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. [Read more…]