Again, the standard caveat, blah blah, opinionated, blah blah, should not substitute for any of your own logical and critical thinking, blah blah, make up your own mind, blah blah, note the context of speculative genre fiction, blah blah, etc., etc., so on and so forth.

This is going to be a little disjointed, since I have to sort my thoughts on the topic. It’s sort of hard to put this into words.

Good. Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, today we’re going to be discussing the Antagonist Competency Clause. I’ve mentioned this clause once or twice before in my earlier articles, and in this article I’ll be expounding on its significance in the course of your work.

We’ve all been exposed to the stereotypical Dark Lords (and occasionally, Dread Ladies) in speculative fiction, right up from the time we were watching children’s cartoons. (My particular case was the Red Wizard Ommadon.) We’ve tolerated them for various reasons: perhaps we didn’t know better, or knew they were bad but the show was a guilty pleasure for us all. Perhaps there was a point being made, an Issue being addressed, or the trope was subverted in one way or another. Perhaps the Dark Lord was cast in a more sympathetic light, or was being played for humour. Perhaps they were just right for the medium, or we were just content to grab at whatever scraps mainstream culture threw our way.

We’ve gritted our teeth at them, laughed at their stupidities, thrown books across the room at particularly silly actions on their part. Which brings us to the Antagonist Competency Clause:

The antagonist will not be stupid or cheesy. He or she will exploit every possible advantage within his or her reach, and will utilise them to maximum effect.

In a particularly long piece of e-drama in one of my dissections, a certain commentator stated that it was not necessary for characters to behave in a logical or intelligent manner in order to achieve an entertaining story. This is, of course, true, for a given value of ‘truth’. We do know of complete idiots like Dr. Evil, Dr. Drakken and The Amoeba Boys who are antagonists, and yet, horrendously cheesy and ineffective at anything they do. The difference here is not only in the medium, where novels and other prose are often expected to be more ‘serious’ than visual media such as films and cartoons, but the contract between author and reader is completely different from ye olde typical fantasy story.

In the above three examples, the audience is perfectly aware that the antagonist is supposed to be inept, that said inadequacy is being played for laughs, and that the characters, in one way or another, are parodying the stereotypical antagonist to be found in their genres. (Interestingly, in such cases more often than not the conflict is not provided by the incompetent antagonist him or herself) Compare this with most Dark Lords, who are supposed to be credible threats to the protagonists and very clearly not intended to be laugh fodder.

I’m sure you can think up more examples where the Antagonist Competency Clause can be circumvented, but I hope I’ve made my point clear. The author’s intentions are clearly conveyed to the reader, and in the above examples they aren’t betrayed, whereas in the case of, say Galbatorix, they are. The latter case makes up enough of fantasy works that I can make a generalisation about them, so there. If you want to be a complete ass about things, then yes. Anything can be justified, anything can be explained away, and all of these so-called rules and guidelines have exceptions to them. Happy now?

Now, let’s go into why the Antagonist Competency Clause is important.

Firstly, tension. All stories can be summed up as one or more premises and complications. Eragon—Premise: dragon rider fights for justice. Complication: Evil Empire. Twilight—Premise: young woman and vampire fall in love. Complications: the supposedly dangerous nature of vampires and the evil vampires/werewolves. Hmm…a good example…_Maskerade_—Premise: A third witch is needed to replace Magrat. Complication: Agnes Nitt has run away to the Ankh-Morpork Opera House, where strange events are afoot. Your antagonist will be, at the very least, part of your complication, and therefore integral to your story. If your antagonist is weak, your story is weak, and we can all agree that that is a Bad Thing™.

Of course, I’ll know that at the end of the day, your antagonist will be overcome one way or the other. That being said, I’d like the believe that he, she, or it might just manage to win the struggle. It’s like taking candy from a baby. If one side is so incompetent as to be walked over by the other, all tension drains from the story, and it ends up feeling flat. There’s no point staking, say, the fate of the world, if there’s no chance of it actually being lost. No one likes foregone conclusions for their main conflicts.

Next, we’ll be moving onto the point of earned victories. If the Antagonist Competency Clause is not followed, then the protagonist has not earned his victory. Instead, it was handed to him by the author, (the flip side of this, of course, is the antagonists being punished) and the strings attached to the author’s fingers making the characters dance like puppets are very, very obvious.

That’s not the main problem with the earned victory issue, though. What is is that as a result deeper themes you may have had are undermined or invalidated, so your story is devoid of, for lack of a better word to describe it (although there’s probably some literary term for it), Truth.

Take for example the recent book I began dissecting, Bitterwood. While there were various “serious” themes in the book, such as racial tensions, atheism, genocide, blah blah blah, the sheer cheesiness and stupidity of the antagonists crumples any chance of any of the themes being taken seriously. As one commentator mentioned: “I don’t think they’re being taken seriously.” Hezekiah is a caricature of Christians. Sensible people know that most Christians are normal, well-adjusted people. Similarly, Albekizan and his underlings have been confirmed by the author to be blubbering incompetents with the most irrational of motivations. Religion and racial tensions aren’t as simple as that. As a result, the reader is hard-pressed to create a link between the Issue as we know it, and the Issue as is presented in the novel, with the simple result that any arguments or prompts to deeper thought fall flat on their face.

Another way to look at the “Truth” issue is to consider what happens, say, if you want resourcefulness and ingenuity to prevail, à la McGyver. So Vendevorex escapes capture by a group of idiotic and uncoordinated guards WHO ACTUALLY SUPPOSEDLY KILL EACH OTHER IN THEIR ATTEMPT TO CAPTURE HIM, which stretches neither his resourcefulness nor ingenuity to its convincing limits, resulting in an unearned victory. Not only are you shooting yourself in the foot with regards to your message, but you’re implying a whole lot of other crap—that military/police training is worth shit, that setting up guards is a waste of time, that experience, experiment, and systematic endeavour is pointless in the face of a few tricks.


And it’s this lack of “Truth” that makes the story feel thin, and the lessons fallacious and potentially dangerous, such as “religious people are religious because they are dumb” (which may not have been the message that was intended, but I damn well got that vibe from Hezekiah).

Next comes the worldbuilding aspect. Antagonist incompetence can seriously hinder with the believability of the worldbuilding, which can then easily seep into other aspects of said worldbuilding. The most common question here is “if the Dark Lord is an idiot, how did he become a Dark Lord and start repressing the people?” I raised the question when we first saw Albekizan, and I still raise it. And remember the whole “oh, I based the whole dragon succession on that of lions” issue? (Despite the fact that the male of a pride doesn’t have to do much else besides, eat, sleep, drive off other males, and have sex. I think running a country is more than that.) Supposedly, that method of succession was supposed to produce competent rulers, and the prose claimed it had. Well, it didn’t, and broke a large hole into the believability of the worldbuilding.

I won’t deny it—I would have been a LOT more forgiving on the geography and the “it’s really SCIENCE!” if the antagonists had been convincingly presented.

Finally, Perhaps the most important (and succinct) point I want to make here is that if the antagonist is stupid, we stop believing in him or her. When we stop believing in him or her, suspension of disbelief flies out of the window, and we are thrown out of the story. In short, we don’t have verisimilitude . Perhaps that was the word I was looking for, and which summarises the whole bloody article. The Antagonist Competency Clause promotes verisimilitude.


  1. swenson on 31 May 2009, 21:44 said:

    Wow, this sums up the problems with most unrealistic stories (whether they be TV shows, books, movies, manga, anime, video games, etc. etc.). There has to be that element of danger- if there is never any chance of the protagonist losing, there is no point to the story. If Evil is so incompetent they couldn’t win even if Good wasn’t there (as in, they kill themselves off), the story is pointless because the protagonist doesn’t actually matter. Sure, I know, writers don’t want to hurt their precious babies and want to prove to everyone how wonderful they are and can never, ever be beaten. But even Superman needs kryptonite- the awesomest, coolest, most amazing character ever still needs to be in genuine danger for the story to work.

    That’s where Twilight goes wrong, because although a major theme is ostensibly how dangerous Edward is, he never actually shows how dangerous he is. If he broke Bella’s arm or something, I’d be a lot more willing to accept the whole angsty-evil-vampire bit. Actions need real consequences, and antagonists (or at least conflicts) need to actually be dangerous.

  2. Rocky on 31 May 2009, 22:27 said:

    Very insightful. This is something I struggled with for years, when I would sit back and marvel at how the Antagonist would throw a planet’s worth of soliders and equipment at my good guys to KILL them, and when he actually stood over them in victory, opted to capture them ALIVE.

    I’ve heard and likewise believe the adage that the measure of a hero’s worth is based on the strength of his opposition, a point further validated by this incredibly well-written article.

    Thanks for sharing.

  3. Snow White Queen on 31 May 2009, 23:55 said:

    Haha, I think the Evil Overlord List was created as a part of this whole ‘Incompetent Evil Lord’ trend.

  4. Pika_power on 31 May 2009, 23:59 said:

    Makes sense.

    It can be difficult to keep the two near each other without using Deus or Diablous ex Machina.

  5. Inkasrain on 1 June 2009, 02:21 said:

    Great article; a truly fine literary antagonist is a rare thing, and I think it is too often abandoned for the sake of the protagonists. In fact, I think a corollary clause to the Law of Antagonist Competency would be Restriction of Authorial Adoration. All tension and any notion of “high stakes” deflates when a writer becomes enamored of their protagonist(s) to the point where the reader can sense that the characters are not in any real or lasting danger.

    As swenson pointed out, Stephenie Meyer is a prime example of this rule. It’s perfectly clear that Bella and Edward must have their Happily Ever After, and as such any potential for tension or danger is sucked away with the straw-men set up as antagonists.

  6. Ari on 1 June 2009, 06:12 said:

    I think it should be noted that the Evil Overlord should at least be present in the story to add to the tension. Not like I’m talking about any book in particular. coughEragoncough

    Nice article, though. Love that word.

  7. OverlordDan on 1 June 2009, 06:40 said:

    Great article!

    Some of my favorite villains are the mustachio-ed, black cape wearing, top-hatted cliche’s of themselves, but only when they themselves know it, and are playing to expectations.

    There’s just something about a group of people that decide “yes, we are going to be the stereotypical villains, and all that that entails” and then decide to persue that as a career, that really does it for me.

  8. Danielle on 1 June 2009, 11:37 said:

    @ OverlordDan:

    I once read a book by Ted Dekker called Saint, where the main antagonist is an assassin working for the same guy as the hero (long story and I’d give away the plot if I told you), and he loves cliches. He’ll do the cliched thing in almost any situation—he listens to metal music just before a kill, he wears black, he does the whole “tough guy” thing…but he’s not incompetent at all. He uses cliches because he likes them, not because he himself is cliched. It’s pretty cool.

  9. Steph the Phantasmagorical on 1 June 2009, 13:50 said:

    I. Seriously. Hate. Ted. Dekker.

    Then again, I’ve only read Black. But it kept me up way too late and I didn’t even like it.

    Love the article.

  10. LordShadowblade on 1 June 2009, 14:32 said:

    Wow. claps This was a great article, very, very nice job on this! Truly, if there’s no struggle in a story the whole thing falls flat. Authors need to be much more harsh on their characters and not make things so darn easy for them.

    And I also learned a new word today! Thank you!

  11. sansafro187 on 1 June 2009, 17:02 said:

    I once read a quote by Bruce Willis along these lines, about how your movie(he was referencing Die Hard) could only be as smart as the primary antagonist. While I’m not sure that’s absolutely true in all cases, it seems to be pretty solid as it relates to Antagonist vs. Protagonist story structure.

    You can’t really expect to have a complex plot unless the characters responsible for driving it can conceivably create and advance the plot’s situations. If you want the antagonist(s) to have any major gravity they need to be an important actor, if not THE important actor in the plot.

    If the villain is ineffectual, it just leads to plotholes. I’m looking at you, Galbatorix.

  12. Lionus on 1 June 2009, 23:06 said:

    Amazing article. The villain makes or breaks the hero, and oftentimes it is the villains that stick with a person more than the heroes (i.e. Darth Vader, Voldemort, Satan, etc.)

  13. Proserpina FC on 2 June 2009, 01:28 said:

    Quite true, Lionus. In fact, Star Wars, very quickly, became Darth Vader’s story, even if Luke was the protag.

    The final decision that ended the Empire came from Vader, deciding to protect his son and throw his master overboard.

    Voldemort’s was more a case of imcompetency. Plus, he was scarier as a Sauron-type, in the shadows.

  14. Nate Winchester on 2 June 2009, 08:11 said:

    Hmmm…. why does this all sound so familiar…

    I’m starting to think lccorp2 is a long lost son/daughter of mine.

  15. falconempress on 2 June 2009, 08:21 said:

    Great article, a pleasure to read. I think that when designing an antagonist, you need to pay even more attention to them than when designing the protagonist. Because it is the antagonist around whom the plot essentially centers, who moves it forward and provides motivation for the protagonist.

    Not exactly an on – topic comment – he based the dragon succession rites on lions? Lions? Seriously? Wow. Ahem. Lions are animals. Their motivations for behaving the way they do are based purely on survival. Humans are a tad more complicated than that, not mentioning governing systems. How can – oh, I give up. Whatever.

    Still – thank you for sharing this:)

  16. Puppet on 3 June 2009, 15:15 said:

    Nate, more then one person can write about a single subject. :P

    Nice article, Lcorp2.

  17. Puppet on 3 June 2009, 15:22 said:

    Double post.

    And Nate, Lccorp2 can’t be a son or daughter of yours if he’s older then you. ;)

    And I completely agree with you falconpress, if you spend too much time designing the protagonist you get to attached to him/her (like I did) thus not wanting anything bad too happen to him/her, and ultimately just having a bland story where the protagonist fights the dim-witted antagonist, wins and lives happily ever after.

  18. Juniper on 3 June 2009, 16:21 said:

    Nice article. I love the Evil Overlord list and this seems to sum it up well.

    Basing advanced dragons on lions seems stupid on many levels. Um…these are advanced dragons…which don’t exist in the real world. So why not MAKE UP a way of culture for them instead of basing it on existing animals?
    That’s like Tolkien basing his elven culture on termite society….or something. At least make the motivations and reasons credible.

    Once again, nice article. Thanks!

  19. swenson on 3 June 2009, 20:36 said:

    Although basing it on lions might make it more realistic… unless you fail completely and miss the mark.

  20. Nate Winchester on 3 June 2009, 21:18 said:

    Nate, more then one person can write about a single subject. :P

    Yep, but it doesn’t stop me from teasing him

    And Nate, Lccorp2 can’t be a son or daughter of yours if he’s older then you. ;)

    Terminator proved otherwise. Besides, you sure he’s older?

  21. lawzard on 3 June 2009, 23:38 said:

    This article reminds me of a story a friend and I once wrote about a Dark Lord who was insecure about his evilness. He intentionally adhered to all the Dark Lord stereotypes just to prove how evil he was, but the general populace recognized his incompetence and ignored him. The only people who took him seriously were the Heroes, and they were just as cheesy and incompetent as he was.

    But yeah—outstanding article. You make excellent points about the characters needing to be believable before anything else can be. I had never thought about it that way before, but it makes complete sense.

  22. Proserpina FC on 12 June 2009, 20:31 said:

    “This article reminds me of a story a friend and I once wrote about a Dark Lord who was insecure about his evilness. He intentionally adhered to all the Dark Lord stereotypes just to prove how evil he was, but the general populace recognized his incompetence and ignored him. The only people who took him seriously were the Heroes, and they were just as cheesy and incompetent as he was.”

    That sounds very, very funny. I do love subversion.

  23. Steph the Phantasmagorical on 14 June 2009, 03:54 said:

    Oh, I wish I’d done that, now!

  24. Tolly on 11 December 2009, 02:04 said:

    Love the article. It says things that need to be said to a lot (a LOT) of writers!

    It’s also a good demonstration of why the Joker in the new Batman movie was so damn frightening. He was completely uncontrolled, without limits, without mercy, without reason yet disgustingly brilliant, and because of that he could be as twisted and downright vicious as he pleased without any problems at all. You can’t slow him down, you can’t reason with him, you can only contain him or kill him.

    As opposed to Galbatorix, who… taxes people and tries to destroy the rebels who disrupt the lives of his people. Hrm. (Why yes, I AM rooting for the Empire.)