Ever since I went to see Frost/Nixon a few weeks ago, I’ve been thinking about adversarial relationships. (In fiction, of course.) The movie is brilliant all around, and of course, the focus is on a series of confrontations between David Frost and Richard Nixon. Each is trying to get the best of the other, each trying to come out on top. But only one of them can win. They are two very different people, yet also similar in ways, too. They both want to be in the spotlight of their circle. They both crave "ratings" of a sort. They're both able to captivate other people; they're both charismatic. And though it seems like Nixon should be able to easily win in this confrontation, Frost, in the end, has equal strength.
That’s what makes for a worthy opponent--someone who is equally strong, or witty, or what-have-you--and I think that often lies in the similarities between two adversaries rather than their differences. Some amount of sympathy for the other is necessary, too. In Frost/Nixon, we can see that Frost does feel for Nixon by the end, and even that Nixon sympathizes with Frost. We couldn’t have had James Reston opposite Nixon because Reston didn’t see Nixon as human; to him, Nixon was purely bad. And we couldn’t have had Frost opposite Jack Brennan because Brennan saw Frost as a joke.
It works the same way in any story, I think. There has to be equal strength, wit, intelligence, and each has to be able to see the other as a person--at least a little bit. Vulnerabilities and flaws in counterpoint to strengths and attributes make characters more interesting and complex, whether they are protagonists or antagonists. The Dark Knight also sparked this thought last summer, during that scene when the Joker outlines how he and Batman aren't so different deep down. (Which is an admittedly chilling thought.)
Anyone else have great examples of worthy adversaries in books? Harry and Voldemort, obviously. And I’d say the king and queen of Attolia have one that’s breathtaking (and romantic, too!). Blair and Serena in Gossip Girl? Who else?