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Protagonist and Antagonist Conflict: The Secret Formula

How Adding a Stakes Character to Form a Three-Way Triangle of Conflict With Your Protagonist and Antagonist Will Tighten Up Your Script

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by Script Reader Pro in How to Write Characters
February 19, 2019 32 comments
protagonist and antagonist

Protagonist and Antagonist Conflict: Why It’s Between 3 Characters Not 2

When it comes to the protagonist and antagonist in a screenplay, aspiring screenwriters are constantly being told cliches like:

♦  “A strong story is based on the protagonist-antagonist conflict.”

♦  “Your protagonist and antagonist are the two most important characters in the script.”

♦  “Every scene should a battle between protagonist and antagonist.”

Writers then end up thinking about building a story solely based around a black and white conflict between protagonist and antagonist. And scenes are thought of as showdowns between “a character who wants something and another who wants the opposite” and so on.

The problem is, what’s the straight protagonist-antagonist conflict in a movie like Brooklyn? Where’s the battle between protagonist and antagonist in Andrew’s first date with Nicole in Whiplash?

High Stakes

While there is no obvious protagonist and antagonist showdown in these examples, there is something at stake in them. And that’s what’s missing in so many spec screenplays and why they ultimately fail.

If you focus solely on a protagonist-antagonist dichotomy, you’re more likely to forget the most important factor in making a screenplay work…

And, the best way to remind the audience of what’s at stake is through the presence of a “stakes character.”

It is this stakes character who personifies what’s at stake and makes up the three-way triangle of conflict along with the protagonist and antagonist. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. First…

A High Stakes Definition Regarding the Protagonist and Antagonist

High stakes can broadly be defined as:

What a character stands to lose if they fail whatever it is they want to achieve.

High stakes are about making sure something is at risk for a character if they don’t achieve their goal. In other words, What’s the worst thing that could happen to this character if they don’t solve this problem?

Whatever’s at stake should not only be apparent in the logline but also permeate every act, sequence, scene and beat in the screenplay.

Death Stakes

The single most powerful way to think of high stakes is in terms of death. In other words, will the character die? Either literally or figuratively.

 In action/adventures, thrillers and horrors, the main protagonist is at risk of dying in a literal sense.

♦  In comedies and dramas, however, what’s at stake for the characters is not usually physically dying, but figuratively dying. For example, not finding true love and so “dying” inside.

This sense that a character will die—either literally or figuratively—is what then gives a goal its sense of high stakes.

Every minor character should also have a goal and something in stake in their life. But for now we’re going to concentrate on the three main characters: the protagonist and antagonist and stakes character.

The Three-Way Triangle of Conflict Between Protagonist and Antagonist and Stakes Character

The best way to demonstrate and strengthen these high stakes is in a three-way power struggle. This is between the protagonist and antagonist fighting over whatever’s at stake— often personified in the form of a stakes character.

Rather than thinking of a screenplay in terms of a simple protagonist and antagonist dichotomy, the three-way triangle of conflict adds a third dimension that solidifies the conflict.

Protagonist and Antagonist and Stakes Character Triangle of Conflict Examples

Here are a few examples of the three-way triangle of conflict from each of the five major genres:

Drama: Jerry Maguire

♦  Who is the protagonist? Jerry, whose goal is to rebuild his career as an independent sports agent

♦  Who is the antagonist? Jerry himself and Rod Tidwell, the only client who joins him in his new enterprise and who forces him to change

♦  Who is the stakes character? Dorothy, whose love affair represents what Jerry really needs, rather than what he thinks he wants

Comedy: Bridesmaids

♦  Who is the protagonist? Annie, whose goal is to get her life together while being a great maid of honor for her best friend

♦  Who is the antagonist? Annie herself and Helen, whose goal is to upstage her as a maid of honor

♦  Who is the stakes character? Lillian, whose friendship with Annie represents what’s really at stake in the movie

Action/Adventure: Raiders of the Lost Ark

♦  Who is the protagonist? Indy, whose goal is to locate the ark

♦  Who is the antagonist? Belloq and the Nazis, whose goal is also to locate the ark

♦  Who is the stakes character? Marion, who represents the end of the world if Belloq and the Nazis get their hands on the ark and can also save Indy from a figurative death

Thriller: Bird Box

♦  Who is the protagonist? Malorie, whose goal is to get her and her kids to the community down river

♦  Who is the antagonist? The supernatural entity that causes people to commit suicide

♦  Who is the stakes character? Malorie’s kids, who represent not only what’s at stake for Malorie but also the survival of future generations

Horror: Happy Death Day

♦  Who is the protagonist? Tree, whose goal is to stop repeating the same day over and over

♦  Who is the antagonist? The killer, whose goal is to kill Tree

♦  Who is the stakes character? Carter, who represents life beyond Tree being chased by the killer and repeating the same day into infinity

It’s this three-way power struggle—the protagonist and antagonist both fighting in direct opposition over a stakes character or something big at stake—that gives a screenplay its power.

Let’s now take a moment to consider each major character in turn and how they operate within the three-way triangle of conflict. Let’s start with protagonist and antagonist examples before moving on to the stakes character.

protagonist and antagonist

What Is a Protagonist? A Quick Protagonist Definition

Put simply, the protagonist is the main character in your story. They’re the “hero” who you want the audience to most identify with and hope their goal succeeds.

The main protagonist is the first character to consider when forming the three-way triangle of conflict and will usually have a big problem in life that needs solving.

It should be clear to the audience that if they don’t, they risk either figuratively or literally dying. This forms the basis of the overall story stakes and should be apparent in the logline and every scene in the script.

Protagonist Examples From Different Genres

Now let’s take a look at some well-known protagonist examples from each of the five major genres:

Drama: American Beauty

Lester Burnham is the central character and his goal to reclaim his life has figurative death stakes attached.

Comedy: Inside Out

Joy is the protagonist and her goal also has figurative death stakes attached—to save herself and Riley from figuratively dying inside.

Action/Adventure: The Revenant

Hugh Glass is the main character and his goal to make it out of the wilderness in one piece has literal death stakes attached.

Thriller: Se7en

Somerset and Mills are the protagonists and their goal also has literal death stakes attached—to stop the killer before he strikes again.

Horror: Wolf Creek

The travelers are the protagonists and their goal to escape Mick the killer has some very immediate death stakes attached.

Protagonist and Antagonist and Stakes Character: Important Take-Away Info

Overall, it’s the protagonist’s figurative or literal death stakes that motivate the choices they make throughout the story and drive it forward.

If you get the note back on a script saying your main character is too passive, this is why: they’re not actively trying hard enough to solve what’s at stake.

In American Beauty, Lester’s stakes involve figuratively dying (even though he literally dies at the end.) This is what motivates him to quit his job, stand up to his wife, get in shape and pursue his daughter’s best friend.

Similarly, all of the decisions the travelers make in Wolf Creek are to avoid being literally killed. This is what’s at stake in the movie and, once they realize the danger they’re in, informs every single scene.

What Is an Antagonist? A Quick Antagonist Definition

In most cases, it’s the second major character in the script who wants the exact opposite to the main protagonist. However, the antagonist character doesn’t always have to be represented by a character.

Sometimes it’s a supernatural force, the protagonist’s fatal flaw, a weather event or anything that stops the central character from moving forward.

The antagonist forms the second part of the three-way triangle of conflict and their goal should be in direct opposition to the protagonist’s goal. This goal should also have high stakes attached and drive the antagonist’s actions through the story.

While the audience will be hoping the antagonist doesn’t achieve their goal, don’t make the mistake of not giving it the attention it deserves.

The stronger the antagonist’s goal and the more they think they have to lose, the stronger their antagonism. As a consequence, the stronger your script will be as a result.

Antagonist Examples From Each Major Genre

Drama: It’s a Wonderful Life

Potter’s goal as the antagonist is to make as much money as possible by buying up all of Bedford Falls. In his eyes, he thinks there are high stakes attached to this and that he’ll die figuratively inside if he doesn’t.

Comedy: Little Miss Sunshine

Often in comedies and dramas, it’s the protagonists themselves who represents much of the force of antagonism in the story, and this is the case in this movie.

It’s the dysfunctional nature of the family itself that threatens the goal of getting Olive to the beauty pageant.

Action/Adventure: Star Wars (The Force Awakens)

Kylo Ren is the antagonist character and his goal is to destroy the Resistance. From his point of view, the stakes attached to his goal are literal, as if he doesn’t succeed the Resistance will kill him.

Thriller: Prisoners

Whoever kidnapped Keller Dover’s daughter is the antagonist and from his/her point of view what’s at stake is the risk of getting caught.

Horror: The Blair Witch Project

Elly Kedward, the witch in the woods, is the antagonist and, in her eyes, the stakes are high and personal having been banished by the town in the 1700s.

Protagonist and Antagonist and Stakes Character: Important Take-Away Info

It’s essential when creating a strong antagonist is to remember to see things through their eyes. What’s at stake for them? What do they want and how does their goal make perfect sense to them?

Answering these questions will help humanize them and make the story feel more real overall.

We may not like Potter in It’s a Wonderful Life, but it’s important to be able to see him as a human being—as flawed as he is. And the writers achieve this by making his goals have high stakes for him.

Likewise, the family in Little Miss Sunshine is terribly flawed but because we understand each of their individual goals—they become relatable.

What Is a Stakes Character? A Quick Stakes Character Definition

The third, and often overlooked, main character in a screenplay is the stakes character. They complete the triangle of conflict and personify what’s at stake in the protagonist’s quest.

They embody what’s at stake overall and are often who the protagonist and antagonist both end up fighting over.

Not all movies have a stakes character, but it’s worth noting that many do and understanding how their own goal usually represents the screenplay theme and answer the protagonist is looking for.

Stakes Character Examples From Each Major Genre

Drama: The Truman Show

Lauren is the stakes character who represents what’s at stake for Truman: leaving the island and living his life off-camera, thus avoiding a figurative death.

Comedy: Sideways

Maya is the stakes character who represents what’s at stake for Miles: finding love and saving himself from a figurative death.

Action/Adventure: John Wick

John’s deceased wife represents what’s at stake for John as he tracks down the gangsters that killed the dog she gave him before she died.

Thriller: No Escape

Jack’s family—his wife Annie and their two daughters—are the stakes characters who he has to save from literally dying at the hands of the armed rebels.

Horror: Insidious

Josh and Renai’s son is the stakes character who needs to be saved from literally being killed by the Further.

Protagonist and Antagonist and Stakes Character: Important Take-Away Info

Note how in each case, the stakes character is what brings both the protagonist and antagonist together in head-to-head conflict.

They are the glue that holds the three-way triangle of conflict together as the protagonist and antagonist fight over them.

Lauren is always being bundled away by the authorities in The Truman Show, Maya is brought into Miles’ orbit by the antagonist, Jack, in Sideways, Josh and Renai fight to the death with the Further over control of their son in Insidious, and so on.

Also note that in dramas and comedies, the stakes character is also the protagonist’s love interest. Andrew and Nicole in Whiplash, Dorothy and Jerry in Jerry Maguire, Mary and George in It’s a Wonderful Life, etc.

How to Construct a Three-Way Triangle of Conflict Between Protagonist, Antagonist and Stakes Character

Now it’s time to make sure your three main characters—the protagonist, antagonist and stakes character—are all working together properly in a three-way triangle of conflict.

A very common mistake in spec scripts is that there’s a clear main protagonist, but they don’t struggle to achieve anything against a strong antagonist character.

But more than this, the stakes character is often missing too—a character who represents what’s at stake if the protagonist doesn’t achieve their goal.

In order to strengthen a screenplay, it can sometimes be helpful to find answers to the following three questions:

♦  What does my main character struggle to achieve in this script?

♦  Who, or what stands in the way of them achieving it?

♦  What’s at stake if they don’t achieve it? And who personifies this?

If you don’t have ready answers to these three questions, then there’s possibly an overall problem inherent in the script’s overall concept.

Answering these questions, working out exactly who’s in your three-way triangle of conflict and figuring out what’s at stake for all three characters, should help you remedy these problems and really solidify your script’s core concept.

Protagonist and Antagonist and Stakes Character: Conclusion

When asked to define high stakes in a screenplay, most writers know that it involves making sure the main character has something to lose if they don’t achieve their goal.

However, this can often feel vague when executed within a screenplay if the writer hasn’t set it within a three-way triangle of conflict.

Once it’s clear to the reader that the protagonist and antagonist are both locked in a struggle over what’s at stake—as personified by a stakes character—the core conflict will be clear and the story will feel that much stronger.

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Do you consider the stakes character when setting your protagonist and antagonist against each other? What do you think of our three-way triangle of conflict method? Let us know in the comments section below.

protagonist and antagonist

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[© Photo credits: Unsplash

32 Comments
  1. Graham says:

    Brilliant insight…about stakes character…I went to the how to books I have and this piece puts real focus where inference usually is.
    A big help
    A big step forward for me..

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Good stuff – glad it helped, Graham!

  2. LEE BRUCE says:

    This item put me back on track but not without realizing the triangle. I need to figure out the antagonist in a situation where if the main character loses her high paying job and is reluctant to take work for a year without pay the stakes become clear but the antagonist is misty to me. I think it is the loss of work situation where her skills would be lost if she does not accept the only job in her field but without pay. That will be my antagonist and the stakes will be obvious. My log line shows this but for each beat I have to shovel this triangle through…this is fun though

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks for reaching out, Lee. If you’re writing a drama or comedy, then often a major force of antagonism is the protagonist themselves. It’s their fatal flaw that holds them back, so you need to make sure you know exactly what this is, and then the answer to it can be represented in the stakes character.

  3. Janet says:

    Just what I needed to read right now! I have a stakes character, but this helps me solidify it even more and helps with my theme. Great timing SRP – Thanks for focusing on this topic!

  4. Peter S. says:

    I agree the movie Bridesmaids is the perfect example of how any comedy can benefit from a strong protagonist, antagonist and stakes character conflict. I’m also a comedy writer and I have to say applying this concept is essential to bring your script to the next level.

  5. Rebecca says:

    I love the protagonist in my screenplay and I think I created a great stakes character as well, I’m just not sure how to get my antagonist more involved in the first act of my script.

  6. Matthew says:

    This is such a great approach. I never thought of adding another character into the protagonist/antagonist mix. I guess there are some script re-writes coming my way. Cheers guys!

  7. Franka says:

    As a screenwriting student, I found it’s really hard to create conflict between protagonist and antagonist because I’m mainly interested in writing drama.

  8. Roland says:

    Thanks for the great insight. I’m writing my ninth screenplay and I’m embracing the 3-way triangle of conflict between protagonist, antagonist and stakes character to the fullest. It really changes the way I write screenplays.

  9. Stephen says:

    I am really struggling to create scenes based on the conflict between my protagonist and antagonist in my screenplay. Reading your article opened my eyes to what I was doing wrong all along. My script doesn’t have a strong stakes character! Thanks so much, this will change everything!!

  10. Amira says:

    I don’t care about protagonists, antagonists or stakes characters. I write from my heart and all I care about is to let the story flow.

  11. Daniel Cosper says:

    I was wondering if Societies negative antisocial attitudes towards the Camino Kid, a young pool player, could be the protagonist? Seems the answer, due to this article is yes! Thank you for this new vision. Our hero witnesses a selfless compassionate act take place inside a pool hall on a weekly basis yet no one outside of one believes him. Not his teachers nor his principal when on his first day of school the Kids two paragraph nonfictional essay about whom he met and what he learned during the summer break gets him suspended for three days!

  12. M Brown says:

    hi this protaginst antagonist struggle is very interesting

  13. Terrel Bradley says:

    Thanks for the insight! It was extremely helpful. I’m curious, do you think a stakes character can represent what the consequences would be if the protagonist did achieve his goal? Or would that automatically make him the antagonist?

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks, Terrel! The stakes character is supposed to represent the “right” path for the protagonist, the antagonist the “wrong” path. So they’re two very different characters and potential outcomes.

  14. Roger says:

    I always find the protagonist and antagonist pretty easy to come up with but had not thought about the stake character .

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Glad the post helped, Roger!

  15. Rachael Beauchamp says:

    This is a brilliant post. I am struggling with this situation in my current story. I have a clear antagonist and I have a clear stakes character, but my protagonist is actually a likeable anti-hero who does win in the end, but not from just his own actions, so I am a little confused on how to make this three-way circle work?

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks, Rachael, glad you found it useful. We’d have to read the script to give you some proper feedback, but feel free to explain a bit more about the issue. If you have a protagonist, antagonist and stakes character it sounds like everything’s in place?

      1. Rachael Beauchamp says:

        I have a few more weeks of rewrite, I have actually rewritten it about 15 times now, I’ve had one professional read by the blacklist and it scored a 7 and it has placed in a few contest and I have sent a few cold queries out to no avail, so I think it’s time to get a deeper evaluation. I think it’s a good story, but there is still something I missing to tighten it and finish it out.

        1. Script Reader Pro says:

          Love it – sounds like you’re definitely on the right track but this is something we could definitely help you out with.

  16. Matt Hanson says:

    I need a good way of making my protagonist more likeable, how do I do this? I get this note all the time.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Your protagonist doesn’t have to be likable – that’s a pretty annoying note. What helps is if they’re relatable or empathetic in some way.

  17. Jolie Richards says:

    I’ve read pretty much every post out there about this and most blogs say the protagonist and antagonist conflict needs to be strong but no one mentions stakes character like you guys. Really helpful so thank you.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      You’re welcome, Jolie!

  18. Jordan says:

    Can the protagonist and antagonist conflict be just between the protagonist? My script doesn’t really have an antagonist .

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Yes, some films are based around a purely internal conflict within the protagonist him/herself. But there’s usually a character that represents a force of antagonism too.

  19. Eddie R says:

    Wow this has totally opened my eyes THank YOu!.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Glad it helped, Eddie!

  20. Chandra Darzi says:

    Thanks for this post I had no idea about protagonist and antagonist conflict to be thought of in this way. Blessings.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks for the comment, Chandra – appreciate it!

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