Conflict is the heart of every story and that means the hero needs multiple enemies to keep him or her from achieving a goal. The four common types of enemies where the weakest enemy is at the top and the strongest enemy is at the bottom include:
- The environment
- Other people
Out of all these enemies, the environment is the simplest, yet it needs to be as strong as possible to foil the hero. In “127 Hours,” the hero is trapped in a canyon with his arm pinned down by a rock. So to make the hero’s task of escape harder, the rock keeps the hero unable to get away.
To make matters worse, the rock also keeps the hero from easily using his other arm to free himself. Because of the rock, the hero is trapped in a canyon far from help of any kind.
The problem with the environment as the enemy is that it’s hard to get emotionally engaged against a rock or other physical obstacle. Make the environment as tough as possible for the hero, but don’t rely on obstacles alone to sustain a story.
Other people represent the most common types of enemies opposing the hero. These other people simply appear to get in the way of the hero. In “Little Miss Sunshine,” a policeman stops the family as they’re driving to get to a beauty pageant.
By himself, the policeman isn’t a threat but because he pulled the hero over, now she risks missing the deadline to get to the beauty pageant on time. So even though the policeman doesn’t care about keeping the hero from the beauty pageant, he’s still a threat.
A far more engaging enemy is one who deliberately wants to stop the hero. In “Die Hard,” the two biggest enemies are the head terrorist who wants to kill the hero’s wife to retaliate against the hero foiling his plan, and the main henchman who wants revenge against the hero for killing his brother.
Both of these enemies want to stop the hero and the simplest way to stop the hero is by killing him.
Not all enemies want to kill the hero. Often times an enemy wants to simply lead the hero away from his or her goal.
In “Yesterday,” a music executive is trying to profit off the hero and in the process, lead him away from the woman he loves. The music executive isn’t trying to physically hurt the hero, but she’s tempting him further away from his real goal, which is to be with his true love.
Enemies either want to kill the hero (such as in action thrillers or mysteries), or they want to lead the hero away from his or her true goal. That means you need to identify your hero’s true goal, which is related to your story’s theme.
In “Yesterday,” the theme is honesty, so the various enemies threaten to lead the hero into a life of lying instead of honesty.
Having other people oppose the hero is simple, but having friends of the hero oppose the hero makes for a more emotional battle. The hero’s friends want to stop the hero because they want to help the hero, which makes the hero struggle harder because his or her friends appear to be trying to help.
In “Little Miss Sunshine,” the hero wants to compete in a beauty pageant but her entire family thinks she’s outclassed and they try to convince her to drop out to avoid embarrassing herself. Having to oppose your entire family who simply wants to protect you is a tough battle, which makes friends a far more difficult and interesting enemy than outsiders.
Perhaps the greatest enemy is the hero him or herself. This occurs when the hero doubts his or herself. In “Star Wars,” the biggest threat to Luke isn’t Darth Vader but in Luke’s own decision to turn off his targeting computer and rely on the Force. That’s a huge leap of faith and causes him (and us as the audience) to be torn because if he fails, then he’ll have to bear the entire responsibility.
Conflict relies on enemies, so make sure you keep opposing your hero in various ways. The environment is the simplest way to oppose the hero. Other people is the next simplest way to oppose the hero, but don’t stop there.
Have the hero’s friends oppose the hero. Have the hero doubt him or herself and be forced to make a huge decision which can have monumental consequences if her or she is wrong. (“Star Wars” is such a great movie precisely because the main enemy is Luke’s own doubt.)
Pile on the enemies and your story’s conflict will simply increase. The more conflict, the more interesting your story.