CONFLICT #4: The Nemesis

HERE’S a TV trivia question: what do “Laverne and Shirley,” “Better Call Saul” and “CSI: New York/Miami/Tacoma” all have in common?

Yup. They’re SPINOFFS. Their characters or premises were first introduced on original TV series that had become huge hits (“Happy Days,” “Breaking Bad” and “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation”).

Why does this matter? This article about the Nemesis character is the fourth in my series on adding conflict to your stories to elicit emotion. But because including a Nemesis is such a powerful method for building conflict, I’m going to spin off this topic into its own series. The six articles that follow this one will examine the 6 qualities of a great Nemesis.

But before we can explore what constitutes a great Nemesis, we have to be clear on what a Nemesis actually is….

In your screenplay, your manuscript, your origin story from the stage, or your former client’s success story in a marketing email, the conflict may come from within (your hero’s wounds, beliefs and fears) or from some force of nature (the disease your hero overcame, the earthquake your hero survived, all those plagues in The Ten Commandments).

But the most common and visible obstacles your characters must face will come from other characters.

And the primary character your hero must battle is the Nemesis. The more intriguing, compelling, powerful, unique and memorable your hero’s opponent, the more emotionally involving your story will be.

There are two essential principles for creating a strong nemesis:

#1. A nemesis is a character. He or she is not an organization (the government), a physical challenge (Mount Everest), a disease (alcoholism), a quality of life (poverty), or some threatening horde (aliens/terrorists/Nazis). These situations and groups will certainly add conflict and emotion to your story. But readers and audiences want to identify an individual character who stands between your hero and your hero’s goal – someone your hero must confront face to face and overcome in order to succeed.

Just as with the setting of your story or the revelation of your hero’s goal, the more clear, vivid and specific your hero’s nemesis, the easier it will be for your followers to picture – and root for – your hero’s victory over that character.

If the hero of your story is desperate to win a promotion, a trophy or a battle, then introduce a rival, competitor or commander that your hero must eventually defeat.

Inglourious Basterds involves two intertwined story lines, and a whole bunch of characters who want to defeat the Third Reich. The anticipation, suspense, humor and violent confrontations Quentin Tarantino creates using these elements provide an immense amount of conflict and emotion.

But imagine how much less involving and successful the movie would be without the character of Colonel Landa (Christoph Waltz). This brilliant, powerful, hateful nemesis serves as the personification of the Nazi army, and allows audiences to anticipate the ultimate confrontation between him and our heroes, Lieutenant Raine (Brad Pitt), and Shoshanna (Mélanie Laurent).

#2. A nemesis is not necessarily a villain. A nemesis can be the bad guy or the force of evil in your story, as Colonel Landa illustrates.

But your nemesis might also be an opponent (Apollo Creed in Rocky), a rival (Kimmy in My Best Friend’s Wedding), or simply someone who stands between your hero and the visible finish line he wants to cross (Gerard in The Fugitive).

Maintain these two principles as you identify your hero’s nemesis. Then you can begin the process of making this character as captivating and emotionally involving as possible.

And the next six articles in this series will reveal how you can do just that….

– Michael


[Click below to read the previous articles in this series.]

CONFLICT #1: Tiger
CONFLICT #2: Combat vs. Conflict
CONFLICT #3: Follow the Pain