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.
OPPONENTS AND GENRE
The opponent will depend on the genre/type of story you’re writing.
In the simple detective story they’re catalysed by the murder; in the medical drama the patient. […] In the simple thriller form the antagonist is marked out by their desire to control and dominate the lives of others. They don’t follow the moral codes of the community; more often than not they’re an embodiment of selfishness. They are also, historically, often marked by physical or mental deformity. Le Chiffre’s maladjusted tear duct in the film of Casino Royale is the modern equivalent of Dr No’s missing hands or Scaramanga’s third nipple in the Man With The Golden Gun.
— John Yorke, Into The Woods
Since ‘nature’ makes an uninteresting opponent, even when the opponent is plenty strong enough the writers will concoct human antagonists. In Twister the hurricane is the main opposing force, but none of the characters are getting on with each other, either.
If there’s a killer or an evil mastermind bent on planetary domination then they are, obviously, the antagonists [often called ‘villains’]; the patient may not behave antagonistically, but they effectively embody the illness that will be the true enemy in the drama. The antagonist is thus the thing or person the protagonist must vanquish to achieve their goal.
— John Yorke, Into The Woods
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
TIPS FOR CREATING A WORTHY OPPONENT
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).
In most of the best stories the opponent will be another human but it can also be ‘nature’ (e.g. in a disaster movie). 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.
Think of ‘opponent’ as a sum total of forces:
So something happens to a central character that throws them off the beaten track and forces them into a world they’ve never seen. A beanstalk grows, a patient collapses, a murder is committed. All of these actions have consequences, which in turn provoke obstacles that are commonly dubbed forces of antagonism — the sum total of all the obstacles that obstruct a character in the pursuit of their desires. These forces accumulate from this initial moment as we head towards the climax of the story.
— John Yorke, Into The Woods
You might be asking yourself at this point, can the main character be ‘their own worst enemy’?
The antagonist is … the thing or person the protagonist must vanquish to achieve their goal. The detective and ‘monster’ templates illustrate this well, but antagonism can manifest itself in many different ways — most interestingly when it lies within the protagonist. Cowardice, drunkenness, lack of self-esteem — all will serve as internal obstacles that prevent a character reaching fulfilment.
— John Yorke, Into The Woods
However, if your main character’s ONLY opponent is their own self, you’re in for a tough job. Sure — great stories can be created in which the main character is their own worst enemy. An excellent example is Larry McMurtry’s Hud, from his novel Horseman, Pass By. That said, McMutry knew that in order to show the audience that Hud is his own worst enemy he had to do it via conflict with other characters. He couldn’t just put him on a farm alone. Even in The Martian by Andy Weir, the story was improved with the addition of other people — the base back on Earth, and the backstory which included the other astronauts. The Martian environment is plenty oppositional enough, but doesn’t make for the best story.
In very short stories, such as children’s picture books, a main character can be their own worst enemy and the story works well. Two examples are After The Fall by Dan Santat (recent) and The Chicken Book by Garth Williams (classic).
Where the character is their own worst enemy, that part goes under the ‘psychological weakness’/’moral weakness’ banner, not under this one.
If you are writing a story in which the main character’s biggest enemy is themselves, you are writing what’s commonly known as a ‘Man vs. Self’ story. This article at Now Novel has some specific pointers on how to do it.
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.
Be GOOD or be EVIL, but don’t just be A LITTLE BIT OF A WEASEL.
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
The more successful the villain, the more successful the picture.
— Alfred Hitchcock
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
- Highwaymen — Julia Donaldson’s Highway Rat is a picture book example.
- Wolves — Since wolves became an endangered species recent stories often turn the wolf into the victimised character.
- Foxes — Straight out of Aesop, foxes are like wolves only more wily
- Witches and other supernatural, folkloric creatures
Note that only two genres require a villain: mystery and thriller.
I try to create sympathy for my characters, then turn the monsters loose.
– Stephen King
What puzzled me about villains was why, when they were masquerading as respectable citizens, their essential no-goodness wasn’t as obvious to people on the screen as it was to me in the stalls. How could Pinnochio be so stupid as to be led astray by the patently wicked Fox, or Snow White not know the Queen was up to no good? Had the Queen been flesh and blood and not a cartoon she might well have been played by Joan Crawford, who was always something of an enigma to me. I never liked her, and with her gaunt face, protruding eyes and instinct for melodrama she seemed the embodiment of evil, yet she was often cast in the role of heroine… Claude Rains was another puzzle. He was determinedly silky and seldom unsmiling, sure signs that he was a baddy, though not always. […] Banal though the general fun of films was, I learned, as one learned in fairy stories, about good and evil and how to spot them: the good where one would expect only degradation and squalor, and treachery and cowardice to be traced in the haunts of respectability. I learned about the occasional kindness of villains an the regular intransigence of saints but the abiding lesson had to do with the perils of prominence… Films taught you to be happy that you were ordinary.
– Alan Bennett, from Untold Stories
People have a need to believe that bad things are done by bad people. And what is bad? Isn’t this defined as anything outside the common good, which is further defined as whatever the majority see as good? Why must the villain wear a black hat? Because if he didn’t, how would we know he was the villain?
– Stephen Dobyn, from The Church Of Dead Girls
Charlie Jane Anders has some counter advice to a popular chestnut given to writers when creating villains, and I agree it’s time we need to say this:
One piece of writing advice I hear a lot is, “Nobody thinks they’re the bad guy. Everyone’s the hero in their own story.” Which is true, I guess. But I worry people understand this to mean “every character needs to have sympathetic, relatable motivations.” Which is NOT true. There’s no shortage of people in the world who enjoy being cruel to people who are more vulnerable than they are. There’s plenty of people who think of the world purely in terms of dominance and power, or who pride themselves on being able to “do what has to be done.” In my writing, I’m very interested in the problem of evil, and a lot of my stuff features well-meaning people who make horrible choices. But I’m not interested in excusing destructive behavior, or necessarily sympathizing with it. Not all villains have to be lovable/relatable. George RR Martin is very good at showing the internal monologue of people who do monstrous things, without softening them at all. Meanwhile, Shakespeare famously has one of his villains declare his undying hatred, “yet I know not why.” Not everybody is equally introspective. Bottom line: evil is real. Cruelty is real. We have to grapple with them in our fiction, whether it’s a lighthearted romp or a grimdark adventure. And I don’t feel like sympathetic evil is always the right choice, depending on the story. /END
Related Links On Villains
A new study reveals that, given a choice, people will stare longer at the faces of people they’ve heard bad things about.
Top 10 Sympathetic Supervillains from List Verse
50 Great Villains In Literature from Flavorwire
Roald Dahl’s Best Villains from Flavorwire
9 Villains In Literature And Film, And How To Make Yours Better from The Write Practice;
Almost-Great Bad Guys For Almost-Adult Readers from Literacy Journal
Writing Beyond The Good/Bad Dichotomy from LitReactor
Wait, that’s not a super villain! from Free Thought Blogs
Are you rooting for a TV villain? from Persephone Mag
Badass Heroines From The 80s from io9
The Women On House Of Cards Are Just As Evil As The Men, a refreshing change reported by Jezebel
The Best Villains In Children’s Books from Imagination Soup
Psychology Uncovers Sex Appeal of Dark Personalities from Scientific American
When your villain becomes a bore from Advice To Writers
A collection of books with really evil children in them, at Abe Books
The Faceless Villain: What to do When Your Bad Guy Isn’t a Person from The Other Side Of The Story
The 10 Most Badass Women In Fantasy Literature from Barnes and Noble
10 Things Every Villain Should Avoid from Gillian Adams
Movie Villains Done Right, a YouTube video from Glowing Screens takes a deep dive into The Joker from the Batman movies. The Joker and Batman are similar characters, but on morally opposite sides. (This is known as Shadow In The Hero.) They also talk about Hal from 2001, A Space Odyssey, the epitome of cold and logical. Importantly, Hal thinks he’s the good guy, which is common to villains. Nothing is more scary than being able to see the villain’s point of view.
Creating The Ultimate Antagonist is a YouTube video from Lessons From The Screenplay, also looking at The Joker from Batman. Everyone agrees that Heath Ledger played the Joker the best. They take advice from John Truby and apply it to this character as a case study. The main difference between Batman and The Joker is that Batman doesn’t kill people. But the only way Batman can beat The Joker is by killing him, which really tests Batman’s morality. They also point out some similarities between Gotham and Se7en.
A Reddit Thread started by someone who created a taxonomy of villains.
Digital Spy thinks there haven’t been any decent villains in movies for the last ten years (counting back from 2018).
VILLAINS AND GENDER
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’.
THE FAKE-ALLY OPPONENT
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 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.
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.