'Enemy' Versus 'Nemesis'

"Meet Me At Midnight" author Jessica Pennington uncovers the subtle differences between the words "nemesis" and "enemy." 

Jessica Pennington, Writing for
2-minute read

Enemy. Nemesis. If you’re like me, you have probably used these words interchangeably, at least once, if not often. I’ll admit that for a long time, these two words would have registered as synonyms to me. In my mind, a nemesis was just an enemy’s meaner, tougher older brother. Different ways to say the same thing: the person out to get you. A grand malevolent force in your life or story. In the case of literature; the antagonist.

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We’re taught, as students—and as writers—not to reuse a word over and over. To avoid the monotony of repetition. So of course, there are a million ways to say the same thing, and it certainly wouldn’t come as a surprise if we were to find these words actually are synonyms. But the truth is, there are subtle differences between enemy and nemesis, and despite their common uses, the two words are far from equal.

By definition, an enemy is this: one that is antagonistic to another; something harmful or deadly. So yes, the person out to get you is certainly an enemy. And by definition, an antagonist. A nemesis, on the other hand, is defined as this: a formidable and usually victorious rival or opponent. Nemesis was the Greek goddess of retribution, and it was believed that she wouldn’t just enact swift punishment, she would sometimes wait years or even generations, to punish a crime. Usually victorious. While an enemy seeks to antagonize you, and perhaps harm you; a nemesis is like that gopher in the carnival game that just keeps coming back. The story antagonist that is killed in book one, only to be revealed as alive in book two, makes a comeback in book three, and is still out to destroy the hero in book four.

So the next time you ask yourself if someone is an enemy or a nemesis, perhaps you need only look to their stamina. Are they in it for the long haul? Will their desire for revenge push them along for years, or maybe an entire lifetime? Or will they find that their lack of persistence and motivation is truly their nemesis, rendering them nothing more than an average enemy?