Stories do not need a Nemesis character

January 31st, 2013 by

I’ve addressed this subject before, but since it came up yesterday in the Pixar and the Craft of Storytelling class, I thought it would be a good opportunity to review these ideas again. One of the class participants Patrick O’Toole posted this in the forums:

It’s amazing that both Nemo and Toy Story have obstacles but not traditional antagonist.

My response:

You can go here to read a transcript I did of Andrew Stanton’s TED Talk when he notes this about the earliest days of the company:

In the early days of Pixar, before we truly understood the invisible workings of story, we were simply a group of guys going on our gut, going on our instincts. And it’s interesting to see how that led us places that are actually pretty good. You have to understand that at this time in 1993, what was considered a successful animated picture Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Lion King. So when we pitched Toy Story to Tom Hanks for the first time, he walked in and said, “You don’t want me to sing, do you?” And I thought that epitomized perfectly what everybody thought animation had to be at the time.

But we really wanted to prove you could tell completely different stories in animation. We didn’t have any influence then, so we had a little secret list of rules that we kept to ourselves. They were:

  • No songs
  • No “I want” moment
  • No happy village
  • No love story
  • No villain

The irony is in the first year, our story was not working at all and Disney was panicking. So they privately got advice from a famous lyricist – who I won’t name – and he faxed them some suggestions. And we got a hold of that fax. And the fax said:

  • There should be songs
  • There should be an “I want” song
  • There should be a happy village song
  • There should be a love story
  • And there should be a villain

And thank goodness we were just too young, rebellious and contrairian at the time. That just gave us more determination to prove you could build a better story. A year after that, we did conquer it. And it just goes to prove storytelling has guidelines, not hard, fast rules.

No villain. And that can work. But not if there isn’t opposition!

One of the eight screenwriting principles I teach in my Core classes is this:

Character = Function.

So when we deal with a Nemesis / Antagonist character, what we really get when we boil them down to their core essence is opposition. They oppose the Protagonist.

But we can get away without having an actual Nemesis if we create a story that provides opposition for the Protagonist.

You mention Toy Story. That’s a classic example where the nemesis function gets passed around from character to character, situation to situation. I refer to that as masks, whereby a character may don a nemesis mask [or protagonist, attractor, mentor, trickster] from scene to scene. If Woody is the P, then at first Buzz is the N. Then Woody’s own jealousy of Buzz acts as the N which creates the circumstances by which Buzz gets knocked outside. Once Woody heads out to get Buzz, the circumstances they deal with including Pizza Planet provides opposition. Of course, Sid the ‘evil’ kid next door dons a nemesis mask. When Woody is trying to get on the moving van at the end, the other toys wear a nemesis mask.

And so yes, stories do not need a traditional Nemesis, however they do require opposition to the Protagonist.

This is yet another way in which using archetypes as part of the story-crafting process can open up the possibility of non-formulaic writing. Instead of a traditional villain, why not explore stories where the nemesis function gets passed along like a baton from character to character, situation to situation?

By the way, this Pixar class has almost 40 participants in it. A terrific group from all around the world. Online environments like that are an amazing way to dig into the theory and craft of screenwriting, and have a heck of a lot of fun in the process.

6 thoughts on “Stories do not need a Nemesis character

  1. David B says:

    How come no one ever mentions using other movies as templates. “Toy Story” used “Midnight Run” as a template. “Star Wars” used “Hidden Fortress” and “John Carter from Mars”.

    Copying seems to be the best method for writing, but no one ever explores how it’s done. It’s not dirty, it’s totally practical.

    I’m pretty sure Lion King is Hamlet; told from a different perspective.

  2. pgronk says:

    Interesting notion about the Nemesis role being masked and assumed by multiple characters.

    However, there are Pixar films with singular, clearly designated protagonists. “The Incredibles” and “Ratatouille” come to mind. Every exception has its rule. And versa vica.

    The take away seems to be that there has to be some agent of opposition, whether a single agent, or masked and sub-contracted out to multiple agents.

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