The Psychological Connection Between the Protagonist and Nemesis

A ‘worthy Nemesis’. Or Antagonist, if you prefer. That’s something you hear in Hollywood. Why? A more powerful adversary almost assuredly translates into greater conflict. Also it puts the Protagonist into an underdog position. And can translate into a more castable role.

But to me, perhaps the biggest thing is to zero in on the psychological connection between the Nemesis and Protagonist… and that brings us to the shadow dynamic. If your story’s Nemesis can in some way be a reflection of the Protagonist’s shadow, then you create a situation in which the Nemesis physicalizes the very thing the Protagonist fears the most and needs to confront.

In Casablanca, Major Strasser represents a man detached from empathy and his emotional life. That’s where Rick is at, shutting down his ‘heart’ after Ilsa ditches him. If she doesn’t re-enter his life, Rick would likely be consumed by his emotional disaffection.

Major Strasser, “Casablanca”

In Tootsie, the sexist director Ron represents Michael’s own insensitivity toward women, and as Dorothy Michaels he experiences Ron’s sexism directly.

Ron, “Tootsie”

In Looper, Old Joe represents the ‘selfish’ path, even to the point where he’s willing to kill an innocent child. Joe is challenged by his own selfish instincts, but in the end by killing himself, he chooses the ‘selfless’ path. And as Campbell says, a hero is someone who has given him/herself over to something bigger than him/herself.

Old Joe, “Looper”

We can give a Nemesis a huge army. Superpowers. A genius mind. A savvy understanding of the world. All good ways to build a “strong nemesis”. But don’t overlook the psychological connection between Protagonist and Nemesis. That can take an okay Nemesis and transform them into a powerful one.

Think of your favorite Nemesis characters. Consider their relationship to the Protagonist. What is the psychological connection?