In the first part of this series I discussed the need for a strong purpose behind a character’s goals. In this post I will be talking about competition and rivalry.
There are stories where characters are isolated or are in competition with themselves. These kinds of stories are hard to write and can easily come across as self-important and self-indulgent. Everything’s about him, nobody else counts, he has to do it all by himself.
That’s usually not the intention, but it’s hard not to come over like that if every sentence starts with the same subject.
However, once you bring in a rival to your main character, things not only become more dynamic, they also help the reader see the main character more clearly.
This rival can be the main bad guy, but it can also be secondary characters. The detective may be chasing after the killer, but he might also have to contend with the other cops, the ex-wife's new husband, the pushy journalist, the last victims sister.
If you give these supporting characters a reason to want the MC to fail, then they can force the story off the nice, simple, direct route to the solution it naturally wants to take. And at the same time, it will help reveal aspects of the MC's character.
It is a basic truth of human existence that we compare and contrast ourselves with others. Even though we know it can be unhealthy and turn people into insecure wrecks, we can’t help it.
Consider when you’re walking along the street and you trip over an uneven flagstone. How do you feel if there’s no one around to see you? How do you feel when there is? Hell, as Jean Paul Sartre said, is other people. It is only in the perceived judgement of others that we judge ourselves (and usually find ourselves wanting).
The fun really starts when you take into consideration how the rival feels. He too will react to having someone trying to reach the same goal or making him look bad (by being successful).
In the last post we left Timmy Timkins on the side of a mountain, determined to reach the top for some deep seated reason (Daddy issues, I would guess). What if instead of just man against mountain we introduced another climber. This one is also determined to reach the top.
Now the struggle against the forces of nature are intensified with a race against another human being. The story takes on an added dimension.
But wait. It’s all very interesting having two rivals playing the game fair and square, but what if the other guy is determined to win by any means necessary? If Timmy is dodging falling rocks that appear to be suspiciously well aimed, relying on grit and good luck isn’t going to be enough. He’s going to have to come up with a different approach.
Make the rival dastardly and you immediately shift sympathy to the main character. Have the cheating go unpunished, even more sympathy. And as the fight becomes more and more unfair, the more intriguing it becomes—how will the hero succeed?
Will the hero stoop to the same level? Complain to the authorities? Pick up his ball and go home? Whatever the reaction, it will be a reflection of who your main character is as a person. It will show the reader what they’re made of.
Antagonists, whether pure evil or just driven by their own reasons, work best when they are not only reaching for the same goal as the MC, but when they actively try to throw spanners in his works and banana peels in his way.
This can be a matter of physical conflict, but it can also be more sneaky. Spread a little malicious gossip about seeing the MC coming out of an STD clinic, and maybe the girl will think twice about who to go with to the prom.
It’s not that conflict can’t rise out of a character’s battle with himself and his personal demons, it’s just that other people are so much better at making life difficult.
A rival should be there to provide a challenge, and the more proactive you make them, the more the hero will be forced to think on their feet and use their ingenuity to get the job done.
The next part of this series will be how to make a more entertaining story using Consequences and Repercussions.
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