Posts Tagged villains

Killing Peter Bailey

“So. Mary kills George’s dad here, right?” We’re watching It’s a Wonderful Life, my wife and I. It’s one of those movies I like to watch every Christmas, along with Elf, A Christmas Story, and some adaptation of A Christmas Carol. It’s a question my wife has asked before when we’re watching the movie. Here’s the scene in question:

George is walking Mary home from the big dance, both wearing borrowed clothing from the Bedford Falls High School athletic department. They’re flirting in a wholesome, 1930s sort of way when they come across the old Granville house, a dilapidated hulk of a building where the young lovers will one day live as squatters after they’re married. George weighs a rock in his hand and prepares to huck it, explaining town tradition of making a wish and trying to break some glass. Mary tries to stop him, but he wishes anyway. He wishes to see the world, to shake off the dust of the town. Mary interrupts George by throwing her own rock and refusing to reveal her wish.

Keep in mind, this is the same Mary who professed her undying love for George once before, as a young girl at the counter of the drug store. She’s known he wants to leave the town her whole life, since that very scene in fact. He shows off his membership in the National Geographic society and wonders how someone couldn’t like coconut given its exotic origins. Mary doesn’t want coconut, though, and she doesn’t want the world. She wants a life in Bedford Falls. With George Bailey. So, naturally, her wish a decade later is for George to not leave town. For something, anything, to keep him in Bedford Falls.

Then, George’s father dies. George takes over the Building and Loan. He never sees the world. He marries Mary. They become squatters, and he lives his life in that little town he never wanted to do anything but leave. And it all started with Mary making one little wish.

The story already takes place in a world with a hint of the fantastic and the super natural. After all, there are angels interceding with the lives of mortals. It’s the entire purpose of the movie. It’s a small step from that to a world where wishes can, occasionally, come true. Though come true in a rather dark and unintended way. Mary only wanted George to stay in Bedford Falls. She didn’t mean to kill his father. You can see it in the awkwardness the next time they’re together. Her, knowing what she’s done. The guilt actually drives her away from George for a while, into the arms of Sam Wainwright. In getting what she wanted, but not how she wanted it, she was too anxious to take it.

But, our heroes end up together. They have to. Bedford Falls will accept nothing else.

Merry Christmas.

Update: I wrote the above in a humorous and flippant tone, but it’s made me think more about Mary and her role within It’s A Wonderful Life. And I’ve come to an odd conclusion. Mary Hatch Bailey is the antagonist of that movie.

Alright, I already know what you’re saying. Mr. Potter is clearly the antagonist of the movie. But in the classical sense, he’s not. Let’s outline the definitions. The protagonist is the main character of the movie. The protagonist has a goal. The antagonist stands in direct opposition to that goal.

While George Bailey lives a wonderful life and helps all the people of the town, it’s never his goal to do so. His goal, as stated several times in the first half of the movie, is to get out of Bedford Falls. To travel the world, see everything that there is to see. Mr. Potter is not the antagonist because he would also love George to leave town. If George leaves, the Building and Loan would fail, and Potter could take control of that last bit of town just outside of his grasp.

The character that stands in the way of that goal is Mary Hatch, later Mary Bailey. Leaving aside the above considerations of her witch powers, she is the only human actor that keeps George from leaving town. The most direct time she does so is during the bank run by offering up their honeymoon money so people can make it through the week until the bank reopens. In doing so she ties George to the town in the short-term, by not giving him his globe-trotting honeymoon, and in the long-term by securing the Building and Loan that he feels obligated to. If the Building and Loan failed, it would suck for a lot of people, but George would be freed from that one obligation and has the wherewithal and connections to land on his feet almost anywhere he chooses.

And this is all just to point out a few simple things. First is that the antagonist of a piece is not necessarily the villain of the piece (we see this also in The Dark Knight where the Joker is the villain but Harvey Dent is the antagonist). Second is that the antagonist opposing the protagonist’s goals doesn’t necessarily make them a bad person. And, third, that the antagonist sometimes wins without it really being a bad thing.

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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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