Posted above are two popular movie characters. One is Cole, played by Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense. The other is Hannibal Lecter, played by Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs. One is a vulnerable little boy. The other is a psychopath of the purest evil.
Now, a question: between these two characters, which one qualifies as the ANTAGONIST of their story? One character definitely is their story's antagonist, the other clearly isn't.
The answer? Cole. Little rosy-cheeked, moppet-headed Cole.
Surprised? To understand why this is, a common misconception must be cleared up about what exactly “antagonist” means.
Many people, writers among them, seem to believe that the word antagonist is synonymous with “bad guy.” This character must, in whatever story he or she occupies, be some villainous persona wishing harm and failure upon the story's hero. In lots of stories, this is more or less true. We have all watched thousands of stories – from the subtlely realistic to the cartoonishly melodramatic where the antagonist is some despicable fiend, wringing their hands with glee over the hero's demise. The antagonist as “villain” is the most obvious choice for storytellers because it easily splits the story's conflict into a simple black-and-white situation, making it no challenge for the audience to decide to whom to give their sympathies. However, villainy is by far NOT a requirement when it comes to an antagonist.
The true meaning of the word “antagonist” is buried in its name. “Antagonist,” like “protagonist” is a Greek word made of two parts. “Protagonist” is made up of “protos,” meaning “first,” and “agonistes,” meaning actor. The protagonist is the “first actor.” The “anti-” in “antagonist” means “against.” The antagonist is the character who works against the “first” actor. Whatever the protagonist is trying to achieve in the story, the antagonist provides the force that pushes against it.
This “pushing against” essential when it comes to making a story a STORY. It is what makes up the 4th element of the Story Spine, CONFLICT. Let's briefly review the elements of the Story Spine (because they can never be reviewed enough). They are:
- The Main Story Problem.
- The Main Story Goal.
- The protagonist's Path of Action.
- The Main Conflict
- The Stakes.
A story begins with a hero encountering a PROBLEM. In order to overcome this problem, the hero decides on a GOAL. The hero then sets out on a PATH OF ACTIONS to get to that goal. However, for a story to be dramatic, or interesting at all to an audience, that path must be made difficult and the goal very hard to achieve. There must some force that create CONFLICT. (The word “dramatic” itself means, “full of conflict.”) The antagonist is the embodiment of that force. It is a person who does not want the hero to achieve his or her goal and is willing to take action in order to stop the hero.
But, that is not enough. Great antagonists do not only want to stop the protagonist from achieving his or her goal, but they possess a goal of their own which is the EXACT OPPOSITE of the protagonist's goal, creating Aristotle's classic “unity of opposites.”
In The Matrix, the goal of Neo and his friends is to free humanity from the machines. The antagonist Agent Smith's goal is not only to stop Neo, but to destroy the entire human resistance in the process. Detective Jake Gittes in Chinatown wishes to expose the corrupt conspiracy behind Hollis Mulwray's death so justice may be done. The shadowy antagonist pulling the strings behind the scenes (later revealed to be Noah Cross) wishes not only to prevent Gittes from doing so, but to also carry out his corruption to its furthest extent.
A good protagonist/antagonist relationship creates a dichotomous story situation where the victory of one must mean the failure of the other. It is impossible for both sides to get what they want. The only way the conflict can be resolved, and for the story to reach its end, is by an action that means the complete victory of one side, and the simultaneous defeat of the other.
With this in mind, let's return to our two examples, Cole and Dr. Lecter.
The Silence of the Lambs's protagonist is FBI agent-in-training Clarice Starling (played by Jodie Foster). Clarice's main story goal is “to find and stop serial killer Buffalo Bill before he can claim his next victim.” Clarice's Path of Action in pursuit of this goal takes her to Hannibal Lecter. It is believed that Lecter has knowledge of Bill's identity. But, unlike an antagonist, Lecter does not wish to stop Clarice from achieving her goal. In fact, he is willing to help her- and ultimately does give her enough information to catch him. Much of the confusion over Hannibal Lecter comes from the fact that even though he is willing to help, there is still much conflict between Clarice and Lecter. However, this conflict comes not from a desire to stop Clarice, but to help her on his own terms- to manipulate the situation in order to achieve his own personal goal – to escape prison. Hannibal Lecter is not an antagonist, but merely an obstacle on Clarice Starling's Path of Action to overcome in order to defeat the story's real antagonist Buffalo Bill at the story's climax.
Now compare this to the Story Spine of The Sixth Sense. This film's protagonist is child psychologist Malcolm Crowe (played by Bruce Willis). Malcolm encounters his main story problem when he takes on a new patient, a seemingly disturbed little boy named Cole- a child who shows the same behavior as Malcolm's greatest failure in his long career working with children. Malcolm's goal is “to help Cole by understanding his secret.” Now, no human being with a soul would wish to stop Malcolm from achieving this goal. It would be impossible to find anyone who would not want Malcolm to help a little boy – except the little boy himself. Cole does not WANT to be helped. Cole believes that no one, not even Malcolm can help him. All of the external conflict that Malcolm encounters in the main storyline comes directly from Cole. This is because Cole has a personal goal which is the opposite of Malcolm's, “to hide his secret.” This creates a unity of opposites. Cole is Malcolm's antagonist. And just like any protagonist/antagonist relationship, the story ends with Malcolm “defeating” Cole. Malcolm achieves his main story goal by finally convincing Cole to abandon his own.
Antagonists are not always “bad guys.” Likewise, protagonists are not always “good guys.” Sometimes both sides of the conflict are “bad.” In some films, both sides are “good.” Getting moral judgments in the way can only confuse the beginning storyteller and create a muddled, weak Spine. The only thing important when it comes to an antagonist is that whenever the protagonist pushes forward, there must be one person who is always there to push back. Great conflict occurs when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object. Whether one considers that object to be morally “good”, or “bad” is immaterial. What is important is the explosion that occurs when they meet.