When most hear the word “antagonist,” they automatically think “bad guy,” or “villain.” They assume the antagonist has to be evil, or criminal, or at least a colossally self-absorbed jerkoff. However, an educated writer will know that none of these are requirements for a capable antagonist. The whole “bad guy” thing is merely part of a formula used to simplify the narrative (i.e. dumb it down,) to all but guarantee that audience identification goes in the right direction.
The only real requirement for an antagonist is that the character directly oppose the protagonist's goal. The protagonist wants to accomplish something, but the antagonist stands in the way, from the beginning of the narrative to the end. If the protagonist is going to succeed, he or she most overcome the antagonist's opposing force.
However, this opposing force need not be malevolent in nature. The antagonist character may act with the best, most virtuous intentions. It is not even a necessity for the antagonist to recognize his or her opposition to the protagonist. (For example, Mozart in Amadeus has no idea that the protagonist Salieri is trying to ruin him. Mozart still provides conflict as he naturally tries to fight back against these ruinous attempts, even though he does not know their source.) Antagonism is really little more than simple physics. It is an irresistible force met with an immovable object. What one wants is the opposite of the other. In the end, someone has to give.
To demonstrate how the protagonist/antagonist relationship goes beyond the typical good guy/bad guy dynamic, here are four categories of abnormal antagonists who generate story conflict in nontraditional ways.
The Friendly Antagonist
In these stories, the protagonist and antagonist are friends. They bear each other no ill will. Despite this, the friendly antagonist's wants, needs, actions, and desires still stand in direct opposition to the protagonist and his or her goal. The protagonist cannot reach this goal until the other character's opposition is removed.
Cole in The Sixth Sense
Cole is sweet, innocent little boy. He is the last character one would identify as a bad guy. He and the protagonist Dr. Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis) spend a lot of time together, and their interaction is, for the most part, friendly and supportive. Regardless of this relationship, Malcolm's story goal is directly opposed by Cole's. Cole appears to be a mentally disturbed boy. Malcolm, a child psychologist, wants to help Cole. However, Cole does not want Malcolm's help and resists his attempts. Even when Cole starts to give in, Malcolm refuses to believe his secret, continuing their conflict. The story cannot be resolved until both sides accept each other and abandon their mutual resistance.
Russell Hammond in Almost Famous
Almost Famous is the story of teenage newbie rock journalist Will Miller. Will's story goal is to complete an article for Rolling Stone on the band Stillwater. The only problem is that he cannot reach this goal without getting an interview from the band's star guitarist Russell, something Russell refuses to do. Though Will looks up to Russell, and the two even grow to become close friends, Russell is Will's antagonist. Russell's refusal to give the interview keeps Will on the road indefinitely, creating trouble for him from Rolling Stone and his mother. This is a conflict that continues unresolved until the story's end. Russell is also the force of antagonism in Will's subplot. Will is in love with groupie Penny Lane, but Penny is in a sexual relationship with Russell. Will will never get his dream girl as long as Russell is in the way.
The Mentor Antagonist
Elijah Price in Unbreakable, Tyler Durden in Fight Club, Henri Ducard/Ra's Al Ghul in Batman Begins
These antagonists start the story seeming anything but antagonistic. They are the protagonist's ally, teacher, father or mother figure. They put the protagonist on the path to who he or she eventually becomes. Only then, at a certain point, the protagonist realizes that this mentor is no longer a person he or she wishes to associate with. The protagonist breaks off the formerly positive relationship, putting the two sides at odds. This is psychologically similar to the process we all go through in high school when we must break away from the control of our parents to become independent persons. The mentor antagonist rarely bears any ill will towards the protagonist. After all, the mentor helped create the protagonist. He or she simply resents the fact that the protagonist now opposes him or her. If given the choice, the mentor antagonist would prefer the protagonist to rejoin his or her side so they might achieve the antagonist's goal as a team. The protagonist refuses the offer, putting the two sides into a unity of opposites where one side must be defeated.
The Virtuous Antagonist
Some stories flip the good guy/bad guy dynamic on its head. In these films, the protagonist is the criminal, the villain, or the all-around bad dude. The protagonist's actions then incite a lawful, virtuous, and well-intentioned antagonist to stop him or her.
Bruce Wayne/Batman in Batman (1989 version)
The surprising thing about Tim Burton's first Batman film is that it is completely misnamed. It should be called “Joker,” since the villain is in fact the story's real protagonist. If one makes the typical assumption that Batman, the good guy, is the protagonist, the film appears to be a structural mess. Bruce Wayne does not appear until 20 minutes into the film. Not only this, but the Story Spine would not even be firmly established until the story's midpoint. Until then, Bruce/Batman remains passive and reactive, with no legitimate reason to take action. But, when one realizes the Joker is the real lead, the structure falls into perfect place. Batman is instead a Vengeance Narrative about a lunatic trying to get revenge on those who have wronged him. He is then opposed, and eventually defeated, by the Caped Crusader. This makes Batman the film's antagonist.
Chief Marge Gunderson in Fargo
In the same way, most people assume that Chief Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) is Fargo's protagonist because she is the story's force of good. But then, one would have to explain why she does not even appear in the story until the beginning of its 2nd Act. The film's 1st Act is led solely by the actions of the morally bankrupt Jerry Lundergaard (William H. Macy). This simple fact makes it easy to conclude that it is Jerry who is the film's protagonist, and Marge the antagonistic force that emerges to stands in his way. (A similar argument can be made for Michael Mann's Heat, (1995) where Robert De Niro's master criminal character is opposed by Al Pacino's police detective. However, since both characters are so equally weighted throughout the narrative, this creates a sort of chicken-or-the-egg debate that could go either way.)
The Shadow Antagonist
A shadow antagonist is an antagonistic force that is not really “there” in the story – at least not at all times. Rather than harass the protagonist from beginning to end, the shadow antagonist lurks behind the scenes like a ghost, almost as a non-participant while the protagonist struggles with other problems, only to pop up at the most inopportune moments to ruin everything. The key quality of the shadow antagonist is that he or she is not directly related to the protagonist's main goal. The shadow is instead a trickster and a ruiner who does harm to the protagonist, not because he or she opposes the protagonist's goal, but because he or she opposes the protagonist's very existence, health, and happiness. The shadow wants to trip up the protagonist just for the sake of tripping.
Mal in Inception
It took me nearly three whole viewings of Inception to finally put my finger on the identity of the antagonist. At first it seems it will be Saito (Ken Watanabe), but Saito turns from antagonistic to friendly after the inciting incident. Then, it seems the antagonist might be Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy), the man whose head Cobb is trying to break into. But this assumption again dashes on the rocks when Fischer joins Cobb to actually help him achieve his goal. The only real, credible threat to Cobb's victory, from beginning to end, is Mal - a dead woman, who technically does not even exist outside of Cobb's memory. It is Mal who ruins Cobb's extraction attempt in the opening sequence, it is Mal who kills Fischer moments before assured victory, it is Mal that Cobb must overcome in the story's climax, and it is the constant threat of Mal that make the team nervous throughout the entire mission. Though Mal only appears a handful of times, though she is completely secondary to the mission itself, and even though she technically does not even exist, she is Cobb's antagonist. Cobb must destroy her to claim his story goal.