By Emma Hallewell
Two important characters in every film are the protagonist and their antagonist, so I’m always looking for ways to create more interesting and compelling antagonists in my writing.
One of my favourite antagonists is Heath Ledger’s The Joker (The Dark Knight, 2008), and I stumbled onto a great video by Lessons from the Screenplay that explains why this character is so successful with audiences. Watch the video yourself. It’s worth it. Here’s what I got from it.
- Competing for the same goal as the protagonist
Although it may seem strange to consider the antagonist and protagonist having the same goal, their goals within this shared desire can be entirely opposing. This is shown in The Dark Knight as the Joker and Batman are both competing ‘for the soul of Gotham’. It is equally important to the Joker that Gotham City descends into anarchy and chaos as it is to Batman that the city is hopeful and has law and order. By creating an antagonist and protagonist who are competing for the same goal, it automatically creates a narrative where they are forced to continually cross paths and enter into a conflict.
- Stakes are personal, first and foremost
I have watched a number of films where the ultimate goal of the antagonist is to destroy the planet, and, as the video explains, the audience are usually reasonably sure that the villain will fail because of this. In The Dark Knight, the stakes are less high as only ‘Gotham’s soul’ and a relatively small number of lives are at stake; however, this arguably makes the film more interesting because it becomes plausible at every stage that Batman will lose.
- Exceptionally good at attacking the hero’s greatest weakness
One of the factors that makes the Joker ‘the ultimate antagonist’ is his obvious and deep understanding of The Batman (the film’s protagonist), and how he tailors his attacks to target Batman’s weaknesses. Batman’s strength is his physical power, and therefore the Joker conspires to turn this into his biggest weakness through making scenarios where this power is nullified. Batman also refuses to kill and the only way to truly stop the Joker is for Batman to break this moral code, creating an interesting dilemma in the protagonist’s character arc.
- Pressuring the protagonist into difficult choices
The Joker pushes Batman to his personal limits, as he threatens him with further murders if he doesn’t surrender and reveal his true identity. The Joker works to force Batman to reveal his true character – not only who is under the mask, but what he is and isn’t willing to endure, and the sacrifices he is willing to make for Gotham. He is forced to accept that he is not willing to sacrifice Rachel and this conflicts with the moral duty he feels towards Gotham City.
- The protagonist should be affected by the antagonist
Batman at the film’s conclusion is not the same character as he is at the beginning, due to the impact of the Joker’s actions and their relationship. He ends the film as the ‘Dark Knight’ and this is the direct result of the pressures and challenges forced on him by the antagonist. A compelling and interesting antagonist should affect the protagonist’s character arc in a noticeable way.
Overall, the main thing I learned from watching this video is that although the Joker is undeniably a compelling and interesting antagonist, a large part of that greatness is directly due to how his character relates to Batman’s. ‘They are two sides of the same coin’, and the pressures and attacks he forces on Batman are incredibly tailored to his opponent’s weaknesses as he completely understands him.
I also realised that the Joker would arguably not be as compelling a character if he was placed opposite a character with a different goal than he has, or with a different moral compass as part of his success hinges on the fact that Batman refuses to kill him.
I have learned that a great antagonist must not only be an interesting character in their own right, but they must also be fundamentally tailored to the protagonist of the film and I will take this lesson forward into my writing.