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The Perfect Antagonist

“A protagonist and his story can only be as intellectually fascinating and emotionally compelling as the forces of antagonism make them.” Robert McKee

The antagonist of every story is essential to the progression of the story as well as the development of the protagonist’s character. In some cases the antagonist may even be the more compelling character. Heath Ledger’s joker from “The Dark Knight”, Hannibal Lecter from “Silence of the lambs”, and Johan from “Monster” are examples of perfectly written villains. But what makes a great antagonist great. Is the Joker a great villain because of Heath Ledger’s immaculate portrayal of the character or his insane laugh and unpredictability? Is Hannibal Lecter a great villain just because he’s cunningly intelligent and manipulative? 

So what are the aspects of a great antagonist?

Great villains often parallel the protagonist in many ways which is essential in creating tension and a common ground relationship, communicating that while both may have similar or shared circumstances, but a different outlook. Essentially they are two sides of the same coin. This is specifically important for morally grey villains; it allows their ideology to resonate with the viewer as well as sympathize with them.    

A good antagonist needs to be the dominant force. The stronger the antagonist, the harder the struggle, and the harder the struggle the more compelling the story will be. So what does strength mean here? A great villain is particularly great at nullifying the strengths of the hero as well as exploiting their weaknesses. As is seen in “The Dark Knight”, Batman’s power came from his ability to intimidate from his physical strength, and the Joker delighted in creating situations that nullify Batman’s strength. An example is the interrogation scene in the movie where the Joker just laughs away as he is punched. The Joker did not fear death and in fact wanted Batman to kill him knowing full well of Batman’s one moral code “he does not kill” therefore the greater the chaos and murder the Joker committed the greater he proved how Batman’s moral code was a weakness as the only way to stop him was to kill him. 

                                                (The Dark Knight 2008)

The role of the antagonist is to push the protagonist to their limits; increasingly applying pressure, forcing them to make more and more difficult choices, choices which reveal their true nature. This forces the protagonist to either hold on even tighter to what he or she believes in or to violate their heroic aspect to overcome this foe. This is seen in “Monster”, where Tenma, a surgeon, who believes that all life is worth saving is close to violating his stance on human life and even takes a life during the story which he was incapable of doing before his quest to take down Johan.  Circumstances that Johan pushed him into caused Tenma to decide what he would consider the lesser of two evils. As a man who dedicated his whole life to saving a life he would have to take a life to save even more. It was Tenma who saved Johan and created the “monster” that now pushes him to decide what a true hero is. All those deep aspects of Tenma would not be true without Johan who is required to be the way he is within the story to prompt Tenma’s development as a character contrasting Tenma and forcing him to grow.

                                               (Johan Libert Monster)

A perfectly written antagonist is one that has a profound and specific effect on the story and the protagonist, forcing him to either develop or collapse as a character.


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