Why the Hero Needs his Nemesis

Sword fight

Force for Growth

One of the chief functions of the antagonist is to force the protagonist to evolve. Without the constant prodding that causes the hero to recognise the way to overcome his nemesis is through personal growth and inner strength, his actions and decisions to achieve the goal remain on an even keel, and are, ultimately, doomed to failure.

Die Hard‘s John McClane is in a bad marriage. He is separated from his wife and is headed for divorce before Hans Gruber enters the fray, kidnaps a bunch of people, including John’s wife, and forces him to step up to the mark. By having to rescue his wife from the arch criminal’s clutches, John realises how much he truly loves her and what he has to do to save his marriage, which he does. Thank you, Hans Gruber.

In The Matrix, Neo is riddled with self-doubt. Is he indeed The One? The answer remains unclear until he faces and defeats agent Smith in one rollicking fight to the finish. But for agent Smith, Neo might still be vacillating over this world-changing question.

At the beginning of Casablanca, Rick Blaine is self-serving and unlikable, until he gives up on the woman he loves in order to contribute to the war effort. This is a huge shift for him. Were it not for Ilsa Lund, the opponent who turns his world upside down, he would not have grown through this sacrifice, remaining static and selfish — someone of no moral consequence.

In Crash, Terrance Howard has to deal with a series of problems concerning his wife, as well as with the specter of racism. But having to respond to and overcome Matt Dillon’s constant harassment, he emerges a stronger and better man. Here again, no Matt Dillon, no personal growth.

Although the clash between the protagonist and antagonist ostensibly occurs at the surface level, the level of actions and events, it is the effect on the Hero’s inner landscape that marks its true significance.


The antagonist is the protagonist’s polar opposite. He forces the protagonist to change for the better.


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Image: Kris Krug
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