Many writers believe their story needs a villain — a single character who is the main source of opposition in the story, or the primary “bad guy.” Since arguably all stories have a “protagonist,” don’t they all need an “antagonist”?
I don’t believe they do. Not every successful story has one person who is “the problem,” or the singular ongoing opponent to whoever and whatever the audience is rooting for.
All stories need major oppositional forces, which create a lot of conflict and problems. But these are not always embodied in an “antagonist.”
As with many topics in screenwriting, it’s somewhat of a terminology issue, where different people use the same words to mean different things.
I personally don’t use the terms “protagonist” and “antagonist” all that much. I prefer “main character.” The main character is the audience’s emotional point-of-view in the story, the one we’re experiencing everything through the perspective of. What they think, feel, want and are trying to do is usually front and center. It’s not hidden or mysterious. It’s what pulls us through the story, and is responsible for us caring enough to want to stay with it.
Generally this character has a big problem, and a lot of difficulty in getting what they want. You could call the source of that problem and difficulty their oppositional forces. Or “antagonistic” forces.
In some genres, these do typically take the form of a single character. Superheroes need a super villain who is tough to defeat, such as Ares in Wonder Woman. In horror films, the monster tends to fulfill this role. In a “find the killer” story, it’s obviously the killer. Overall, in genres focused on life-and-death stakes, the “antagonist” is more frequently used.
The definition of “antagonist” could be extended to include a group working together, or a situational problem as in Gravity or Apollo 13, or even a handing off of this function from one character to another over the course of a movie. But in all those cases, there is still that same sense of the problems for the main character being specifically embodied by someone or something who actively opposes them.
But in other genres, there might not be any of these kinds of “antagonists.” Instead, the problems might come from a variety of places — situations, institutions, multiple unrelated characters, the nature of the goal and its difficulty, etc. Consider Wonder, for instance. Or The Big Sick.
It’s not “better” or “worse” to have an “antagonist” or not have one.
Let’s go back to the word “protagonist.” What does it really mean? Is it the same thing as “main character”? I’ve been heavily influenced by the “Dramatica” theory and software in my understanding of this, and in my opinion that they are not the same thing, and not every story even has a traditional “protagonist” (let alone an antagonist).
Dramatica defines protagonist and antagonist as archetypal characters that are present in certain stories, but by no means all. (The others have “complex characters.”) In every story, there’s an overall goal that emerges early on, when some problem or inequity surfaces that rocks the status quo. In Dramatica terms, the one who wants to solve it and pursues solving it is the “protagonist,” and the one who doesn’t want it solved and wants to stop the protagonist is the “antagonist.” So you have Chief Brody vs. the shark in Jaws. Simpler good-and-evil tales and action movies tend to have these archetypes.
Stories with “complex characters” don’t usually have an archetypal “protagonist,” let alone an “antagonist”. But they always have a main character — who might have a lot of qualities in common with what we think of when we think of “protagonist,” but don’t completely fit that archetype. (Dramatica goes much deeper into what those qualities are.)
So it really comes down to whether you’re using archetypal characters or complex ones, and what sort of genre you’re aiming for.
Here are some examples of movies which have an antagonist, and some which don’t:
HAS AN ANTAGONIST:
- Star Wars
- Fatal Attraction
- The Silence of the Lambs
- L.A. Confidential
- Die Hard
- The Karate Kid
- The Sting
- The Hangover
- When Harry Met Sally…
- Good Will Hunting
- The 40-Year-Old Virgin
- The King’s Speech
- Pretty Woman
- Forrest Gump
- Jerry Maguire
What you might notice from this list, if you like to work with the Save the Cat genres as I do, is that certain genres usually have an antagonist, and certain ones don’t.
Those that usually do:
Those that usually don’t:
So depending on your preferred genres, you might always need an antagonist, or you might never have one. Like so many things that seem like they should have cut-and-dry answers, the answer is really “it depends.”
As always, questions and comments are welcome!
If you haven't read them already, I also recommend my "Ten Key Principles Successful Writers Understand", and my series of audio downloads.