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In my current novel, my main character has a rival for whom he has a deep personal hatred. Think Harry Potter and Malfoy, but with something solid at the beginning. I'm attempting to come up with a good reason for this hatred, but I'm quickly realizing that I don't know where to start. I don't know how to write a rival.

I was homeschooled, so I was never in the public school system. I never had anyone remotely close to a rival. I have no experience of such an individual. How can I write a character whom I have no knowledge of?

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The thing with writing a rivalry is simply a matter of perspective. I had an intellectual rival in secondary school that I had never really spoken to, but we both consistently competed for the top academic prizes. I also had one in primary school, and we just so happened to be best friends.

The thing with rivals is that they tend to be very similar. If you think of Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy, they are both clever, ambitious, talented, loyal, affable and great at the same sport in the same position. The Sorting Hat almost put Harry in Slytherin because he and Malfoy had such similar characteristics, and if he had ended up there it's very possible that they could have been the greatest of friends, very much the James Potter and Sirius Black of their generation.

All of their disagreements stem from where they differ: hunger for glory vs unassuming heroism, following a dynasty vs being independent, unquestioning leadership vs deferring to friend's counsel, selfishness vs willingness to sacrifice. That is why their relationship is antagonistic; they focus on where they differ. Had they focused on their similarities, they could very well have gotten along fine.

The thing that is consistent with rivalries, whether they're between friends or enemies, is that they cause each person to push each other further in order to stay ahead. This could be academically, professionally or athletically, or all of the above and more, the point is that each person sees themselves in the other person and wishes to be the one who does it better.

So rather than making rivals complete opposites, they need to be two sides of the same coin. Not necessarily identical, but similar enough that they will have a lot of parallels, and they will forever be comparing those parallels in order to try to be the one who is the best. It won't even matter that much if there are other people who are better than both, it will come down to who out of the two of them is more successful at their sport/job etc.

So if these rivals are at odds with each other, it will be because of their differences, which will be what you need to focus on as their earliest interactions. Then when their similarities become clear, they will use them to push each other to be better, in order to try to come out ahead of the other. But remember to keep in mind that when they're facing off against each other that in another universe, they are the best of friends.

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A rival, as opposed to a mere villain or antagonist, is someone who is competing with you for the thing, person, or goal you both want. The only place where Malfoy and Harry directly competed was in Quidditch, where they were both Seekers and were both after the Golden Snitch during games.

Beyond that, Draco was mostly Harry's antagonist — someone who is opposed to Harry and trying to prevent him from doing what he wants or being happy. An antagonist doesn't necessarily want what you want, or want it instead of you.

So depending on what kind of character you're writing, you have to figure out a reason for your protagonist to hate this person. Are they competing for something or someone? Is the other person trying to sabotage him, personally or professionally? Are they from different social strata? races? religions? political parties? schools? office departments? businesses? Is one a crook and the other a cop? Do they play for different sports teams? Is one the other's manager? et cetera.

You need to figure out why they are at odds. This will give you the basic structure of their conflict. If you don't know why your protagonist hates your villain, then you need to do more work on your plot and your characters, because you don't have the bones of your story yet. Right now your Bad Guy is just a prop.

If you don't have enough life experience to figure out how or why someone would want to thwart you personally, all I can suggest (besides getting out more) is to read more books and watch more TV and movies to study how other creators have established conflicts.

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  • "Beyond that, Draco was mostly Harry's antagonist — someone who is opposed to Harry and trying to prevent him from doing what he wants or being happy." - That's the thing though, why? Later on, when Malfoy gets mixed up with the Voldemort and all that, it's fine. But what about at age 11? What makes them so opposed the instant they meet each other? That's the feeling that I can't put my finger on. – Thomas Reinstate Monica Myron Nov 7 '16 at 0:15
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    It's been a while since I've read Philosophers Stone but as far as I remember there where several reasons: 1: Malfoy tried to gain Harry as an ally but Harry refused. Malfoy is not used to being turned down and took that as a personal insult. 2: Malfoy regards most of Harrys friends as scum (Hagrid, Ron, Hermione) and says so very openly. Of course Harry doesn't like that. 3: Harry was responsible for Voldemorts downfall and therefore indirectly harmed the Malfoy family. 4: Harry gets more attention than Malfoy, which Malfoys Ego can't handle. There's more, but the comment field is limited. – MadMonkey Nov 7 '16 at 10:42
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    Mostly it comes down to the two being absolute opposites of each other in pretty much every way and can't stand each other. Malfoy tries to assert is own supperiority over Harry by tormenting him whenever he can, just because he doesn't like him. And Harry has a strong sense of justice and a temper that is easy to trigger. Taddaa, instant conflict. – MadMonkey Nov 7 '16 at 10:44
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    @ThomasMyron Yeah, at age 11, it's mostly pure personality conflict and clash of worldview, in the sense that "this is the way things are supposed to be and you aren't falling in with that," and a child's idea of the way things are supposed to be is limited and black & white. You know how sometimes you meet someone new and you just click immediately, because you have the same sense of humor and you like the same things? The opposite of that happens too. – Lauren-Clear-Monica-Ipsum Nov 7 '16 at 11:20
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No one is a rival. Lots of people have a rival. The distinction is crucial. Your protagonist's rival does not think of himself as a rival, and neither should you. He thinks of himself as having a rival. That is how you should write him.

This is not to say that there are not characters in fiction that are just evil. They certainly exist. There is Sauron in LOTR, for example. But Sauron is also completely remote from the story. We never even meet him.

Saruman, on the other hand, we do neet. But Saruman, though he had picked the wrong side, is not simply evil the Sauron is. We don't get to know him well, but he has some depth to him.

Then there is Boromir, who give in to temptation but is final redeemed. He is an enemy for some period, but dies well. Him we know much better than either Sauron or Saruman.

Choosing makes us human. Choosing is what makes a character human. You can make your rival a Sauron, a pure unreasoning evil, but then you will never know him. Or you can make him a Boromir, one who chooses and whose choices make sense from his point of view, even if they are not always nobel in the grander scheme of things, or even if they thwart the personal agenda of your protagonist (who may not be making the grand noble choices either).

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