the villain. But it’s important to remember that nobody thinks of themselves as a villain. Everybody is the hero of their own lives. Hitler didn’t think he was evil, he thought he was saving Germany.

You should strive to give your villains heroic motivations at least in their own minds. My two pet peeve motivations are the villain who’s doing evil things because, “he’s CRAZY!” and the villain who’s doing evil things because he’s a Nazi and, y’know, Nazis are evil. (You could put Satanist in there as well, I suppose.)

Let me give you an example: Hellboy (screen story by Peter Briggs and Guillermo del Toro, screenplay by Guillermo del Toro). In this movie the villains were trying to open up a portal that would destroy the universe. Why were they doing that? Well, they were Nazis and Nazis are, y’know, evil. But it didn’t really make sense. Nazis live in our universe. Why exactly would they want to destroy it? It kind of ruined an otherwise pretty decent movie for me.

The Nazis are also the villains in Raiders of the Lost Ark (story by George Lucas and Philip Kaufman, screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan), but in that case their motivation is understandable. They are at war. Finding the Ark can help them win the war. Even Belloq, the Frenchman, has understandable motivations. He wants to help the Nazis find the Ark because he sees it as an opportunity to make his place in history. None of them think of themselves as evil.

Think of the villain Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs (screenplay by Ted Tally). Bill is sexually confused. He wants to transform himself into a woman so he’s making a “suit” out of human skin. That’s certainly crazy but it’s grounded in a kind of twisted logic that grows out of the character’s twisted perspective.

Your villains should do evil things for the same reason people do evil things in real life. Often they'll justify those actions – remember the famous “greed is good” speech in Wall Street (written by Stanley Weiser and Oliver Stone)? This justification can come in a world view that simply incorporates a different moral code than are own.

Other times antagonists may do things they know are wrong because they’re overcome with greed or lust. But usually in those cases they’ll feel guilty afterwards. Certainly all of us can relate to doing something we’re not proud of in a moment of weakness.

But what about those antagonists who aren’t evil at all? There’s a technique for these situations known as “mutually exclusive goals.” That’s when two characters each have goals that can’t both be achieved. A common example is romantic triangles. Two guys are in love with the same girl…both of them can’t end up with her. Neither character has to be evil for them to be in conflict.

Often you’ll see love triangles in romantic comedies where you have a good guy and a bad guy who are both after a girl. The idea is that the audience will root for the good guy. The trouble with this approach is the girl starts to look like an idiot if she’s attracted to the bad guy. And if we don’t like the girl we won’t be rooting very hard for the good guy to get her. The solution is usually to have the bad guy cheating on her – but she doesn’t know. Unfortunately that’s kind of become a cliché.

In Sweet Home Alabama we took the mutually exclusive goals approach. We created two guys who are very different but they’re both still good guys. Our heroine has to decide which one is right for her. (In this case neither guy is really the antagonist; the antagonist is Melanie herself.) I think that makes the emotional arc of the story more sophisticated than the movies where we’re just waiting around for the heroine to discover her boyfriend is cheating on her.

One more thing to keep in mind when creating an antagonist: we measure the hero by the strength of the villain. This is particularly important in action movies and thrillers. James Bond wouldn’t seem so super cool if he was fighting a ragged third world street gang armed with rocks and sticks. And look how much more powerful Spider-man seems when he beats Doc Oc versus when he captures some petty mugger.

The place where writers often get into trouble with weak villains is action comedies. Beware the bumbling villain! You might get some good gags out of it, but if your villain could barely outsmart a five-year-old, your super spy is never going to seem like he’s in jeopardy. (The one place the bumbling villain worked was in Home Alone (written by John Hughes) but that’s because the hero WAS a five year-old.)

So spend some time developing your antagonist. They should be as rich and complex as your hero. And if done well they can also be a lot of fun!

(For more on the antagonist as it functions in the mythology structure, read about “the shadow” in this post.)

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