This article originally appeared on Tor.com.
Hello there, and welcome to The SFF Rival Academy! We’re thrilled you’ve enrolled in our educational program for youngsters of the generic magical/scientific arts.
Did you know a courageous avatar of pure goodness will be joining you this year? How amazing! They may draw all manner of evil entities and deadly beasts to the school, but we’ll praise them all the same. And you know what? They’ll need a rival… an adversary… a potential archnemesis!
Do you have what it takes to be the constant thorn in our hero’s side? The voice that tears them down just when they start believing in themself? Let’s find out.
Below, you’ll find some key examples of other famous SFF rivals to help you better understand the requirements. First, let’s cover the basics.
Privilege & Wealth
Two words: Rich. Parents.
The less you have to want for anything, the more you tend to believe that your status is a result of your actions, hard work, and dedication. They must NOT result from these things if you wish to rival our incoming school hero.
Privilege comes in many forms, but you’ve gotta have it to make the cut as the foil to our protagonist. Remember that there are many forms of privilege, including (but not limited to) the economic kind, but wealth, privilege, and a deep-seated sense of entitlement tend to go hand-in-hand in many SFF tales.
Wealthy parents are a prime starting point. Consider Draco Malfoy, living a lavish life with every advantage before descending on Hogwarts with his sneering, vicious snarls and ruthless takedowns of the Potter boy. Better yet, look to Flash Thompson. We don’t meet his parents much (if at all, depending on the Spider-man iteration). Still, his privilege is apparent: Popped collars and nice clothes, a cadre of fawning wannabes at his side, a cool car (a 2001 Plymouth Prowler in Sam Raimi’s 2002 Spider-man).
Be prepared to flaunt your wealth at every turn, but don’t you dare acknowledge what your privileged upbringing got you: safety, security, comfort and convenience, and all manner of advantages including a guaranteed place at your school of choice, and perhaps a starting spot on whatever sports team is most popular. With your privilege also comes an understanding of the world and its workings. This is crucial, considering our hero will walk into a new realm wide-eyed and in awe of their surroundings.
Look to Jorgen “Jerkface” Weight from Brandon Sanderson’s Skyward. He enters flight school as a skilled aerialist and earns the rank of flight leader on day one. The oft-ignored and bullied Spensa knows little about actual flight, and she stands in the shadow of her late father, who was declared a coward, his legacy tarnished.
Or perhaps you prefer Ambrose Jakis of The Kingkiller Chronicle. His father, Baron Jakis, could buy everything Kvothe owns a thousand times over and still build the biggest castle in all of Temerant.
You must constantly be at the ready, armed with your jaded sense of superiority and snippets of knowledge only one with extensive familiarity and experience in the world would know. This is crucial if you wish to put (and keep) the hero in their place.
In fact, most of your traits must stem from your privileged status. Chances are the hero comes in with next to nothing: no friends, no support system. A “happy to be here” attitude is your Kryptonite. You belong here, and they’re encroaching on your territory. What could a newcomer possibly teach you?
Turns out, they could teach you a lot. But as a rival, you need to be closed off and resistant to such change or character growth, at least until the second book (if you’re in a trilogy), but preferably a tad later.
Overly Involved Family
Your close family—parents, sure but also your extended family—must be domineering and overly concerned with your legacy to an almost obsessive degree. This “concern” will take the form of hovering parents or other family members demanding that you to live up to expectations they’ve never clearly defined.
Your family will serve numerous purposes.
First, they’ll ensure you have an untouchable quality about you, at least as far as the hero sees it. Lashing out at you will only get the hero in trouble with an authority figure, or worse, with your vicious parents. As a matter of fact, your family is basically allowed to be outright evil with very few consequences or repercussions (if any). This privilege extends to you… to a reasonable degree.
Even Malfoy, the gold-standard school rival, served his fair share of detentions. But he earned a prefect’s badge, and Snape certainly overlooked the blond menace’s transgressions more often than not. However, to say he got what was coming to him would be woefully incorrect. Lucius Malfoy interfered in affairs to his son’s benefit aplenty. Insisting on Buckbeak’s death sentence, purchasing a team’s worth of Nimbus 2001s, and employing a handful of illegal Imperius charms to remove Dumbledore from office are among his most memorable power moves.
Chloé Bourgeois of the animated series Miraculous: Tales Of Ladybug & Cat Noir has her father, the mayor of Paris, wrapped around her finger. She calls upon Mayor Bourgeois to reverse any school-related decision she deems inconvenient or unfavorable to her, often to the detriment of Marinette Dupain-Cheng, aka Ladybug, our hero.
It should be noted, however, that your family situation should also work to your detriment. You may feel as though your parents view you as a tool created to accomplish their goals and perpetuate the family legacy, regardless of your own aspirations and desires.
Chloé Bourgeois escapes this particular problem, thankfully, but many of top rivals in these kinds of story do not.
Malfoy is prime example yet again—unable to lead a normal student’s life, he’s turned into a servant of the Dark Lord to advance his family’s sinister goals.
Jorgen Weight of Skyward doesn’t have it quite so bad, but his parents do enroll him in flight school as primarily a show of status. He knows he’ll be pulled from duty to go into politics eventually. He remains in reserve, a weapon to be wielded when his parents deem it necessary.
Ambrose Jakis is indeed just a jerk no matter how you slice it, but we can assume he has a limited, less than ideal relationship with his Baron father.
Family is the two-sided coin clinking around in your pocket. They grant you privilege, sometimes wealth, and a certain amount of freedom from the rules that govern “normal” folk or our hero. But, alas, you must also be subject to their whims.
For better or worse, then, you will choose (or command) surrogates that you can boss around in turn, which brings us to our next item.
You knew this one was coming, right?! You need cronies of some sort—perhaps a single sycophant, a pair of mindlessly loyal dolts, or an entire posse of shallow pseudo-friends and lackeys.
Ideally, these cronies serve as foils to the hero’s friends, a dark reflection of the meaningful emotional connections our good-hearted protagonist can capably form with others. Your cronies mustn’t challenge you, never encourage you to change, or otherwise do the things a normal friend should do. Blind deference is the name of the game, and you wrote the rulebook. Anyone who doesn’t follow it gets cut from the team.
Malfoy has Crabbe and Goyle, two brutish oafs who exist to do his bidding and little else. They can’t hold a candle to Ron and Hermione, two supportive and loving companions. Plus, if Crabbe or Goyle held an actual candle, they might mistake it for a licorice wand and attempt to devour it on the spot.
Flash Thompson enjoys a collective of hangers-on, reveling in his rich-kid popularity, ephemeral though it may be.
Ambrose has a smaller platoon, but it’s similar to Flash’s crew. Their respective cronies tend to go unnamed.
Jorgen Weight has assistant flight leaders Nedd Strong and Arturo Mendez, both intriguing cases. Nedd puts on an act of being dumb, but the act is undermined when he showcases his knowledge both in and out of combat. Arturo gets pulled from duty by his parents, who want him to enjoy the status that comes without being a pilot without facing any of the very real dangers involved. Jorgen and company break the mold throughout their collective arc, but they still fit the bill to a degree: one head honcho and two loyal followers who don’t rock the leader-helmed boat.
Sabrina Raincomprix always follows wherever Chloé Bourgeois of Miraculous goes. Sabrina does her popular “friend’s” homework and waits on her every need.
No matter the shape, size, or form your cronies take, you need to have ‘em. Typically, your posse will reveal certain truths about you. You may not be able to form a real connection with anyone. You may connote subservience with friendship because you were brought up to control rather than connect. You may hope a gaggle of worshippers and flunkeys will fill the void in your heart.
Meanwhile, our hero will gallivant around the school, forming friendships that make them a better person.
This, of course, is sad for you as a potential SFF school rival. Not just the “cronies” bit, but all of the above. Not to worry, though! There’s one glimmer of hope for you: Before we turn you loose to experience your own story alongside the hero of whatever tale you end up in, let’s discuss the reason we tend to have a love/hate relationship with even the most malevolent of school rivals.
Potential For Growth And Redemption
What would you be without any room to develop and learn? Turns out we know damn well: you’d become a Dolores Umbridge type.
Every school rival, evil though they may seem, has a smidgen of potential. Potential is a key word here, because you may or may not capitalize on it. You may remain a malicious presence in the life of your hero straight through graduation and into adult life. For your sake, we hope that’s not the case.
Some rivals remain in this nebulous zone of uncertainty forever. Others learn important lessons and become better people for it, with or without the hero’s help. Let’s be real, the heroes usually have bigger fish to fry, and often an entire world to save.
Sorry, Ambrose, you’re gonna have to sit this one out. As things currently stand in your story, you’re just a jerk. But hey, so is Kvothe, so you two can enjoy your everlasting war of insults and sabotage in perpetuity, or at least until Doors of Stone comes out. We’ve got time.
But our other famous rivals have some capacity for change. Huzzah!
Chloé Bourgeois and Flash Thompson share an outlook. Chloé idolizes Ladybug. She hates Marinette, though, oblivious to the fact that they’re one and the same person. Flash and Spider-man? Same deal. Flash admires Spidey’s strength and willingness to stand up for everyone. But to him, Peter Parker is a dweeb to be bullied. Each rival worships a superhero without realizing they’re idolizing a real-life person they refuse to respect. Additionally, both struggle with distant or aloof parents. Their love for masked heroes tells us they’re searching for good, usually in the form of superpowered role models they can learn from. Whether they do learn their lessons remains to be seen! Read any number of Spider-man comics or watch Miraculous for more.
In Skyward, Jorgen is trying to carve out his own identity in the face of Spensa’s insubordination and his parents’ grand expectations. His potential for redemption might take an interesting turn (*wink*), but you don’t want the second book spoiled, do you?!
And then we have Malfoy… sigh. Stuck in the line of duty and chained to the path laid by his parents, he balks when he’s meant to kill Dumbledore after letting the Death Eaters in. When the final battle with Voldemort reaches its climax, the Malfoys turn and flee. Does this indicate a change of heart signaling redemption, or is it simple cowardice? Perhaps both?
Whether you seize your potential for growth as an SFF school rival is up to you. It takes hard work of the sort you probably aren’t yet familiar with. But do it properly and readers in every universe will laud your name as one of the all-time great redemption tales.
Do You Have What It Takes?
You have the basics all in line: wealth, privilege, insider knowledge, domineering parents, and cronies. The stage is set for your series-long redemption arc. Will you grasp the opportunity and start learning who you are beyond the illustrious family name and the silver spoon that comes with it? Or will you gobble up the spoils of your charmed life oblivious to the greater potential within?
The choice is yours. And thankfully, there’s no shortage of SFF tales you can use as a template. If you’re so inclined, comment below with your favorite SFF school rivals, and don’t forget the juicy details that make them loveably hateable (or hateably loveable)!