I. What is Nemesis?
A nemesis (pronounced NEH-meh-siss) is an enemy, often a villain. A character’s nemesis isn’t just any ordinary enemy, though – the nemesis is the ultimate enemy, the arch-foe that overshadows all the others in power or importance.
When a character is the nemesis of the hero, that character is the villain. Similarly, the villain’s nemesis is the hero. However, a nemesis isn’t necessarily a main character like a hero or villain – they could be a side character who happens to be the nemesis of some other side character.
The plural of “nemesis” is “nemeses” (NEH-meh-seez)
II. Examples of Nemesis
In Game of Thrones, there are dozens of nemesis pairs. One of the most visible is Gregor Clegane (“The Mountain”) vs. Oberyn Martell (“The Red Viper”), even though these are both fairly minor characters. The Mountain is a bitter, cruel and glowering loner while Oberyn is a pleasure-loving prince with many friends. In the final battle between them, their fighting styles are also balanced – Oberyn fights with agility and finesse, while Gregor has a plodding style based on sheer strength alone.
Anton Chigurh is the nemesis of Sheriff Ed Tom Bell in No Country for Old Men. The sociopathic murderer seems to represent everything the old cop is fighting against – chaos and meaningless slaughter. The sheriff wants to bring order and justice to his town, but Anton Chigurh makes that impossible. As the story goes on, Chigurh seems to develop an odd combination of respect and contempt for Bell, which binds them together as nemeses.
III. The Importance of Nemesis
In the ancient Greek religion, Nemesis was actually a goddess. She was responsible for bringing down anyone who showed signs of hubris, or excessive pride. Whenever a great hero became too arrogant or dared to defy the gods, Nemesis would bring about the hero’s ruin, either directly or (more often) through some subtle trick. Because Nemesis was a goddess, this downfall was inevitable: no hero could escape her vengeance once he crossed the line into hubris. Nemesis was destined to win every time.
In modern stories, the nemesis doesn’t need to be a goddess, and may not be destined to win. In fact, it’s probably better if no victory is predestined, so that the story has more tension and uncertainty. But the nemesis is still useful for creating conflict in a story.
IV. Examples of Nemesis in Literature
Professor Moriarty is the nemesis to Sherlock Holmes in the Arthur Conan Doyle stories. Moriarty is well-matched with Holmes in intellect, fighting skill, and gentlemanly honor, but is a criminal mastermind while Holmes is a detective.
Mythology and religion are filled with nemeses. In the Zoroastrian religion of Persia, for example, the god of goodness and light (Ahura Mazda) is eternally opposed by the god of evil and darkness (Aura Mainyu).
V. Examples in Popular Culture
The Joker is a fantastic example of a nemesis, because he fits so perfectly as Batman’s foil. Where Batman is austere and brooding, the Joker is whimsical. Where Batman dresses all in black and grey, the Joker is full of color. Where Batman refuses to kill anyone, even for the best of reasons, the Joker is perfectly willing to kill people just for fun. And where Batman strives to create order in a chaotic world, the Joker actively embraces the chaos and contributes to it. This is a brilliant example of balance between the two nemeses.
The movie Star Trek: Nemesis also, appropriately enough, provides a great example of a balanced nemesis. In the film, Romulans have created a semi-clone of Captain Pickard, and turned the clone into a weapon against the Federation. Because the two men are born from the same set of genes, Pickard and the clone are a perfect match for each other as nemeses.
VI. Related Terms
All stories have a protagonist – a main character whose “perspective” the story is primarily told from. In many stories, this protagonist has an antagonist, or enemy, and the conflict between the two drives the story. In this case, the antagonist could be described as the protagonist’s nemesis.
Main characters often have foils, that is supporting characters who have attributes precisely the opposite of theirs. However, foils are often on the same side in the conflict. For example, Loki and Thor are foils for each other in Norse mythology. One is brawny and tough, but not very intelligent; the other is a brilliant trickster, but physically frail. In the original myths, Loki and Thor start off working together to slay giants; in the end, though, they are on opposite sides of the final battle.
A rival is usually not a nemesis. Whereas nemeses are striving to destroy each other, rivals are striving after a shared goal and simply want to beat one another to it. Thus, two rivals may be pursuing the same marriage partner, but it’s really about the partner, not about each other. However, if the competition between the two becomes brutally personal, then they may become both rivals and nemeses.