Writerly Ponder.

What, exactly, is a nemesis?

Greek Goddess: “the spirit of divine retribution against those who succumb to hubris, vengeful fate personified as a remorseless goddess.”

Definition:

1. something that a person cannot conquer, achieve, etc.: The performance test proved to be my nemesis.
2. an opponent or rival whom a person cannot best or overcome.
3. (initial capital letter) Classical Mythology. the goddess of divine retribution.
4. an agent or act of retribution or punishment.

(Dictionary.com)

But a nemesis, in a story, serves a function. It isn’t just that it’s a character or a force in opposition to the main character. It’s something so extreme that, barring outside help or some kind of divine intervention, the character can never survive it. It’s Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty. It’s Ahab and Moby-Dick. Heck, it’s Captain Picard and the Borg.

Is it possible for anyone to have a nemesis, or can only some people have them? Other people are just overwhelmed by forces out of control. They’re mowed down by tragedy. So in some sense, you must be pretty uber to have one — maybe it’s that you’re almost able to stop the unstoppable.

And then there’s the phrase “arch-nemesis.” Is it a redundancy? Or can people have more than one nemesis? At first, I thought not, but then I thought of Batman. Batman has nemeses. (He has nemeses like other people have neuroses, doesn’t he?) Each of his enemies is somehow more than an enemy, more than just a force that comes into opposition with him: whenever he butts heads with most of them, it rips his soul apart in a greater or lesser fashion. He at least can see (even if he won’t admit it) that there’s some kind of justice to their perspectives. Except the Joker. The Joker also happens to be Batman’s arch-nemesis: the unstoppable force of pure insanity, which you can bottle up but never, ever cure or treat or heal.

So what is a nemesis? What is the force that pulls a character and a nemesis together?

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3 Comments

  1. ktbuffy

    Has anyone (literary, pop culture-y) ever truly conquered a nemesis? Of the examples you cite, I’d say no, but then I think there’s got to be SOME examples. Or is more of a win-some, lose-some. I mean, Batman HAS defeated The Joker, right?

    Or can the nemesis/hero relationship only end in a draw or worse?

  2. DeAnna

    My gut instinct is to say that only outside help can get you past a nemesis. I mean, Batman killed Joker, but what good did it do? (Well, had it really resolved anything, the character would have been retired, and nobody would allow that, eh?)

    But I can’t think of any examples.

  3. beak

    Nemesis in my head is often the Unbeatable conflict in the plot line, and the only time I’ve seen them come to a draw or a “win” the main character often has to rely on outside help, or has to fundamentally change in some way. Batman might have to kill someone, or the Punisher might be forced to save someone’s life, he would have taken.

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