The most dangerous mistake that any storyteller can make when crafting conflict between a protagonist and an antagonist is to approach it as a versus match.
Creating good conflict in stories is not a show of power, wit, and charm. It is a high-stakes game of strategy and interest where both characters share a desire for one goal albeit from different perspectives and with different intentions.
Conflict between rival characters should be the embodiment of the goals and desires of those characters which are important enough to set them on a collision course as they scramble to achieve it. In other words, Conflict is not a plot device, Conflict is a character.
I'll use two examples to explain this point before we dive deeper. One is a bar joke and the other is a case study of Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight.
A hero and a villain walk into a bar after an intense episode of fighting. It is late and there's only one shot of scotch left.
The Hero says to the barman; "I'll have a shot of scotch"
The Bartender obliges, picks the scotch, and begins to pour it in for the hero when…
The Villain says, "I'll have a shot of scotch too"
The Bartender stops, gives both the hero and the villain a nasty look before he responds, "Take this story outside"
Did you notice the fourth character in this solid attempt at humor?
We had the hero, the villain, the bartender, and the… yes, that's right, the shot of scotch. Their object of desire also happens to be their object of conflict. A character whose absence would render the story completely useless. If they want that scotch enough, they could kill for it. The stakes in the situation can be dangerously high if I wanted it to and it would make perfect sense.
It doesn't matter whether the object of desire is a human or an actual object, they can still be a character. Their ability to influence the decisions of the characters and the plot of the story is what gives them this identity. The beautiful Helen was the conflict character that caused the downfall of a whole city and the untold bloodshed that ensued.
Our second example covers the major object of desire within Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight and how it affects and influences the active rivalry between The Joker and Batman.
For those unfamiliar with the plot, Batman is a billionaire who decides to retire his masked vigilante lifestyle as corruption begins to fade away from his city Gotham. The Joker, on the other hand, is a psychopathic anarchist who dresses up as a clown and throws a wrench in Batman's plan when he decides that the city still needs his own prescribed method of saving which undoes everything Batman has worked so hard to achieve.
They both want to save Gotham at this point but they have different methods of achieving this goal.
Their conflict character is Gotham. Joker wants to pull down its social structures and reveal the hypocrisy of its gatekeepers while Batman wants to restore order, entrust the city into the hands of its officials, and retire into normal life. Joker is the one that pumps the stakes to a neck-breaking level unnerving the stoic Batman to the point that he almost loses it.
Now, how can you be sure Gotham is really a character? Well, the answer is simple. Remove Gotham from the movie and still try to tell the story with the characters you have left.
Now, before move any further, let us consider what effective 'Protagonists' and 'Antagonists' needed for proper conflict look like.
A protagonist is the main character of a story whose goals, desires, and decisions reflect the intentions of the goals of the general story being told. The antagonist, however, is the foil of the antagonist. They might be similar to the protagonist on the surface but their goals, desires, and decisions strongly contrast from those of the protagonist and the general story. In other words, they serve as an antagonizing force against the protagonist.
The recipe for building a solid relationship of conflict requires an awareness of the difficult journey of realization and/or redemption that your character is about to embark on. For this purpose, you must ensure not to craft your hero as an absolute beacon of good.
No matter how tempting it might be, creating a character that has no flaw will just make them unrelatable to the audience and unreasonable to the plot which also applies to the level of power they hold. They need to be strong enough to face their rival while being weak enough to get trashed by that same rival the first couple of times. Why else do you think people prefer the caped crusader to Superman?
Similarly, nothing justifies making your antagonist pure evil. Even the utterly despicable Darth Vader and the immensely diabolical Voldemort had slivers of humanity within them. An antagonist should be able to recognize middle ground with the Protagonist even if they choose to ignore it. There should be a level of relatability not just between the characters and the audience but also between the characters themselves. Voldemort saw his prodigious brilliance in Harry Potter, Luke Skywalker was Darth Vader's son and we all could understand why Killmonger was so angry.
As a rule of thumb, your antagonist should be more powerful than your protagonist.
The protagonist, the antagonist, and the conflict. Three characters that have given audience members captivating stories from the beginning of time. You have seen it in some of the greatest movies and TV Shows without even knowing and I'll show you;
Most TV series tend to get lost in themselves. By their very nature, they will have to deal with several conflicts as the main characters learn, adapt and advance.
Breaking Bad does a masterful job of containing these conflicts and not losing its sights on the main conflict character; money. The lack of which breeds insecurity within him.
Walter White the main protagonist of the show begins from a place of weakness and insecurity. He is a loser at home and at work. He is down on his luck more times than not and well, he also has cancer. His dire financial state and his mortality spur him into engaging in drug trade that sets him on a path of illegal wealth and false self-confidence. He thinks he has shed his insecurity when the money begins to flow in but we the viewers can see it has evolved into blind arrogance and greed.
The conflict of his financial restraint is dealt with through the money gets from his drug sales but then it comes at a cost; a terrible relationship with his son, a cautious relationship with his brother-in-law who is a DEA agent, and a relationship devoid of trust with his wife, Skyler, who he has to tell complex webs of lies to insulate her from his dangerous lifestyle. Then, there are the rivals, the direct antagonists that he encounters in his illegal drug trade. They pose new challenges for him to learn from and eventually overcome. Just like the conflicts, some of these villains come and go while others stay. Walt overcomes them but his character flaw, his hubris, does not permit him to learn from them. We watch a hero evolve into a cold-blooded villain by the time the show wraps up.
All along, Walter White had been the protagonist of the show while also being his own antagonist dealing with internal conflict characters that were only made worse as a result of his wrong choices.
Shrek is the story of an ogre that just wants to be left alone in a world where humans won't leave any stone unturned. When we are introduced to him, he is cynical, dangerous, and discriminatory just like any stereotypical ogre would be but we are also introduced to a gentle, peace-loving side of the ogre that really doesn't want to hurt anyone. In the beginning, this is his goal, his conflict character is his land along with the solitude and peace of mind that it brings. Something that Lord Farquaad's citizens and policies have infringed upon.
In a bid to quell that conflict, he strikes a bargain with Lord Farquaad and proceeds on a quest to rescue a bride for him in exchange for his land.
This quest opens another layer of internal conflict for Shrek that he was not even aware of; his external appearance and his need for acceptance, when he falls in love with the princess he rescues, makes him vulnerable enough for a change from his surly side to a more welcoming, loving ogre.
While Shrek might have subverted fairytale conventions, it still stuck to the basic principles of elevating conflict from a device to an actual character that is so real it threatens the entire existence of the characters in contact.
At first, Lord Farquaad unknowingly takes up his land - their first direct conflict. Then Lord Farquaad almost marries the love of his life - their second direct conflict. The personification of two major conflicts in Shrek manifests itself in his land and in the princess. Take these two away from the movie and you have no story.
We have covered major points, definitions and used examples to explain the character called conflict. However, application is a different ballgame even when you have all the cards in your hands.
You need to know how to use it and when.
One major error that stories with weak conflicts have is a protagonist that does not suffer. The plot is often watery and anticlimactic as we watch the protagonist stumble conveniently towards their goal.
Often, the root cause of this is a lack of elevated stakes and a lack of the personification of those stakes. It's easier to get two characters to fight if they both want the same thing and it's a lot easier if that thing that they want is as clear as day. I cannot stress this enough, there needs to be a character that represents the central conflict of the story and also represents what that character stands to lose if they do not achieve their goal.
Before you venture into writing any story, there are three questions that you need to ask yourself;
1. What is my main character striving for in this story?
Put it in terms of a struggle. Allow your character to suffer for what they desire. It can not be an easy journey. Easy character journeys do not translate to captivating cinema.
2. What/Who is the obstacle that might stop them from achieving what they are striving for?
The antagonist can be human, they can be mother nature and they can be an inanimate object. In the Oscar-winning movie "The Revenant", Tom Hardy's antagonistic character John Fitzgerald might have served as the perfect foil for Leonardo DiCaprio's Hugh Glass but it was Mother Nature that served as the most formidable adversary. Clearly define your antagonist and allow them to turn up the heat under your protagonist till it is almost unbearable.
3. What/Who is the Conflict character and what will the protagonist lose if they don't resolve this conflict?
I might be chewing on your ear at this point but if you forget anything you have read here, it will be difficult to forget this; your conflict is a character. Whether it breathes or it doesn't, it is integral to your character's journey so accord it the respect it deserves. Set your stakes reasonably high, challenge them with the gravity of their quest, and keep them aware of the consequences of failure.
You should treat these questions as a map, a guideline for navigating the often confusing waters of storytelling. It's easy to hit snags, writer's block, or foggy situations where the story refuses to advance. If you ask and answer these three questions in those moments, it will lend clarity to your perspective of the story and might even pull you out of your writer's block.
The world of characters, goals, conflict is as old as time itself. Our lives serve as an easy template for it. We wake up on a Monday morning with a goal in mind that we are aware will be hard to achieve and yet, when we are done with our day, we have tried our best, failed where we could, and achieved what we could.
This is life. This is story. As you create your own story, keep in mind that the antagonist is powerful but your protagonist will overcome. Keep in mind that the conflict is real (a character) and your protagonist might resolve it. Keep in mind that at the end of it all, it's your call to make.