Nothing is more intense than the fearsome stare of a pair of rival characters, except for maybe the author’s laziness. Don’t forget to have the rivals scream each other’s name all the time. I’m sure that will never get old.
My Honest Thoughts on Rival Characters
“You have enemies? Why, it is the story of every man who has done a great deed or created a new idea. It is the cloud which thunders around everything that shines. Fame must have enemies, as light must have gnats. Do not bother yourself about it; disdain. Keep your mind serene as you keep your life clear.” -Victor Hugo
For those who have read my book it will come as no surprise that I have a particular fondness for the old rival trope. I think that one of the great appeals of rivals is that we often measure ourselves by the quality of our enemies. That is what a rival can be, a quality enemy, not just another foe, but someone to measure ourselves and our ideals against. A person who can challenge us not just in skills, but in confidence and test our deepest resolve.
Defeating a rival doesn’t just earn us victory but also the respect of a worthy foe. The harder it is to earn the respect of a rival the more rewarding it is when won. This can be a really powerful emotion when a respected rival is not just defeated but also won over to the side of the good guys. The appeal is that the side you are on is so great that the best of the enemy side will see the value in it and switch sides. Hence why anime often uses the ‘defeat equals friendship’ trope.
I find it interesting that Japanese anime tends to have a much more interesting take on this trope compared to western fiction. Shōtarō Kaneda vs Tetsuo Shima, Goku vs Vegeta (and Piccolo too, and like nearly half the cast of DBZ come to think of it), Naruto vs Sasuke, Lupin vs Zenigata, Char vs Amuro, like every Pokemon game ever and the list goes on and on. Now compare that to western fiction and you get… um… Draco vs Harry Potter and the raging dumpster fire that was Batman v Superman?
Western fiction seems to prefer the arch nemesis rather than the rival. The Joker is the antithesis to Batman rather than a competitor. That’s probably why Superman is so often pitted against Batman rather than any of Batman’s rogues’ gallery. Even then the vast majority of works usually have Batman and Superman setting aside their differences and teaming up in the first third of the story. For the rival trope to really hit home, it often seems that there needs to be a bit of overlap in terms of character aspects for that happen. It makes sense. A rival is a competitor after all.
A good rival really has to more to do with the dynamic between characters rather than skills, abilities, etc. Characters who bounce off of each other in interesting ways (such as great dialog exchanges) make for much more engaging reading than characters who just endlessly fight each other over rather obvious reasons. Having characters punch each other is fine, but if they can really express why they want to punch each other then the said punching becomes a lot more entertaining because the audience is invested in the characters.
The rival trope is really interesting when it comes to romantic plot-lines. So in a story where the writer adds a love interest and then neglects the said love interest, then adds a rival with a really good dynamic then don’t be surprised when the majority of the shippers completely ignore the love interest. It’s not so much that the hero and the rival have such great chemistry, but rather that they have more chemistry than the shoehorned in love interest (love interests will be the subject of their own Terrible Writing Advice one day because this is a trope that is frequently misused). In a way, the writer did too good a job with the rival in this case. This could be easily fixed by spending some more time working on the love interest. Sometimes the fix is as easy as actually writing some scenes with the love interest. Screen time does wonders for character development.
Keeping the rival competitive is a rather tricky business as well. That really depends on the author’s intent. Having a joke rival can be a wonderful way to add comic relief to a story even if it doesn’t add any tension. Sometimes having a weak rival can even make the rival a good underdog. The main issue is when the rival is always considered a credible threat by the other characters when they lose every battle in the story.
I really do wish that more stories used rivals as worthy foes. Villains are far too often dehumanized and having a well written rival can really anchor a reader into the story. The strength of a well built rival for the protagonist is that they can challenge them in more ways than just capacity for violence. Losing to a rival can be as dramatic as winning. A true rival will push the protagonist to the edge of their skills, abilities and ideals. Too bad most protagonists use their special hidden ability ‘Author’s Power Fantasy’ to instantly defeat their rival.