I’m putting my nerd hat on for this post, since I am using anime and manga as my primary examples. In all 18 years of reading and watching Japanese stories, there’s a character type their writers use that I don’t see utilized in American stories often: the friendly rival.
American story-telling, for the most part, sticks to good versus evil.* The hero saves the day/defeats the monster/brings everyone together to conquer a decided disaster. This is true of any story in any culture,** but the difference comes in the side characters. In American tales, there are minor characters, secondary characters, and probably bullies and bad guys, too. But Japan takes a role that many athletes the world over have first-hand experience of, and puts it into their stories: the role of a friendly (if often antagonistic) rival.
Vying for the same goal, rivals choose to use each other’s skill levels to motivate themselves to do better, go farther, or think smarter, rather than becoming partners. The circumstances of the story usually determine the reason why two such characters might “battle it out” instead of teaming up. In most Japanese stories this is easily explained by being on opposing sports teams. But what about other situations that call for friendly rivalries?
When your character has someone specific to match themselves against, and can mark their progress accordingly, the excitement of training, competing, and interacting with the other character, should create dynamic scenes. In addition, if the rivals are opposite genders, there’s the potential for romantic interest as their relationship develops.
Now: taking this to our lives as writers, we need to do the same with our writing friends. Writing might not be counted a sport (yet), but it has become an activity that is no longer done all alone (if it ever was!) Writing communities, online friends, workshops, challenges and critiquing are opportunities to find real-world rivals who will motivate you to become better, whether by refining your skills or learning something from them and their writing.
Who do you look up to, or aim to write like? As NaNoWriMo continues, let the thousands of potential rivals stir your excitement and fire your imagination. And when it’s over: let the competitions begin!
Have a writing rival and never realized it? Tell us about it in the comments!
Katie, signing off
*Not discounting other plots like the anti-hero, or villain-protagonist, or bystander point-of-view.
**Unless you’re trying to turn the hero tradition upside down.