QUALITIES OF A GREAT NEMESIS #2: Threatening
Here is the fifth in my series of articles on how to captivate your audiences and readers with the use of conflict, and the second in the corresponding series examining the Nemesis character.
Your story’s nemesis will be the character that, more than any other, stands between your hero and his or her visible goal. This far more powerful character will provide much of the conflict your hero must overcome in order to succeed.
In other words, the nemesis’ goal should be in opposition to whatever your hero wants. But to make your nemesis even more emotionally compelling, he (or she) should become a personal threat to your hero.
In the Best Picture Oscar® winner The Shape of Water, the hero Elisa’s (Sally Hawkins) visible goals are to rescue, and to win the love of, the gill man referred to as the Asset (Doug Jones). Her greatest obstacle, besides the diminishing health of her fish-man out of water, comes from Strickland (Michael Shannon), the mean and sadistic person in charge of the Asset, who likes to torture the Asset and wants him destroyed. So Strickland is clearly Elisa’s nemesis.
Unaware of her feelings and plans for the Asset, initially Strickland has no particular interest in Elisa. He’s just a bad guy whose goals are in opposition to hers.
So screenwriters Guillermo del Toro and Vanessa Taylor wisely increase our involvement in the story by making Strickland a direct threat to Elisa.
First Strickland grabs Elisa and claims to be turned on by her deafness. Then he grows suspicious of her when the Asset disappears. Finally, when he learns that she and her co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer) were responsible for kidnapping the Asset, Strickland goes after them, and the exciting climax becomes a showdown between Elisa and Strickland – hero and nemesis.
When you create a story where your nemesis has an initial goal that creates conflict for your hero, make sure your nemesis is alerted to the hero’s opposing desire, leading to a one-on-one battle.
This principle doesn’t just apply to action films and thrillers involving violent conflicts with evil villains.
Let’s say you’re preparing a marketing presentation and you want to include an autobiographical story about something you accomplished (or something you failed to accomplish) and the lesson you learned. By making yourself the empathetic underdog while painting a vivid portrait of your rival or competitor, you’ll ensure that your story – and your speech or sales copy – will captivate and persuade your potential clients much more successfully.
Whatever the venue for your story, and whether your nemesis is a challenger (Ricky Conlan in Creed), an opposing attorney (Ed Concannon in The Verdict), or a romantic rival (Kimmy in My Best Friend’s Wedding), when you include scenes involving that character’s direct, personal conflict with your hero, you’ll always achieve greater emotional impact.
Next: QUALITIES OF A GREAT NEMESIS #3: Principled
Previous CONFLICT articles in this series:
CONFLICT #1: Tiger
CONFLICT #2: Combat vs. Conflict
CONFLICT #3: Follow the Pain
CONFLICT #4: The Nemesis
QUALITIES OF A GREAT NEMESIS #1: Powerful
Don’t forget Carl Sagan wrote “Contact”, one of the best speculative fiction stories in my experience. There is an episode of the ‘Twilight Zone’ titled “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street”, another terrific story which has no robots or cyborgs, just people.
A real life story can be brainless blather an SF as ‘The Stalker’ or ‘Silent Running may be works of genius. I love Carl Sagan too. I loved the follow the pain example. My one criticism is to recommend Michael uses the classics as examples not corrupted generally poor commercial Hollywood fare. “La Strada’ by Fellini the ‘Seven Samurai’ by Kurosawa ‘La Jetta’ by that French guy ‘Citizen Kane’ by Orson Wells ‘The General’ by Buster Keaton ‘The Gold Rush’ by Chaplin et al. I admit I also am a little confused by the differences between Villain & Nemesis. My present play/film has a villain who is also the Nemesis. But as it is a two hander about the rise of the Far Right today… I need to muse & think upon this aspect. Soon I must sleep to work again tomorrow.
I disagree with Ms. Garges’s comment in that, if I understand Mr. Hauge correctly, the villain/antagonist character and the nemesis character are not the same thing. If this is correct, then, the villains in Raiders are obviously the Nazis, and the nemesis character is the competing archaeologist, Rene Belloq. In Casablanca, the villains are also the Nazis, the nemesis character is Captain Renault. In Jaws, the shark is the villain/antagonist, not the nemesis. The nemesis in Jaws is, I’d say, the mayor, the Murray Hamilton character. I’m not sure there IS a nemesis character in every story, but the story is always better when there is.
A tall order to create a great nemesis, especially in a comedy. The nemesis has to be powerful and personally threatening to the hero — and funny. Some of the nemeses in the list by commenter Caroline seem easy to me — the Nazis qualify in several, and then there’s the shark — these are emblems of power and threat so the writer doesn’t have to do much to characterize them. But I second some of the other commenters’ general questions, whether the nemesis can be a force of nature or the environment and how best to approach the writing of the nemesis character in a comedy.
I read this differently – more as an extension of putting the heroine under increasing pressure so that her character (and that of the nemesis) is more clearly shown. Through conflict we see what the person is capable of, and how she responds shows much about traits such as courage, love, intelligence. In this way it’s a bit like a mind experiment. What would the person do under this circumstance? The more direct the threat, the higher the stakes, perhaps the more it reveals. But it’s also a case of horses for courses. In some stories couldn’t the nemesis be the environment, or the hero’s own psychology causing the direct threat?
I find the descriptions of the “nemesis” confusing in that, more often than not, your descriptions sound like those of an actual villain, the bad guy. Most nemesis characters, if my understanding is correct, do not threaten the life of the hero. The detective in Chinatown? The corrupt NSA advisor in Clear and Present Danger? I think you need to distinguish more clearly a nemesis from a villain. A nemesis is easy to create in a romantic comedy, where nobody’s life is threatened. Less easy in an adventure/thriller. Who, just to be clear, would you say the nemesis character is (as opposed to the villain) in the following twenty of MY favorite adventure films:
2. The Bridge on the River Kwai
3. Lawrence of Arabia
4. The African Queen
5. Dances With Wolves
8..The English Patient
10.Legends of the Fall
12.The Wild Bunch
13.Raiders of the Lost Ark
15.Zorba the Greek
16.The Man Who Would Be King
17.Out of Africa
19.Moon Over Parador
Having never seen the movie cited, or any sci fi whatsoever, which I personally think is brainless blather for teen aged boys, I do wish Mr. Hauge would use more examples from real world stories instead of future world-alien-hominid-intergalactic struggles between humanoid robots, pods and cyborgs. Come on. Some of us are grown-ups who actually listened to what Carl Sagan had to say. And wish to write real stories about real people, not men with gills.
Please talk more about real life stories.