Adversaries in Fiction: Who Is Standing in Your Character’s Way?

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From Jane Friedman:

Is there anything better than well-written conflict? The vengeful enemy, sharks circling the sinking boat, a carefully guarded secret getting out in the open.

Readers, fearful for the characters they love, grip the book tighter when conflict is close.

What will happen? Will everything be okay?

The more dire the threat, the more uncertain they feel.

Conflict holds power in storytelling because it touches everything: pacing, plot, stakes, characterization, character arc, emotion, you name it. Internal or external, subtle or obvious, readers invested in the book will find themselves in a near-constant state of tension as they worry about the character’s ability to dodge story knives.

One of the biggest sources of conflict comes in the form of an adversary—someone (or something) that has goals, needs, desire, or a purpose that clashes with the protagonist’s own. Once their paths cross, BOOM. Friction, tension, conflict! A battle of wills, might, and minds ensues until one is victorious.

Adversaries generate a lot of conflict, meaning it’s important to know their motivations and intentions. If they have a big role, we should brainstorm them just as we would the protagonist . . . to understand what’s driving them. But are all adversaries the same? Not at all. Depending on what you need, you have a variety of adversarial players to choose from. Here are some considerations for each.

Competitor: This foe is someone who has the same goal as the protagonist and will compete for it. Whether your character is up against a peer for a scholarship, a job, an award, or something else, make sure their competitor has abilities, skills, resources, or other assets that will make the outcome uncertain.

Rival: Like a competitor, this opponent wants the same thing as your protagonist. What’s different though is that the rival is also invested in defeating the protagonist. The victory is personal because there’s some sort of history between the two.

Consider the ongoing friction between Johnny Lawrence and Daniel LaRusso (and, later, their competing dojos) in the TV series, Cobra Kai. Johnny and Daniel took very different paths since their initial battle in The Karate Kid. Daniel became a wealthy and successful businessman while Johnny worked handyman jobs and flirted with alcoholism as an escape from his personal failings, losses, and abuse trauma. Old wounds are reopened when Johnny reopens Cobra Kai to empower youths, and Johnny’s son trains with Daniel to get back at his dad. Further complications abound as their teenage kids start dating and Johnny fights to become someone better while Daniel holds firm to old biases. The result of all this friction? A boatload of rivalry-fueled conflict.

Antagonist: This is often a catchall term for the main adversary. If the antagonist is a person, they will have a mission or agenda that counters the protagonist’s and most likely are prominent enough to have a character arc of their own.

Antagonist Force: The foe standing between your character and their goal doesn’t need to be a person. Depending on the story, the antagonistic force could be an element of nature (the brutal polar vortex in The Day after Tomorrow), an animal (the wolf pack hunting plane crash survivors in The Grey), or even a type of technology (The Terminator).

Villain: A villain is different than an antagonist in the sense that there is an element of evil or a specific intent to hurt others. Something has skewed their worldview and made them into who they are—a person whose moral code runs on a completely different track. Villains have no qualms about mowing down anyone who gets in the way of their goal.

Link to the rest at Jane Friedman