Character Study: Nemo

Once a month I’m going to do a writer’s blog. This will be stuff like advice, victories, woes, and reasons why I love great well-written characters from books, movies, and TV. Those blogs will include a breakdown of the character and why I admire the way that character was created.

For example, and let’s go old school for this short one, Captain Nemo from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Ever read it? Well, you should. I’ve read it twice in my lifetime. The first time was when I was little, according to my mom, although all I really remember from this first reading is my disappointment over there being no sea lion named Esmerelda (you lied to be again, Disney). The second time was several weeks ago over my winter break. I was in a cephalopod-esque mood and, let’s face it, there are very few fiction books that aren’t written by H.P. Lovecraft which can quell such a mood.

Jules Verne, besides being credited as one of the earliest science fiction writers, wrote a man who is both hero and villain. One side of the story, this mysterious captain is a great man. He believes in a better world and sees the beauty in nature. He even makes a comment about animal species going endangered when the harpooner Ned Land wants to hunt whales for fun. This blew my mind. This was such a progressive idea for Verne to include that despite it being only a single sentence it stuck with me. Nemo admires the main character and invites him into his private world of wonder and marine study. To the main character, the knowledge he gains is worth more than any treasure.

However, like the main character, you spend your time having to remind yourself that Nemo is also a terrorist. He built his submarine, the Nautilus, with the intention of destroying ships from various nations. He kills hundreds of people both before the start of the novel and during the time in which the main character is with him. He believes that what he is doing is noble. You never fully know the reasons behind this, but you can get a sense from obvious clues left by Verne.

This is the other reason why this character is so brilliant. Verne never fully explains Nemo’s background. The name Nemo literally means "nobody". He considers himself a man without a country and encourages his crew to be the same. He both values the life of his crew and endangers them constantly for his purposes.

The dude was a conflict wrapped in a plot twist, the sort of character writers didn’t bother to use for “fantasy” novels since they were considered to be tripe. Verne created something to make people think hidden in an adventure story, a concept which science fiction movies will use for the next century.

Nemo was the start of a grand tradition of making science fiction smart. He’s a non-villainous villain. You almost root for him… especially when he’s played by James Mason.