John Truby’s THE ANATOMY OF STORY outlines seven key steps to creating a master story. Step three is Opponent.
The opponent, or antagonist, is not the character who looks evil, sounds evil, and does evil things. The opponent actually functions as a structural element in a good story. “A true opponent not only wants to prevent the hero from achieving his desire but is competing with the hero for the same goal.” The opponent is organically linked to the hero’s desire. When they compete for the same goal, they are forced into direct conflict over and over throughout the story. If they have two separate goals, then they can each achieve their own goal without coming into conflict, and there’s no story.
Sometimes it’s hard to see how the hero and opponent are competing for the same goal. For example, in detective stories, it seems like the detective is trying to catch the killer, and the killer is trying to get away with his crime. But really they are fighting over which version of reality everyone will believe. (This concept was new to me when I read it, and it took a while for that to sink in.)
To create an opponent who wants the same goal as the hero, start with the hero’s specific goal. Whoever wants to keep him from getting it is the opponent.
In STAR WARS, Luke’s opponent is Darth Vader. They are fighting over who will control the universe. Vader represents the Empire while Luke represents the forces of good, comprised of the Jedi Knights and the democratic Republic.
In THE GODFATHER, Michael’s opponent is Barzini, who wants to bring down the Corleone family. Michael and Barzini compete over the survival of the Corleone family and who will control crime in New York.
Once you’ve identified your hero and his opponent, it’s time to move onto step four. I’ll look at it in the next post.