Image: Matthew Loffhagen
There are as many types of antagonist as there are protagonist – a villain for every hero (maybe more than one). We’ve talked before about how to write truly heinous villains, how to write believable antagonists, and even how to write a story with no antagonist at all, but what about when you want your protagonist to face-off against a genuinely likable character? How do you write hero vs. hero conflict, and when should you do so?
In this article, I’ll cover why you’d want to cast a good guy as an antagonist, and why you should consider introducing hero vs. hero conflict into an existing story. Yes, well-written villains should think they’re in the right, but even when the reader sees their point, they’re still rooting against them, or think they’re wrong within the context of the story. I’m talking about setting two characters the reader likes – who they even want to succeed – against each other.Great stories happen when good guys fight.Click To Tweet
I’ll also cover how to write this kind of conflict well, encompassing the central antagonist of a story and minor but enriching moments between lesser characters. With that understood, let’s go ahead and dive in with the most bombastic examples.
Cape vs. cape
As you’ll no doubt have assumed from this article’s header image, hero vs. hero struggles are commonplace in superhero fiction. In fact, they’re pretty much ubiquitous. Movie-goers may have assumed it’s a coincidence that DC and Marvel both released movies about competing good guys at around the same time, but the truth is that it was bound to happen sooner or later. Superheroes exist in a near-constant state of mutual antagonism, and all their ‘best’ stories happen in such moments.
Even when Batman and Superman aren’t fighting over the last mother’s day card, and the Marvel superheroes aren’t embroiled in a civil war or two, they’re still finding reasons for dust-ups, be they ideological disagreements or simple misunderstandings. When no good reasons are available, writers turn to villains such as the Purple Man, the Mad Hatter, the Corruptor, Gorilla Grodd, the Puppet Master, Mandrill, Ogun, Elias Bogan, Starro, and a hundred others to turn hero on hero with pheromones, mind-control, or just good old-fashioned blackmail.
I belabor the point in order to make it – setting hero against hero isn’t just a common narrative tool for superhero writers, it’s their go-to. Why? Because it works! Fans routinely rank hero vs. hero stories as their favorites, and these are the tales most often selected when it comes time for adaptation to the silver screen. Our conclusion, then: superhero stories rely on hero vs. hero storylines and find success in doing so. But how does that apply to your writing?
Truth, justice, and the narrative way
While superhero stories are by no means the be-all and end-all of narrative, they do offer an interesting example of a very specialist kind of writing. Modern superhero comics are, almost as a rule, character studies of their protagonists. They also usually continue indefinitely, soap-opera style, meaning that writers need sources of conflict which are sustainable and can be used ad infinitum with little need to justify the repetition.
Whether you’re a comic fan or disdain the medium as overblown YA fiction, it therefore becomes clearer what the example of superhero scuffles can offer authors of any stripe. Want to really dig down deep into your main character? Want conflict that feels natural and has as much lifespan as your story could ever need? Apparently, hero vs. hero stories are the way to do it.Character studies benefit from conflict between heroes.Click To Tweet
Those are the broad strokes, a case study for why you might want to consider a heroic antagonist, but don’t worry, I’d never leave you with just an outline. Instead, we need to look at the specific benefits a heroic antagonist can offer.
Heroes have a future, villains have a death scene
One of the reasons that superhero writers love hero vs. hero conflict so much is that it can end in a variety of satisfying ways. Present a reader with a villain and they’ll want to see that villain defeated. More than that, they’ll want the villain to get their comeuppance.
That reaction confronts authors with a problematic equation – the worse a villain’s behaviour, the more fitting and long-lasting their punishment must be to satisfy the reader. Yes, there are times when the villain gets away, but it takes a deft hand (and usually a big secondary win for the hero) to pull this off. No, the reader almost always wants to see the villain dead, banished, imprisoned, scorned, or otherwise defeated on an eye-for-an-eye basis. This is a problem for a lot of authors, who want to drag out a good antagonist for all they’re worth, and end up leaving the reader unsatisfied once too often.
This is what I mean by ‘villains have a death scene’. In most stories, the villain arrives with an instant and automatic blueprint of their failure. Even if they win, the reader still knows how they ‘should’ have failed if the world was just. Heroes, on the other hand, come with a blueprint of their future. The reader wants them to achieve their goals and sees those goals as achievable (or that the character is at least capable of success).
Employing a hero as your antagonist, someone the reader likes, therefore gives you a lot more options in terms of how to end or prolong a story. If the reader doesn’t want to see anyone ‘lose’ then their expectations are much less definite, and you run a far lower risk of failing their sense of justice. Of course, it’s not just about opening up new options, but about enhancing what already exists.
Using ‘hero vs. hero’ to enhance a scene
Hero combats hero in a small but notable scene from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Here, Neville Longbottom confronts the trio of protagonists, hoping to stop them from embarking on an unauthorized excursion and bringing trouble down on themselves and others.
The reader is ‘with’ the protagonists, they’re going the way the story demands, but is encouraged to sympathize earnestly with Neville. He’s certainly not ‘wrong’ in the world of the story, and he’s also a likable character who has already had more than his fair share of trouble.
In this way, Neville represents two types of obstacle. First, there is the practical obstacle of standing in the heroes’ path. This role adds risk and stakes to their adventure, but could be fulfilled by any character. Second, there is the moral obstacle of getting him out of the way. Here, the use of a heroic character adds another layer to the story. Both the characters and the reader are reluctant to see Neville hurt – even temporarily – making the scene even more gripping.
It also adds a fresh injustice to the narrative. Many authors would make a minor villain the obstacle, and use their removal as the ‘comeuppance’ scene the reader has been waiting for. Instead, Rowling makes Neville’s treatment a fresh injustice, one which is healed in the final stages of the book, at the same time as the heroes themselves are rewarded.Change the tone of a situation by reconsidering the antagonist who caused it.Click To Tweet
This is effective for Rowling because, at the time Neville is an obstacle, the book’s final struggle is just beginning. It would bring little satisfaction for a minor enemy to be defeated at this point, since the major enemy is a close and daunting threat. Pitting hero against hero, however, adds a tinge of regret and discomfort – the perfect time to do so, and a great way to slip into the greater threat of the big bad.
Familiarity breeds… affection?
Another benefit of bringing in a hero as an antagonistic force is that there’s more room for affection. This may sound like a strange term, but it’s a necessary distinction to make. You can, after all, ‘like’ a villain. You can understand them, you can sympathize with them, but as long as you want them to lose, they’re still in a villainous role.
This poses a problem for some authors, as wanting the reader to feel affection for a villain can rob them of that role. There’s a reason that the ‘bad boy turned good’ is a trope in a lot of fiction, signaling the point at which the writer was no longer able to balance the reader’s invited affection with the character’s antagonistic nature.
With a hero, on the other hand, there’s no such struggle. The writer can express affection for them from the off and invite the reader to feel the same. There’s no worry, here, that the reader might prefer the antagonist to the protagonist, because that’s baked into the intent of using a hero as your antagonistic force – the reader is meant to want both sides to prosper, so it becomes a design decision rather than a flaw.Affection neuters villains, so give the reader a hero instead.Click To Tweet
This is the case in Gregory Mcdonald’s Confess, Fletch. Here, the titular Fletch is accused of murder; a crime investigated by the affable Inspector Flynn. Flynn is a thoroughly enjoyable character – a hero wrongly set on Fletch’s tail. Mcdonald wants the reader to like and care about both characters, reveling in either of their companies (in fact, several books followed in which Flynn was the primary protagonist). Because this decision has been made, the reader is allowed ‘closer’ to Flynn than it would be advisable to get to a villain. From the first scene he inhabits, he’s described in affectionate tones that encourage the reader to invest in and care about the character.
“My name’s Flynn. Inspector Flynn.”
The man in the well-cut, three-piece, brown tweed suit filled the den doorway. His chest and shoulders were enormous, his brown hair full and curly. Between these two masses of over-blown brown was a face so small it had the cherubic quality of an eight-year-old boy, or a dwarf. Even with the hair, his head was small in proportion to his body, like a tiny, innocent-looking knob in control of a huge, powerful machine. Nothing indoors had the precise color of his green eyes. It was the bright, sparkling green of sunlight on a wet spring meadow.
Below the break of his right trouser leg were a half-dozen dots of blood.
“Pardon my pants. I’m fresh from an axe murder.”
For such a huge chest cavity, for anyone, for that matter, his voice was incredibly soft and gentle.
Fletch said, “You’re an Irish cop.”
“I am that.”
“I’m sorry.” Fletch stood up. “I meant nothing derogatory by that.”
Flynn said, “Neither did I.”
There was no proffer to shake hands.
Here, there’s no reason to dumb down Flynn or make sure Fletch has all the good lines. They’re both there to be enjoyed, and embracing that fact allows Mcdonald to write the most enjoyable version of his story.
That’s not to say that it makes things easier. If anything, the reader is now trapped between the two heroes’ goals. When Flynn is audacious or canny, the reader is caught between sincere admiration and worrying how Fletch will escape his cross hairs.
“Has anyone read you your rights?” Flynn asked.
“The first fuzz through the door.”
“Fuzz, is it?”
Fletch said, “Fuzz.”
“In more human language,” Flynn continued, “I ask you if you don’t think you’d be wiser to have your lawyer present while we question you.”
“I don’t think so.”
Flynn said, “What did you hit her with?”
Fletch could not prevent mild surprise, mild humor appearing in his face. He said nothing.
Again, a new level is added to the antagonism foisted on them by the situation. The reader wants both characters to outsmart the other, but not to fall foul of them; just as they wanted Harry, Ron, and Hermione to bypass Neville, but for Neville to somehow keep his dignity.
Here, the antagonist fulfills their role of opposing the hero while simultaneously adding a fascinating new character who the writer doesn’t have to ‘manage’ to keep the reader on the hero’s side. The reader, in turn, no longer wants to see the antagonist defeated, but instead wants to see the situation resolved.
Things fall apart
I’ve talked before about how it can be beneficial to decouple the antagonist from the protagonist’s goal. Hero and villain shouldn’t both want A – one should want B, but it turns out they must destroy A to get it. It’s a more intriguing problem, it feels more realistic to the reader, and it leads to a more enjoyable and manageable climax.
In such stories, it’s really the situation that’s the problem. The antagonist might be awful, and we might be glad to see them defeated, but on a wider narrative level, their absence just means the goal is easier to achieve.
When this is true – when a goal or situation is the issue at the heart of the story – a heroic antagonist can be a great way to go. At this point, the story can reach a satisfying conclusion without throwing a baddy to the wolves. Maybe you still want to, but maybe you’d rather have the reader rooting for two characters instead of one.
This is certainly the case in Confess, Fletch. Fletch has his own mission in the story, and Flynn pursues him because he wants to find the true murderer. Mcdonald gets a whole story’s worth of conflict, a bonus character who the reader invests in heavily, and a satisfying conclusion to both characters’ efforts. Discovering the real murderer spares Fletch and satisfies Flynn’s actual goals.
It’s possible to write the same story with a genuinely villainous detective, stymied and embarrassed by the discovery of Fletch’s innocence, but would it really be as good? Certainly, there are villains who we want to see lose as much as we want to see our heroes win, but it’s possible that your story is more conducive to a double triumph than the usual success/victory mechanic.A heroic antagonist lets you double down or have it both ways.Click To Tweet
Of course, there’s no reason both protagonist and antagonist do have to win. It can be just as affecting to see one heroic character triumph and another fail; a great way to leave your reader with a bittersweet sense of victory.
Shades of grey
Setting your hero against another hero is also a great way to question the morality of their actions, or to explore conflicting ideologies in a way that isn’t black-and-white. This was the intent of the original Civil War comic event on which the recent movie was based. Here, superhuman registration becomes the law after a disaster involving some neophyte ‘heroes’. Characters gather both for and against the proposition, and the story avoids stating who is right and who is wrong, choosing instead to focus on the broken relationships and tragic acts which spring from the rift.
It’s here that the affection I mentioned earlier comes into play. When the reader really cares about the characters – not in the way that one enjoys a villain or thrills to their twisted logic, but in wanting both to be ‘okay’ at the end of it all – the author can tell both deeper and more varied stories. They can examine multiple points of view as valid, rather than picking an ideology, and can tell stories where the reader doesn’t just celebrate and mourn events, but can simultaneously celebrate and mourn the same event.
That’s a more thorough ‘why’ you should choose a heroic character to act as your antagonist, so let’s return to the idea of ‘how’ you do so.
Writing an antagonistic hero
The key here is for the writer to treat both points of view as valid. That is, not to pick valid arguments for both characters (we all think differently, after all), but to depict both as having understandable, and attainable, goals and aims.
When writing a story, you’re engaging the reader on multiple levels. One is the narrative level, but it’s not the most vital. There are plenty of antagonists with ‘understandable’ mindsets who are still presented as villains, so making them ‘justified’ within the world of the story won’t make them feel ‘heroic’ on its own. Instead, focus on how you present the character to the reader. Being ‘right’ isn’t going to do much for them, but being ‘sympathetic’ will.
When Neville complains that the protagonists will get everyone in trouble, this could sound like whining. That it doesn’t is because the reader has already seen Neville suffer – even suffer on the protagonists’ behalf – and has an existing sympathy for his plight. This doesn’t need to be slow-burn, though. Flynn is introduced with a playfulness and gaiety that invites the reader to like him from the off.
In short, presentation is more important than logic. The latter will come later – it’s the bedrock on which you can build a contest of ideas rather than individuals – but getting a reader to accept a heroic antagonist is all about getting them to like her. Write them as you would a hero, with the sense that the reader has some ownership or special insight into their inner workings, and the reader will accept them as such.
Part of this may be tossing a minor antagonist into the mix, signaling to the reader what your heroic antagonist isn’t. Flynn is accompanied by more traditional police officers who Mcdonald treats with far less affection. The implication is simple, but effective: ‘these characters are bad guys, but he’s not one of them, so he must not be a bad guy’. Sometimes, cheap tricks work.
Remember, also, that heroic characters get more attention than those who are villainous. You can indicate the nature of a heroic antagonist to the reader just by choosing to cut away to them every so often. What are they up to? What are they feeling? What do they want? Remember, in this rare case, familiarity breeds affection.
Your protagonist can also direct the reader in how to feel about the heroic antagonist. If they hate them, that’s fine, but your reader will consider it a huge recommendation if the hero concedes that they may have a point, or laments the twist of fate that’s set them against each other.
Once you’ve nailed presentation, it’s time to think about logic. As I mentioned above, the heroic antagonist is best served by a goal which clashes with, but isn’t mutually exclusive to, that of the protagonist.Give the heroic antagonist a goal which isn’t mutually exclusive to that of the protagonist.Click To Tweet
You may want to write a tragedy, though, and have only one heroic, likable character able to win. This is the type of story Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games sets itself up to be, though it’s debatable whether it ever fully crosses the Rubicon into having heroic characters become substantive antagonists. If this is the type of story you want, make sure the reader really understands and sympathizes with the heroic antagonist. It is, after all, the antagonist’s expected role to lose. To make the reader want them to win (to get them believing that they might), you’re going to have to invite enough affection to support a huge suspension of disbelief. Your reader is going to have to love your heroic antagonist so much that their hope for resolution trumps their instincts on how stories work.
Stephen King/Richard Bachman’s The Long Walk is a great story to study when considering how to write in this way. One hundred teenage boys take part in a death walk – many of them are lovable characters, but only one can win (and thus survive). The reader wants many of them to be okay, even to achieve secondary goals, but it’s debatable whether they ever hold any of them in as high esteem as the protagonist himself. It’s a rainbow of antagonists, from sympathetic to repulsive, that offers up examples from the whole spectrum of antagonist sympathy.
Hero vs. hero
Still undecided as to whether hero vs. hero is right for you? Well, if you want the reader to experience the story through the hero, to lend their ideas and goals an importance with which no other character’s can compare, then a regular antagonist is the easiest (and often best) way to do so. If, on the other hand, your story centers around conflicting ideas, is a character study of the hero, or would benefit from a wide scope, I’d suggest experimenting with hero vs. hero writing. It’s something that gels especially well with sci-fi and fantasy writing, and yet these are the areas where it’s seldom used. There’s the niche, and it’s just waiting for a skilled author to fill it.
For more on writing great antagonists, check out our Antagonist Archive, or if you want to go the other way, try How To Write Compelling Conflict Without A Villain. Do you love a heroic antagonist, or do you think the best stories are those with the worst villains? Let me know in the comments.