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
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
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
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
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
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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