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Rivals: Fab Four

By Michael Schilf · February 12, 2010

Rivals are adversaries. They are supporting characters who dislike the hero, creating minor obstacles, but since they don’t oppose the hero’s objective, they’re not antagonists. 

For the screenwriter, understanding supporting characters is indispensable. And even though there are a multitude of supporting roles, illustrated here are four types of Rival roles frequently used in stories.

THE JESTER / THE FOOL

“Only a fool tests the depth of the water with both feet.” – African Proverb

Typical of a European monarch, the Jester was a person employed to tell jokes and provide general entertainment. Jesters wore brightly colored clothes and eccentric three point hats, each point representing the donkey’s ears and tail worn by jesters in earlier times. So clearly, Donkey (Eddie Murphy) in DreamWorks Animated Shrek (2001) is a literal representation of the original jesters. 

But similar to other character types, the jester has evolved over time, and the terms fool or buffoon – someone who provides amusement through inappropriate appearance and/or behavior – may even be a better terms to reflect the modern usage of the role. The modern day fool is a clown-like, publicly amusing person, who displays inappropriate vulgar, bumbling, or ridiculous behavior that is a source of general amusement. 

Often the main protagonist is personified as a jester (think Will Ferrell in Elf or Steve Martin in The Nerd); however, the fool is more often represented as a supporting role, one who means well most of the time, but constantly messes up the hero’s plans with his or her physical mistakes. 

The Jester/Fool in film:

Dory (Ellen DeGeneres), a regal tang fish with short term memory loss that tags along with the clownfish Marlin (Albert Brooks) as they travel together to find his Marlin’s son Nemo. – Finding Nemo (2003)

Jack Lopate(Thomas Haden Church), Miles Raymond’s (Paul Giamatti) soon-to-be-married actor best friend and college roommate who committed to “sowing his wild oats” with a few last sexual flings. – Sideways (2004)

Lawrence ‘Chunk’ Cohen (Jeff Cohen), a fat, clumsy, food-loving Goonie, who is captured by the Fratellis, yet befriends the strong but gentle Sloth, and together saves the Goonies in the end. – The Goonies (1985)

Gale (John Goodman) and Evelle Snoats (William Forsythe), Herbert “H.I.” McDunnough’s (Nicolas Cage) escaped prison buddies, who deduce Junior’s identity and steal the baby for financial gain.  – Raising Arizona (1987)

Leo Getz (Joe Pesci), the crooked, loudmouthed accountant and Federal witness, who Murtaugh (Danny Glover) and Riggs (Mel Gibson) have been reassigned to protect. – Lethal Weapon 2 (1989)

THE BULLY

“If you let a bully come in your front yard, he’ll be on your porch the next day and the day after that he’ll rape your wife in your own bed.” – Lyndon B. Johnson

Bullying is an act of repeated agressive behavior in order to hurt another person, either physically, mentally, or both. It involves a real or perceived imbalance of power with the more powerful individual or group targeting those who are less powerful. There are three basic types of abuse: emotional, verbal, and physical. And most bullying involves subtle methods of coercion such as psychological manipulation. Bullies often act out of jealousy or insecurity because they are (or have been) bullied themselves.

Most bullies share a number of characteristics: (1) they are authoritarian, with a strong need to control or dominate, (2) they often have a prejudicial view of subordinates, (3) they speak to others in a condescending manner, (4) they often are motivated out of envy or resentment, (5) they crave constant empowerment, either because bullying fuels an already arrogant and narcissistic personality or the act of bullying conceals shame or anxiety that helps to boost self-esteem, and (6) they may share other risk factors such as depression, personality disorders, aggressive or obsessive behavior, and an unhealthy concern to preserve self image. 

The Bully in film

Biff Tannen (Thomas F. Wilson), George McFly’s (Crispin Glover) 1985 day intimidating supervisor and 1955 high school bully. – Back to the Future (1985)

Harry Kello (Emile Meyer), the dirty cop hired by J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster) to “take care of” both honest musician Steve Dallas (Martin Milner) and slimy press agent Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis). – Sweet Smell of Success (1957)

Bobby (Kyle Schmid), the high school letter-jacket-wearing-tough-guy stereotype, who constantly bullies Jack Stall (Ashton Holmes). – A History of Violence (2005)

Juror #10 (Ed Begley), a garage owner and pushy loudmouthed bigot. – 12 Angry Men (1957)

Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen), the psychopathic, who murders several civilians during the failed bank heist and abducts a police officer, who he brutally tortures at the warehouse. – Reservoir Dogs (1992)

THE CYNIC

“A cynic is a man who, when he smells flowers, looks around for a coffin.” – Henry Louis Mencken

In ancient Greece, Cynics were philosophers from the school of Cynicism. There purpose: to live a life of virtue with nature. This meant they were to live free of all possession, rejecting desires for wealth, power, and fame. 

This origin of the cynic name is a far cry from how we think of a cynic today. The modern cynic is the skeptic, the doubter, the pessimist, or even the doomsayer. In modern storytelling, the cynic challenges the protagonist with constant disapproval of the protagonist’s actions. He shoots down every idea the hero has yet provides no solutions of his own. This “nothing will work” attitude often causes doubt in the hero, either making the hero feel defeated, causing the hero to make poor decisions, or even persuading the hero to take no action at all. 

The Cynic in film: 

Cypher (Joe Pantoliano), a human freed by Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), who doubts Morpheus and all his “bull shit”, betraying them in favor of the Agents to ensure his return to the Matrix. – The Matrix (1999)

Sir Alexander Dane / Dr. Lazarus of Tv’Meck (Alan Rickman), a Royal Shakespearean trained actor who resents his role as Lazarus, an alien species with prudent intellect and psionic abilities. Galaxy Quest (1999)

Walter Hobbs (James Caan), the incredulous and reluctant biological father to Buddy (Will Ferrell), who works in New York at a children’s book company and is also on Santa’s naughty list. – Elf (2003)

Robert the Bruce (Angus McFadyen), the chief contender for the Scottish crown, who is inspired by Wallace’s (Mel Gibson) dedication and bravery, yet betrays him for political gain. – Braveheart (1995)

Pvt. Hudson (Bill Paxton), the Marine team’s technician, who has a propensity for stating the obvious with high-anxiety: “That’s it man, game over man, game over! What the fuck we are gonna do now?” Aliens (1986)

THE NEMESIS

“Do you know what “nemesis” means? A righteous infliction of retribution manifested by an appropriate agent. Personified in this case by an ‘orrible cunt… me.” – Brick Top, Snatch (2000)

In Greek mythology, Nemesis was the spirit of divine retribution and “the goddess of revenge”, the name itself related to the Greek word nemein, meaning “to give what is due”. 

The Romans equated the Greek Nemesis with Invidia, sometimes called Pax-Nemesis, who was the patroness of gladiators and worshiped by victorious generals. The poet Mesomedes wrote of Nemesis as the “winged balancer of life” and the “daughter of Justice”. But this notion that Nemesis is a revered heroine and avenger of crime is quite different from the more modern associations with the name.

Today, the title of “Nemesis” has evolved to describe one’s worst enemy, usually someone or something that is the polar opposite of oneself, yet still shares a set of similar qualities or traits. In Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes series, Professor James Moriarty is the nemesis to Sherlock Holmes: both well-schooled intellectuals, gifted with critical, analytical minds, yet Moriarty is a mastermind of evil. Holmes, who uses logic for the good, refers to Moriarty as the “Napoleon of Crime”. 

Moriarty is depicted as Holmes’ worst enemy, his primary antagonist; however, a nemesis need not be limited to the primary villain alone. In fact, a nemesis is quite often used as a supporting rival character. She can even be considered a friendly troublemaker, someone who meticulously waits for a chance to mess things up for the hero, not because she wants to thwart the protagonist’s ultimate goal, but quite simply because the Nemesis hates the hero. The irony of course is that if the hero was destroyed, the Nemesis would have no one to hate; therefore, when push comes to shove, the Nemesis will often join forces with the hero and fight together to conquer the primary antagonist. 

The 2010 Starz TV series Spartacus: Blood and Sand is a helpful example to illustrate. Clearly, Spartacus’ ultimate antagonist is Batiatus, his duplicitous master, yet Crixus, Batiatus’ top gladiator and former “Champion of Capua” (a title he lost only to Spartacus). Crixus’ hatred of Spartacus fuels him to recover from his wounds, training harder, taking hold of the opportunity to face Spartacus in a match to the death, yet both rivals find common in the heat of the battle and fight side by side like brothers to topple the house of Batiatus.  

The Rival Nemesis in TV and film:

Crixus (Manu Bennett), Spartacus’ (Andy Whitfield) fellow gladiator and former “Champion of Capua”. – Spartacus: Blood and Sand (2010, Season 1).

Newman (Wayne Knight), Jerry’s neighbor who lives down the hall. – Seinfeld (1992 – 1998, Seasons 3 to 9)

Sgt. Barnes (Tom Berenger), the harsh Staff Sergeant who is at odds with the more compassionate Sgt. Elias (Willem Dafoe). – Platoon (1986).

Martin Hansen (Josh Lucas), John Forbes Nash’s (Russel Crowe) Princeton rival and fellow Carnegie scholarship recipient. – A Beautiful Mind (2001). 

Carter Burke (Paul Reiser), a corporate lawyer for the Weyland-Yatani Corporation who accompanies Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) and the marines to LV-426 to oversee the “company’s interests” during the mission. – Aliens (1986)

Bob Sugar (Jay Mohr), Jerry Maguire’s (Tom Cruise) protégé who not only is sent by management to fire Jerry but also steals Jerry’s top superstar football prospect, Frank Cushman, expected to be #1 in the NFL Draft. – Jerry Maguire (1996)