Rivals, Frenemies, or Just Plain Enemies?

I’ve never seen a college football rivalry as fierce as that between Ohio State University (the Buckeyes) and the University of Michigan (the Wolverines). (For a great article on that rivalry, click here.) Since I traveled with my family to Columbus, Ohio over the Thanksgiving weekend to attend my niece’s baptism, I happened to catch Saturday’s game—a loss for Michigan with a score of 42-41.

         383px-2013_Ohio_State_Buckeyes_logo.svg  Michigan_Wolverines_Block_M

We watched the game at Ohio State’s student union. Let me tell you, there was joy in Columbus when the Buckeyes won. I jumped up and screamed though OSU is not my alma mater. (Speaking of alma maters, the Northwestern Wildcats beat the Fighting Illini on the same day. Hee hee.)

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After the screams of victory died down, my family and I toured the campus, noting the many M’s taped over on signs—a testament to the fierce rivalry. Even M’s are no-nos.

This rivalry caused me to think about rivals, frenemies, and enemies and the differences between these categories. Yeah, that’s the way my mind works. And I’m going to mention Batman: The Brave and the Bold again though I wrote a post on it before. Call me saucy. In that series, Batman and Green Arrow have a friendly rivalry. They try to outdo one another in crime fighting. I’m also reminded of the way Legolas and Gimili tried to outscore each other in killing the Uruk-hai during the battle at Helm’s Deep in The Two Towers. They’re rivals, yet they’re on the same side (anti-orc). (Yes, I plan to see The Hobbit, in case you’re wondering.)


Legolas, who is as cute as a bunny and Gimili, who is . . . um . . . pleasant

Merriam-Webster.com defines frenemy as “one who pretends to be a friend but is actually an enemy.” Although Catwoman doesn’t exactly fit the definition since she never pretends to be a friend, I can’t think of another word to describe her relationship with Batman. She’s a cat burglar who also tries to steal Batman’s heart. Call that cheesy if you like, but that’s how it goes down, especially in The Brave and the Bold. Batman might be into her sort of, but he’s also into justice. Yet he seldom puts much effort into capturing Catwoman and making sure she heads to prison. Somehow, she always manages to escape. On the rare occasion when they work on the same side to tackle a “worse” criminal, Catwoman is usually poised to betray Batman and get what she wants (money; jewels; rare cats).


They can’t make up their minds.

The Joker, however, seems to be a straight-up enemy. But in The Brave and the Bold, he makes comments like, “Now that’s the Batman I know and love.” And in The Dark Knight, he said, “You . . . you . . . complete me.” A weird symbiosis, since each helps the other to remain on his A-game. Batman takes him down and the Joker winds up at Arkham Asylum (in the animated series) only to escape and start the cycle all over again.


Do enemies need to need each other? Does Jean Valjean need Javert? Does Superman really need Lex Luthor? I’m shrugging as I type this. But I can’t help thinking of a quote from the November 8 issue of Entertainment Weekly. Sean Bailey, president of production at Walt Disney Studios said

The better you make your villain, the better your hero has to be. . . . We call it the Hans Gruber theory. One reason Die Hard is a great action movie is Gruber never makes a mistake, but he’s still defeated by John McClane. McClane is a great hero because he’s up against such a formidable adversary. (47)

I love that quote, because it reminds me to avoid taking the easy road with my antagonist and hero. You see, I usually like being lazy in my writing. Whatever’s comfortable—that’s the route I take. But a hero or antagonist who wins or loses easily is about as satisfying as eating one potato chip after you’ve starved for three days.

My hero and my antagonist are not friendly rivals or frenemies. They’re enemies plain and simple. But they (hopefully) make each other better. Alas, only one of them will survive that experience.

How does your antagonist bring out the best (i.e., getting him or her to step up his/her game) in your hero and vice versa?

Breznican, Anthony. “A Villain Will Rise.” Entertainment Weekly. 8 November 2013: 46-47. Print.

Catwoman and Batman image from fanpop.com. College logos from Wikipedia. Joker from batman.wikia.com. Legolas from manga-anime-inir.blogspot.com. Gimli from lotr.wikia.com.

34 thoughts on “Rivals, Frenemies, or Just Plain Enemies?

  1. Enemies and Antagonists–I’ve been fascinated by them over the last year. So, I loved finding you talking about them this week, Linda. Thank you.

    What I like best about antagonists (at least the well-used antagonists) is that they up the pressure against the protagonist, really pushing hard, making the protagonist act. I don’t necessarily think the antagonist always brings out the best in the protagonist–the antagonist can also show the pressured, ugly actions of a protagonist. But the well-drawn antagonist always makes the protagonist act and that action is such a fabulous way to get to know the protagonist better, warts and all. Friends, by the way, also can do this, as sort of temporary antagonists. Just think of Hermione and how she constantly pushes Harry. I guess it just goes to show that characters in isolation are much less interesting than characters surrounded by friends and enemies. Thanks again Linda!

    • Good point, Sandra, about the role of friends in pushing the protagonist. Yes, Hermione was great at pushing. I could use a pushy character in my novel. And you’re so right–characters need community. I have too many isolated characters.

    • Oh yeah. Good one. Glad you brought up the Master, because he’s an example of a villain whom the Doctor had a difficult time outwitting. That was a good finale.

  2. Only example I can think of for Frenemy is Harry Osborne from Spider-Man. Though, he was still kind of a friend. I’m wondering how often the Frenemy is used. Love the quote about villains though. People tend to remember them more than heroes too.

  3. In the last two novels I’ve been working on, I’ve tried to make it so the antagonists actions have a direct impact on the protagonists growth as characters. Not an easy thing to achieve, but definitely makes for a deeper story.

    • Wow. That’s cool, Phillip. For a long time, I didn’t get that aspect–that what the antagonist did related to the protagonist’s growth. I was too plot driven in my thoughts of what “cool” predicaments in which to involve the characters. But I’m glad you are already at a good place in your novels. And congrats again on winning NaNo.

  4. I love a clever antagonist (and they usually all are) who is typically a narcissist loves to win. But I love the hero the most! It is a lot of work to come up with a goon enemy! Good luck with yours. 🙂

  5. My work has generally featured antagonists who aren’t enemies, but rather are the folks who keep the protagonist from getting what he wants. Daniel’s father in Gringolandia is a good example. Daniel wants a relationship with his father, who has rejoined the family in exile after nearly six years as a political prisoner, but his father only wants to return to continue the struggle against the dictatorship. Lacking a villain means that there aren’t any bad people, only bad situations, but it also means that there’s no single person for the reader to root against.

    • Left out a word: “but rather are simply the folks who keep the protagonist…” Because that’s basically what an antagonist is, whether or not he or she is a terrible person (with or without reasons for being so terrible).

    • I like that conflict, Lyn. It is a good reminder that antagonists come in many forms–not just mustache twirling megalomaniacs. 🙂 I also have subtle antagonists–well-meaning people who have their own agendas.

  6. There’s never an easy road when it comes to writing…unfortunately. Some days I like my antagonist more than my hero. 😦 Oh, there’s nothing better than a good rivalry football game.

    • Jill, I feel the same way sometimes. My antagonist’s journey is much easier to write than my hero’s, which makes me feel closer to him. 🙂 So I need to give my hero a few more faults.

  7. this was very interesting. I haven’t thought of my antagonists in this way before. Will give it some thought. Thanks Linda

  8. I’m definitely gonna ponder this.

    I tend to struggle with having one definite antagonist (or, I suppose, a character who’s obviously villainous), and then I start to wonder if I should even worry about that fact, because antagonism in real life comes from so many different areas and angles, including the internal, not necessarily just one clear outside opponent…but then, of course, there are points where fiction is required to be more defined than reality, and a strong antagonist does push the hero to be stronger, too, and I wonder if it’s just oversight or laziness on my part to let that opportunity slip by or if I am actually being organic to the story…and then I get overwhelmed with my own thought process and never actually reach a definite conclusion. 🙂

    I suppose it just comes back to knowing each story and what’s best for that particular one, and accepting that the antagonistic force is going to manifest itself differently every time. But still. I’m gonna ponder this. Thanks for it.

    • I know what you mean. I’m a huge fan of internal conflict, and thought I had enough for the novel, especially with the conflict with the love interest. When I had Betsy for an advisor, however, she took one look at the novel I’d started and said, “You need an antagonist.” Boom. That advice kicked the novel up a notch. For two weeks, I thought about who this person needed to be and finally came up with him.

      You know your story best though. I’ll be eager to find out what you decide.

  9. Some good thoughts, L.Marie. I myself love ambiguous characters — anti-heroes, villains you can sympathize with — but that’s just my post-modern moral greyness, I suppose.
    Anyhow, I’m cheating on Andra’s prompt — I’ve decided to visit everyone today, rather than just the one above me. I’m Helena, and I write witty, self-referential, quirky tales, except when I don’t.

    • The villain is always a tough one. It’s so easy to go the one-dimensional mustache-twirling, “Nyeah, ha ha” route. I’ve done that loads. This time, I discovered that if I don’t like the antagonist, something is wrong.

  10. Pingback: Where Are the Good Guys? | El Space–The Blog of L. Marie

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