The plot of most films involves the hero overcoming obstacles thrown at him by the bad guy(s). The more badass the antagonist, generally the stronger the film. What happens when the story is basically about Man vs. Self?
A lot of writers who set out to write films like that have a huge problem. How do you show sustained inner conflict without characters opposing one another? The answer, in my opinion, is that you can’t. Even though a film is about the hero’s life transition, (a man’s struggles with bipolar disorder, for example), you still need characters that oppose them, otherwise you get a script with little or no sustained external conflict.
Let’s look at Silver Linings Playbook — a basically a love story between Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence. While the film documents Cooper’s internal struggles to overcome bipolar disorder, and a recent divorce, his external conflict plays out as Lawrence’s character wants to get to know him, while he shuts her out. Without the antagonist in the form of Lawrence, the film would be pretty flat.
External conflict is what makes films a lot more dynamic, more visually appealing, and exciting to watch. So when a film truly does have a protagonist who’s actually the antagonist (Man vs. Self) the filmmakers generally look for ways of making the external conflict visual.
In Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, for example, the same man is represented on film as being two different people, with very different personas. Jekyll is the scientist whose goals are noble, and Hyde is dark, destructive character who wreaks havoc wherever he goes.
In Fight Club, the Narrator is the hero who struggles with his politically correct life and excessive consumerism. He doesn’t admire these qualities in himself, and realizes he needs to change but cannot.
At this point in his insomnia induced insanity he creates an alter ego, Tyler Durden, played by Brad Pitt. Durden, playing the part of his conscience, needs to pull the Narrator down into the netherworld of Fight Club, so he’ll hit bottom, and become a radical, like Tyler.
In A Beautiful Mind, Russell Crowe plays John Nash, the mathematical genius, who at Princeton, during World War 2, has a schizophrenic break with reality, becomes delusional, and finds himself being recruited as a cryptographer by the government, and fighting off enemy spies, who all exist only in his imagination.
Nash manages to learn to live with his imaginary colleagues and enemies, is allowed to return to teaching at Princeton, and eventually wins a Memorial Nobel Prize in Economics for his pioneering work in game theory.
In these films, the screenwriting device of creating imaginary antagonists who appear on film, and do battle with the protagonist is one way of putting a face on the protagonist’s internal enemies.
What about In films like American Beauty, The Odd Couple, Silver Linings Playbook, Leaving Las Vegas, When Harry Met Sally, Ordinary People, Good Will Hunting, Permanent Midnight, 10, Annie Hall, or Trainspotting, where the focus of the hero’s conflict is internal but there are no imaginary characters?
The protagonists in those kinds of films are struggling to overcome some fear, block, addiction, loyalty, grief, the acceptance of dramatic life changes (like breaking up, being fired, enduring a mid-life crisis, or fighting a terminal disease).
This brings up the question of how do we identify the protagonist? Sometimes it’s not so easy. The best way is to look for the character that drives the action, encounters resistance, and changes through conflict. While good films feature various characters (even antagonists) that have character arcs, the protagonist is generally the one who changes the most through conflict.
For example, in The Odd Couple, who’s the protagonist? Some say it’s Oscar, others say it’s Felix. When you look at who’s driving the action, it’s easier to decide. Felix gets divorced and needs a place to stay. He’s the one who’s changing the most.
Felix is overcoming the loss of his wife. When Oscar invites him to stay at his place, Felix complains about everything Oscar does, he’s a foul-mouthed, ill-mannered slob. Their ongoing feud stands in the way of his drive.
So you can then make a pretty good argument that Felix is the protagonist, and Oscar is the antagonist. The antagonist, after all is the character who impedes the hero’s progress, who stands in the way of the hero’s drive, in this case, to get over his wife and embark on his journey as a single man.
Some of the best movies around deal with strong inner conflicts. (In truth, all films really need a hero with an inner, as well as external conflict. In Rocky, for example his antagonist is clearly Apollo Creed, but his inner conflict is to prove he’s not just another bum from the neighborhood).
When you Google “who’s the antagonist in Leaving Las Vegas?” you might get “addiction.” When you Google “Who’s the antagonist in Romeo and Juliet, you might get “the Montague’s and the Capulet’s”
With When Harry Met Sally, you get “the long distance, or Man vs. Nature). Some say it’s Harry’s belief that “sex always ruins a friendship with a woman.” Men and women can’t just be friends.
In screenwriting, remember, there an exception for every rule. Sometimes the antagonists may really be a “belief,” or the “situation,” or “addiction.” Certainly those can be the inner conflicts.
However, movies are visual, and drama thrives on conflict (generally between people.) It’s my opinion that a screenplay is always better if there’s an internal conflict and an external conflict, with and antagonist who’s a character in the movie. The external conflict is what we see on film. Man vs. Self can be incredibly boring. Give the antagonist a face. Let them fight it out.