Critical Characters – Creating Conflict Between the Protagonist and Antagonist
The two critical characters in a screenplay are the protagonist and the antagonist. The conflict between these two characters will provide the story. Above all, these two individuals should be compelling, with sharp conflict separating them. The more pronounced the differences between these two characters, the easier the story will flow. Take the time to think through what you believe they will look like both internally and externally.
Define the protagonist in a paragraph or more. As already noted, the protagonist is the hero of the story – the reason there is a story. At seven critical points, the protagonist will make a choice – one choice ends things right then and there, and you do not have a complete story; the other moves it to the next chapter. He or she faces a challenge, and the story revolves around how that person will deal with that challenge. As you write about this person, determine his or her conflict and include their backstory and at least four personality traits. Implement at least one of the characteristics in every one of the protagonist’s scenes. The four characteristics are the dominating personality traits, and this is called a character diamond. Having a character diamond for each major character prevents them from running together. Duplicate characters with similar traits reduce the conflict. Characters with opposite traits will rub against each other and create conflict. Conflict is good. Lack of conflict is boring.
The protagonist must have a personality strong enough to push the story continually along. There will be occasions when the antagonist will seem to force the protagonist into making decisions, but it is always the protagonist’s choice. Even a helpless protagonist makes decisions. Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a good example. While events pushed him along, he still had to make critical decisions to move the story forward. As part of the protagonist’s description, show the arc that you expect the character to take. The choices a protagonist makes in the beginning will be different from those he or she makes in the later part of the story. Represent these choices in the critical decision. To do so, make sure you know who the main character is at the start of the story and who he or she will become in the end. These character changes are called the character arc.
The protagonist might be a mousy secretary at the beginning of the story who becomes a valiant crime fighter at the conclusion. A young army officer learns to be a confident leader. A callous schoolteacher grows compassionate towards her students. A self-centered egotist risks his life to save a group of people from evil. Climb inside the protagonist’s head and ask why.
One of the traps many screenwriters repeatedly fall into is creating a protagonist with few or limited flaws to overcome. The writer knows what he wants his protagonist to become and will start the protagonist out that way. However, the weaker or less prepared the protagonist appears at the beginning of the story, the greater his or her arc will be, which can make the story stronger. Consequently, it makes the writing phase easier because a protagonist with large flaws can logically fail or wimp out when things get tough.
As previously noted, there is always one main protagonist – even in a buddy film or a story with an ensemble cast of characters. There is always one standout character the story revolves around. Where circumstances require two characters seemingly working together or a group of people with the same external goal, one must be singled out as the primary character. Even in some ensemble stories where all the characters seem to be on equal standing, there is one who is the catalyst.
An example is in the movie The Breakfast Club. Five students gather for a day of detention. However, it is the “criminal” who provokes the other characters into actions, which they are not inclined to take, and he is the one who makes choices that push the story forward. In Independence Day, an ensemble of people gather together in Area 51 to defeat the alien invaders, but it evolves into a buddy movie as two of the main characters fly a spacecraft into the mothership. Nevertheless, one character – the computer genius – is the one whose choices along the way push the film at every turn to its completion.
Write the same type of definition for the antagonist character. Go into as much detail as you did with the protagonist. Keep in mind that his or her purpose in the story is to prevent the protagonist from accomplishing the protagonist’s goal. In some cases, the antagonist is a force, not a person, but there is always some human or being that gives this antagonistic opposition a face. In the cases where the antagonist is a machine or alien, it is important to assign some human qualities. Otherwise, the audience will not care about the characters and will lose interest in the story as a whole.
The dynamic between the protagonist and antagonist is essential to the conflict and, ultimately, the entire plot. The antagonist must have a goal strong enough to carry the story from start to finish because once the protagonist defeats the antagonist’s goal, the story is over. The rest is just postscript. A good antagonist is the opposite of the protagonist and appears too formidable for the hero to defeat. Describe the antagonist’s goal and the potential consequences if they succeed. These are the stakes if the protagonist fails and the antagonist triumphs. Knowing the goal, the stakes, and the potential consequences will provide the conflict needed to form a good story. A tendency to avoid in screenwriting is to make all of the major characters similar in style, tone, and personalities, which are then expressed in their dialogue, causing them to all sound alike. By describing them by way of the four traits, they can take on different personas and be given a reason to exist in the story.
The next part of the outline is the protagonist’s three goals.
An excellent idea can quickly fade if the writer does not stay on point. The primary reason a film wanders off course is because the protagonist stops pushing the story, or the antagonist is too weak to provide a challenge to the protagonist. There are so many interesting paths a story can take, but if it stops being about the protagonist, then it will eventually fail or fall apart. To keep the protagonist (and the writer) on track, and the story moving toward a conclusion, establish definable goals for the protagonist. Each of these three goals will drive the three acts. The goal changes from act to act as the protagonist makes decisions and begins a journey to arc into the hero who succeeds or fails at the conclusion of the movie. Therefore, the goal in the first act will more than likely be the complete opposite of the third act goal. Likewise, the protagonist’s motivation in the third act may likely be the polar opposite of their motivation in the first act.
By having a strong protagonist and antagonist, you will be well on your way to writing a powerful three-act screenplay. These characters should drive the plot. As such, it is usually best to begin with the characters and let them determine the plot by putting them in a situation that will test their character.