The Villain is the Hero’s Nemesis

The obstacles that the hero confronts In Act Two can’t arise willy-nilly from everywhere and nowhere. They must originate from a single source—the villain.

Fernando Rey as Alain Charnier in William Friedkin’s “The French Connection”

One of the great antagonists/nemeses in movie history is Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey) in William Friedkin’s 1971 classic, The French Connection.

Throughout Act Two, this urbane Frenchman and big-time drug smuggler torments the movie’s hero, NYPD detective Popeye Doyle (Gene Hackman) relentlessly and exquisitely, always keeping one jump ahead and always making Popeye look like a chump.

Like the zombies in The Dead Don’t Die or the Tripods in War of the Worlds, the villain is the source of all the hero’s troubles.

Even when the hero is dueling internal demons of his or her own (like Popeye’s rage and burning passion to make this bust), or struggling with hostile allies (the Feds attached to his case) or other “friendly fire” antagonists (his boss at the precinct [played, by the way, by the real “Popeye Doyle,” Detective Eddie Egan], the actions of the villain are what trigger and reinforce these supplementary nemeses.

 In a way, this idea is a corollary to, or restatement of, Steven Cannell’s famous axiom:

Act Two belongs to the Villain

In Act One, we in the audience may be introduced to the villain (think of Charnier in France preparing his heroin-smuggling operation or the Tripods being activated in their subterranean lairs by the super storm from space). We may experience anticipatory chills at the Evil One’s apparition. But it’s not till Act Two that the hero truly becomes engaged with the Bad Guy.

That’s when you and I as writers have to pour oil on the fire.

I know, when I’m stuck in my Second Act, I remind myself, “Go back to the villain. Make him or her smarter, make him/her more formidable, more ruthless, more dangerous.” 

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21 Comments

  1. Peter Brockwell on July 29, 2020 at 2:35 am

    Great insights! Thank you Steve. Thank God for Wednesdays!

  2. Mary Doyle on July 29, 2020 at 5:55 am

    Thanks for this concise reminder – “pour oil on the fire” – it’s going up on my bulletin board this morning!

    • Vmcray@yahoo.com on July 29, 2020 at 9:23 am

      Great post! I get as much enjoyment from reading the posts as I do from your use of language. Thanks for sharing!

  3. Joe Jansen on July 29, 2020 at 8:05 am

    As far as villains who are “formidable, ruthless, and dangerous,” I’d have a hard time beating Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem” in No Country for Old Men.

    • Jule Kucera on July 29, 2020 at 3:45 pm

      Joe—how many villains decide their victim’s fate by letting them flip a quarter?
      Stone. Cold. Killer.

      • Joe on July 29, 2020 at 5:45 pm

        Jule… Chilling, ain’t it?

        https://youtu.be/3B_rRmkbA9I

        And something else worth noting: Chigurh has his own ethical code he follows. Like he views himself as an agent of destiny. Uncle Cormac is a genius.

  4. Brian Lord on July 29, 2020 at 8:24 am

    I like it- even the friendly fire antagonists are driven by the main villain

  5. Chuck DeBettignies on July 29, 2020 at 9:45 am

    All the villains in my life must think it’s Act Two . . .

  6. Kenneth N Proudfoot on July 29, 2020 at 10:14 am

    Thanks for this, Steve! Making me re-think how my character’s enemy/antagonist really increases pressure leading up to the final confrontation. I need to make him meaner still. TY

  7. Gigi Blackshear on July 29, 2020 at 12:45 pm

    This is invaluable, “I know, when I’m stuck in my Second Act, I remind myself, “Go back to the villain. Make him or her smarter, make him/her more formidable, more ruthless, more dangerous”. This may be your third or fourth act, but you are nailing it! Thank you for sharing.

  8. sandra on July 29, 2020 at 7:43 pm

    Got it!

  9. JOHN on July 29, 2020 at 10:23 pm

    A hero is just a villain with good excuse.

  10. Bruce on July 30, 2020 at 7:46 am

    And a villain is, in his own mind, a hero.

  11. Renita on July 30, 2020 at 2:55 pm

    Thank you for this, Steve.
    Very helpful. I appreciate how you make it so simple and clear. You are much more than a writing coach/teacher/guru. You are a voice of cognitive organization. This is so very needed in the world.
    In our lives, the multiplicity of “villains” is no good as a narrative thread. This multiplicity of distracting villains can be distracting to the writer. I wonder how readers appreciate all that we writers have to do to sort out and edit the narrative so that our own confusions in life are set aside in service of the narrative.
    Thank you so much for being a partner in this task.
    Renita

  12. Renita on July 30, 2020 at 2:58 pm

    One more thing. I remember how Ursula Le Guin in her novel Wizard of Earth Sea said that the power was in naming the villain. So it is.
    Renita

  13. animal crossing on July 30, 2020 at 9:02 pm

    Finest blog!I would like to thank for the efforts you have made in writing this post. I am hoping the same best work from you in the future as well. 

  14. Beth on August 1, 2020 at 7:33 am

    These posts, your books and the Jabs are invaluable. You have totally redirected my writing for the better. I had an architectural edit from a renowned editor but I am getting just as much from all this. I want to thank Steven Pressfield, Black Horse and everyone involved for helping us distill the essence of our works, to persevere with the alchemy knowing the goal is not our “precious,” that gold ring originally sought.

  15. Jurgen+Strack on August 1, 2020 at 1:25 pm

    Namaste!

  16. Aqeel Ali on August 4, 2020 at 3:23 pm

    I love this, thank you Stephen!

    Another component to this I’d add is in your book “No One Wants to Read Your Sh*T” (which got me writing more than ever before, so thank you for that); about Act Two also being the place for the “all is lost moment” either the villain is at their strongest, hero is at their weakest, or simply both.

    Off to stop procrastinating on my day job (it’s a constant act two in my case).

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