By Britton Perelman
Put simply, the protagonist is the main character of a story and the antagonist is the opposing character. But things are rarely that simple in storytelling.
Though we tend to think of antagonists as characters, the role of “antagonizer” is often held by a non-human force. No, that doesn’t necessarily mean an alien (although aliens are fine antagonists), it simply refers to anything that propels the plot forward by pushing against or challenging the protagonist.
In real life, we rarely come up against traditional villains. Batman may constantly battle Scarecrow and the Joker, but we don’t have true arch nemeses in our everyday lives. More often, we’re up against other elements out of our control.
Examples: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, About Time, 127 Hours
Often, the antagonizing force, the very thing the protagonists are working against, is time itself. The never-ending passage of time serves to forward many stories, in various ways.
The typical way to use time as an antagonist is to give your protagonist a time limit. In “127 Hours,” James Franco’s character, Aron, must find a way to survive before he runs out of time and resources. But in “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” Brad Pitt’s title character is antagonized by time in the way it directly affects his life — his aging backwards causes the conflict and moves the story forward.
Time can also serve as an antagonizing force in our attempts to understand it, as is evident in many time travel movies. “About Time” features a time-traveler who attempts to use his unique abilities to help him find love, but the rules of time travel are always complicating things.
Examples: The Martian, Prometheus, Wild
Anyone who’s ever spent a night in the wilderness knows that sometimes it seems like the Earth itself is working against you. And for our purposes, sometimes it works against our characters. Using the environment (Earthly or otherwise) as an antagonist causes a struggle for survival.
Reese Witherspoon’s character’s solo hike in “Wild” challenges her to confront her demons, past and present. And characters in both “The Martian” and “Prometheus” go up against otherworldly environments, fighting to escape Mars or understand the place they’re exploring.
Examples: La La Land, Moana, Brooklyn
As is most common in real life, the antagonizing force we face is our own emotional state. Fear of failure, thoughts of doubt, and feelings of homesickness can all forward a plot and force the characters forward.
Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone’s characters struggle to achieve their respective dreams in “La La Land,” and it is their fear of failure and drive to succeed that moves the movie along (that and the occasional song). After moving to America, it’s severe homesickness for Ireland that causes Saoirse Ronan’s character to make the choices she does. And, in the only Disney movie without a human (or animal) antagonist, Moana and Maui journey to save Moana’s island. Though they face several physical antagonists along the way, it is Moana’s drive to prove herself that propels the story.
Examples: Silver Linings Playbook, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, Still Alice, Fight Club, Forrest Gump, The Danish Girl
Our favorite characters often battle invisible antagonists when they are pitted against disease, mental illness, or physical complications. The main characters in “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” and “Still Alice” face forces out of their control — cancer and Alzheimer’s, respectively.
Bradley Cooper’s character, Pat, suffers from bipolar disorder in “Silver Linings Playbook,” which caused the incident that sent him to the mental institution where we find him at the start of the movie. While the antagonist in “Fight Club” appears to be Brad Pitt’s character, the audience is eventually led to the conclusion that Tyler Durden is only the physical manifestation of Ed Norton’s delusional narrator character.
Other characters face physical disabilities of some kind that spur the action of the entire film. Forrest Gump’s attempts to overcome the disadvantages of his leg braces as a child set forth the events of his life. And in “The Danish Girl,” Eddie Redmayne’s character’s transgender identity leads her to pursue the first ever sex-change operation.
Examples: Arrival, When Harry Met Sally
Any fan of romantic comedies knows that communication — or lack thereof — can provide enough trouble for the plot of an entire movie. Miscommunication does just that in “When Harry Met Sally,” Nora Ephron’s classic about two people unable to communicate their feelings for one another.
More recently, the idea of communication itself played the antagonist in “Arrival.” Amy Adams plays a linguist attempting to understand an alien language, but it is miscommunication between the nations on Earth that actually serves as the antagonizing force in moving the plot to its fruition.
Examples: 500 Days of Summer, The Shawshank Redemption, The Big Short
Last, but not least, an outside event is capable of setting off the events of a movie. In the indie flick, “500 Days of Summer,” Joseph Gordon Levitt’s character meets a woman who sets off the events of the movie. But it isn’t Zooey Deschanel’s character, Summer, that is the antagonist, it is the fact that Joseph Gordon Levitt met her in the first place.
But, more often, a different type of event sparks the plot of a movie. Take “The Big Short,” in which the 2008 financial recession causes the characters to take action, or the wrongful conviction that sends Tim Robbins’ character to jail in “The Shawshank Redemption.”
Next time you’re looking for an antagonist, don’t create a human villain. Look no further than the elements of the world around your character to create a proper, real-life antagonizing force.
Britton Perelman is a writer and storyteller based in Los Angeles, California. When not buried in a book or failing spectacularly at cooking herself a meal, she’s probably talking someone’s ear off about the latest thing she watched. She loves vintage typewriters, the Cincinnati Reds, and her dog, Indy. Find more of her writing on her website, or follow her on Instagram and Twitter.