Understanding Antagonists, Beyond the Archetypes

A good villain is one who stands in the way of the hero’s goal, but an exceptional antagonist is someone who can exploit the protagonist’s greatest weakness. Although an antagonist is meant to serve the purpose of the protagonist’s journey, forever throwing a wrench into your protagonist’s honourable objectives, this doesn’t mean you should just create a one-sided pawn with a limited character profile to serve his/her purpose. You need to breathe life into the antagonist’s character, making him as realistic and as three-dimensional as your protagonists. Evil for the sake of evil has been overplayed and overdone in films, so complexity is key in the creation of a chilling villain.

If done right, an antagonist’s reasons for doing what he’s doing (usually in direct conflict with the protagonist) can be one of the most emotionally compelling parts of a story. We don’t have to like what they’re doing, but we do have to understand their motives, on an empathetic level at least.

The following are the most common types of antagonists in film, and though we’ve categorized them into a list, be warned that these are still just a blueprint, and it’s up to you to develop them further to make them really stand out.

The Villain

Villains are all your human antagonists, the ones who go out of their way trying to foil your character’s plans, and if you’ve written a three-dimensional antagonist, it will be because their own plans are also crucial to the plot. In other words, they’re not corrupting the protagonist just for the sake of it (Unless that’s your intention, of course).

Within this department there are a whole lot of different types of villains.

Anti-Villain

First, you’ve got the anti-villain, where antagonists have some redeeming or likeable qualities, even if their actions are questionable or criminal. Vincent and Jules from Pulp Fiction fall into this category, or Magneto from X-Men.

Authority Figure

After this you’ve got the Authority Figure who the characters ridicule or spend the majority of their time trying to avoid, like Richard Vernon in the Breakfast Club, or Miss Trunchbull from Matilda. These characters are often persistent to a fault, and are portrayed as stereotypes representing the law.

The Bully

Bullies are usually portrayed in a pretty straightforward manner, in direct contrast to the heroic/good nature of the protagonist, but often bullies are the way they are due to the way they’re treated, and often instigate some feelings of empathy in the audience. These include Johnny Lawrence from Karate Kid, or Fletcher from Whiplash.

The Corrupted

These used to be authority figures who turned to the dark side, often betraying their comrades in the process, be it for power, money, glory or revenge. Notable examples include Colin Sullivan from the Departed, or Steve Frazelli in the Italian Job. After this you’ve got the deranged villain, like Patrick Bateman in American Psycho, or Annie Wilkes in Misery. The Mastermind is usually a genius antagonist who devises an intricate plan, complex and diabolical, to achieve what he wants. A good example of this is Goldfinger from James Bond.

Not all villains, of course, are people. Some of the best films have villains that are so intriguing because of exactly that. They’re not human.

Mother Nature

Films that feature mother nature as their villains are pretty terrifying, because beating the odds of destruction at her hands is pretty difficult. Not only is she unbeatable, but who can stop a twister, or a hurricane or a tsunami (or an iceberg)? You can run, but you can’t hide. Tsunamis, hurricanes, storms, viruses, these usually feature in disaster flicks, and the best your protagonist can hope to do in the face of such villains, is wait it out. Some examples include The Perfect Storm, the Day after Tomorrow, or the Impossible.

The Beast/Creature

This one pretty much speaks for itself, but imagine any film that revolves around the fear of a beast that is out to eat them. They might stumble upon it in unknown territory, like the Amazon or out to sea, or it might be a mixture of beast meets human civilization. Such examples in film include the shark from Jaws, the rabid dog from Cujo, and of course the deadly serpents from Snakes on a Plane.

The Supernatural/Monster

These include antagonists who aren’t humane, or perhaps even redeemable because of their very nature. These are the villains from nightmares and horror tales bent on death or blood, and include vampires, werewolves, evil wizards, angry spirits, ghosts, warlocks, trolls, and basically any other species that wants to kill you–usually in creative and imaginative ways. Antagonists like these that spring to mind include the demon in Paranormal Activity, Jason Voorhees in Friday the 13th, the Poltergeist, or Count Dracula from Dracula.

Of course, what makes these characters all the more interesting is the fact that they’re not completely consumed by their evil objectives, nor are they blind to their own faults. After all, it’s not Dracula’s fault he needs blood to survive, nor was Jason Voorhees at fault for the way he was raised. What they can change, however, are their murderous tendencies. But that’s what makes an antagonist so complicated. Perhaps they can’t, or won’t. Perhaps that’s all they know.

The Extraterrestrial

There’s nothing like the unknown to put the fear of God into you. And what is more unknown than aliens? Often, the aliens featured in films are the antagonists, because their main intention is world domination, or abductions where the victim will be subjected to weird and painful experiments, at the cost of his life. They’re portrayed as evil, because they are unknown and so foreign to everything humanity knows.

Brilliant examples of aliens as antagonists invading Earth include: The Fourth Kind or War of the Worlds, in which their intentions are always malignant. Other times, aliens are antagonists because humans have invaded their territory, such as Alien or Pitch Black.

The Machine

Best represented in the Sci-fi genre, machine villains are so terrifying because they’re the most ruthless of antagonists. They literally express no emotions, and feel no empathy, because it’s not been built into them. It’s not their fault, per say, but they follow what they’re programmed to do, regardless of anything else. They’re the most obedient of soldiers ever made.

They have no concept of fear, or pain, and so they never stop. There’s not much room for complexity, unless you create a wonderful being like Sonny in I, Robot, capable of feeling human emotions, or David from Artificial Intelligence, the first robot boy programmed to love. But remember these are protagonists, so they’re meant to have a redeeming feature. But you could create a truly memorable antagonist by giving your machine the same sort of redeemable qualities.

Examples of ruthless machines include Ultron from Avengers, or Roy Batty from Blade Runner, and of course, the Terminator.

 

So there you have it, the most popular–and standout–types of villains and archetypes within the field of antagonism.

The secret to these characters (or at least most of them) is that they’re not lacklustre or cliched, they’re not predictable, they won’t roll over to make way for your protagonist without a fight (and that fight’s got to make your protagonist sweat), they’re equal to your protagonist in terms of intelligence, wit, strength–sometimes they’re even more powerful and clever, or they’re the ones that raise the stakes.

The reason behind their desire to cast down your protagonist has to be credible. No matter the type of villain you choose for your script, the key thing to remember is that they’re flawed, wonderfully wicked, and complex characters.

If you’ve already created a character profile for your protagonist, the best thing to do is now write one for your antagonist and place them side by side so you can see what links them, and what divides them.

Getting The Most Out of Your Storyboard

The storyboard is a vital pre-production document that serves a range of uses throughout the pre-production and production processes. Arguably the most important reason to storyboard is to establish for yourself, as director, your vision for the scene in its finished state, but it’s also a very useful aid to ensure everyone on the production team are on the same page.

In its most basic form, a storyboard is a series of drawings which illustrate the sequence of shots in a given scene. In the process of translating the script into images, you begin to take a critical approach to which shots tell your story most effectively and economically. Doing so also helps to anticipate issues of blocking and scene geography which may require script re-writes or certain location requirements. These boards can be refined and revised as you move through pre-production and you begin to nail down locations, cast members and which pieces of kit you’ll have at your disposal.

Though some directors engage the services of a storyboard artist as part of this process, you needn’t be a good artist to do it yourself. Many directors take a fairly rudimentary approach to illustration, using stick figures for the characters with arrows to indicate movement and eye-lines. The most important thing is clarity in demonstrating the shot size, the placement of the actors and any camera movement. In moving shots, you can use multiple images to show how the camera will move between framings (see images below). The quality of this document is especially important in collaborating with your DOP, whose ability to bring your ideas to fruition hinges on you communicating with clarity.

                              
Top: Two (rather messy) storyboard frames illustrating the starting and finishing frames of a single shot. Bottom: The finished product.

Other details that are helpful to include are the lens and mount type. In addition to providing a more specific idea of what you’re after visually, this information can really save time on set. Do you have a sequence which alternates between 20mm Steadicam shots and 50mm close-ups on a tripod? Rather than constantly swapping lenses and having to re-balance the mount, it might make sense to get all of the Steadicam shots in one go before changing. Beyond that, you may choose to include notes on other aspects which clarify the intention of the shot, including performance notes for the actors, lighting requirements or any other details the production team might find useful.

It’s worth noting that not all directors use storyboards. Some directors – David Lynch and Terence Malick to name two – prefer the more spontaneous approach of figuring out the scene on the set with the actors, with a minimal idea of what shots they want beforehand. It should be noted, however, that these tend to be seasoned directors with many projects under their belts and a very solid understanding of the form. The Coen brothers by contrast are detailed storyboarders, and their long-standing collaboration with artist J. Todd Anderson is a key part of their pre-production process. They have noted in interviews that knowing precisely which angles they’ll end up using means the production can be run more economically – if only two walls of a room are going to be seen in the final shots, the set-builders can save time and money by only building what will be seen.

The storyboard can even be a valuable tool in the process as early as the fundraising stages of your movie. Having a clear illustration of your ideas can really help potential investors understand your vision for the project. During pre-production for Alien, Ridley Scott had his budget doubled by 20th Century Fox when he storyboarded the entire film to demonstrate the project’s potential to be much more than the B-movie the studio had envisioned.

When the storyboards are complete, they can be scanned for easy distribution among members of the production. Having the storyboards in hard copy on set can be invaluable as well for quick and easy visual reference for how a given shot fits into the overall scene or sequence. Of course, no matter how well you plan there will always be unforeseen factors when it comes to shooting. Rather than sticking slavishly to your boards, it’s best to view the storyboard as the prepatory groundwork which allows you to be flexible on the day and accept better ideas that come along.

In Memoriam: Peter West MBKS 1928-2017

Peter was born in Prague and his early childhood was marked by the extremely adverse circumstances of being an evacuee, in a country where he had no close family.  He completed his education at a boarding school in Kent for people in his position. Peter had a varied life in our industry. Early on in […]
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The Proof of Concept in Film

You have this great idea for a feature film. Or maybe for a TV series. And you definitely want to produce it. But once again, you might find yourself struggling to overcome the enormity of tasks required to develop your idea: finding funding, time, locations, equipment, coordinating people’s (your team’s) busy life schedules…

But hey, maybe this idea of yours could be turned into a short film, so less time is required to make it, and also less money and less resources.

You might then think: “But I’ve made many shorts already”, or “But a short film isn’t long enough to develop my feature idea”. Yes, but how about making a short film as a proof of concept?

What is a Proof of Concept?

Proof of concepts are short films carried out in a way that highlights the main aspects of your film idea’s premise, showcases the potential of what you and your team are capable of, and shows where the idea could go whilst proving its feasibility.

The value of short films is often underestimated. When an idea is condensed into a short and is properly executed, that short can turn out very powerful as there is usually no place for “longueurs” or dilly-dallying with your story. Quite the contrary, the story needs to be concise and to the point. Any short that starts by ticking that box is on the right track to becoming a great proof of concept. Another aspect to consider is that the story doesn’t necessarily have to finish in a way features do, with all ends tied up neatly, and every question answered. Rather, it’s normally best to just point it in a clear direction. This will allow the idea room to develop, without any constraints.

So for now, put all limits to one side and just let your production skills and resources determine where and when you have to hold your horses.

Creating the Proof of Concept

This is especially important in terms of setting and developing the world you are creating. It’s worth trying to outline as much as possible of that world and character’s backstories without explicitly showing them, but instead hinting at them.

Obviously, this is easier said than done: developing an idea can be a daunting task. Ideas can easily get out of hand, especially when it comes to creating a feature. This is why thinking in terms of a short can help narrow down your idea and get a clear vision of what you are trying to achieve. Short films are also great for practice with the team.

Teamwork

It might be an understatement, but it is important to find the right people to work with, and if possible stick to working with them consistently. That way everyone develops a natural coordination with one another throughout different projects, which improves the team’s chemistry and ultimately constitutes an added value to the productions the team works on. This is one of the most important factors in the creation of a proof of concept, since it contains the potential to make the idea come to fruition through collaborating with a production company or studio, or even selling it.

Portfolio & Festivals

Once the short film is done, you need to be ready to show a whole portfolio of where the idea is going or what it could evolve into. This might be comprised of a treatment, which is different if it is for a feature or TV. While the treatment for a feature should focus on developing the story, the one for TV should not focus so much on story but rather outline if not the whole show, at least the first season. In addition, a synopsis, the finalised script, character developments, backstories, precise plans for the budget and production requirements, locations and even crew (the importance of having a team already gains its weight here) are some of the elements you’ll need to include.

Submitting your proof of concept to festivals is a different strategy to attract interest from people in the industry by getting some exposure. However, the film has to show a clear vision as to where the idea goes, since there would be less (if any) chances to explain whatever doesn’t come across just by watching the film.

Successful Proof of Concepts

It is inspiring to learn that some very famous, critically-acclaimed films were spawned from proofs of concept, such as: Inception, 300, Sin City, Saw, District 9 and Whiplash.

Saw: Saw’s screenwriter Leigh Whannell and director James Wan conceived the idea for Saw, but it didn’t attract interest until they made it into a 7-minute long short, which was literally just one torture scene. This was enough to showcase their ability to create an intense and gruesome story that went onto create a new genre, one that revolved around macabre torture games. They eventually got to pitch the idea to Lionsgate, one of the major production companies that showed interest in their proof of concept.

Whiplash: Although producers were reluctant at first to commit to director Damien Chazelle’s idea, he found a creative solution by making a proof of concept, comprised of a scene from his feature-length script. When his short was ready, he submitted it to festivals and eventually found support for the feature version of his idea when winning the Short Film Jury Award at Sundance 2013.

So, if you’ve got a feature up your sleeve but don’t have the resources to watch it bloom, definitely think about using the proof of concept strategy. Because who knows, with dedication and a bit of luck, maybe your film will be the next one on the list!

The Four Act Structure in Film and TV

The Problem with the Three-Act Structure

Writing a script is a bit like a helter-skelter ride. All bumps and twists and no end to the dizziness.

Probably the most problematic part of any script is its structure, and more specifically, the three-act structure. Here we’ve got the second act, the murky midpoint where the writer’s expected to jam everything important–your conflict, climax and resolution–between page 30 and page 90. You can see the problem.

Act one is managed into a relatively easy 30 pages, ditto the third act. It’s the second act that can get tedious. If you’ve written a script using the third-act structure before, you’ll know what I’m talking about. Structure is heavy. You need those healthy intermissions every thirty pages.

Kristin Thompson, author of Storytelling in the New Hollywood, found severe flaws within the three-act structure definition, claiming that the three-act structure has a negative effect on films, as it’s more based on page numbers than dramatic logic.

This is what she says about the four-act structure: “A great many of these films — indeed, I would contend, the bulk of them — break perspicuously into four large-scale parts, with major turning points usually providing the transitions.”

What she believes is that the third act structure fails to explain how the bulk of Hollywood’s films are put together. Instead the four-act structure helps put everything into perspective.  She breaks it down into the setup, the complicating action, the development, and the climax.

The second act therefore, is divided into manageable, bite-sized portions, that can help you, as a writer, get through this murky wasteland.

The Benefits

There are major benefits to writing according to the four-act structure.  Number one, you get to really focus your second act on what’s important: the hero-flaw confrontation. This means your protagonist confronts his or her major flaw, which will then allow him or her to face their antagonist (and this flaw) in the third act. This gives room to make the final flaw or failure to overcome all that more powerful in the later act, because we’ve focused on the protagonist’s inner struggles beforehand. Using the three-act structure, you might have skimmed over this detail because you were too busy confronting the second half of act two, which, let’s face it, when squished together, is thoroughly confusing.

 

1. Set up

The set up (page 1-30) establishes the initial set up, introducing our character, their flaw, the antagonist and paves the way for the life-changing circumstances (the inciting incident) at the end of it. Much like the three act structure, the four act structure starts off pretty much the same in terms of initial action sequence, making use of the Typical Day in the Life of the character. This follows the daily routine of the main character, right up until the inciting incident disrupts life as they know it.

2. Complicating Action

The second act (30-60) then has to deal with the second set up, the life-changing scenario, the hero reacting to the inciting incident and seeking out the way in which they will eventually overcome this flaw of theirs (having already been established in the first act), the hero-flaw confrontation. Act two covers overcoming the problem presented by the inciting incident and this act will then end on imminent doom, as the character fails to overcome the antagonist/source of evil, ending on a cliff-hanger, with the major crisis revealed.

The Midpoint

One of the interesting components of Thompson’s four act structure is that she found there was a midpoint in films where act two and act three meet that often manifests itself in a particular scene. She argues that these sequences have a major turn where less effective films tend to sag, and this turning point effectively breaks Syd Field’s long-winded act two into two separate portions. This major turn (near the halfway point) takes the story into a new direction, a shift, and is based on the protagonist’s goal.

What does this mean? Basically, the character’s goal might be achieved and replaced with another, or the protagonist realises he/she needs a change of tactics to reach said goal and puts them into motion, introducing a whole new scenario.

This scene is not only the turning point of the story but where the goal of the protagonist or theme is articulated–here the scene portrays the film’s overall theme, or purpose, which can often go against the protagonist’s actual goal later on. The midpoint’s goal reflects the final act’s moral lesson. A character’s goal of revenge for example, might be thwarted by this same character’s realisation that something else much more important is at stake. But the point is, the midpoint needs to happen so that the audience can understand the character’s goal, it’s a breather, a pause where this is somehow outlined.

3. Development

The third act (60-90) will then see your protagonist fully accepting the flaw and working to overcome it alongside the allies. The development stage portray the obstacles and delays used as tools to further your character, action, plot, etc.

They have to accept the fact that their plan was shot to pieces, but there must be a new approach they then put it into action. Your hero will be ready to face the upcoming battle. This leads up to the climactic event at the end where your character will (or won’t) defeat their antagonist, but now your character has gone through a fully developed life-changing character arc; they are not the same person they were at the beginning of the script, having accepted their flaw and are ready to face the battle. But all hope is lost, or is it?

4. Climax

The fourth act (90-120) will then of course, cover the final battle, see your hero face the antagonist, and witness their victory or loss. Act four mostly covers the resolution and the final scene, so that your story can wrap up any loose ends, ending on a high note.

To put into visual terms, Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky is a very good example of a successful four-act structure. The first act introduces us to Rocky and his self-doubts, and the inciting incident, how Rocky has the chance to compete in the heavyweight championship. The second is Rocky reacting to the inciting incident. He’s training but he’s weighed down by his self-doubt, his major “antagonist”. In the third act, Rocky comes to accept his flaw and works hard against it, so that finally in the fourth act, he’s ready to overcome it and battles, literally, in the ring for victory.

The middle section of a script is a bit like a wasteland, and if you just try writing your script according to the four-act structure, you might find it a lot easier to navigate through the swampy, boggy bits. Also, in the middle you’ll be able to pause and concentrate on the heart of your story, focusing on what your story is about, your main theme. Using the four-act structure doesn’t mean adding any extra acts, you’d simply be splitting the second act down the middle, dividing it into two thirty-page chunks.

TV

In TV series, scripts depend on the four-act structure. Pick any and you’ll see this division is mostly noticeable thanks to the way the programme is separated by the advertisements, or commercial breaks. With hour-long episodes, there’s an ad every 15 minutes or so, breaking the episode into four perfectly even-timed chunks. You’ll be doing the same thing with your script. Buffy, Lost, House of Cards, they all run according to the four-act structure, so even if it’s just for peace of mind, to give you that little extra push as a writer, it’s well worth considering.