Jeanne Cavelos was a senior editor at Bantam Doubleday Dell, where she ran the fantasy, science fiction, and horror programs and won the World Fantasy Award for her work. Jeanne left publishing to write and to work with writers in a more meaningful way. Her seven books include the best-selling Passing of the Techno-Mages trilogy; The Science of Star Wars, which was chosen by the New York Public Library for its recommended reading list; and The Science of the X-Files. Her work has twice been nominated for the Bram Stoker Award. Jeanne is the founder and director of the Odyssey Writing Workshops Charitable Trust, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping writers improve their skills that provides workshops, online classes, webinars, critiques, podcasts, and much more; Jeanne was nominated for the World Fantasy Award for her work at Odyssey.
When I first learned about the concept of the adversarial ally, it was a huge lightbulb moment for me. I realized that I had been loving adversarial allies in the works of others and writing my own adversarial allies without being aware of exactly what an adversarial ally is. I started to make a concerted study of this character type and all the benefits it can bring to a story. This helped me to write stronger and more effective adversarial allies. And it helped me provide more insightful and helpful feedback to writers whose stories suffered from characters who were too helpful.
The Importance of the Adversarial Ally
Many writers are nice people. They love their protagonists and want them to succeed, so they provide characters who will help and support. The loyal friend who will stand up when the hero needs an ally. The love interest who will bandage the protagonist’s wounds. The mentor who will provide important information.
I see this in so many stories and novels. The impulse to add a character so the protagonist is not spending extended periods alone is often the right one. But if this ally is only helping, you are missing a great opportunity to introduce conflict and emotion into your story.
A character who only helps works against the needs of story. He makes things easier for the protagonist, reducing conflict, suspense, emotion, and putting less at stake.
One key type of ally that allows the author to avoid this problem is the adversarial ally. I first read about this concept in The Dramatic Writer’s Companion: Tools to Develop Characters, Cause Scenes, and Build Stories by Will Dunne. Since then, I’ve discovered that some of the most powerful stories feature great adversarial allies, and I’ve realized the full value of the adversarial ally in a story.
An adversarial ally is a character who, underneath it all, is an ally to your protagonist. The “adversarial” part comes in because this character won’t just agree with everything the protagonist says and does. He won’t automatically help the protagonist with anything the protagonist wants to do. He wants what is best for the protagonist, but has his own strong options about what that is and thinks he knows better than the protagonist. He sees the protagonist as flawed or failing in some way and calls her on it. He’s not going to let the protagonist make mistakes or indulge her weaknesses.
Adversarial Allies Deepen Conflict And Enrich Characterization
In the original Star Trek series, Dr. McCoy serves as a great adversarial ally, often arguing with Captain Kirk about what he’s doing. In the episode “A Private Little War,” Kirk discovers that the Klingons are arming one faction on a primitive planet. He decides the Federation must provide equivalent arms to the other faction. McCoy disagrees with Kirk’s solution and lets him know. Here’s a link to the full episode, provided by DailyMotion. Go to 35:30 to see the key scene between Kirk and McCoy.
If McCoy were simply a helper or ally, he’d just agree with Kirk and help him implement the plan. That means all we’d have is a boring scene in which Kirk explains his plan and McCoy says, “Okay.” Further, viewers might feel alienated, thinking this isn’t a great plan.
But with McCoy as an adversarial ally, this scene is full of conflict and the conversation has very high stakes. We realize they face a huge problem without any good solution. In addition, as McCoy challenges Kirk’s solution and points out the downsides, viewers can feel included. Their concerns are being articulated and addressed. More important, as McCoy challenges Kirk, Kirk’s reasoning is revealed. We see why he has arrived at this difficult solution. And even more important, we see Kirk’s internal conflict and his pain over this decision. He loved this once-peaceful planet, and it’s killing him to have to sentence it to prolonged and possibly permanent war. All of this comes out because the adversarial ally pulls it out of the protagonist through disagreement. We have conflict, something at stake, and a much richer sense of the protagonist’s character (and the adversarial ally’s character, too).
The conflict between Kirk and McCoy is mainly about an external issue. But the adversarial ally often excels at illuminating the protagonist’s inner issue. Alfred in The Dark Knight trilogy is an excellent example of this. In The Dark Knight Rises, Batman has just come out of retirement to chase Bane and his minions, and he retrieved a flash drive from one of them. Check out the scene as provided by CoolCoolMovies.
Adversarial Allies Reveal Internal Issues And Set Up Choices
As Bruce plans what to do next, Alfred criticizes his plans as unrealistic. Alfred wants what is best for Bruce, which in Alfred’s mind is a peaceful retirement, but Bruce sees no life beyond Batman, since Rachel, the love of his life, died. Bruce wants only to continue his crime-fighting ways. When Alfred’s criticisms don’t deter Bruce, Alfred tells Bruce that Rachel intended to leave him before she died. Alfred, Bruce’s closest friend and ally, is delivering one of the greatest wounds Bruce has received in his adult life. This is great drama with a great adversarial ally. We have external and internal conflict for both characters, the relationship put at stake (and lost–for now, at least), and a key issue that Bruce must wrestle with in this movie illuminated. If not for the adversarial ally, we wouldn’t be aware of Bruce’s actions heading inexorably toward death, and of his upcoming choice between retirement and death. This conversation foreshadows and prepares us for that choice and for the ending, so when it comes, we understand its significance and we feel its emotional impact.
If Alfred were simply an ally, he’d just help Bruce to pursue Bane, and this underlying inner issue would never be raised. Or Bruce would have to think to himself, in some horrifically bad scene, “Gee, if I keep going on this way, I’ll probably die, but since Rachel is dead, I guess I’m okay with dying too.”
If you look back over the entire trilogy, you’ll find very few moments in which Alfred says anything nice or positive to Bruce. He’s nearly always criticizing or advising an alternate course.
Adversarial Allies Can Illuminate Flaws And Externalize Internal Conflict
An even more adversarial ally is Mickey in the Rocky films, particularly Rocky and Rocky II. In Rocky II, Rocky agrees to a rematch with Apollo Creed, but his pregnant wife, Adrian (another adversarial ally), disapproves, and that leads to Rocky training in a half-hearted manner. Mickey tells Rocky he won’t train him anymore and throws him out of the gym. Check it out here, as provided by The Official Rocky Balboa YouTube Channel.
This movie focuses on Rocky’s internal conflict: his desire to be a successful boxer versus his love and concern for Adrian. For that to work, we need a strong adversarial ally to help illuminate that internal conflict. In this case, we have two adversarial allies that in essence embody the two sides of his internal conflict: Mickey wants Rocky to be a successful boxer; Adrian wants him to remain retired. These two characters help to externalize Rocky’s internal conflict and make it clear, powerful, and dynamic.
If Mickey were a simple ally, we either wouldn’t be aware that a problem existed, or we’d be very frustrated with both Rocky and Mickey for not addressing Rocky’s half-hearted training. We’d be thinking, “Gee, Rocky is a bum and doesn’t deserve to win.” Bringing out his problem allows us to understand and to root for Rocky to overcome it.
The main external conflict, between Rocky and Apollo Creed, comes out mainly at the beginning and the end. This means we need conflict in the middle from another source. If you have that type of situation, then an adversarial ally may help provide some conflict.
One more benefit of an adversarial ally—he can often make your protagonist more sympathetic. We feel bad for the protagonist because he’s being opposed by everyone and finds little rest or solace.
To review, adversarial allies can generate conflict, which can be key in keeping a story interesting when the antagonist is not around. The conflict can be very emotional, since these characters have close bonds, and it can create suspense over whether these two characters can maintain their relationship. Adversarial allies can deepen characterization and help us understand why the protagonist does what he does. They can help to externalize the protagonist’s internal conflict and inner issues and raise suspense over whether the protagonist will make the right decision. They can be catalysts to move the protagonist and the story forward. They can show readers that the author understands the protagonist is flawed, so readers aren’t merely frustrated at the flaws. This can allow us to accept the protagonist’s flaws and become involved in whether the protagonist can overcome them. They can show readers that a good character believes the protagonist is worth trying to straighten out, so maybe readers will think so too and bond with the protagonist. And they can make us more sympathetic to a good protagonist who faces only criticism.
If your protagonist’s allies, sidekicks, loved ones, and mentors are a little too helpful, consider turning them into adversarial allies who can challenge the protagonist in a tough, significant way. You’ll give readers a much richer, more suspenseful and emotional experience.
What are some of your favorite adversarial allies? Do you include adversarial allies in your work? How do they enrich your stories?