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Writing Antagonists in Your Screenplay: Things to Keep in Mind

As great and beloved protagonists are, they’re nothing without the antagonist opposite them. Whether it’s a significant antagonist like the Joker in the Batman franchise or a brief antagonist like the bullies or Wesley in Forrest Gump, all of these characters play a crucial role in the overall flow and success of a story.


Still, as monumental as antagonists are in a script, it can seem extremely challenging where to begin, and more importantly, how to perfect your antagonists in a script. Plus, the phrase antagonist can represent a more traditional sense like a villain, or an internal antagonist such as Ruben’s loss of hearing in The Sound of Metal.


However, down below, we’re going to discuss antagonists in the more traditional sense regarding characters who are antagonists. Keep in mind, these tips aren’t the only ones you should be mindful of, but they’ll help you develop the best antagonists you can for your screenplay. Let’s take a look!

Still from 'Back to the Future'. Photo credit: Slash Film


They’re Not Bad Simply for Being Bad


Oftentimes, when people think of a bad character, they tend to have a hard time understanding why they are the way they are. Every great script will have some sort of backstory, dialogue, or reference that’ll give a brief insight into how a character is the way they are, good or bad.


For example, in Todd Phillips Joker, we see the change and shift in Arthur until he fully develops into the iconic supervillain we know as the Joker. Arthur didn’t randomly wake up one day and be the Joker for no reason, there was a slow-demise in his development into the role. Obviously, you don’t the same amount of detail for your script, but make sure the audience knows why they’re doing the things they’re doing.


Why Are They the Way They Are?


Besides having the explanation regarding why they’re the antagonist, go another layer deeper and highlight why they are the way they are. Whether it’s with the way they communicate, who they attack, or anything with their character, ask yourself why they do something.


You don’t necessarily need to give an explanation to everything that might be asked with your antagonist, but doing it for yourself can give you a more robust script. Plus, having the information jotted may help you lead some additional scenes or information you might’ve not thought of before.


Make Their Backstory Believable and Understandable


Great stories and scripts tend to have characters who are extraordinarily believable and relatable, no matter how crazy of a story it is. Even if your script is about a science fiction tale with aliens, have your main antagonist have a backstory that’s believable and understandable from an audience standpoint.


The traditional makings of a villain may seem a bit cliche, but they’re overly used for a reason. Take a step back, see what can make your antagonist unique in their own right and how it can progress the story in a beneficial way. Still, don’t get too crazy with the backstory as it can be boring.


Make it Hard Your Protagonist to Overcome Your Antagonist


A great antagonist will make it increasingly difficult for your protagonist to achieve whatever goal they’re set after. Obviously, the range of antagonists can be anything from a superhero flick, to something more realistic like a bully in high school.


Either way, you don’t want your protagonist to easily overcome the antagonist, and it should vary a bit in how they’ll eventually accomplish their goal or not. Whatever route you end up going with, make it challenging in either scenario.


How is Their Presence and Style?


Going back to the ultimate villain in the Joker, it’s easy for any person to hear one of his iconic lines and immediately highlight him as the joker. Now, you don’t have to have specific lines that represent your antagonist in this iconic way, but take the time necessary to make sure their presence and style are singular.


A good rule of thumb is to make sure that people can tell who your antagonist is just by reading their lines with their name above them. If you can manage to capture the walk they talk in a unique way, such as Biff from Back to the Future or something more severe like Daniel Plainview (at the end) of There Will Be Blood, it’ll work out well for you.


Your Antagonist Should Affect the Story Around Them


People tend to have a hard time understanding the role of an antagonist. The antagonist isn’t solely there to be evil, but is there to prevent your protagonist from achieving their goal, as well as affecting the story significantly around them.


For example, when Darth Vader slices off Luke Skywalkers hand in The Empire Strikes Back, it not only set Luke far away from achieving his goal, but it affected the rest of the Star Wars series as Luke no longer had a hand.

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