Sunday, March 29, 2009

Here I come, worthy or not: Notes on the Worthy Opponent

worthy opponent--a character whose personal and/or organizational interests run antithetical to the protagonist of a novel or short story; an individual of significant enough stature to insure a sense of fear in the reader that the protagonist will either lose outright or have to relinquish some of the prize.

The concept of shooting fish in a barrel comes to mind when considering the dynamics of the worthy opponent. It would take a poor shot indeed to miss hitting at least one fish thus constrained. By extension, an antagonist who is made to seem evil for its own sake or merely contrary for the sake of being contrary prove no real threat to the protagonist or the reader, leaving additional metaphors such as paper tiger or tempest in a teapot to hover over the story.

An ideal opponent for a protagonist in a story is a person in his or her own way every bit bigger than life than the protagonist, a person of steely desire and purpose, equipped with such tools as a brilliant sense of humor, an obvious intelligence, adaptability, charm, and that great catch-all, people skills.

The goal is to provide the worthy opponent with enough clout that the outcome of the story is in doubt to the very end. A plausible opponent is one who might, in a mystery, outwit the detective; win the heart of the protagonist in a romance; supply superior magic in a fantasy; have a grittier social/existential problem than the protagonist in a YA novel; have loftier motives than the protagonist in a science fiction novel. There is no genre in which an unworthy opponent would be more welcomed than one with some interesting, intriguing dimension.

We may begin historically with Achilles and Hector in The Iliad, where it is still possible to root for Hector against the anointed hero, Achilles; then we can move to a trope in which a personified Nature presents a worthy opponent, first as the whale in Moby-Dick, then as the marlin in The Old Man and the Sea. To be sure, there is Dr. Moriarty, standing against Sherlock Holmes, emphasizing the common denominator here--a worthy opponent plausibly stands between the protagonist and the protagonist's goals.

In the original Star Trek TV series, the Romulan commander tells Capt. Kirk, "I regret that we meet in this way. You and I are of a kind. In a different reality, I could have called you friend." In the TV drama, The Wire, Omar Little was heard to observe, "A man got to have a code." Little had such a code, lived by it, and in tropes reminiscent of Greek tragedy, died by it. Another splendid example of worthiness in opponents also appeared in The Wire, where the characters of Avon Barksdale and Russell "Stringer" Bell were school chums, then loving partners in a flourishing Baltimore drug trade before a clash of philosophy led each to action that betrayed the other.

One of the dividing lines between the worthy opponent and the mere opponent is fairness. The worthy opponent plays fair, in large measure because he is confident of his abilities and his cause, thus he is "allowed" to play fair. The mere opponent uses any means at his disposal to win. A helpful recipe for creating the WA: give him or her ten percent more in some relevant, thematic ability than you give the protagonist. Heat to boiling, then serve.

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