But what separates the believable, complex villains from the cardboard cutout bad guys? Over the next few weeks we’re going to be focusing on the dark side of the story, and looking at what goes into an impactful and believable antagonist. Starting with Part 1, today’s topic: The Three Antagonistic Forces.
Let’s start at the very beginning, then. So what is an antagonist anyway? It comes from the Greek word ‘Antagonizesthai’ which means ‘struggle against’. And that’s interesting, because when we look at the majority of definitions for an antagonist, it’s phrases like “a person who actively opposes or is hostile to someone or something; an adversary.” Can you see that something has been lost in translation between the Greek meaning and the modern English definition? Well, when I say lost, I mean added. The English definition assumes that the antagonist needs to be a person.
It doesn’t have to be. In fact, I think the Biochemistry sub-definition of antagonist is more accurate for our purposes here: that is, an antagonist is ‘a substance which interferes with or inhibits the physiological action of another.’
This is what we mean when we talk about antagonistic forces. Because, as the Greeks said, an antagonist is anything that your protagonist would struggle against. It is the foil to your good guy succeeding in whatever they are trying to do. So now we have this wider scope, we begin to realize that your antagonist doesn’t have to be another person. Forces can work against our heroes from any number of places, however antagonistic forces break down into three broad categories: External forces, Environmental forces, and Internal forces.
External forces are your living, breathing bad-guys: the very real and tangible villains of the piece with whom the protagonist can interact with and have a relationship with. The benefits of an external villain are immediately clear, partly because it’s the most widely used and recognizable antagonistic force we know. Interactions between our good guys and bad guys provide depth to both sides of the argument if done well, and can make our protagonists doubt themselves, feel as though overcoming their external antagonistic force impossible, and they can see themselves reflected in the antagonist’s actions and fear how close they are to becoming the same – all making their triumph more satisfying when it happens.
That being said, external forces don’t always need to be person-shaped. Jaws is perfect example of a non-human antagonist, as well as aliens. This removes the layer of direct communication, making any attempts at reasoning and rationale nearly impossible. This provides a sense of futility and hopelessness to the protagonist’s actions, and works well in horror or thriller genres.
Environmental forces go one step further from animals, because there is absolutely no discourse to be had with the environment. These are things like disaster movies such as Twister, or apocalyptic movies such as Armageddon or The Day After Tomorrow. There is no mercy, rhyme or reason to environmental antagonistic forces. In most cases, the protagonists’ motivation is to simply survive, or to at least take control of what he or she can so that the damage is minimized (for example, Atreyu in the Neverending Story and his struggle against The Nothing). In these cases, you will notice that many stories utilize a ‘secondary’ villain of sorts, who will be a tangible external force that gives the audience a ‘face to hate’ (In Lord of the Rings, as Sauron is physically absent to the point that he can almost be considered an environmental antagonistic force, we have a number of these secondary foils that the protagonists can face off against, such as Gollum).
And lastly, we have Internal forces. This is the trickiest one to pull off as it is by nature difficult to define and manifest on the page or screen, but when it is done well can be the most effective antagonistic force of all. Put simply, it is the protagonist’s own personal antagonist, their nagging doubt that psychologically impedes them from succeeding. That’s why I like the Biochemistry definition of ‘interfering with or inhibiting the physiological action of another’, because it fits the idea of Internal antagonistic force perfectly. In Spiderman 2, who was the real villain? Doctor Octavius? No, he was definitely secondary in that film. The real antagonistic force was Peter Parker’s own self-doubt, his increasing belief that he was no longer worthy or wanting of the Spiderman role. Frodo’s journey to Mount Doom would have felt empty and meaningless if he had never doubted he’d make it or have the strength to let go of the ring.
Protagonist’s fighting their own personal demons can be extremely difficult to pull off, because you will need to have a flawed protagonist in the first place, a chink in the armor which will be exploited. Furthermore, showing the development of this inner conflict can be tricky, so that the development feels natural and smooth up until the crisis point where the protagonist effectively has a showdown with themselves. But if you can pull it off, this creates a dramatic tension that the other two types of antagonist force cannot rival.
Not that you are hemmed in by just one type, mind you. You can one of each in your story. The Matrix, for example, has Agent Smith as an external force, yet he is arguably the face of the environmental force that is the Matrix itself. At the same time you have Neo’s self-doubt that he is the one.
There’s actually a lot of leg room and freedom of interpretation, when you think about the different types of these antagonistic forces. As long as it serves as an obstacle to your protagonist that pushes them outside of their comfort zone and forces them to act in order to succeed, rather than simply coast, then that results in a satisfying and meaningful conflict. But more on that in part Two!