As I’m copyediting FOR DARKNESS SHOWS THE STARS, I’ve found cause to think about one of my favorite character roles: the nemesis.
Who is the nemesis? Well, if comic book superheroes are to be believed, they are the villain. The Joker. Lex Luthor. Magneto. And yes, sometimes a nemesis is the same character as a villain. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
A nemesis is someone who opposes the protagonist. That’s all. A nemesis can fulfill this role over the course of hte whole story or even in a single scene (a lot of romance novels are premised on the concept that the main characters are each other’s nemeses.) The Greek goddess Nemesis was the spirit of divine retribution, specifically against those who succumb to the sin of hubris. I like to keep that in mind whenever I’m tempted to say that the nemesis has to be a villainous character. Sometimes, the nemesis is just the person keeping the protagonist from becoming too big for her britches.
A great example of a non-villainous nemesis is Cordelia Chase from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Cordelia almost never agrees with Buffy or the yes-men in the Scooby gang. Much comic mileage is made of the fact that she generally finds Buffy to be full of crap. (One of my favorite scenes in that show is the one where Buffy can read everyone’s thoughts and they are ALL thinking about poor, poor Buffy except Cordelia, who’s all “Bored now*, can I go?”) But she is not a bad person and is a great asset to Buffy’s team. Later, after Cordelia’s exodus from the show, the ex-demon Anya fills a similar purpose. (Spike, too.)
Veronica Mars is simply chock full of non-villainous (mostly**) nemeses — people who oppose Veronica’s goals for motivations that even Veronica agrees are totally valid. Weevil, Logan, Duncan, Mac, and even Keith Mars all regularly do battle with our heroine, and they are also the people she loves best in the world.
I love to write non-villainous nemeses, because, let’s face it — even good people don’t always agree, and you can’t have everyone around your heroine being a boring old yes-man all the time. Characters who are “good” simply because they like your protag and “bad” if they don’t are boring. (I even like to write villains who love and agree with my heroines.)
Perhaps my most popular nemesis is Poe. (“Perhaps,” she says!) There are other hunters in the Cloisters who play the role of nemesis to Astrid and Phil and Cory. The nemesis in For Darkness Shows the Stars is one of my very favorite characters of all time.
Who is your favorite nemesis character and why do you like him or her?
* Yes, I know “bored now” is not her line but rather Evil!Willow’s several seasons later, but I can’t be bothered to look up what it is she actually says right at this moment.
** There can be a fluidity on the nemesis/villain divide, especially in long running series, where they can skip back and forth over the line. Logan is occasionally a villain. Spike, certainly. Magneto basically lives on the line, leaning one way or another depending on the plot requirements and Dr. Xavier’s mood.