QUALITIES OF A GREAT NEMESIS #3: Principled
Here is the sixth in my series of articles on how to captivate your audiences and readers with the use of conflict, and the third in the corresponding series examining the Nemesis character.
Back in the Bronze Age, when I was a kid watching even more TV than I do now, one of my favorite series was The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show. Each episode of this animated series included several recurring cartoons, one of which was “Dudley Do-Right of the Mounties.” Dudley was a parody of the archetypal hero who is pure of heart, can do no wrong, and always prevails. Dudley was also dumber than a bag of hammers.
Dudley’s eternal nemesis in these cartoons was the vile, conniving Snidely Whiplash, a black-clad, mustache-twirling villain who seemed intent on tying Dudley’s romantic infatuation Nell to the railroad tracks right before the train was set to arrive. It was never made clear exactly why Snidely wanted to do this; it was simply his evil nature.
The brilliance of The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show was that the cartoons always worked on two levels: as fun cartoons filled with appealing characters having child-friendly adventures, and as very funny send-ups, filled with grownup, satirical and self-referential humor.
In the context of a 1960’s cartoon, Snidely Whiplash was a fun, entertaining villain. But he also exemplifies the kind of Nemesis you must avoid in creating your own stories because he lacked any deeper motivation for his actions.
Compelling, emotionally captivating nemesis characters are principled. They believe in something bigger than themselves, and they justify their behavior because they think they are somehow making the world a better place.
Your hero’s nemesis should never see himself or herself as a villain. He can’t oppose your hero just because you want him to, or just to be mean and nasty. He should truly believe he’s adhering to his own justifiable code.
Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame (now the biggest box office success ever) works in large part because of the character Thanos. As I discussed in article #1 in this series, this nemesis is powerful –more powerful than all of the Avengers combined. He is also a huge threat (article #2 in the series), who specifically targets the Avengers, particularly his two daughters who betrayed him.
Thanos is also driven by a principle he is willing to kill and die for: to destroy half the population in the universe that has grown so overpopulated it is doomed to extinction. He believes he has been chosen to do this because he is the only one with the power and the willingness to make this horrific but necessary choice.
Like all good nemesis characters, Thanos will stop at nothing to achieve his goal, because he believes that this is what he must do to save the universe.
This quality is present in almost all great opponents, enemies or villains. In Air Force One, Ivan Korshunov (Gary Oldman) is willing to sacrifice himself to avenge those who destroyed his homeland, and to bring the Soviet Union back to its former glory.
Or think of Colonel Jessup (Jack Nicholson) in A Few Good Men (I know, I keep talking about this one, but what can I say – I love it, and it really is an example of so many elements of great writing).
In his much-quoted “You can’t handle the truth” speech at the climax, Jessup clearly lays out the principles that he lives by: “I have a greater responsibility than you can possibly fathom…. We use words like honor, code, loyalty… we use these words as the backbone to a life spent defending something.”
In Toy Story 4, Gaby Gaby isn’t out to hurt Woody. She just believes that she needs and deserves Woody’s voice box because it’s unfair that hers malfunctioned, and because her destiny is to find a little girl to love and be loved by.
The principles and beliefs that a nemesis lives by are often abusive (the music instructor in Whiplash), twisted (the Mother Superior in Doubt), immoral (the racist hypnotist in Get Out) or simply self-serving. But it doesn’t matter how obvious it is to the audience that these characters are wrong-headed or twisted. We have to understand that these characters have convinced themselves they are serving music, God, racial superiority, or a town’s livelihood.
And nemesis characters aren’t always corrupt, misguided or evil. In The Favourite, the hero Abigail (Emma Stone) desperately wants to rise up from her wretched existence and return to the level of society she once enjoyed. So her goal becomes to win away the affection of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) from Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz). This makes Sarah Abigail’s nemesis.
Sarah recognizes Abigail’s scheme, so she does what she can to stop her. But Sarah truly loves Queen Anne, and wants the best for her and for England. Others might disagree with her political ambitions, but the principles that drive her motives are neither twisted nor evil.
The same holds true for Apollo Creed in Rocky, who never cheats or does anything underhanded to stop Rocky. He abides by the principles and rules of his sport.
And in Sleepless in Seattle Annie’s fiancée Walter is the character who most stands between her and winning the love of Sam. Yet Walter is a sweet guy who deeply loves Annie, and wants only the best for her. He doesn’t lie, cheat or manipulate her. He lives by principles we all strive for. But he’s just not the right guy for her, making him a compelling nemesis.
Whether righteous or wicked, the more committed the nemesis in your story is, the more determined she will be to stop your hero. And raising your hero’s conflict in this way will make your story more emotional, and more successful at impacting whoever sees it.
Previous CONFLICT articles in this series: