Pop a squat class, ‘cause Professor Xander is about to drop some knowledge!
Welcome back to another dose of edumacationableness. Last week we talked about the protagonist, so it’s only natural that we look at the most important plot device essential to them. What’s that? You already know what an antagonist is? Well aren’t you a puddle of smartness? Why don’t you go leave a comment below describing how smart you are and go get yourself a mani pedi! Mention my blog’s name to the woman doing your nails, and you’ll find yourself paying 20% extra for wasting her time. Anybody left? Alright! Let’s get started.
The villain. The mastermind behind the curtain. The connoisseur of maniacal, evil laughs.
Deriving from the Greek word Antagonistes, the antagonist exists as an oppositional force for the protagonist to overcome. Take note, that I said “force”, not “character”. That’s because the antagonist takes on many forms. It can be A character, like the Evil Queen in Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. She’s the sole antagonist of the film, providing conflict for Snow White. However, it can be a large group of characters as well, like an organization or institution. Antagonists like these are found a lot in action films similar to the Star Wars franchise (the Trade Federation, the Empire, the First Order, etc.). Then there are cases where the antagonist isn’t even a character. In The Day After Tomorrow, the antagonist is a storm threatening the lives of millions.
So there many different types of antagonists, however today we’re going to look at the character based ones. Which leads us into the qualities that make an antagonist.
An Opposing Want/Goal
All characters have some sort of motivation that drives them. Antagonists are unique in that they’ll usually go to much further lengths then the protagonist to get what they want. Take a look at Raiders of the Lost Ark antagonist René Belloq.
Both he and Indiana Jones are seeking the Ark of the Covenant. What proves how much further he’s willing to go is the fact that he sides with Nazis in order to get it.
The most important part of an antagonist’s “want” is for it to conflict with the “want” of the protagonist. Without it, there would be no conflict for the protagonist to overcome and the antagonist wouldn’t be considered an antagonist. Belloq and Jones have the same want, so naturally they’re going to be pitted against each other. Another example is Sid Phillips from Toy Story.
His “want”, to paraphrase the movie, is to “torture toys just for fun.” Woody and Buzz on the other hand just want to escape his house and return to Andy. These wants conflict, and thus Sid becomes the antagonist.
Providing an Intimidating Threat
A good antagonist should be intimidating. Without this, there’s no tension for the audience. No tension means no drama, and no drama means we aren’t getting a compelling story. Let’s take a look back at Sid. We as an audience understand what he’s capable of and how he’s an intimidating threat to Woody and Buzz, because we see every one of his monstrous toy creations and what he does to Hannah’s doll
Now let’s look at a very well known villain, Darth Vader.
Immediately when he first appears, based on his design and voice, Vader comes across as visually intimidating. It’s not until we see that he can choke someone by simply moving his fingers together that we learn he can walk the walk.
Parallels with the Protagonist
This isn’t always the case, but sometimes what makes an interesting antagonist is the fact that they share qualities with the protagonist. It makes the antagonist more relatable but also demonstrates how close the line is between right and wrong. Take a look back at Darth Vader. He starts with parallels to Obi-Wan and Luke because he uses the same weapon and powers as they do. It isn’t until we learn that he was once a Jedi as well, that his parallels become clearer. How can someone from such a prestigious peacekeeping organization turn to the path of evil? Well…it was interesting…but then we saw the prequels…MOVING ON!
A better, more recent example is Adrian Toomes (The Vulture) from Spider-Man Homecoming.
What makes this character unique is that he’s not the head of some sort of corporate organization, ancient magical alien-god, or some purple guy who sits in a giant chair all day hunting colorful rocks. He is an average guy who becomes a villain, a backstory that is shared with Peter Parker, an average guy who becomes a hero. Without giving too much away, the two characters have the intention of supporting the people they care about. They mirror each other, which makes their altercations all the more engaging to watch.
When it comes to the final key component, antagonists are deemed antagonists because of how they’re perceived. A majority of the time, antagonists don’t view themselves as villains. Their moral code makes them believe what they’re doing is right. Adrian steals and sells weapons from the organization that wronged his coworkers in order to support his family. Vader joined forces with the emperor so he could save his wife from dying. Sid is a young kid who likes to take apart his toys to make new ones.
All of these reasonings make these characters sound like normal people. So why are they deemed villains? Because we’re not following their stories. Every one of these antagonists is someone we follow through the perspective of the protagonist. If we took each of their films and allowed the story to be shown from their perspective, then they would be the protagonists. It’s strange to think that with just a change of perspective, Spider-Man, Luke Skywalker, and Woody and Buzz would be considered antagonists.
While I may have joked earlier how antagonists were villains with evil laughs, that isn’t always the case. All villains are antagonists, but not all antagonists are villains. They don’t have to be evil. So long as they can challenge a protagonist to rise above and fight for what they want, then the antagonist’s job is done.
But hey, what do I know? I’m just some guy on the Internet.
So what do you all think? Who are some of your favorite antagonists? Who are the worst antagonists? Leave a comment and get this conversation rolling. Until next time, this is Professor Xander signing off.