The best Opponents are well-rounded, (multi-dimensional) which makes them more interesting, and entertaining. Try not to think of Opponents as “villains” except in cartoons. Opponents are characters with their own specific needs or agendas. In other words, they’re usually not evil just for evil’s sake. They should be developed with care – after all, they are usually the third largest role in the story. Giving them multiple traits will help avoid them being one-dimensional, which can lead to repetitive moments and probably bore the audience. Somewhere between 4-7 traits is usually sufficient depending on the type of project.
One way to flesh out your Opponent is by developing the character’s backstory, which can help the audience understand why the character is an Opponent and not a Protagonist. In The Incredibles, the Opponent Syndrome was once a young boy who wanted to be a super hero, but when Mr. Incredible shunned him he started working against the heroes of the city. In the TV series Narcos, while the Opponent Pablo Escobar, works against the American D.E.A. agents, we are given a glimpse into his family life and our understanding of him grows. But note that in general, backstory is not as necessary in screenwriting as most writers believe. It can sometimes be a useful idea to explore when making choices for characters, but it’s not as vital as the active traits the Opponents exhibit in the story.
And we should mention that your Opponent doesn’t always have to be a person per se. It could be nature (Castaway), conditions or situations (Groundhog Day), or organizations (the police in The Fugitive, represented by Tommy Lee Jones’s character Samuel Gerard). Keep in mind that organizations should have a character that serves as the face of the organization. In general, it’s usually more effective to include an Opponent that is a character that can make choices, which helps hook the audience’s attention.
As touched on above, if you’re looking to create a great Opponent it’s usually best to explore his or her agenda. Rarely is a person purely evil or driven by malice for no reason. Their pursuits may be misguided or extreme, but the best Opponents have real, grounded, human reasons for their actions – whether these reasons are positive or negative.
There are many questions that can be answered to help you figure out the best choices for your Opponent. Here are some particularly helpful ones: