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 59 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.


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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