Sometimes, one or more of your screenplay’s protagonists will seesaw along the line of good and bad. Good characters do bad things and mischievous characters do angelic things. And it’s interesting to see them change when dealing with each other.
Shawn Harwell and Chris Henchy’s 2012 comedy screenplay The Campaign has two protagonists who do just that. In it, Congressman Cam Brady and a hopeful Marty Huggins battle it out via a nasty campaign clash for a seat in congress. They both play the part of antagonistic protagonists, doing things to make life difficult for each other.
This screenplay has clearly defined its antagonist, two wealthy brothers pitting Cam and Marty against each other for nefarious reasons. But the screenplay interestingly follows our protagonists as they do bad things to each other to achieve their goals.
When writing a screenplay where your likable, evenly defined protagonists are at war with each other, keep a few things in mind to maximize their appeal to audience.
Initially, you’ll want to set the stage and introduce your protagonist, who are the guides into the screenplay. Clearly define all of your lead protagonists, with one of the combatants being a little more sympathetic than the other. In The Campaign, the role of the more sympathetic protagonist changes. Early on it’s Marty, a bubbly man who loves his town and family dearly while Cam is clearly the predatory, self-centered politician. The screenplay defines them clearly upfront and has them change as Marty gets more and more into the campaign. He becomes more like Cam and Cam becomes more like early Marty. If you decide to have your characters trade characteristics, make sure you establish them definitively so your audience doesn’t lose sight of who your characters are.
Give them similar goals and pit them against each other, usually for the same end game. Marty and Cam both want to have the better campaign and get the seat in congress and won’t stop until they win. In another example, Jingle All The Way had two fathers battling to get the last of a popular toy for their children. We follow two protagonists, both vying for the same thing, duke it out in both screenplays, which makes it easier to swallow two “good guys” in a movie fighting each other instead of only fighting an antagonist.
In order to further define your characters, show how each of them behaves behind the scenes. Show the audience how similar they are by writing scenes where they are vulnerable and expressive when not face to face with their nemesis. After each underhanded tactic Marty and Cam employ to discredit each other, we see them independently lament the setback, celebrate getting the upper hand, or worry about losing to the other. Doing so also helps illustrate how they are taking on each other’s traits as the screenplay progresses (if you decide to have your protagonists trade characteristics).
We see Cam become more of an overwhelmed baby, which he earlier taunts Marty as being, when Marty becomes more like Cam and does more underhanded things. Have both of your battling protagonists have difficulty & show what the other protagonist looks like as they capitalize on it. It can really illustrate how much one protagonist is getting under the other’s skin.
Now, to round it out, show how the winner and loser handle the outcomes. The more interesting part of their battle is how their conflict progresses, so write what happens next when one wins. There is a clear winner and loser in the end of The Campaign, but they both realize who the actual antagonist is and team up to take them down. After successfully doing so, they find a way to share the goal they both wanted to attain. It takes an entire screenplay, but the two protagonists finally realize that they aren’t each other’s enemy and it’s a funny, ridiculous ride getting to that point.
It’s ok if developing multiple protagonists that combat each other for the same prize is a battle for you. Take multiple stabs at defining your characters and how you want them to fight each other. Do your best to keep writing and creating interesting concepts for your protagonists to convey. Remember, your characters aren’t your enemies. They’re your friends. A screenplay lacking interesting conflict is the enemy.