Antagonists are the main character’s competition. Whether it’s cops versus robbers, boxers versus boxers, or cowboys versus aliens, the “hero” and the “villain” end up in some form of competition. This could be literal, in the case of Rocky or the criminally overlooked Rush. Alternatively, their competition could be more abstract. Two characters or groups wanting the same thing, or one wanting to prevent the other from getting it, for example. This is essentially the plot of any story focused on a MacGuffin, whether it’s a nuke, an Infinity Stone, or a Lost Ark.
Regardless of the approach you take, the key is to craft an antagonist that serves as a genuine threat. Someone – or something – that genuinely challenges your hero. Whether that challenge is physical, philosophical or ideally some combination of the two. So, with that in mind, here are a few tips to guide you.
Show us how skilled they are.
Find an opportunity to show us how big a threat the antagonist is. If they’re the coolest kid in school, show us what makes them adored. If she’s the best lawyer at the firm, show us her legal prowess. If he’s the scariest crime boss in town, show him executing someone who failed him. Whatever it is, be specific. Find what makes their skills irrefutable, or sinister, or tough to watch. Allow the audience to discover why they are the major threat.
A great example of this would be the opening scenes of the Joker in The Dark Knight, where he accomplishes a bank robbery with no special gadgets or powers; just manipulation, mystery, and violence. We know this guy is different, we know he’s dangerous, and we know he must be stopped. More specifically, we know he’s willing to antagonize and kill anyone, not just “good guys”.
Give them a win.
Show the villain defeating the protagonist or some other known character, to prove they will be tough to beat. At the very least, show the antagonist taking action for or against something. If the villain is unsuccessful throughout, they won’t be imposing. Stopping them won’t feel urgent. And nobody will care when they’re defeated.
The best possible version of this is when the antagonist makes the protagonist’s life significantly harder or worse. Whether it’s drawing first blood, turning the hero’s friends against them, or pantsing the main character in front of the whole school, the antagonist needs to actually antagonize the protagonist and/or the people they care about. And they need to do it successfully.
Make them evil and make them mean.
Show your antagonist committing terrible acts, big and small. So, killing someone, sure, but also taking up three parking spaces. Think of particular things people hate, and use them to get a rise out of the audience. Of course we want to see the hero stop the villain from destroying the world. But, we really really want to see the hero slap the villain when they spit in someone’s food.
This works on a smaller, more realistic scale too. Even if the antagonist is a good person, there needs to be some reason we root for the protagonist instead. In a love triangle, this could mean showing that the antagonist is too arrogant, or too lazy, or too selfish. Enter the humble, hardworking, generous protagonist. This is a perfect one-two punch. Usually we dislike people for a number of small reasons, and then things come to a head when they go too far. It can be the same in a screenplay. We hate when someone sabotages our career, but we despise when someone cuts us off in traffic. A petty antagonist can go a long way towards the audience rooting for the protagonist.
Here’s some good news: the last three tips can all be used at the same time. Find an opportunity for the villain to display their skill in an early victory over the hero, and then let them rub some salt in the wound. Now you’ve got a credible threat who we hate and dislike.
Give them time.
Find entertaining ways to provide the villain with screen time, or at least be productive with the few scenes they have outside of combating the protagonist. If the villain is only present in scenes with the hero, then the hero will draw the focus of the drama, leaving the villain as a supporting player. This will lower the antagonist’s value in the eyes of the audience. Give them their own time, and show us how interesting or clever or dangerous they and their plan are.
This can be done any number of ways. Show them clashing with the protagonist, over and over again. Or, show the stages of their journey towards their goal. Imagine the story from their perspective, where they are “the good guy”. How do they really feel about the protagonist? About the world? How can they show that visually, displaying their character through their actions?
Some of the best examples of this are in Die Hard and Die Hard With A Vengeance. The Gruber brothers are totally in control of their situation—until they’re not. Hans is conning the cops to get what he wants, and he doesn’t stop manipulating even when he finally comes face to face with John McClane, the thorn in his side.
Simon is playing games with McClane, with the lives of children, with the whole city. He’s even giving clues about his endgame. These are prime antagonists. And there’s no way we get to discover how smart and terrible they are in a few scenes by themselves. They are in constant communication with the protagonist, a battle of wits leading inevitably towards bloodshed.
So that’s it. These strategies provide endless opportunities for variation, without forgetting one simple truth: movies are about people who will or must do something… and the people who are in their way.