Relationships Between Characters, Part 2: Opponents

Three sorts of opposition, and two things to remember.

Opponents come in all sorts of shapes and sizes

Opposition causes conflict

For any character in a story, there may be opponents, not just for the protagonist. So while the protagonist-antagonism struggle may be at the forefront of the story, actually there is a whole system of opposing forces.

Let’s examine how characters in stories work against each other.

  1. Opposition can come from striving for the same or for opposite ends.
  2. Opponents can be antagonistic or incidental.
  3. There are two sorts of opponents, those from without, and those from within.

Same same or different?

An author might take each character at a time and arrange their opponents, which means characters who are either trying to get to the same thing first or whose success in attaining something else would thwart the character’s efforts.

In other words, the opposition (unless it arises by chance, see below) takes the form of either competition or threat. Competition for the same goal: Who will reach the South Pole first? Threat, because the goal of the opponent is opposed to the goal of the other figure: a nature reserve or a hotel complex. Imagine this for yourself using your own example: Your opponents strive for the same goal as you, and if your competitor wins, you get nothing. So your opponents are competing with you for the same goal, for example the same person. Or your opponent wants something completely different from you, and if he achieves that, it means you cannot get what you want. The success of the opponent is therefore a threat to your own well-being.

In either case, the opposition may be … 

Antagonistic or incidental

The opponent of a character may be specifically out to prevent the character from getting what they want. This makes the opponent antagonistic. Antagonists deliberately create obstacles that hinder characters. In most stories, the protagonist will have an antagonist or an antagonistic force stacked against them.

To reiterate, the protagonist-antagonism duality may be dominant in the story, but minor characters too may have their own minor antagonisms or antagonists.

However, not all obstacles are antagonistic. There is not always a conscious or deliberate intent to stop other characters. In the interplay of a whole arrangement of characters, many of them will be pursuing their own interests. By doing so, they may cause “collateral” difficulties for other characters. If two characters get in each other’s way, that doesn’t make them antagonists. Not until one becomes conscious of the other and actively works against that character can one speak of antagonism. It’s quite possible that one character causes difficulties for another without even being aware of it, or at least without meaning that other character harm. This is incidental opposition.

Interesting here is whether the character that is causing opposition for others desists after being made aware of it or not. Is the character social or selfish?

Opponents from outside the group, or from within the group

We like to identify with some sort of group, be it as a football fan of the local team or with patriotic feelings towards the country of our origin.

As humans, we live not alone but in a group. Indeed, throughout our lives we are part of several groups. We have a class in school, we join teams to play sports in and to work together in our jobs. So we are always trying to find our place within groups, and balancing our own needs and desires with the interests of the group. Since everyone is in the same position, we spend a lot of time and energy evaluating what the others in the class, team or job think of us, whether they are friendly or not, whether we can trust them or not, whether they are more likely allies or competitors. And we gossip a lot in order to sound out potential allies and recognize possible threats.

So our actions do not take place in isolation, but have an impact on others in the group, and on how others see us. Within a group we continually try to achieve a certain status. Nobody likes to be totally dominated. So we find ways to gain recognition or respect. This can be achieved through behaviour that helps the group. When a player scores a goal, she earns the respect of her team. Another technique for gaining recognition and even leadership in a group is selfish behavior, i.e. using strength to ensure that you benefit the most in a given situation. Under certain circumstances, such selfish behavior in itself may not only lead to dominance within the group, but also to group advantages in the sense of the tribe: securing more resources than other groups – perhaps more food or a better place to sleep.

Human beings are torn between altruism and egoism.

Altruism means acting for the good of others rather than in our own individual interests. Some species do this quite naturally, such as ants, bees, or termites. When lobsters move along the seabed, they do so in a line. The last one in line protects the group, sacrificing itself when attacked so that the others have a chance to get away. This isn’t conscious altruism on the lobster’s part, it is genetic programming. To us, it might seem noble anyway.

Egoism means we will try to secure the biggest and best slice of the pie for ourselves and our closest family.

Whichever approach we typically tend to as individuals, one notices that when a group is threatened, the group tends to hold together more. Threat or competition from the outside cause us to recognize our common ground inside, lay aside our differences and squabbles, and focus our combined energy on facing the threat. (This basic tribal instinct has been exploited by the leadership or the powerful throughout history, whenever outside threats are fabricated or distorted in order to get people to rally around a cause, often in order to divert from the real aims of the leaderships or the powerful.)

These primal instincts are so deeply rooted in us that we do not think about them, maybe we do not even perceive them. But it is precisely this to and fro between altruism and egoism that is the driving force behind many stories, because it provides all kinds of conflict issues. So it can be quite helpful for authors to explore these drives.

When we read or view a story, we are introduced to a group. A setting is established and a protagonist. The setting is then disturbed and the protagonist threatened. The audience is experiencing the story from the point of view of someone in a group. The disturbance or threat might come from outside the group. Maybe this inciting external problem is the arrival of a mysterious stranger, or the attack on planet Earth by aliens. The threat is from without the tribe.

Alternatively, the audience may be introduced to a group of some sort, and something or someone within the group is seen to be a danger to that group’s success or survival. Something must occur to get the story started, but all the players are already there. The group is complete, the inciting incident is something that sets off a chain reaction of oppositions within the group.

Two things all opposition has in common

Whichever form of opposition – competition or threat, from within or without, antagonistic or incidental – two aspects are worth remembering in developing the characters.

First, opposing characters expresses opposing values. Characters in conflict stand for value sets clashing. For the audience, the struggle between protagonist and antagonism represents diverging world-views, one of which is likely to be viewed as preferable over the other. Usually, the story will show the audience that values such as cooperation and selflessness are better than behaviors that exhibit selfishness and egoism.

Secondly, opponents and antagonists don’t necessarily see themselves as such. In superhero stories villains may be aware of themselves as villains, but in most stories the baddies think they are doing the right thing. Even Darth Vader wants to restore order to the galaxy. We see the story from the point of view of the protagonists, which determines who we sympathize with. Imagine flipping it, and telling the story from the other side. Would the former hero, now the antagonist, still be the one the audience roots for?

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Have you read Relationships Between Characters, Part 1: Allies?

Related function in the Beemgee story development tool:
Character Developer


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