March 2023: Introducing Your Antagonist

First impressions are as important with fictional characters as they are with real people. Not only do they offer the audience a first glimpse at what a particular person is like, but the fact that this will be their first impression of a given person means that for at least some period of time, that impression is going to be the only impression the audience has of that character’s, well, character. This means that an introductory scene plays a role of outsized importance in determining how the audience will perceive that character – something which can not only be used to define a character in a way which shapes how the audience engages with that character’s traits, but which can also serve as a starting point of a process of developing that character.

Naturally, there’s a somewhat obvious way this can apply to antagonists, especially when you consider what I’ve already said about them: the first introduction of an antagonist does a lot of work in determining how much the audience will respect, fear, and hate them – which means the first impression which the audience has of that antagonist should be a scene which prioritises ensuring that the audience knows exactly how you want them to feel about this new entity which you’ve just put into their field of view.

For example, if you want to show that an antagonist is someone who the audience should respect, then first show them doing something which may be against the interests or hinder the goals of the protagonist, but in a way which shows that they have a strong conventional moral compass, a code of honour, or a virtue worth respecting: someone who leads from the front, or acts respectfully towards their social inferiors, or is even willing to hinder their own interests to help those in need. Likewise, if you want to show the audience that your antagonist is someone to be hated, then have them do the exact opposite, show them to be petty, capricious, willing to engage in cruelty for cruelty’s sake, even if it means making them less competent at achieving their actual goals. Very few things will earn an audience’s contempt quite like incompetence – especially if that incompetence comes from the same source as the reason why that antagonist is an antagonist in the first place.

Fear, on the other hand, comes from the precise opposite – from competence, or at least, from effectiveness. The best way to make an audience genuinely afraid of an antagonist is to introduce them in a way which shows that the protagonists are wholly outmatched. A common way this is done in horror media is to make the antagonist’s first ‘appearance’ be an object lesson: the remnants of some group of people who were supposed to be far better prepared and better equipped than the protagonists, who yet still end up getting torn apart by the antagonist. As I mentioned last time, terror is a function of powerlessness, and an audience whose surrogates are shown to be powerless in the face of an antagonist will become very afraid of that antagonist indeed, especially if very little else of that antagonist is revealed. The more an audience knows about an antagonist, the more control they’re likely to feel over the situation. If you want to keep the audience afraid, then it’s better to keep those cards as close to your chest as you can for as long as you can. Darth Vader, faceless Sith Lord, was a lot scarier than the guy who was once Anakin Skywalker, who hated sand and thought it was unfair that he could be given a seat on the Jedi Council but not the rank of Master.

Of course, most antagonists are supposed to evoke a blend of emotions, and here, a well-crafted introduction can serve a purpose as well. Say you want to introduce an antagonist which you want the audience to fear and respect at the same time. What better way to do that that by, for example, introducing that antagonist in a way where they comprehensively defeat the protagonists in some kind of contest, but refuse to gloat or grandstand, or finish the job (if it’s that kind of story) afterwards. This establishes the antagonist as someone who is capable of besting the protagonists and preventing them from achieving their goals, but also someone who is willing to offer the protagonist a certain degree of respect, or even sympathy – which serves as an open invitation for the audience to return the favour.

That being said, while the audience’s first impression of an antagonist is likely to form a strong image in their minds, that image isn’t going to fully define who that character is unless every subsequent encounter with that antagonist reinforces that impression. This might be all well and good with certain types of characters, but for others, it often serves the story better to have these antagonists change over the course of the story, either through transforming as characters in their own right, or by having the protagonists observe new and unexpected aspects of an antagonist which compliment or even directly contradict their original impressions. In this sense, the protagonists – and the audience – can go on a sort of emotional journey, where the antagonist, who they originally considered to be one sort of character, actually turns into, or turns out to be an entirely different sort of character, with the process of that discovery serving to strengthen the narrative arc of the story as a whole.

Take, for example, the previously mentioned Darth Vader. If you’re watching the Star Wars films in release order, your first impression of him is right at the beginning of A New Hope, where he appears as the masked, caped, malevolent enforcer of the Emperor’s will as he sweeps onto the blaster-scarred hallways of the Tantive IV. His following early appearances reinforce that impression, and reinforce the fear which both the protagonists and the audience are supposed to feel: he chokes out an Imperial admiral with his mastery of the Force at the staff meeting, he menaces Leia on the Death Star, he takes apart his old master (and, by this point, the seemingly most experienced and competent of the protagonists) lightsaber-to-lightsaber. He forcefully establishes himself as someone to be feared. Yet at the same time, there begin to appear hints that he is in fact, someone, and not something, that he is still a person under the armour and the cape, that he was once Obi-Wan’s pupil, that he and the protagonists are somehow connected. At the same time, he demonstrates certain aspects we might consider virtues: a willingness to do his own dirty work, a deadpan wit, a composure and mind which show that he has earned the menace which he exudes.

Side Note: One of the ways which Star Wars parody Spaceballs actually satirises Vader and his imitators is by making its version of him – Dark Helmet – someone who attempts to exude similar menace, but lacks that same gravitas and wit and courage: something which is also demonstrated in his introduction, to make sure the audience is in on the joke.

Of course, Vader’s character arc doesn’t just call for fear and respect. As the original trilogy develops, further glimpses into his character show attributes which are genuinely worth sympathising from. Despite all he has done, he still values his surviving family in his own way, and through them, finds something like redemption. It is that arc which defines Vader’s presence through the original film trilogy, but it couldn’t have had the impact it did at its end without those first opening scenes establishing him as someone to be feared. The theme behind Vader’s arc – that even the most seemingly evil person can be redeemed through acts of love – would not be as impactful if he had not already been established in that first opening scene as someone who does seem like an evil force of nature, more an instrument of destruction than a someone worthy of redemption.

Likewise, this introduction serves to inform how Vader – or rather, Anakin – appears in the prequel trilogy, because his immediate arc of his rise to prominence as a Jedi of the Republic is always in the shadow of the knowledge of what he will eventually become. It’s not difficult to see the intention here: by counter-posing Anakin the brash hero against Vader the collected killing machine, the prequel trilogy also provides a counterpoint to the theme of Vader’s arc in the original trilogy: love may be able to redeem, but it can also corrupt the best intentions into something evil. 

Whether the prequel trilogy actually pulls that theme off is beside the point, of course. The point is that it also only works within the context of that introductory scene. It is the baseline from which further character development builds upon. That is the power of a strong antagonist introduction. Not only does it provide an evocative image which leaves a strong first impression, but it also provides a reference point, from which that antagonist could be further developed into the centrepiece of a dynamic and fulfilling character arc.

Next time, I’d like to talk about how to develop that character arc. After all, it’s the rare antagonist who sits down and has a heart-to-heart with their enemies about their inner conflicts, and while villain monologues are a pretty common staple, they can get old quickly. There are other, more creative ways to have a character change – or have the audiences perception of them change, even when that character is on the other side of the field.

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