Also called the villain or the antagonist, nemesis is the arch enemy of the protagonist.
We are familiar with the character as there is no story unless there is someone to stop the hero of a film from reaching their goal. Sometimes, the antagonist or the villain IS the goal.
In the popular Bollywood film Sholay, capturing Gabbar Singh the dacoit, is the goal.
In other films, the antagonist comes in the way of the hero getting to his/her goal or does something which sets the hero on his journey to vanquish the antagonist and reclaim whatever it is that has been captured/destroyed by the antagonist which is precious to the hero.
What are the important characteristics for creating a well formed arch rival to the hero?
As with writing a good story, every character has to have their place, believable motivations and in the case of the hero’s arch rival, he or she has to have strength that at the least matches that of the hero or even exceeds it. This is true not just in physical power but even in opportunity, access, resources the arch rival has to be better placed than the hero. Else, it is not a contest that the audience will be interested in.
From Ernst Starvo and Auric Goldfinger in the James Bondfilms to Goliath in David and Goliath, The Giant in Jack and the Beanstalk, the priest Imhotepin the film The Mummy, the antagonists are powerful, larger than life (James Bond himself is larger than life so he needs antagonists who can believably sustain the action right through the film).
But the antagonist doesn’t always have to be physically powerful. In a film like Man, Woman and Child (made in Bollywood as Masoom by ShekharKapoor), the antagonist is the husband and his illegitimate child. The two create friction in an otherwise happy family.
Thus, it is the ability of the antagonist to successfully create disruption in the world of the protagonist that makes him or her a strong adversary.
It is not necessary that the antagonist remains the same right through the film. It can change: either the hero first encounters a smaller nemesis/antagoniston way to meeting the larger nemesis or mistakenly believes someone to be the antagonist only to find out that it is someone else who is the real villain - Think of Oddjob from the Bond Film Goldfinger. Bollywood films are full of minor sidekicks who create disruption before the identity of the gang leader is revealed.
In the Bollywood film Yaadon Ki Baraat, the hero played by Dharmendra, waits for many years for ‘Jack’ to be released from jail, believing him to be his family’s killer and reaches his house to kill him once he is released. Only when he meets him he finds out that this is the person who actually saved his life and the real killer is someone else. He then sets out to find the real killer.
In the Harry Potter series, till book 3, The Prisoner of Azkaban, the readers believe that Sirius Black is the most dreaded character and fear his escape from Azkaban only to find out that he was wrongfully confined and is in fact Harry’s Godfather.
Thus, the audiences belief in the potency of a character, their ability to create destruction and get away with it is what imbues the antagonist with that quality which makes the film a worthwhile conflict to watch.
In Harry Potter, besides Voldermort, the dementors and various others characters like Quirrell, Draco Malafoy, LuciusMalafoy all play the role of anatgonists till Harry finally meets the final nemesis. They are all powerful players in the story and foreshadow the power of the nemesis Harry will eventually meet when he finally confronts Voldermort.
Romantic rivals make powerful antagonists: often better looking, richer, better connected, they can carry stories on their shoulders. The success of Archie comics for decades rested on the popularity of the romantic nemesis of both Archie and Betty: Reggie and Veronica.
The Bollywood film ‘KuchKuchHotaHai’ used this theme to create a triangle between one guy (Shahrukh Khan) and two girls Rani Mukherjee (who becomes his object of desire) and Kajol his BFF.
Another important feature of a well outlined antagonist is that they have their own good reason for wanting what they want and are not chasing something only to stop the hero.
Their reason for doing something has to be as powerful and believable as the hero’s reason for pursuing his goal.
In the film The Mummy (1999), Imhotep is cursed for his love for Anck Su Namun, mistress of King Seti I. He gets resurrected due to the actions of a set of people looking for treasure. He wants to bring his lady love Anck Su Namunback to life so that they can be together forever.
That is his reason for taking the organs from the living to resurrect his mummified, still decomposing body. He needs Evelyn’s body as a vessel for resurrecting Anck Su Namun.
It is a compelling story, where the antagonists reasons are driven by love while that of the protagonists are driven by wanting to find an old city and its treasures.
The antagonist is the ‘undead’ and his actions evil and scary enough for the audience to want him back as ‘dead’, making him the antagonist.
In the Bollywood film Sholay, we know that Gabbar Singh is no ordinary dacoit. He is sadistic, vindictive and a killer. He commands an army of dacoits and is unsparing even towards them when they fail.
When a police officer captures him and he is sentenced to 20 years imprisonment, given his character, we know it is a compelling enough reason for him to kill the officers family. The protagonist (the police officer) has a compelling reason to capture him again….and he wants him captured alive, thereby upping the stakes.
Finally, the nemesis has to be at its strongest towards the end of the film. The hero has to have all odds stacked against him while the nemesis has to have everything going for him.
In The Mummy, Imhotep has a whole army of mummies fighting for him, he is fully resurrected with all his supernatural powers restored and fighting him is a set of mortals.
To be sure they need magical help as completing an incantation takes away his supernatural powers. But the journey to that is still heavily loaded against them with mortals fighting the supernatural.
In Sholay, the ex police officer, whose arms have been chopped off by the dacoit, meets him in his den, fights him one on one with his physical disadvantage and crushes him under his feet.
These are the essential elements of writing a strong nemesis in a story.
1. The nemesis has to be as strong if not stronger than the hero
2. There can be more than one antagonist in a film, even one falsely believed to be a nemesis till the real one is revealed.
3. The antagonist has to have his/her own compelling reasons for doing what they do and wanting what they want.
4. The nemesis has to be at its strongest in the climax of the film.