Table of Contents
- What is an Antagonist?
- 15 Fantastic Antagonist Examples
- Antagonist Example 1: Tracy Flick
- 2: Erik Killmonger
- 3: Terence Fletcher
- 4: John Fitzgerald + Nature
- 5: King George VI’s Stammer
- 6: Travis Bickle + Society
- 7: The Joker
- 8: Violence + Anton Chigurh
- 9: Reality TV + Christof
- 10: Tyler Durden
- 11: Infertility (Dystopia)
- 12: The Shark
- 13: Ava + Nathan
- 14: Colonel Hans Landa
- 15: Nurse Ratched + The System
What is an Antagonist?
They are the character that keeps pushing the protagonist, maintaining both external and internal conflict throughout the script for that protagonist.
Definition of antagonist: one that contends with or opposes another: adversary
In screenwriting the antagonist is a crucial part of narrative development as well as character development for the protagonist.
The antagonist is the resistance for that protagonist, stopping them from having an easy journey to their goal.
Classic antagonists in literature are characters such as:
However, we’re going to be looking at antagonist examples that might not be obvious on first glance or take a fresh look at those that are.
They are antagonists, none the less, who challenge the protagonist in ways equal to the aforementioned classic characters.
Furthermore, do antagonists have to always come in human form? Absolutely not, an antagonist might be anything that pushes back against the protagonist’s goal.
Learning how to create a great antagonist is a crucial part of how to write a script. The following antagonist examples help illustrate the very best of what an antagonist is and does.
15 Fantastic Antagonist Examples
Antagonist Example 1: Tracy Flick
In Alexander Payne’s 1999 film ELECTION, Tracy Flick is the precocious high school student who frustrates high school teacher, Jim McAllister.
- She starts out as a student that Jim McAllister finds mildly annoying. But she ends up the cause of the down-spiralling of his life.
- Jim goes from being one of the most beloved teachers in the school to a social outcast, losing his job, marriage and friends.
- When Tracy runs for study body president Jim can’t stand her entitlement and seeks to sabotage her campaign.
- When he’s caught doing so, the chips fall on Tracy’s side. Jim is ostracised and fired from his job. Tracy meanwhile, only goes up and up in the world.
Jim starts out as a character that seems pretty contented. Tracy serves the purpose of unravelling his insecurities. Insecurities which end up defining and destroying him. Tracy comes to represent everything that Jim feels he is not.
It’s not Tracy’s fault directly that Jim’s life goes so bad. Jim is technically in the wrong for his own actions.
However, it’s in the way Tracy serves as a mirror for Jim’s deep underlying issues that she serves as a brilliant antagonist.
2: Erik Killmonger
Erik Killmonger, from BLACK PANTHER, is a great modern villain. The character infiltrates the secretive world of Wakanda and seeks to usurp the story’s hero, T’Challa (AKA Black Panther).
Erik Killmonger is in many ways an ode to a classic villain. He’s smart, ruthless and can only be defeated in the end by the very character that he works in opposition to. He also has a past, familial connection to the protagonist – another classic trope of a villain (Darth Vader, for example).
However, Killmonger’s motives ultimately provoke more complicated feelings than just pure dislike from the audience.
His anger with Wakanda stems from the way in which they have protected themselves throughout history and not helped those of African descent struggling in the outside world.
Ultimately, T’Challa learns from Killmonger. After necessarily defeating him T’Challa imparts what Killmonger has taught him.
The conclusion shows T’Challa pledging to fight for those that Killmonger had wanted to stand up for. He becomes an antagonist vital to the protagonist‘s own journey of self-discovery.
3: Terence Fletcher
In the 2014 film WHIPLASH, the protagonist is a talented and ambitious first-year jazz drummer Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller). The antagonist – the terrifying conductor and teacher Terence Fletcher (JK Simmons).
Andrew’s world so far has been one of positive reinforcement supporting his rising talent. He excels at playing the drums and has just gotten into a prestigious music school.
Terence Fletcher destroys all that. He invites Andrew into his Studio Band and catapults him into a world in which every single movement is scrutinised and nothing is ever good enough. This is exemplified in the famous ‘not quite my tempo‘ scene.
It’s not just that Terrence is a tough teacher. He seems to be the devil personified. He chews up and spits out Andrew like a dog would with meat. Terrence is the worst bully imaginable, all in the quest of creating musical perfection.
Andrew goes from being ambitious and excited about his future to that ambition defining every element of his life. It eats up all of his personal life and takes him to the brink of a breakdown.
Terence Fletcher is a great, captivating modern villain and antagonist example. His actions are at once horrific to witness and hard to take your eye off.
4: John Fitzgerald + Nature
John Fitzgerald is the character played by Tom Hardy in THE REVENANT. He’s the antagonist for the film’s protagonist, Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio).
John is part of Hugh Glass’s group of trappers making their way across the treacherous winter landscape. Their relationship is portrayed as contrarian from the start. But it’s as soon as Glass shows weakness that John seeks to cut him off from the rest of the group.
After Glass is nearly killed by a bear, John argues that he needs to be killed and left behind in order that the group can progress on their journey.
Throughout the film, John looks to remove Glass in various different ways. This ranges from attempting to leave him behind to his attempted murder.
Glass keeps battling against him right up until the film’s epic finale when the two of them square off dramatically.
However, John Fitzgerald isn’t the only antagonist for Hugh Glass.
If Hugh Glass’s goal as the protagonist is survival, then John stands in the way of this goal but so do the natural elements.
From being nearly killed by a bear to almost freezing to death in sub-zero temperatures, Hugh Glass continues to battle the natural elements of the terrain.
This is a great example of a non-human antagonist combining with a human antagonist to make an insufferable assault course for the protagonist to get through.
A film doesn’t have to have a single antagonist and THE REVENANT is a good example of how multiple antagonists in different forms can be effective.
5: King George VI’s Stammer
A script doesn’t always necessarily have to have an antagonist in strict terms.
However, a script does have to have some kind of obstacle for the protagonist to overcome. Without it, conflict is likely to be absent and conflict is a key part of what makes drama.
In THE KING’S SPEECH, the speech stammer that King George VI seeks to overcome serves both as an unconventional and deeply traditional antagonist.
Unconventional in the sense that it is not a person. Traditional in the sense that it provides a very clear obstacle for the protagonist to overcome.
The King (played by Colin Firth) is helped by a speech therapist, Lionel Logue (played by Geoffrey Rush), to try and overcome his stammer.
This further provides a traditional narrative arc for the story:
- Two characters (one protagonist and one supporting character)
- together embark on overcoming an obstacle (stammer)
- in order to achieve a goal/want/need (clearer speech/confidence inability to be King).
It is in part the simplicity and complexity of the antagonist that makes the film satisfying and rewarding for so many audiences.
It’s simple as it is clearly identifiable but complex as it takes significant probing into George’s character and backstory to find out why the stammer exists in the first place.
It may not to be personified but the stammer proves to be an elusive and effective antagonist to overcome. This proves the many different but equally effective forms an antagonist can take.
6: Travis Bickle + Society
In this spin on the more traditional approach, the audience is right there with one of cinema’s most iconic anti-heroes.
He’s the protagonist in the film only in as much as he’s the focal point. Otherwise, his actions are completely immoral but make logical sense in terms of the psyche of the character.
The audience can see that Bickle identifies what he perceives as dysfunctional elements of society as his obstacle, his antagonist. Blind to his derangement, the progressively more violent methods he adopts to right these wrongs seem natural to him, but shocking to anyone else.
The film also typifies the character study approach to screenwriting as the understanding of Bickle’s personality is gained through its peculiarities and foibles. And one of the most unsettling aspects of the film is that the audience never leaves his perspective.
The sympathy felt for Bickle is a conflicted one as he’s undoubtedly a product of a society that has failed him. However, no one would condone the vigilante justice he later enacts.
The ending of the film perfectly encapsulates the uneasy relationship between protagonist and antagonist. Bickle is deemed a hero by the press after freeing Iris from her pimp. Is this real or Bickle’s fantasy? And which would we be more comfortable with?
7: The Joker
No list of formidable foes would be complete without the Joker. The comic book villain has seen many cinematic iterations. But it’s Heath Ledger’s performance in the DARK KNIGHT that serves up a particularly great antagonist example.
In the film, Batman’s greatest strengths (his skills and ability to intimidate) are rendered useless as the Joker isn’t fazed by these displays of power. The Joker seems unafraid in the face of death.
And so, Batman must reassess himself and take a different approach. The antagonist in the film is forcing a change in the protagonist.
Moreover, The Joker is thematically antithetical. He represents chaos while Batman fights for order and justice. The stakes are clear.
The Joker can probe at the morality of the hero, as the more death and chaos he brings, the more he reveals Batman’s morality (his refusal to kill) to be a weakness.
He forces Batman to make difficult decisions under pressure. In doing so he reveals the heroes true nature. His choice to save Rachel at the end of the film reveals the limit to his resolve, the things he can’t sacrifice for the greater good of Gotham.
Despite being caught at the end the Joker can be said to have bested Batman throughout the film. Especially with Harvey Dent’s transformation into Two-Face. The Joker has corrupted even the best of men in Gotham.
8: Violence + Anton Chigurh
Anton Chigurh is the wanton and unfathomable violence that Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (played by Tommy Lee Jones) feels outmatched by. This provides the thematic crux of the film. He’s a representation of the rising violence the sheriff feels is beginning to define Texas.
Anton Chigurh isn’t imbued with any personality other than a psychopathic streak for clinical but brutal violence. He permits himself this as he attempts to retrieve a stolen briefcase for his employer.
His execution of anyone who stands in his way helps to suggest a long history of taking life. No backstory is given or needed, our antagonist is simply steeped in violence.
And his use of a coin to determine the fate of his victims seems to highlight his occasional willingness to give into chance and absolve himself of any ethical responsibility. He is the arbiter of death who never fails to deliver.
As the film progresses, there is a sense of inevitability that where ever Chigurh stalks violence will follow, which significantly raises the tension. It is this violence that eventually leads the sheriff to question his role as a law-enforcer in a state that he feels is growing increasingly chaotic and unrecognisable.
Despite being told that the region’s always been violent, Ed Tom Bell eventually retires after despairing at the violence that Chigurh perpetrates and symbolises generally. This is a fantastic antagonist example that shows how an antagonist can be the thematic core of the film.
9: Reality TV + Christof
Peter Weir’s THE TRUMAN SHOW sees Truman Burbank (Jim Carey) initially fighting against his reality.
The paranoia Truman feels in the uncanny world of Seahaven defines much of the film. He slowly begins to realise he’s been living inside a reality TV show all his life.
And while the show is ultimately directed by the man behind the moon, everyone has contributed to maintaining the illusion Truman was born into.
To take the definition of the antagonist as an obstacle, the film can be broken up into two halves. The first half of the film is where much of the unease comes from as Truman begins to suspect that the people closest to him may be keeping something from him.
It is not so much Truman going head-to-head with an individual but rather an entire organisation that has manufactured his reality. Like a detective, he must piece these clues together.
Once Truman has been able to peek behind the curtain and realises that his wife, mother, and best friend have all been part of the scheme, along with a complicit worldwide TV audience, the intention and obstacle quickly shift.
The intention becomes to escape the town, and the obstacle is Christof, who believes the world he’s created is better than the real one. And as the producers assist him to become more and more sympathetic towards Truman’s plight, Christof has to rule the studio with an iron fist to prevent any dissent.
It’s a wonderful antagonist example in that it shows how the form of an antagonist can be stretched as far as reality itself before crumbling into a single man.
10: Tyler Durden
One of the most renowned examples of dissociative identity disorder in cinema can be found in David Fincher’s cult-classic FIGHT CLUB. Here the antagonist, Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), is inextricable from the protagonist, The Narrator (Edward Norton).
The struggle is a unique internal conflict born from the protagonist‘s disillusion with consumer culture. And it’s from this place that his alter-ego, Tyler Durden is conceived.
In many ways the traditional identifying factors that an audience experience with regards to the protagonist and antagonist are blurred. Tyler is, at least initially, the more charismatic, free-thinking character whose iconoclastic tendencies make him a personified wish fulfilment for the protagonist.
The Narrator is taken in by this and has an unusually amicable relationship with the character. This lasts until about the third act of the film. Before this, the two of them have seemingly been fighting against the same societal ills they’ve both identified.
It’s here we see the moral thesis of the film begin to emerge as the dangerous actions of Tyler and his anarchist group begin to spiral chaotically out of control. And again we see a shift in obstacle from society itself, to Tyler Durden, and finally the protagonist himself.
FIGHT CLUB offers up a brilliant example of how the inner-conflict within a single character can be explored through the dynamic between protagonist and antagonist.
11: Infertility (Dystopia)
Dystopian fiction often has a particular relationship to the idea of the antagonist, one that stresses the adversity found in the world itself.
In Alfonso Cuarón’s 2007 film CHILDREN OF MEN, it is the adversity of the progressive decline of the human race owing to a global infertility pandemic. Some of the people within the world, including the protagonist, Theo Faron (Clive Owen) embody a sense of apathy and pessimism.
The world weighs on the characters shaping their current attitudes and forces them to take extreme measures just to survive. This is also a great way to showcase character arcs. As the story progresses the aforementioned apathy and hopelessness gradually evolves into finding meaning in hope.
The Fishes leader Luke is the closest thing the film has to a human antagonist. Whilst he opposes Theo, he only does so in the hope that he can better the lives of the immigrant population and bring about a revolution. Not an unsympathetic cause. It’s only that to fulfil these plans he commits murder along the way.
There’s undoubtedly a sense that runs through CHILDREN OF MEN, and other pieces of dystopian fiction, that the state of the world is the true antagonist. It has the capability of boiling characters down to reveal their true nature. And throughout the narrative, it acts as a catalyst for change.
12: The Shark
Possibly the most infamous cinematic antagonist example comes in the form of the great white shark from JAWS.
The film perhaps offers a definitive model for all future monster films and how to go about shaping an apex predator as the antagonist of a film. Namely, an inhuman killer who during the beginning of the film seems like an almost insurmountable adversary. Insurmountable particularly for the protagonist, Martin Brody, who’s utterly out of his depth when he attempts to close Amity Island’s beach.
In this way, the shark, as with all formidable foes, forces the protagonist to change. But this change isn’t a strictly internal one. Yes, by the end of the film he’s no longer afraid of water but more importantly, Brody must draw on expertise from others.
This brings the oceanographer Matt Hooper and seasoned shark hunter Quint alongside Brody to take on the titanic shark together. With each person possessing complementary attributes, they’re eventually able to best the beast.
13: Ava + Nathan
The perspective a narrative is told from is a crucial component in storytelling. It can be used in novel ways to create a sense of unknowing and suspicion. These attributes can contribute to the muddling of an easily identifiable antagonist.
In Alex Garland’s 2014 film EX MACHINA, the audience’s eyes are Caleb’s eyes. He’s a young programmer brought to Nathan’s private residence to test an AI, Ava. But it’s from here that the confusion between these roles begin as mistrust and suspicion is sown by both Ava and Nathan against each other.
And so, the protagonist, Caleb, and the audience are drawn into this web of uncertainty. They find themselves having to unravel the narrative beat by beat to decide who to place their trust in.
As the film progresses, it becomes clear that it’s through Caleb’s perspective that the story is best told as the revelations come thick and fast and constantly challenge his idea of the truth surrounding his visit.
Here the idea of the antagonist becomes a very slippery one that oscillates between Ava and Nathan with each bit of new information.
Though as the narrative continues there’s a progressive sense that Nathan is the villain of this story, especially when he reveals that there was no Turing test but instead he wanted to see if Ava could emotionally manipulate Nathan.
And in the final scenes both Ava and Nathan seem to share some features of the antagonist. Nathan, having revealed his plan, seeks to undo the preemptive actions of Caleb. And Ava leaves Caleb for dead, trapped in Nathan’s private residence, while she escapes to freedom.
From this point onwards the audience sees the world through her eyes. As she stands amidst a bustling street we’re left wondering who the true protagonist was.
14: Colonel Hans Landa
Whilst the trope of the Nazi Officer is a common one in cinema, it’s the introduction to Colonel Hans Landa that stands out as an example of how to effectively establish a foe within a single scene.
This scene creates a power dynamic that leaves an indelible mark on the audience for the rest of the film.
That power is flexed in the guise of politeness and respect as Landa compliments Perrier LaPadite’s family. As this act of kindness plays out, the revelation as to the purpose of his visit is prolonged. Furthermore, Landa dressed in the uniform of an SS officer is an implied threat further building upon the tension and uncertainty.
The character seems to inhabit a sense of unpredictability like a ticking bomb that will eventually go off.
At times in the scene, he pretends to give the power over to LaPadite as he asks what it is he knows of him or whether he’ll allow the Colonel to switch to English. These seemingly innocuous moments are laced with threat. He’s really just reinforcing how little control the farmer truly possesses.
The scene raises the tension when it reveals that the farmer is indeed sheltering a Jewish family. As the Colonel asks for a final glass of milk, LaPadite appears to sense that victory may well be in sight.
But this is quickly shattered after an inane conversation, about the types of animals Landa perceives Germans and Jews to be, turns to dread. Any illusion of power the farmer may have felt evaporates, culminating in the explosive violence that establishes the Colonel as an unforgettable adversary.
15: Nurse Ratched + The System
An infamous antagonist example comes from Ken Kasey’s 1962 novel, brought to the screen in 1975 by Louise Fletcher. Nurse Ratched provides the blueprint for the archetypal “Battleaxe Nurse” antagonist that has been employed in countless pieces of fiction since.
When Randle McMurphy feels his prison sentence would be best served in the more relaxed environment of a psychiatric ward rather than out doing hard labour, he finds himself immediately pitted against the ward’s tyrannical head nurse.
Rather than oppressively domineering the hospital by raising her voice or resorting to more direct means of intimidation, she seems to relish mentally torturing the patients in her care.
A later scene with Billy, a patient in the ward, serves as a great example. Nurse Ratched pushes Billy to the brink through the mere mention of his mother. She appears to possess knowledge on how best to elicit the reaction she wants at any given time.
ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST is defined by the non-conformist, Randle, battling against a cruel and inhumane system which Ratched upholds. In this Ratched not only serves as an antagonist but personifies the institutional ‘system’ that also serves as an antagonist.
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This article was written by Oliver Hardman and edited by IS Staff.
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