Archive for November 18th, 2011

Villains, Antagonists…and Nemeses

A song came out recently.  A fantastic song by one of my favorite troubadours, Jonathan Coulton.  If you don’t know the name, if you’re a gamer you know his work.  He wrote the fantastic songs that close out the Portal games.  His latest album is Artificial Heart and includes a song called Nemeses which…look, I could describe it, but the embedding function in Youtube means I can just show it to you:

My wife is lucky this song wasn’t out two years ago, or I might have lobbied to have it be the first dance at our wedding (as is I fought for a different Coulton song, I’m Your Moon, which ended up as our second dance).

In part I’ve been listening to this song so much recently because it is a fantastic song.  It really is.  Something about the delivery of the line “well played,” just sells the whole thing.  However, it also invaded my brain because, for the first time, I’m writing a story that includes an actual nemesis.

Let me stop here and give my own definitions of a few terms.  First we have a character who is striving towards a particular goal.  In my book this is called “a character.”  If that character is the primary focus of the story, that’s a protagonist.  If a character’s goals are in opposition to the protagonist, that’s an antagonist.  If a character’s goals are in opposition to the laws and cultures of the society, that’s a villain.  I’ve been meaning to look at the differences between antagonists and villains, and that will come in a future Writer Reviews post, just as soon as I pick between Dr. Horrible and The Prestige.

A nemesis, in my dictionary of terms, is that antagonist who is not just working towards goals that put him into opposition with the protagonist, but intentionally chooses goals because they are in opposition to the protagonist.

Basically an antagonist does not need the goal “I will defeat the protagonist.”  A nemesis does.  A nemesis is also often evenly matched to the protagonist, potentially very slightly over matched.  The antagonist in any Sherlock Holmes story is the murderer.  Or the thief.  Whomever Holmes is tracking down.  The nemesis in a Holmes story?  That’s Moriarty.  He doesn’t appear that often, but he was specifically created to confound and be an equal to Holmes.  They don’t have to be an equal.  Superman has plenty of villains, but the only real nemesis is Lex Luthor, the squishy human with no superpowers except knowing where to find glowing green rocks.

Plenty of stories, therefore, have antagonists.  Few have nemeses.  And that’s what makes it an interesting new character to put together.  What puts the thought in the head of a character that he not only wants to achieve his own goals, but specifically wants to destroy the good guy, to bring him down and drag him through the dirt.  Is it to prove a point?  To redress an actual or perceived slight?  Is it bitterness over going bald?

And in the end, the concept of a nemesis comes down to the old cliché: the opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.  And that’s what the song sums up nicely, the odd codependent relationship that is either on or just beneath the surface with a nemesis.  “Could it be that you need me to keep out, to run you faster…” This has resulted in two tropes that play on the concept of the nemesis.  The first is the concept of an unrequited nemesis, much like unrequited love (poor Johnny Snow).  The other is the idea of a character suffering an existential crisis after the final (often accidental) defeat of a nemesis, most recently the movie Mastermind.  Either connects with us, because we recognize somewhere that this is nearly a romantic relationship, so it ends up playing on our own memories of heartbreak, just poked at from a different direction.  It turns into an existential crisis.

Comic pitch: Existential Crisis on Infinite Earths.

The one caution.  Just as a character who is nothing but a sighing unrequited lover isn’t interesting beyond…really the few words that I already said, so too does the Nemesis need to have his own character and personality, and goals beyond just the defeat/destruction of the hero.  That may be a goal that is complimentary to the defeat of the protagonist, or directly caused by the defeat, but it needs to be there.  World domination is always nice.

People love a nemesis in fiction.  It’s always the character that shows back up in a TV series that people love to hate.  Like Q.  It brings out the full potential of the protagonist, or even forces the protagonist down a darker path.  To come full circle with Jonathan Coulton, it’s part of what made Portal such a popular game.  Few video games have managed to create a nemesis for the player, rather than just a final boss or a few scattered big bad guys.  GladOS manages to be something that Bowser or Dr. Eggman never managed to be.  It’s not a character that every story needs, but it can be a damn powerful character.  But with great power comes great responsibility.  Alright, back to character sketching.

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