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Opponent

Opponent Character

“I’ve done far worse than kill you, Admiral.  I’ve hurt you.  And I wish to go on hurting you.” 

- Khan to Kirk in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan 

Ooo, goosebumps!  And delivered as only a great Opponent can. 

The Opponent is the primary source of conflict in your story, specifically for your Protagonist. As your Protagonist struggles to achieve their goal, the Opponent stands in the way. The Opponent makes things difficult by creating obstacles your Protagonist must overcome. This creates dramatic conflict and makes our stories exciting and gives them more impact – in other words, Opponents can make our stories more worth watching!

The Opponent can either oppose the Protagonist’s goal or compete for it. Each of these approaches is viable and both are used regularly in screenwriting. Ra’s al Ghul and Scarecrow try to thrust Gotham City into chaos while Batman fights to stop them (opposing goals) in Batman Begins. In Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones and Nazi commander Arnold Toht both search for the Ark of the Covenant (competing goals).

In the final climax of your story or specific storyline, the Protagonist usually fights the Opponent or overcomes them in some way.  This battle resolves the entire story by indicating whether or not the Protagonist is finally able to push past all remaining difficulties from the Opponent and achieve their goal. A classic example is in the Harry Potter series when Harry fights the Opponent, Voldemort and destroys him once and for all in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2.  

But these “battles” do not always have to be physical.  In A Few Good Men, Kaffee (Tom Cruise) catches Jessup (Jack Nicholson) in a lie, causing him to melt down in court. In romance stories or romantic comedies, the Protagonist usually wins over (or wins back) the love interest in a show of devotion, such as in You’ve Got Mail when Joe Fox reveals his feelings for Kathleen Kelly after they’ve spent their entire relationship hating one another.

Opponents In Film

The majority of film projects have a single Protagonist and Opponent.  This simple approach helps the audience (and writer) focus on the conflict within that interaction, and provides abundant opportunity for the Opponent to do their stuff – meaning, get in the way of the Protagonist. 

In Hook, Hook kidnaps Peter’s kids and tries to convince Peter’s son that Peter doesn’t love him. In Misery, the psychotic Annie Wilkes holds novelist Paul Sheldon hostage and forces him to write a novel of her choosing. Each of these Opponents creates different obstacles, both physical and psychological, and have plenty of interactions with the Protagonist.

Here are a few more examples of Opponents in film.  Think about how each creates conflict for the Protagonist of the story. Here are some notable Opponents in Film:

Jafar in Aladdin

Jerry Langford in The King of Comedy

Amadeus in Amadeus

Sarah Marshall in Forgetting Sarah Marshall

Ivan Drago in Rocky IV

Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty (1959)

Jack (DeNiro) in Meet the Parents

Miranda in Mrs. Doubtfire

Bill “The Butcher” in Gangs of New York

Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest

Jafar in Aladdin

Jerry Langford in The King of Comedy

Amadeus in Amadeus

Sarah Marshall in Forgetting Sarah Marshall

Ivan Drago in Rocky IV

Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty (1959)

Jack (DeNiro) in Meet the Parents

Miranda in Mrs. Doubtfire

Bill “The Butcher” in Gangs of New York

Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest

How Opponents Work In Television

For television projects, in Open Screenplay we make the distinction of two categories of Opponents: Series Opponent and Storyline Opponent. 

SERIES OPPONENT

Simply, in television the Series Opponent is the character(s) that will present the most obstacles overall throughout the entire run of the show. They will be the primary Opponent in a great many episodes, and will be thought of by the audience as the main source of conflict.

In Sherlock, his arch-nemesis and intellectual-equal, Jim Moriarty, works to outsmart Sherlock and get away with committing crimes. In All in the Family, Mike (Meathead), Gloria, and sometimes even Edith are Archie Bunker’s Series Opponents. Each of these examples includes Opponents that continually cause trouble for the Protagonist in some way throughout the series. 

So if you have an easily-identifiable Series Opponent, be sure to include them early in your Open Screenplay, as they will help to shape ideas right off the bat.  But if you don’t – don’t worry!  Plenty of shows do not have Series Opponents – like Friends, CSI, or Happy Days - and they did pretty darn well.

STORYLINE OPPONENT(S)

Since most episodes of television have more than one Storyline (see our tutorial), that means that for each Storyline we need to choose a Protagonist and give them something to achieve or deal with, and this usually also means there will be an Opponent that is somehow standing in their way. 

Since each storyline is its own story, by definition is has a beginning, middle, and end.  The end of the story indicates resolution and whether or not the Protagonist achieves what they set out to do – or if they solve their problem of the day or moment. 

Often in television shows the primary characters can rotate episode-to-episode in their function and therefore sometimes become Opponents to each other.  For most shows there are thousands of iterations of how this can happen.  This might be too much to think about at the moment, so we’ll just focus on the idea that each Storyline will have an Opponent, and leave it at that.  Whew! 

Here is an example of how Opponents in separate storylines can work, from an episode of Parks and Recreation - Season 3 Episode 14 entitled “Road Trip.” 

Storyline A – During a work-related road trip, Leslie and Ben finally admit their feelings for each other.

Protagonist: Leslie

Opponent:  Chris, her boss. They could get in trouble if he finds out, and he gets in the way of Leslie and Ben.

Storyline B – April and Andy get into a fight over a test of Tom’s new game show idea. 

Protagonist:  April

Opponent: Andy. Andy pulls away from her after her answer of a different favorite band from his, and she has to fix things with him. 

Storyline C – Ron is visited by a young girl for a school project and he teaches her his jaded view of government.

Protagonist: Ron

Opponent: the girl’s mom, Mrs. Burkiss, calls Ron out for the things he’s taught her daughter.

Note that the characters who are Opponents in these storylines won’t be Opponents all the time throughout the run of the show. They will also be Protagonists or Influencing Characters in different episodes. 

It’s also important to note that sometimes a single character can be an Opponent in one storyline while fulfilling a different component (Protagonist, Influencing Character) in another.  This happens often in episodes of television.  It can be tricky, but for now just remember that each storyline needs some sort of resolution, and that usually involves an Opponent. 

Think about the following shows and how sometimes characters are Protagonists, and at other times are Opponents to others.  

Boardwalk Empire

WKRP in Cincinnati

Married…With Children

30 Rock

Girls

Seinfeld

2 Broke Girls

Silicon Valley

The Good Wife

Grey’s Anatomy

The Wire

Babylon 5

Shameless

The Good Place

Empire

Boardwalk Empire

WKRP in Cincinnati

Married…With Children

30 Rock

Girls

Seinfeld

2 Broke Girls

Silicon Valley

The Good Wife

Grey’s Anatomy

The Wire

Babylon 5

Shameless

The Good Place

Empire