Every interesting hero in every story needs a worthy opponent. The opponent makes the hero interesting. The hero learns through their opponent. The opponent attacks the hero’s great weakness. The hero deals with their own great weakness and grows as a result.
The cat sat on a mat is not a story. The cat sat on the other cat’s mat is a story.
– John le Carre
John Truby, storytelling guru, offers the following advice for creating an opponent:
a. Create an opponent who makes it possible for the hero to grow.
The main opponent is the one person in the world best able to attack the great weakness of the hero. They should attack it relentlessly.
b. Make the opponent human.
- The main opponent can’t be an object/animal etc. The opponent is some form of double hero. Some writers have made use of a doppelgänger — someone who is extremely similar to the hero. But it’s really a much larger technique than that, and the major principals apply to any hero/opponent pair.
- The opponent double has certain weaknesses that are causing them to act wrongly toward others or act in ways that prevent the opponent from having a better life.
- Like the hero, the opponent double has a need, based on those weaknesses.
- The opponent-double must want something, preferably the same goal as the hero.
- The opponent double should be of great power, status, or ability, to put ultimate pressure on the hero, set up a final battle and drive the hero to larger success (or failure).
Where the opponent is ‘nature’, like in Twister, there is a group of rival storm chasers who serve as opponents. In Arachnophobia, the spiders make for creepy but uninteresting opponents because their motivation isn’t to kill everyone — that just happens as default. They have no morals for us to judge. So instead the writers created the conflict between the old doctor and the bright young city slicker coming in to an unwelcoming community, where the older doctor refuses to step aside.
c. Give the opponent values that oppose the values of the hero.
In the best stories the values of the opponent come into conflict with the values of the hero. Through that conflict, the audience sees which way of life is superior.
It pleases contemporary filmmakers and thus audiences to think they are much more sophisticated than this, but cruelty continues to be the mark of villains, the thing that lets the audience know who they are supposed to be against. […] Innocence is central to determining whether the behaviour is cruel or not.
— Howard Suber
d. Give the opponent a strong but flawed moral argument.
In a well-drawn story both hero and opponent believe they have chosen the correct path and both have reasons for believing so. They are also both misguided, though in different ways. Both hero and opponent attempt to justify their actions morally.
e. Give the opponent similarities to the hero.
The contrast between hero and opponent is powerful only when both characters have strong similarities. It is in the similarities that crucial and instructive differences become most clear. This makes sure you don’t end up with a hero who is perfectly good and an opponent who is perfectly evil. This pair are not extreme opposites. Rather, they are two possibilities within a range of possibilities. The argument between hero and opponent is not between good and evil but between two characters who have weaknesses and needs.
Other characters [apart from the hero] in a story can act heroically — not just the designated hero. Even villains and baddies can very effectively portray heroic qualities. Every rounded character should manifest a touch of each archetype (The Shadow In The Hero).
– from The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler
Frequently the hero and villain’s actions look very much alike. It’s what these actions are for that determines whether we think of the character as being obsessed or committed.
— The Power Of Film, Howard Suber
It’s often said that the best cops would make the best crims — by chance they’re working on the right side of the law. Crime drama makes the most of this. In The Wire, Jimmy McNulty is a good cop because he has an intuitive understanding of what motivates the criminals he’s working with. The audience sees Jimmy himself go against the rules and resisting the hierarchy that exists within the police force.
f. Keep the opponent in the same place as the hero.
This goes against commonsense, because when two people don’t like each other they tend to go in opposite directions. But if this happens in a story, the writer has great difficulty building conflict. The trick is to find a natural reason for the hero and opponent to stay in the same place during the course of the story.
In Pride and Prejudice, Lizzie is forced to spend time with Darcy when Mrs Bennett forces Jane to ride to Bingley’s mansion. There, she catches cold, and Lizzie must go and see her. Darcy happens to be there and flirting takes place after dinner, in which social convention dictates they share the same room.
The antagonist opposes the protagonist not just once but throughout. In this way the antagonist helps define the protagonist in the same way you invoke a shape by colouring in everything but that shape. Note that the antagonist needn’t be another character — it traditionally is, yes, but any persistent conflict can be truly antagonistic. A looming house foreclosure, a cancer diagnosis, a tornado made of biting squirrels.
– Chuck Wendig
In memorable movies…the strongest guy around is not likely to be the hero.
— Howard Suber
TYPES OF OPPONENTS
In traditional hero stories there are ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’ (better known to adults as heroes and adversaries). The activities of the heroes are sanctioned by society whereas the activities of the adversaries are considered wrong. Apart from pickpockets/thieves, the following groups tend to be depicted as adversaries in stories, because their ways of making a living undermine our perceptions of how decent society works. For example:
- Smugglers — e.g. from a Famous Five novel
- Pirates — in picture books pirates as just as often the sympathetic viewpoint characters, which is weird given that in real life they are criminals
- Gypsies — also oft-utilised by writers from the First Golden Age of children’s literature e.g. Enid Blyton
- Highwaymen — Julia Donaldson’s Highway Rat
- Wolves — Since wolves became an endangered species recent stories often turn the wolf into the victimised character
- Foxes — Straight from Aesop, foxes are like wolves only more wily
Note that only two genres require a villain: mystery and thriller.
Villains are traditionally gendered male. A female villain is seen as just that — a ‘female’ villain. Her gender is something extra. This means that decision makers can decide at any time that we’ve at ‘peak female villainy’.
Howard Suber says:
Often it is chaos, rather than evil, that is the enemy.
— Howard Suber
You’ll find those attributes (chaos and evil) are embodied in people, or — especially in children’s literature — as people stand-ins such as talking animals.
In other words, the opponent isn’t necessarily of evil intent. The opponent isn’t necessarily a ‘villain’. Case in point, the fake-ally opponent.
THE FAKE-ALLY OPPONENT
The fake-ally opponent is a character who appears to be an ally of the hero but is actually an opponent or working for the main opponent.
Plot is driven by reveals, which come from the steps the hero takes to uncover the true power of the opposition. Every time a hero discovers something new about an opponent—a revelation—the plot “turns,” and the audience is delighted. The fake-ally opponent increases the opponent’s power because the fact of his opposition is hidden.
The fake-ally opponent forces the hero and the audience to dig below the tip of the iceberg and find what the hero is truly up against.
Fake-ally opponents are also valuable because they are inherently complex. This character often undergoes a fascinating change in the course of the story. By pretending to be an ally of the hero, the fake-ally opponent starts to feel like an ally. So they become torn by a dilemma: they work for the opponent but want the hero to win.
When To Introduce The Fake-Ally Opponent
You usually introduce the fake-ally opponent after the main opponent, but not always. If the opponent has come up with a plan to defeat the hero before the story even begins, you may introduce the fake-ally opponent first.
- Who wants to stop the MC from getting what she wants and why?
- What does the opponent want? She should be competing for the same goal as the MC.
- What are the opponent’s values, and how do they differ from the MC’s? Most writers never ask this question — a big mistake. A story without a conflict of values, as well as characters, cannot build.
RULES OF FICTIONAL OPPONENTS
The opponent is the character who wants to prevent the MC from reaching her goal.
The relationship between opponent/MC is the most important in the story.
The best opponent is the necessary one. The opponent is the character who is best able to attack the great weakness of your MC.
The MC will either overcome that weakness or be destroyed.
Opponents and mystery are closely related because a mysterious opponent is more difficult to defeat. In average stories, the MC’s only task is to defeat the opponent. In good stories the MC has to:
1. Uncover the opponent and
2. then defeat her.
In thrillers and mysteries there has to be a mystery to compensate for the missing opponent. Detective stories purposely hide their opponents until the end. Until then, the audience needs something to replace the ongoing conflict between MC and opponent. In this kind of story you introduce a mystery at about the time you would normally introduce the main opponent.
It doesn’t matter what kind of story you’re writing — the opponent has to be mysterious. (Think of her like an iceberg — mostly hidden beneath the surface.) To make the opponent mysterious, you can create a hierarchy of opponents, but hide the hierarchy, and each opponent’s true agenda from the MC. Reveal all this info in pieces. There will be more reveals near the end of the story.
Some opponents are fake allies. A fake-ally is inherently complex and therefore interesting.
A story is built on gradual reveals. The best reveals are those where the MC gets info about an opponent. This intensifies conflict and has most effect on outcome of the plot. Revelations need to be progressively important or they won’t propel the story. (‘Plot thickening’.)
– from John Truby The Anatomy of Story
PLOT TECHNIQUE: THE ICEBERG OPPONENT
Making the opponent mysterious is extremely important, no matter what kind of story you are writing. Think of the opponent as an iceberg. Some of the iceberg is visible above the water. But most of it is hidden below the surface, and that is by far the more dangerous part.
There are four techniques that can help you make the opposition in your story as dangerous as possible:
1. Create a hierarchy of opponents with a number of alliances. All of the opponents are related to one another; they are all working together to defeat the hero. The main opponent sits at the top of this pyramid, with the other opponents below him in power.
2. Hide the hierarchy from the hero and the audience, and hide each opponent’s true agenda (true desire).
3. Reveal all this information in pieces and at an increasing pace over the course of the story. This means you’ll have more reveals near the end of the story. As we shall see, how you reveal information to hero and audience is what makes or breaks your plot.
4. Consider having your hero go up against an obvious opponent early in the story. As the conflict intensifies, have the hero discover attacks from a stronger hidden opposition or attacks from that part of the opponent that has been hidden away.