Analysis

Five Ridiculous Organizations From Popular Stories

Newt emerging from his case in the Wizard Congress chamber.
Organizations play a critical role in speculative fiction. They allow for bigger plots and higher stakes than are feasible with individual characters. However, they are also uniquely challenging. When crafting fictional organizations, storytellers must consider what the organization does, how it operates, where its resources come from, and who the people are that make it up. Unfortunately, a number of storytellers try to cut corners in this department, which leads to some pretty ridiculous organizations in our stories. On the bright side, we’ll have a great time making fun of them.

Spoiler Notice: Space Opera and Spider-Man: Far From Home

1. The Knights of Byzantium, Buffy

The Knights of Byzantium preparing to lose fire arrows.

Buffy The Vampire Slayer has a number of ridiculous organizations contained within its many episodes, but today we’re going to focus on the Knights of Byzantium, who manage to fit an impressive level of silliness into their vanishingly small amount of screen time.*

The Knights are an ancient order devoted to stopping Glory, Buffy’s season five villain, by destroying a magical artifact called the Key before Glory can use it to collapse the walls between dimensions. The Knights are all humans, with little or no supernatural power at their command.* They use medieval swords and armor, with their only major strength being large numbers. Apparently, they have a reputation for always returning with more knights until a job is done.

This is already pretty ridiculous, as it stretches the Buffyverse’s masquerade* even further than normal. We can believe that an elite cadre of scholars like the Watcher’s Council or a few witch covens could avoid detection, but a medieval army with a nearly infinite number of soldiers? How has no one noticed that? I suppose they could pretend to be a giant Renaissance faire, but I suspect someone would realize that they keep turning up dead, since their strategy is to throw warm bodies at a problem until it goes away.

And where does their funding come from? They have to finance military operations all over the world, which doesn’t come cheap. Plus, they’d need a hefty chunk of change just to pay and equip all their men. Speaking of the cannon fodder, how do the Knights recruit new soldiers? At the rate they seem to take losses, this would be a major issue. They must have one heck of a sales pitch. “Join the Knights of Byzantium, see the world, and fight killer demons with nothing but a sword.”

That’s another thing that doesn’t add up: why don’t the Knights use modern weaponry? Most bad guys in the Buffyverse are some variety of demon, so we can imagine they come from a world that doesn’t have guns, but that’s not true for the Knights. They managed to transport over a hundred Knights and horses to Sunnydale, which would have required driving at the very least, so they clearly understand technology. We’re supposed to believe they knowingly turn their back on firearms, the one thing that might give them an advantage over the demons* they face. If that’s not ridiculous, I don’t know what is.

2. Wizard Government, Fantastic Beasts

The leader of American Wizardry from Fantastic Beasts

In the original Harry Potter books, worldwide wizarding government is left super vague. We know the Ministry of Magic is based in London and has a very British flavor to it, but its exact scope is left completely up to the imagination. That’s probably a good thing, because the new Fantastic Beasts films have now filled in that blank, and it isn’t pretty.

You see, it turns out there are other wizarding governments. In fact, there seems to be one for each country. That’s right, wizards apparently set up their political structures according to the lines muggles drew on a map. I have no idea why they do that considering how segregated the two societies are, but that’s what we’re told.

This alone raises so many questions. Do the wizards rearrange their governments to match changes in muggle countries? Was there once a Wizard Yugoslavia which has now split into six different wizard governments? How do they handle countries like Scotland, which is only somewhat independent even though it has its own government? This also raises the likelihood that wizards directly participated in imperialism and colonialism, which isn’t a pleasant thought.

But wait, it gets weirder! In the Fantastic Beasts films, we also learn that wizards fought in World War One, and not just as individuals. There were apparently entire wizard units, with dragons and everything. First of all, I don’t even want to think about how difficult it would be to erase muggle memories on a chaotic battlefield. Second of all, does this mean that Wizard UK and Wizard Austria-Hungary went to war because Muggle Germany violated Muggle Belgium’s neutrality?

This close cooperation with muggles is a major contradiction of what was established in previous books, when wizards had as little to do with muggle governments as they could. But it’s worse than that. In the books, it’s assumed that leaving England takes one beyond the reach of wizard authorities, but that can’t be the case if every other country has their own wizarding government. Do the magical officials of continental Europe have nothing to say about those times when Voldemort went on murderous rampages through their territory? You’d expect a letter of complaint at least.

Harry Potter is not a series known for ironclad worldbuilding, but the wizard government is a particular sore spot because it wasn’t originally something we had to worry about. We just focused on the Ministry in England and left the rest of the world up to our imaginations. But now we know, and it is knowledge we are cursed to never unlearn.

3. Wolfram & Hart, Angel

The name plaque of Wolfram & Hart

Now it’s time to skip on over to Buffy The Vampire Slayer’s dark and gritty spin-off:* Angel. Unlike its predecessor, Angel is a show with one villain that sticks around for most of the story: the occult law firm Wolfram & Hart, source of approximately one-million lawyer jokes.

At first glance, Wolfram & Hart isn’t ridiculous at all. Most of their business is in helping supernatural baddies avoid trouble from the human legal system, which is a valuable thing to have in a masquerade story. It helps answer the question of why the police never stop vampires, and it creates a new kind of enemy too. Wolfram & Hart certainly have the muscle and spells we’ve come to expect, but they can also wield eviction notices and DMCA takedown strikes.

Unfortunately, Wolfram & Hart’s air of danger and mystique quickly fades through repeated encounters with protagonist Angel. The short version is that he humiliates the firm over and over again over a multitude of episodes. These events include but are not limited to breaking into their offices, stealing files, throwing an important client out the window, wrecking numerous schemes, and locking a bunch of the firm’s executives in a room to be murdered by vampires.

This all makes for a pretty impotent villain, but it doesn’t get truly ridiculous until you consider Wolfram & Hart’s response: nothing. They make no serious attempts to stop Angel from disrupting their operations. Their excuse is that the demonic senior partners need Angel so he can play some unspecified part in their apocalyptic plans, but that wears thin really quickly. For one thing, this is the Buffyverse; apocalypses are a dime a dozen. Surely they can find one that would work without Angel?

Even if they can’t, after the third or fourth time Angel gives Wolfram & Hart a bloody nose, it seems like they should be able to do something. Maybe they can’t kill him, but they could lock him in a box until it’s time for the apocalypse?* If that doesn’t work, they could retaliate against Angel’s friends or use their legal connections to rob him of resources – anything that would make him think twice before messing with them.

Instead, we’re left with an organization that is supposedly super powerful, with influence across multiple dimensions, but that lets Angel use it as a punching bag. Pretty ridiculous if you ask me.

4. The Metagalactic Grand Prix, Space Opera

Cover art from Space Opera, showing a giant disco ball with neon rings.

In this Hugo-nominated scifi novel, we have the Metagalactic Grand Prix, a music contest that draws contestants from every space-capable species in the Milky Way. The plot focuses on two human musicians who are competing for humanity’s survival, since for some reason the Grand Prix is used as a means of determining “sentience.” New species that don’t do well enough are judged “not sentient” and exterminated.

That’s already pretty ridiculous, and we’re just getting started. Measuring sentience via a music contest is like trying to measure a person’s height by seeing how good they are at scoring shots in basketball. The two are somewhat related, but no one who actually cares about accurate results would use such a method. You might expect this to be a sign that the Grand Prix is supposed to be ridiculous, but the characters and omniscient narrator all treat it as a serious and effective process.

Once you get over the ridiculous premise, there are rules to consider. All our heroes have to do is avoid coming in last and Earth gets to live, but even that is repeatedly said to be impossible since every other species uses their advanced technology or special powers to enhance their performance, and humans don’t have anything like that. It doesn’t matter how good the humans are – they don’t have telepathy or audio-nanites so they might as well stay home. What a great system!

Fortunately, these ridiculous rules have an even more ridiculous loophole: any team that doesn’t make it to the performance is automatically voted last. To exploit this loophole, the Grand Prix’s participants are constantly sabotaging each other, and there’s virtually no enforcement to stop them.* It’s a virtual guarantee that at least someone will be knocked out of the running, so all our heroes have to do is show up and they succeed by default. For some reason, they never even consider this. Instead, they intentionally put themselves at greater risk of being sabotaged.

A final bit of absurdity has nothing to do with humanity but with how the Grand Prix is used by the galaxy’s more established civilizations. The worse a civilization’s team does, the more economic concessions they have to make. As you might expect by now, this is hardly a fair contest, and the unpopular Alunizar are always voted last no matter how well their team does.* This has led to serious economic problems for the Alunizar.

There’s just one problem with that scenario: the Alunizar are repeatedly described as the most powerful galactic civilization, and a lot of emphasis is placed on their having the biggest military. Why do they put up with this? It’s hard enough to get powerful states to participate in international agreements when those agreements aren’t blatantly unfair. In any rational world, the Alunizar would have skipped out on the Grand Prix in a heartbeat and dared the rest of the galaxy to do something about it.

5. The League of Disgruntled Ex-Employees, Spider-Man: Far From Home

Multiple illusionary Mysterios.

The latest MCU Spider-Man film* features Mysterio, a character who at first seems to be an ally from another dimension. But then, a reveal! It turns out that Mysterio is actually a big faker named Quentin Beck. Quentin is a disgruntled ex-employee of Tony Stark, and he’s been using an arsenal of advanced tech to pretend he’s a superhero so he can either get into the Avengers or just be publicly admired as a superhero. It’s not entirely clear which.

This is already a strange motivation for Quentin since it seems to have no end game. What’s he going to do when an actual threat shows up, as they do with startling regularity in the MCU? He could always fight it with that super advanced technology he has, but at that point he’d be a real superhero, no faking required. Why not just do that and not risk coming into conflict with other heroes?

But things don’t get truly ridiculous until you learn that Quentin has an entire team of disgruntled ex-employees backing him up. All of them used to work for Stark Industries, but now they’re mad because Tony never appreciated them! And for some reason, that dissatisfaction with their old boss has led to their supporting Quentin in his campaign to mass-murder his way to an Avengers membership.

Why? What possible reason they could have? When it was just Quentin, we could try to excuse it as his own personal delusion of grandeur, but now he’s got what looks like 20 to 30 other people helping him. None of them are going to be in the Avengers, so what’s their incentive for signing on?

Money is the most obvious reason, but that doesn’t hold up. It’s certainly possible that Quentin could leverage his fame as a superhero into a revenue stream – maybe he’s planning to launch a line of merch – but it would be much easier to just sell all this advanced tech they have and be set for life. That way they wouldn’t risk tangling with the actual superheroes.

With money off the table, the only possible motivation for Quentin’s ex-corporate team is vengeance against Tony, but that doesn’t fit with their actions. They’re not trying to tarnish Tony’s legacy or specifically outshine him in any way. They aren’t going after Tony’s family, and since Tony is dead, going after him personally would be a bit tricky.

Despite this complete lack of motivation, the Evil League of Disgruntled Ex-Employees continue to back Quentin even after his plan is completely shot. They’re so devoted that they execute Quentin’s final plan to get revenge against Spider-Man by revealing Peter Parker’s identity to the world. Remember: Quentin is dead at this point. All his minions are doing is making a personal enemy of Spider-Man, and probably Nick Fury. You’d expect them to lay low instead. But then, they’d never have gotten on this list.


When designing a fictional organization, it’s easy to get caught up in giving them cool costumes and shiny swords, leaving their motivation and methods undeveloped. This might not even be immediately noticeable since organizations can be somewhat opaque at first glance. But the longer someone sticks with your story, the more obvious those flaws will become. If you don’t want your organizations to come across as completely ridiculous, think things through in advance.

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Comments

  1. GeniusLemur

    “and since Tony is dead, going after him personally would be a bit tricky. ”
    Maybe they know they’re in a super-hero universe and realize it’s only a matter of time until Tony gets retconned back to life in some way.

  2. SunlessNick

    The Knights are an ancient order devoted to stopping Glory, Buffy’s season five villain, by destroying a magical artifact called the Key before Glory can use it to collapse the walls between dimensions.

    Other way round – they’re devoted to destroying the Key, and are opposed to Glory because she wants to use it. That doesn’t address most issues with them, but it does mean they could be old enough to have been founded in the Byzantine Empire.

  3. Dvärghundspossen

    On reading this, I wonder whether the zombie-killing knights of Serbia in The Santa Clarita Diet was some kind of parody or hommage? Although Santa Clarita was an intentionally silly comedy (and sorely missed by me and Husband!).

  4. Cay Reet

    Yes, it seems pretty weird that the magical world in Harry Potter has the same borders as the muggle one. I mean, with Britain, you could argue that the islands are a natural border, but with Europe? There are few ‘logical’ borders in Europe. Quite often big rivers, like the Seine, are not a border at all, while other rivers, like the Rhine, have been one for a long time.
    Especially after all the pains J.K. Rowling went through to make it clear that magical and non-magical world are so separated, it seems weird that borders are the same for both. Or that wizards and witches would actually interfere with muggle wars.

    Then there’s the question with the magical schools: only three are confirmed for Europe: Hogwarts (which seems to take only British students), Beauxbatons (which seems pretty much centred on France), and Durmstrang (which could be Eastern Europe as a whole, as with the former Sovjet Union). What about students from Portugal, Spain, Germany, Austria, Scandinavia, Italy, Greece? Or do those countries not have a magical populace?

    It worked okay enough while we were mostly talking about Britain in the original novels, because there never was that much detail going into the government – which makes sense for a series about school children. With the new movies, it’s really difficult and the organisation looks weird.

    • Passerby

      Durmstrang was Bulgarian IIRC. This does not equal Eastern Europe in any way, shape or form. It doesn’t account for different languages, geographic proximity, nothing. On the same basis you could say that maybe Beauxbatons is for the entirety of Western Europe, including Germany and all the other countries you listed – that’s the kind of generalization you’ve just made.

      • Cay Reet

        A student from Durmstrang was Bulgarian. However, given their uniform (which includes warm fur clothing), they should be located further north than Bulgaria. Overall, from the names (like Karkarof, the headmaster, please don’t rate my spelling), I had the impression that it was for most of Eastern Europe, perhaps all countries collected under Sovjet reign. (And since we know that, for some reason, wizarding governments cover the same areas as muggle ones, that’s possible.)

        The students from Beauxbatons, on the other hand, rather all seemed to be from France, although it is possible that Beauxbatons takes all possible students from Western Europe. Which begs the question why the British Isles have their own magical school which rates on the same level as two multi-national schools.

  5. Cip

    ….I am now very intrigued as to the wizard views of Brexit, given the points you have just raised here

  6. Laura Ess

    “Why? What possible reason they could have? ” Because they worked for TONY STARK! Five minutes with him probably would have been enough.

    I suspect that Wolfram & Hart was really a joke about lawyers taken too far. If they didn’t like your work, you’d get sacked, which involved an actual hessian bag. The best move they could make was to put Angel in charge of that branch. And then, he was just as incompetent as his predecessors in doing stuff! It’s a bit like the one liner in the finale of BUFFY. They’ve beaten the FIRST back and closed the Hellmouth, and then we’re told there’s one in Ohio?!

  7. Mattia

    “wizards directly participated in imperialism and colonialism, which isn’t a pleasant thought”

    Come on, it’s not as bad as if they had their own “wizard Hitler”… OH, WAIT. XD

    More seriously: I guess it’s kinda the point to show that wizards f-up as much as “muggles” do.

  8. Dvärghundspossen

    I’m thinking as soon as you have a setting with a) powerful mages, and b) still the same countries as we do today, then you gotta assume that there were white European mages who helped out with genocides, colonization etc. If all the mages, or even just the wast majority of them, had been nice and non-racist all along, there’s no explanation as to how muggles managed to pull this off, and didn’t just get obliterated by African, Native-American and so on mages.

    • LeeEsq

      Even wizards helping the Muggles with assorted wars of conquest raises more issues than it solves. With real wars of conquest, the explanations for why they happen tend to be a combination of one side possessing better military tech and being in less political disarray than the other side among other things. We don’t have any evidence that magical power can be lop-sided in the same way that military technology is. This isn’t the Spanish with their steel swords, armor, guns and horses fighting against Native Americans with obsidian bladed clubs and Speers on foot wearing quilted cotton for protection. You also can’t really imagine the 15th and 16th century Spanish teaming up people condemned by the Catholic Church at the time. If the Aztecs, Incas, and other native Americans had magic on their side, they should have been able to put on a better fight if not win.

  9. Dernhelm

    Hi! I’ve lurked here for a while but hoped I could get a chance to add my two cents to the Harry Potter entry. Namely, I think the idea of wizards and magical creatures fighting in WW1 actually makes a surprising amount of sense considering that there already existed written stories about supernatural beings helping Brittish soldiers in battle during WW1: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Angels_of_Mons

    My guess is that if Wizards were seen helping out on a battlefield in the Potterverse, many soldiers would have either hailed it as a miracle like in the story of the Angels of Mons, or chalked it up to shellshock.

    Though I do agree that Wizard nations fitting along the lines of muggle borders is rather nonsensical.

    • Bethany

      That does make sense. Like how mermaids could exist but everyone blamed it on sun fever. *makes a note of this for future writing*

  10. Gunleaver

    The Wolfram & Hart comments suggest someone who has not finished the series. Wolfram & Hart’s explicit position, stated in season two, is that they want Angel to be evil. They are trying to corrupt him. That’s why they brought his ex-lover, the vampire who turned Angel into a vampire, back to life, they are trying to mess with his head. It gets him to the point that he confronts the head of their local branch, to force him to bring Angel to Hell to fight their bosses, and he brings Angel to the street to show him that they are encouraging mundane human evil, that the real world is where they do their work and their greatest evil. It comes within a hair of breaking him and he actually takes an action to eliminate his own soul and make himself into an evil vampire again.

    In the next season, they work on the periphery to get at some of Angel’s supporting cast, and in season four, they get Worfed a bit to introduce a really apocalyptic villain, but from the end of Season Four throughout the final season, Wolfram & Heart is the facilitator for the best conflicts on the show, not because they are so powerful, but because of what they represent and their final tactic to accomplish their agenda with Angel once and for all. They are an antagonist who gets right at the heart of Angel and his team and forces them to confront what it means to be heroes and champions.

    To paraphrase Faulkner, something about the best stories are ones about the human heart, at war with itself. Wolfram & Heart is Pearl Harbor, Fort Sumter, Lexington, the Gulf of Tonkin and 9-11 all rolled into one when it comes to Angel’s heart.

    And if you need a tangible measure of power, Wolfram & Hart were the actual heroes of the final episode of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”. Buffy does NOT defeat the villain in the finale, she just led a suicide charge, a bunch of extras died, along with the least important series regular, and the bad guys were destroyed when a magic amulet suddenly started glowing and wiped them out. Wolfram & Hart sent the amulet, presumably because they don’t like competition from anything calling itself the First Evil, and it later turns out that they intended to use the amulet to control Angel. The spell it cast to destroy the First Evil was supposed to trap Angel’s spirit, Buffy’s ultimate foe was destroyed by Wolfram & Hart as collateral damage in their plot to control Angel. Wolfram & Hart approves of and supports two different efforts by Angel to save the world from evil gods, because they just don’t care who wins the fights, and they are confident of having their way with him.

  11. Xelian

    Very good insights here!

  12. LeeEsq

    My guess is that Wolfram & Hart are ineffective because watching the heroes get continually hindered and stopped by the legal process would make for a very boring show. The audience wants to see Buffy, Angel, and company kick ass. They don’t want our heroes to be defendants in an assault and battery case where they beat up but didn’t kill the monster of the week.

    Plus you need to deal with issue as to why any supernatural creature is a threat against humanity and we need special heroes to protect us if ordinary police people and ordinary courts of justice worked perfectly well against them. Why be reliant on a small group of Slayers, who happen to all be teenagers dealing with the normal problems of the high school years, when you have a bunch of theoretically mature adults that could do it said nobody ever. Wolfram & Hart would either need to be the best and most powerful law firm in history to avoid a situation that implies regular mundane law enforcement and courts could deal with supernatural threats just fine.

  13. LeeEsq

    My guess is that we have these inconsistencies with wizard governments between the main Harry Potter series and Fantastic Beasts because the average age of the characters and audience is older. When the audience and characters are mainly below 18, you can keep government vague because the number of readers that will wonder about these things are young. With an older audience, they will think about what is happening and wonder how can you have somebody like Newt, who was old enough to fight in World War I, have a perfectly peaceful 1914 to 1918 while the world goes to hell around him. Same with other fighting age wizards. It makes sense according to the rules of the books but the audience might not accept this.

    The intelligent response would to be have the adult protagonists be too young to fight in World War I. Like Newt and company should have been born in 1900 at earliest so they would be fourteen to eighteen for the duration of the war and still be in their twenties during the Fantastic Beast setting. Another interesting facet is that even though the Fantastic Beasts imply that wizard society has problems too, they generally don’t want to show it as racist or sexist as the equivalent muggle society at the time for various reasons. So witches would have fought in the magical units while muggle women would not. I don’t think the witches would be in a keep the home fires burning situation. Shouldn’t this inspire muggle women to greater activism in demanding full equality?

    • Cay Reet

      The problem with making Newt younger is the darkness which has crept into the Fantastic Beasts series with Grindelwald – and the fact that no sixteen-year-old wizard would come to America on his own. The whole story only works because Newt is old enough to do things alone. Which means he’s old enough to be drafted.

      There is simply no reason why the wizards would join any battles the muggles have among themselves.
      1.) They are not in the muggle ‘systems,’ so wouldn’t be drafted.
      2.) They are mostly separated from the muggle world, so not invested in any troubles there.
      3.) They don’t want muggles to find out they exist, so why join the army where someone will be curious about where they came from?
      4.) There’s no way muggles will fight in wizarding wars, so there’s no reasons for wizards to fight in muggle ones. Both worlds are as separated as can be, after all.

      • LeeEsq

        Fantastic Beasts takes place in 1926. If Newt was born in 1900, he would be both 26 and too young to have fought in World War I. Its the darkness of Fantastic Beats and its older audience that made them include this World War I nonsense. If the wizard world managed to avoid the great catastrophe of World War I, its sensibilities would be still more in line with the long Edwardian summer before the War rather than the jazz age, a lot of which happened as a reaction to World War I. Since audiences expect 1920s type culture in film set in the 1920s, this would not do. The basic problem with the Harry Potter series is that it wants the wizard world to be completely distinct from the muggle world yet still share a society that is basically recognizable to its’ audience rather than completely different. So Wizarding society has to always be Muggle enough.

  14. Colin

    I’d love to see the opposite article: “7 examples of highly effective organizations from unpopular stories”

  15. Kathy Ferguson

    I thoroughly enjoyed this article as well as all the comments. The Knights of Byzantium definitely caught my eye – how do they move all those horses around? Knight-toting horses have to be big and strong and may even have their own armor. This sounds like a public administration knight-mare (sorry) to me.

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