For the past two weeks, we’ve discussed elements of the TV series Justified, based on the Elmore Leonard short story Fire in the Hole. First, we looked at the inciting incident and how it introduced us to the story world and our protagonist. Last week, we looked at the ways the writers created hero empathy. This week, we’re looking at my absolute favorite element of the show: the relationship between the protagonist (Raylan Givens) and his nemesis (Boyd Crowder).
First, it’s important to establish the difference between an antagonist and a nemesis. An antagonist is an opponent. Throughout the series, Givens has a number of these, with one main antagonist per season. But a nemesis is an archenemy, a source of conflict throughout the entire story arc, in this case, the six seasons of Justified. And for our purposes, it’s also important to note that the nemesis character, as Michael Hague would describe it, embodies the hero’s inner journey.
Let’s spend a minute unpacking that distinction. While an antagonist might be any character who is at cross-purposes with our protagonist, creating conflict that drives the protagonist’s actions which in turn drive the character growth/arc, a nemesis strikes a deeper chord. A nemesis is, on the surface, diametrically opposed to the protagonist, and exhibits this by creating conflict in the protag’s ‘outer journey’. But when it comes to the protag’s inner journey, the nemesis character is on the same path. It’s in choosing a different outer path to accomplish the same inner journey goal that the protagonist/nemesis journey gets its story juice. It is, as Jennifer Crusie would say, part of ‘the crunchy stuff’ of story. And man oh man, does the Raylan/Boyd storyline get crunchy.
A large part of the reason these two characters have the same inner journey is they have the same childhood story that has left them with the same wound. They grew up on the wrong side of the tracks in Harlan County, KY, both sons of career criminals who were terrible, violent fathers. As the characters remind us throughout the series, when they were young men, they dug coal together, which in true Elmore Leonard style is meaning-packed shorthand for the fact that they nearly died together in a mine explosion, and on some level, they’re forever bonded.
Both characters left Harlan County – Raylan to go to college, and Boyd to become a soldier deployed to Iraq. When the characters reunite in Harlan County decades later, they’re on opposite sides of the law. Raylan is a US Marshal and Boyd is a career criminal looking for a way to start his own criminal empire. But they’re both nursing the same childhood wound of fatherly neglect and abuse, both looking for a way to establish an emotional connection and family life they didn’t have growing up. They even look for love with the same woman, albeit in different seasons.
While their positions on opposites sides of the law makes them natural enemies on their outer journeys, their actions of living by their own moral codes, protecting those they deem under their care, and shooting to kill anyone who threatens their sense of justice aren’t so different. In one scene in a later season, Boyd explains to a man that the man is just a criminal while he (Boyd) is an outlaw. In a later scene, Boyd tells Raylan he should become an outlaw because as a marshal that’s how he already behaves, but with the added burden of paperwork.
Raylan and Boyd each recognize that part of themselves that is in the other. It’s this instinctive recognition that drives them to protect each other, even when sitting at opposite ends of a dining room table and pulling guns on each other, as happens near the end of the very first episode of the series. Givens, a certified ‘dead shot’, hits Crowder in the chest, but it’s not a kill shot. Givens tells his boss everyone misses sometimes. But the audience members know (or if they don’t know in episode one, they will soon learn) that for Raylan, killing Boyd would be like killing part of himself. And more importantly for us, removing our protagonist’s nemesis would take the juice out of an amazing storyline that serves as the undercurrent and sometimes riptide of conflict for the entire series.
My take-away from all of this is that I love a good nemesis, and what we love to see in story is often what we should be writing in our own. So I’m off to identify who the nemesis is for the protagonist in my current project and find ways to make that storyline stronger and ‘crunchier’. And I have feeling I’m going to have fun doing it!
Have you read (or seen) a great nemesis character lately? Have you written one into your own WIP?