Analysis

Five Antagonists Who Never Stood a Chance

Rand lifting a magic horn from The Great Hunt's cover art.

Not to toot my own horn but these bad guys are punks.

Captain Kirk’s adventures would be a snoozefest if the Klingons just rolled over for him. No one would care about T’Challa taking back his throne unless Killmonger could match him blow for blow. Batman’s investigations would be pointless if the Joker just turned himself in.* What’s the point of cheering for the good guys when their victory is inevitable? I’ve spoken on this topic more than once in the past, but since authors keep releasing these weak-tea villains into the wild, there’s always more to discuss.

Today’s lackluster baddies come entirely from novels, which is unusual. While many villains in movies and TV are underpowered because of production constraints or limited time, novelists usually have all the time and resources they need to make their antagonists formidable. Perhaps we can discover what went wrong as we take our journey though this land of toothless big bads.

Spoiler Notice: The Factory Witches of Lowell, The Ten Thousand Doors of January, and The City We Became.

1. Mr. Boot, The Factory Witches of Lowell

Cover art from The Factory Witches of Lowell showing a tangle of thread.

This novella is a story about magic and labor activism that, unfortunately, doesn’t portray either in a very positive light. It’s set during a quasi-historical mill strike of the 1830s but with a twist: this time the strikers are also witches. Our villain is the aptly named Mr. Boot, local agent for the mill owners. It’s his job to crush these strikers, who have the audacity to ask for such outlandish things as minor wage increases and proper ventilation. The nerve!

At first, it seems like Mr. Boot will have an easy time because the strikers are remarkably unprepared. Despite their leader supposedly having relevant experience, the strikers haven’t planned for obvious countermoves like withholding pay and bringing in replacement workers. Just about the only preparation they do make is a magic ritual that will supernaturally punish any mill girl who tries to break ranks. Seems like it would work better to pool their resources so no one has to break ranks, but what do I know?

Mr. Boot’s good times abruptly come to an end when the strikers remember that while they might be terrible at labor activism, they do have magic powers. As the story’s end looms, they whip up a new spell that stops the mills from working for anyone except them. There’s nothing Mr. Boot can do in the face of such power, so he has no choice but to capitulate. Yay?

This victory is obviously too easy, and it happens for a couple reasons. First, the magic in this story is incredibly vague. While the characters spend a lot of time talking in magic technobabble, what magic can actually do is left an open question. It’s like when a Star Trek character talks about how to repair the subspace array, they’ll have to reroot quantum polarity through the plasma tachyon manifolds. That’s technically an explanation, but it doesn’t communicate anything about how difficult the situation is. With such vague magic, it feels like the heroes can do anything at any time, and the only limiter is whether they’ve thought to try.

The other issue is it’s simply very difficult to make a fair fight when one side has magic and the other doesn’t. Mr. Boot doesn’t even know magic is real for most of the story, further reducing his ability to put up effective resistance. This doesn’t make logical sense either. If magic is so powerful, rich mill owners would definitely make use of it. In fact, both sides having magic would likely have solved the whole problem. Then the strikers would have needed to succeed by dint of their wits, determination, and mutual support. Incidentally, that’s how strikes succeed in real life.

2. Ishamael, The Wheel of Time

Cover art of Rand grabbing a magic sword from The Dragon Reborn.

Traveling back to what fantasy looked like in the 1990s, we have The Wheel of Time. In book one, the villain appears to be the Dark One himself, a Sauron-like figure who wants to destroy all that is good because he’s just evil like that. At the climax, he is defeated by protagonist Rand in a magical duel, heralding our hero’s triumph.

Then book two rolls around, and it turns out this guy wasn’t the Dark One after all, just a lieutenant named Ishamael.* That’s fair enough; it would be difficult to continue the series if Rand had already destroyed the dark lord. But then it’s revealed that not only is Ishamael still alive, he’s also the main villain of book two. This is already a bad choice since once a villain’s been thoroughly defeated, they’re working at a threat deficit.

To make matters worse, Ishamael’s plan in book two is the same as it was in book one: fight Rand in a magical duel. The only fig leaf of tension is provided by the idea that Rand isn’t yet in full control of his magic, but that quickly falls apart. While Rand’s control is lacking, his powers always come through when his life is on the line, so there’s no reason to think that won’t happen in a second duel against Ishamael. When that duel finally comes, Rand wins again, surprising no one. Ishamael does get in a solid hit this time, which is an improvement over his last performance, but it’s still a decisive defeat.

Oh well, at least we’re finally done with Ishamael, right? Not so fast, for he returns yet again to be the final boss of book three. At this point, it’s just embarrassing. Know when to quit, Ishamael. In book three, Rand also has a powerful magic sword, and he finally puts Ishamael out of his misery. At least, for a little while. Ishamael eventually gets resurrected by the Dark One, and I honestly cannot remember what he does after that.

The immediate cause of Ishamael’s problem is obvious: getting defeated by Rand three times in a row will ruin any villain’s credibility. But the deeper issue is Wheel of Time’s repetitive plotting. If the first three books all end with a magic duel where Rand’s life is on the line, then the only option is for a powerful villain to lose each time. Using three different villains would only have spread the problem out. Ideally, the solution would be for each climax to have different stakes, some of which the good guys could afford to lose without ending the story.

3. Havemeyer, The Ten Thousand Doors of January

Flowers and a key from The Ten Thousand Doors of January.

Returning to the present, we have the Hugo-nominated The Ten Thousand Doors of January. To a certain extent, every villain in this book is underpowered because the hero can alter the fabric of reality through writing. If there are any limits on her power, they aren’t established. The only drawback is that she gets tired after using it. As you can imagine, the plot depends on her forgetting about her power for long stretches of time.

Despite that, some of the antagonists are more respectable than others. One is a mastermind with mind control powers, while another is an assassin whose magical mask lets them look like anyone. Those could both be serviceable villains if paired with a more reasonably powered hero.

And then there’s Mr. Havemeyer. Havemeyer is introduced as a scary monster from another dimension,* and he serves as the main villain for a significant portion of the book. He’s also described as a vampire, but that’s mostly hype. His actual power is the ability to drain heat through touch. While this power can be deadly, it also takes some time to work, meaning that Havemeyer has to get ahold of his victims and then keep them restrained to do serious damage.

This makes him about as dangerous as a man with a knife. When he was first described as a vampire, I expected him to have some supernatural strength or toughness as well, but no. Other than heat draining, he’s a normal human. Since this story takes place in the early 1900s, his knife-level powers have already been somewhat eclipsed by a little invention called the gun.

But that need not be a death sentence of Havemeyer’s villain credibility. Some bad guys are threatening more for their resources and minions than their personal strength. Sadly, that doesn’t work out. While Havemeyer is rich, when he threatens the protagonist, it’s always on a personal level. When the big confrontation comes, he doesn’t bring any minions, or even a gun of his own. He does bring a hostage, but for inexplicable reasons, he lets the boy go halfway through the scene.

After that, a secondary hero is able to defeat Havemeyer through the incredibly difficult feat of… having a gun, which she shoots him with. Even if the good guys hadn’t possessed a firearm, they probably could have overpowered Havemeyer anyway, since he came alone. It’s an ignominious end for a villain who was once important. Why did this happen? My guess is that the author didn’t pay much attention to the implications of each character’s magic powers. If they had, the protagonist wouldn’t be able to alter the fabric of reality on a whim.

4. Mike Evans, The Three Body Problem

An alien pyramid from the cover of Three Body Problem

The Three Body Problem is a mystery story, so at first it’s not entirely clear who the villains are. The protagonist is investigating the deaths of several prominent scientists, which he mainly does by playing a weird MMO that the dead scientists also played. Meanwhile, his detective partner investigates in the real world.

Eventually, they discover what’s going on: some hostile aliens have created a cult of humans to pave the way for their arrival. The aliens themselves won’t arrive for centuries, so the cult is Three Body’s main antagonist. It’s led by Mike Evans, a rich guy who just wants to watch the world burn. So far, that seems like a reasonably threatening villain. The cult has Evans’s resources, a host of loyal devotees, and possibly some useful intelligence from their alien overlords.

The problem lies in who’s arrayed against them: the entire world. The book explains that every major government has put aside their differences and allied against the cult. That’s, uh, quite a lot. In 2008, the year Three Body was published, the US alone spent over 70 billion dollars on just its intelligence service, and several times that on the military as a whole.* China also has an impressive security budget, to say nothing of Russia, the UK, France, etc.

Evans is rich, but he’s a candle facing a bonfire. The cult has a small army at its command – emphasis on “small.” That’s perfectly threatening against individuals, but it’s nothing next to an alliance of global heavyweights. You might expect the cult to have some advanced tech from their alien sponsors, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. The most this cult can hope for is to function as a terrorist insurgency. We already have plenty of those, and they have as yet to topple any world powers. 

When we learn about this worldwide alliance, it retroactively devalues the heroes’ accomplishments. Sure, their actions allow the world governments to capture one of Evans’s lieutenants, but with the CIA, Guoanbu, FSB, and MI6 all gunning for Evans, something like that was bound to happen eventually. Worse, the book isn’t over. Next, Three Body tries to create tension by saying it will be difficult for the allies to seize the cult’s headquarters, but the attempt falls flat. The heroes do think up a way to take the headquarters before the cult can destroy their records, but again it’s obvious this would have happened anyway. The allies weren’t even on a time limit.

I can’t read the author’s mind, but my guess is they assumed the existential threat of an alien invasion would create all the tension Three Body needed. But with the aliens still 400 years away, that threat isn’t urgent. Even if the next book jumps that far ahead,* in this book, Evans is the big threat. He either needs a much more powerful cult or far weaker enemies arranged against him.

5. The Woman in White, The City We Became

A tilted building with The City We Became written on it, from the book's cover art.

Our final entry is the story of New York City being attacked by an eldritch horror from beyond time and space. At first, that horror goes by The Woman in White, but fortunately, she shortens it to “White” after a few chapters. Opposing her are the embodied avatars of NYC’s five boroughs: Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens, and Staten Island.* Plus, there’s NYC himself, the combined city’s avatar, but he’s asleep for most of the book.

At first glance, it seems like White has everything she needs to be a threatening villain. She’s an eldritch horror, like Cthulhu except she taunts her victims first.* It’s impossible to gauge exactly what her powers are, but they’re certainly immense. How can she be anything but scary? Simple: she keeps losing.

The prologue* starts with NYC kicking White’s butt up and down the block. White manages to get a decent hit in, but it’s still a loss. It’s not a great sign when the villain gets shut down before the story even starts, and it only gets worse from there. White tries to take control of a highway, and Manhattan stops her. She tries to take out Manhattan, but Brooklyn shows up and sends her packing. White launches a surprise attack on Queens, but Queens deflects the thrust without help. The Bronx takes White to school more than once.

This keeps happening, with nary a win in White’s column. The only time she isn’t defeated outright is when she confronts Staten Island, which is quickly established to be the only borough that can’t kick ass and take names. After a while, it’s impossible to take White seriously. She’s reminiscent of Team Rocket, who always brag that they’ll be back the next time our heroes need a punching bag. The book tries to maintain White’s threat level with dialogue about how she only needs to win once, but you could make the same argument for Wile E. Coyote. No one’s worried for the Road Runner.

Part of the problem is that the magic in this book is so vague it doesn’t feel real. Each time the heroes defeat White, they do it with a completely new ability that they spontaneously learn via magical instincts, then never use again. Indeed, the mundane problems like racist cops and neo-Nazi YouTubers initially feel a lot more threatening than White’s magic. These enemies are real, and for unclear reasons, the heroes can only use their supernatural powers against supernatural threats.

But even resorting to mundane attacks isn’t enough for White to get her groove back. In one exchange, she takes the form of a wealthy donor and offers a huge donation to the Bronx Art Center’s* board in exchange for displaying some racist artwork. In theory, this will weaken the Bronx’s magical defenses. The board is on the verge of accepting despite the Bronx avatar’s best efforts when White’s neo-Nazi minions launch a campaign of cyber terror on the center. This spooks the board and they say no, marking one of the few times I have seen a villain defeat herself. This all happens without any action on the main characters’ part. Afterward, White tries a more traditional magic attack, and of course that fails too.

Near the climax, the book reveals that, actually, White has been secretly winning offscreen the whole time. This is better than nothing, and does restore some of White’s threat for the big showdown, but it’s not enough. Villains need to be threatening for the whole story, not just the end.

It’s difficult to say why White has such a persistent losing streak, but my best guess is that The City We Became is too focused on aesthetics and not enough on substance. Yes, White’s ability to plant feathery tendrils in buildings and people is very creepy, but that doesn’t mean much if she can’t ever accomplish her objectives. Likewise, it’s cool when the heroes discover some new NYC cultural tradition that grants them power, but it isn’t worth completely defanging the villain just to get a few more of those moments.


Authors often forget that only they know how dangerous the villain is behind the scenes: the reader has to judge what the villain does on the page. So the next time you do a revision pass, take a close look at your villain. Do they have the strength necessary to knock the hero down a peg or two? If so, are they actually doing that, or is the hero constantly winning despite the villain’s supposed power? Double-checking will save your readers from boredom and you from bad reviews.

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Comments

  1. Jeppsson

    I read The Three Body Problem a few years ago, and I remember it as a real page-turner, because I was SO invested in just FINDING OUT what it was all about! Why did these scientists commit suicide, what’s the weird computer game got to do with everything, how is the cultural revolution story tied in with the present-day story, etc etc. (I’ve read the whole series btw, and overall really liked it, although I think book two was less tightly plotted – more like a number of semi-connected stories in places – than one and three.)

    However, on reading the section title my first thought was “Evans? Was there a guy named Evans in that book? Hm… Did he have a big boat? I think he was a guy with a boat”.

    So yeah.

  2. Cay Reet

    It’s always a shame when people underestimate the job of a villain. I mean, I read a lot of pulp and villains there usually are good (well, evil, but in a good way), so I don’t get that many underachievers, but they happen.

    I often wonder why people write villains that weakly. They’re as important as the hero and the hero can only shine when the villain is really strong and competent.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      I’ve found that the most common explanation is that the writer doesn’t know how to have their villain win anything without ending the story, but as we see from this list, there are plenty of other ways it can happen.

      • Cay Reet

        There are many ways a villain can win without ending the story – the most prominent being the villain winning something right before the hero’s darkest hour.

    • El Suscriptor Justiciero

      I’m now reminded of the comics of Stardust the Super Wizard by Fletcher Hanks. The main character is so overwhelmingly powerful that there is no tension—we know from the beginning that all his foes are going down HARD without a snowball’s chance in the eight burning hells.

      The novelty comes in part from the stupid evil plans the villain of the week and the amusingly bad narration, but mostly from the deviously creative cruelty of the bizarre punishments Stardust deals to the villains.

  3. GeniusLemur

    “Not so fast, for he returns yet again to be the final boss of book three.”
    I’m starting to see how Wheel of Tedium, I mean Time, stretched out to 87 books.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      You don’t have to throw out that old villain, you can recycle them!

      • Eli

        That’s the comic book way.

        But seriously, I love spider man, iron man, the works but they need more variety of villains sometimes. The digital age allows for some truly terrifying foes but they never seems to have any new ones. (Also a lot of good villains get thrown to the wayside for no reason)

  4. Beifuss

    Actually just 2 years before The Three Body Problem timeline (i.e. 2004), there was kind of a “China against rest of the world” war. Maybe most countries are just too poor after the ceasefire (China even made every single electric device in their half of the world burned during a Superweapon test) to fight Evans. The “most peaceful period in history” as Wang mentioned in ch.4 is probably just because no one could afford fighting a war at the time.

    Just another super insufficient explanation, but …well for me think in this way the plot hole just might feel smaller.

    (See Liu’s another book Ball Lightning. Although its main characters Ding Yi and Lin Yun are also mentioned in TTBP, Liu seems tending to ignore this whole war. No one knows whether two books actually happen in the same universe or not.)

  5. Ace of Hearts

    About #2: Yeah, this convinced me that I’ll never try to read Wheel of Time.

    About #5: Saying that the villain “only has to win once” can actually work, it just requires more setup. Think of the villain as waves battering a coastal town that can barely scramble to rebuild before the next one hits. If the heroes’ defenses are weakened with every attempt by the villain, and if the villain can seemingly just keep trying with no consequences, it’s credible that eventually the heroes will be overwhelmed (or try a desperate bargain).

    If I were to give a #6: Another common issue is giving the villain a “huge win” that doesn’t actually matter. In Dragon Age: Inquisition, the villain destroys an entire town and levels the Inquisition’s base of operations. Sounds like a great win, right? Except that: 1. no one important dies; 2. in the following chapter, the Inquisition literally FINDS an abandoned fortress that is huge, imposing, and highly defensible. They just STUMBLE UPON that and make that into a new base, even better than the old one. I wish I was joking.

    • Arix

      “If the heroes’ defenses are weakened with every attempt by the villain, and if the villain can seemingly just keep trying with no consequences, it’s credible that eventually the heroes will be overwhelmed (or try a desperate bargain).”

      This is actually a decent-sounding inversion of something this site has mentioned a few times, regarding urgency. Even if the heroes fail, if they can just pick themselves up and try again with no consequences, then there’s no tension. Flip that around and let the villain keep trying, though…

      • Cay Reet

        It’s a valid way to create tension and urgency. With the villain attacking over and over again (and villain should always have more power than the heroes, so a villain can absolutely have the means for that), you create urgency. The attacks might not overwhelm the heroes, but that can very well not be the point. Weakening their defences and taking away allies will help the villain to get further and put the heroes under pressure to do something.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      For sure. If the hero’s situation gets tangibly worse each time, despite them not dying, that would work fine.

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