Storytelling

Five Tropes That Make a Villain Look Incompetent

Yes, a little tactile sensation will definitely get me to turn traitor.

Villainy is a profession loaded with tropes. From the evil speech to the climactic duel against the hero, villainous behavior has been tweaked and refined through the ages. Unfortunately, some of these tropes make the villain look incompetent. They invoke eye-rolling from the audience and destroy tension in the name of plot convenience.

A simple answer is not to use these tropes, and that’s certainly acceptable. But like most bad tropes, these can work if they are handled carefully. Let’s take a look at five of the most common.

1. Leaving the Hero Alive

What, you mean a villain acting like a punching bag isn’t threatening?

Why would the villain bother killing the hero? Obviously this weakling do-gooder is no threat to them. Or maybe death is too good for the hero, and they must be left alive until their spirits are properly crushed. Either way, the villain has it in their power to kill the hero and chooses not to.

Audiences can see through this trope from a mile away. It’s obvious that the hero will eventually go on to conquer the villain, and passing up a chance to eliminate the threat just makes the villain seem deliberately negligent.

Nowhere is this better shown than in Angel. The titular Angel is obviously a huge threat to the evil law firm, Wolfram and Hart. He thwarts their plans at least every other episode, kills their important clients, and is otherwise a huge thorn in their side.

Theoretically, a company with Wolfram and Hart’s resources should be able to kill Angel. They know where he stays during the day, and they have plenty of demons on retainer who could do the job. Sometimes Angel even puts himself directly into their power. And yet the law firm does nothing. This makes the show’s main villains feel impotent and robs the conflict of any tension because, no matter what Angel does, he never faces any retribution.

How to Make It Work

Many stories wouldn’t get very far if the villain killed the hero at the first opportunity, so this trope is not without value. The key is to make it seem like the villain doesn’t need to kill the hero. If done properly, this can actually increase the villain’s threat level. It also helps if the villain has a strong reason for wanting the hero alive, but that’s not enough on its own. Wolfram and Hart claimed they needed Angel alive in order to bring about the apocalypse, but he was such a threat to them that the explanation didn’t hold up.

A much better example comes from the first season of Teen Wolf. The villain of that season, a mysterious Alpha werewolf, has several chances to kill protagonist Scott but passes them up. The Alpha wants Scott to join his pack, and in order for that to happen, Scott must be alive. This works because whenever the two clash, Scott is handily defeated. Since Scott doesn’t seem like a threat, the Alpha’s reasoning for keeping him alive is easy to accept. There’s also a time limit on the Alpha’s patience, and it’s made clear he will kill Scott if another full moon goes by without Scott joining the pack.

Make sure to foreshadow how the protagonist can eventually triumph against such a powerful foe. Otherwise, the audience may just give up on the story because the good guys seem doomed to fail, or the hero’s victory won’t feel legitimate. Teen Wolf does this by showing that the key to defeating the Alpha is for the other characters to work together, something the Alpha doesn’t predict.

2. Obsessing Over the Hero

Kira and Dukat looking at a painting by Dukat's daughter. I’m not obsessed, you’re obsessed!

Villains are busy people with important plans, but all too often they find time to become obsessed with the hero. This might manifest with the villain needing to best the hero in single combat or recruit the hero to their side, even when the villain has better things to do. Bonus points if this need actually hinders the villain’s plan. Alternatively, the villain might just constantly talk about how awesome or dangerous the hero is, far out of proportion with anything the protagonist has actually done.

An obsessed villain is often symptomatic of an over-candied protagonist, and it makes the villain hard to take seriously. They seem more like a devoted fan than an antagonist. The novel The One-Eyed Man illustrates the problem beautifully. The story really wants protagonist Paulo to be an every-man, but also an amazing badass.

The novel focuses mostly on Paulo doing an uneventful environmental survey and drinking beer. But that’s not very exciting, and it certainly doesn’t make Paulo seem cool. For that, we must rely on a number of antagonists who will not stop talking about him and how worried they are about the outcome of his survey. It’s not clear what they’re worried he’ll uncover, but the novel keeps cutting away from Paulo’s first-person POV so the villains can talk about how good he is at investigating and how they need to stop him. At one point, they risk exposure and arrest by trying to kill him, even though it’s still not clear what they’re worried he’ll find.

How to Make It Work

If the villain is obsessed with the hero, that motivation should be baked into the villain’s character, and it should be a personal obsession. Instead of a villain who meets the hero and is enamored at first sight, the villain should have a deep-seated motivation. Perhaps the villain blames the hero for a loved one’s death or for a humiliating defeat. Whether or not the hero actually has any responsibility is less important than that the villain believes it.

This obsession should be directly related to the villain’s goals, not a distraction from them. In Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Gul Dukat is obsessed with Major Kira from the first episode. At first, he pretends he’s just into her, but it quickly becomes clear that Kira is a symbol to him of the entire Bajoran people. Dukat has never gotten over the way the Bajorans hate him for overseeing the occupation of their world, despite how much he believes he did for them. Getting the Bajorans to love him is a motivation for many of Dukat’s actions, and Kira is a personification of her people.

3. Explaining the Master Plan

A group of Daleks. Let us EXPLAIN the master plan.

Before I kill you, Mr. Bond… Actually, how about I just kill you? We all know how silly it is for a villain to explain their plan to the hero. It appears on every list of “things an evil overlord should never do,” and with good reason.

Yet this trope remains popular because it allows storytellers to keep their villain’s plan a secret until the last possible moment, and it’s easier for a secret plan to be threatening. When the villain’s plan is vague and shadowy, the audience can fill in the blanks with whatever most scares them. But once the plan is known, it can lose a lot of its threat.

So storytellers still wait until the dramatic conclusion to reveal the villain’s plan. But since most of them know how silly this trope is, they try to cover it with snappy dialogue and lampshading. That doesn’t actually solve the problem. At best it obfuscates that the villain is giving away valuable information when they don’t have any reason to.

Doctor Who does this so often that getting the villains to talk is one of the Doctor’s unofficial superpowers. The Daleks in particular love to monologue at him, even though they’re supposed to be cold, logical extermination machines. Usually, the Doctor makes some quip about how Daleks do like to go on, but he’s* not fooling anyone.

How to Make It Work

If you want the villain to explain their plan, they need to feel completely safe. And no, the moment before their final triumph, with the hero at their mercy, does not count as safe. Any competent villain will know the hero is dangerous so long as they remain alive.*

When the villain explains their plan, it must be to someone they don’t think is a threat. This might be a trusted friend who’s secretly on team good, or a hero who’s been built up to be really good at getting information out of people. To reference Deep Space Nine again, one episode has the secondary villain Damar divulge his plans to Quark. This scene works because most characters think Quark is a harmless bartender, and we’ve seen before that he’s very good at getting people to talk. Damar is also very drunk.

Revealing the villain’s plan like this is a great way to both up the stakes and give the heroes a fighting chance. The audience learns just how bad things might get, but the good guys at least have an opportunity to stop it, no matter how slim.

4. Appear Overtly Villainous

Abel Horn, cybernetic assassin from Babylon Five. No way this guy is evil. Nah.

The adage goes that everyone is the hero of their own story, even the villain. No one gets up in the morning and decides to look evil. This is why it’s comical when a bad guy shows up looking like he just came from a meeting of the Evil League of Evil. It stands out, especially in TV shows like Babylon Five, when bad dudes routinely try to infiltrate the station dressed all in black and scowling like they want to murder someone. They are so obvious to the audience that it’s hard to imagine no one in security noticed them.

Sometimes it’s not about how a villain looks but how they sound. If a villain makes an obviously evil offer to the protagonist, it’ll be impossible to take seriously. In Star Trek: First Contact, the Borg Queen tries to recruit Data and says that he should join her to assimilate humanity and his friends. In return, she’ll give him some human skin. If that sounds ridiculous, it is. Of course, Data doesn’t take the offer, but the Queen is gullible enough to believe him when he says he will.

It’s reasonable to want a villain to stand out, and dialing up the evilness is certainly one way to do that. But in most situations, it will behoove the villain not to look or sound completely unhinged. If they appear that way regardless, it will make them seem incompetent to the audience.

How to Make It Work

A villain will be at their most villainous when they are addressing those who believe the same things they do. If you’ve ever been shocked by a politician’s bigoted speech, that speech was not for you. It was directed at the politician’s supporters, who believe every word. Similarly, a villain is more likely to wear their evil attire while in a place of their own power. In Return of the Jedi, Palpatine dresses like an evil emperor because he has no need to downplay his evilness for Luke. He’s in control of the situation and gains nothing by subterfuge.

If you want to communicate how evil a character is to the audience but not the other characters, put the villain in a position where they have to switch roles. Cultists infiltrating the good guy’s base will try to seem reasonable and balanced to anyone they meet in person. It’s only when they get a secure call from the cult’s leader that they start muttering ominously about the rising darkness.

5. Killing Their Own Lieutenants

Deucalion killing his lieutenant in Teen Wolf. Henchmen are more useful with their skulls crushed, haven’t you noticed?

A villain’s lieutenant fails in an important assignment. To show their displeasure, the villain kills the lieutenant. This villain doesn’t tolerate failure, you see. Which is ironic, because with that kind of policy they’re almost certain to fail in the long run.

A villain who kills their own lieutenants is incompetent for a number of reasons. First, everyone fails sometimes. If the villain kills everyone who messes up, soon they won’t have any minions left. Second, this kind of arbitrary murder is almost certain to weaken the loyalty of the minions who remain. Why would they want to work for someone who might kill them at any time? Finally, and most damningly, killing a lieutenant makes the hero’s job easier. Now they have one less enemy to fight. This reduces the story’s tension, which is the opposite of a villain’s job.

Nowhere is this better illustrated than season three of Teen Wolf. In one episode, the big bad Deucalion kills one of his own heavies for tying in a fight against one of the heroes. Not losing, tying. As if that weren’t absurd enough, Deucalion then needs to lie to the rest of his pack about it. No way that info will ever come back to bite him. But most damningly, Deucalion’s pack of werewolves only numbered four to begin with. By killing his lieutenant, Deucalion has reduced his force by 25%. Presumably, the heroes will send him a thank you card.

How to Make It Work

One option is to show that the villain has lots and lots of minions clamoring for the lieutenant’s job. When the lieutenant dies, the villain will simply promote someone else. This is how Darth Vader handles his officers in Empire Strikes Back. It’s not a good management strategy, but in the short term it can ensure the promotion of more capable lieutenants. For this strategy to work, the lieutenants must be valuable for their leadership or administrative qualities, not their superhuman strength. Captain Piet can take over Admiral Ozzle’s command, but a powerful werewolf isn’t so easily replaced.

Even if the villain has plenty of qualified applicants lining up for the lieutenant’s job, it should be clear that the lieutenant actually made poor choices. If it looks like they only failed because of uncontrollable circumstances, the villain will still look incompetent for killing them.

A second option is to use the killing of a lieutenant to show that the villain is unraveling. This should happen near the end of the story, with the villain upping their level of evilness until their lieutenant won’t go along with it any longer. This works particularly well with sympathetic villains. The lieutenant’s refusal to go along with the plan is a redemption door. When the villain kills their lieutenant, they slam the door shut.


A villain’s competence is vital to the story because the villain provides opposition. If the opposition isn’t strong, the hero will waltz through too easily, and the story is boring. When in doubt, it’s best to avoid tropes that risk the villain’s competence. But for storytellers who are prepared to dive deep into the nuts and bolts, many bad tropes can be turned into an advantage.

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Comments

  1. Cay Reet

    Very nice article.

    A clever way for a villain to get rid of a lieutenant they don’t want any longer would be a suicide mission, of course. If the guy makes it, there can be another one. If he doesn’t, then the mission has been accomplished in both ways.

    And, of course, a clever villain will dress in bright, friendly colours. That black is so cliché.

  2. Adam J. Thaxton

    One thing that gets to me is that whenever I write an intelligent, competent, dangerous villain, they have a tendency to go rogue and eventually heel-face turn, because they’re capable of being reasoned with. Though, honestly, I prefer the climax to be a debate between the hero and the villain as opposed to a physical throwdown.

    • Cay Reet

      Then, perhaps, you don’t give them a motif which is strong enough. Just as the hero, the villain needs a good reason for what they do. And someone who is intelligent and competent, but also completely focused on one goal and unscrupulous enough (which should be another characteristics of a good villain), will not be reasoned with and do whatever they deem necessary.

  3. Sam Victors

    For the number one trope, I have an example of this in my next story idea (the same one with the time-traveling heroine). The Hero (and the time-traveling heroine’s love interest), is a Royalist Highwayman who is stealing money from Cromwellian England and sends the money to Charles II in France. His enemy is a Roundhead Agent of Cromwell, posing as a witch-hunter. The Agent wants to track down all Royalists but has a good reason for wanting the Hero alive; they were once teenage friends who fought on the same side (Roundheads) in the English Civil War. They had a strong brotherly bond that the Agent was so hurt when the Hero left the Roundheads after becoming disillusioned with Cromwell and his politics. The Agent was so furiously upset of this betrayal that he made it his life mission to win back his former friend to the Roundhead side and rekindle their Bromance, and he will do anything he can to make it happen, being through sadistic force or trickery (he once had his sister disguise herself as the time-traveling Heroine to seduce the Hero into siding with him). Despite the Agent himself being fiercely loyal to Cromwell and the Protestant faith, deep inside he does realize that Cromwell is an unpopular man and that his reign in England is a failure, and the truth of it is that the Agent is trying to restrain his mother, the cannibal inbred madwoman who wants to devour all her runaway children out of jealousy of their growing individuation. He ran away from her as a child but still is an undercover Mama’s boy and he keeps her locked up in a prison so he can restrain her.

  4. SunlessNick

    Doctor Who does this so often that getting the villains to talk is one of the Doctor’s unofficial superpowers.

    I rather like that in the Doctor’s case, though – he has the weird case of being simultaneously under- and overestimated, and it makes enemies try to talk themselves into feeing safe.

    What I don’t like, for the Doctor, is #2. Recently, it’s seemed like every other storyline has been about someone’s big plan to get the Doctor, and I far prefer the wanderer who breaks in on situations like a living deux ex machina. (They seem to be going back to that in the current season fortunately).

    Regarding #4, Babylon 5 also had numerous overtly sinister looking good (or not especially good or evil) people hit the station as well. But it also had one of the most epic examples in the Drakh emissary. I realise you shouldn’t judge people by appearances, but when they’re out of focus, they’re probably up to no good.

  5. Julia

    “Sometimes it’s not about how a villain looks but how they sound.” That reminds me of a game I ran years ago. I just introduced an NPC, and a player pointed accusingly.

    Player: He did it. He’s the bad guy!
    Me: He hasn’t done anything to you.
    Player: Ha! You’re using your Villain Voice.
    Me: *thinking it over* Dangit!

  6. Tyson Adams

    “Doctor Who does this so often that getting the villains to talk is one of the Doctor’s unofficial superpowers.”

    This is one of my favourites. Once you notice it in the show you realise how often he does it. But it also shows up a major flaw with the show in that it relies very heavily on the actor being able to sell the scene every time.

    David Tennent is majorly under-appreciated for his ability to make any piece of dialogue or any scene work. You compare those Darlek standoffs between Tennent and Smith’s incarnations with the same writer at the helm (Moffat). With Smith it was always obvious that the Darleks should have been exterminating him straight away – it’s been too long since I’ve seen the other incarnations to comment on them, but I seem to remember Baker and McCoy doing this well.

    Side note: interestingly, Moffat does a lot of shows that have a lot of talking in place of actual action. Characters will stand around talking when the scene should have escalated to violence, or deescalated the conflict, or had the scene shift (e.g. characters fleeing the conflict).

  7. GeniusLemur

    I toyed around with a deconstruction of #5 once. My thought was to have bad guy strike force #1 go up against the heroes, their commander realizes they’re outmatched, and decides that a strategic withdrawal is the best option. They go back to the big bad and are executed for “failure.”
    Bad guy strike force #2 is sent and does a lot of damage, but is beaten off and the heroes escape. Knowing they will be executed if they return, the survivors of bad guy strike force #2 flee. The big bad is left in the dark during a crucial period, not knowing what happened. Once the big bad realizes strike force #2 deliberately didn’t come back and must have failed, they still don’t know much damage strike force #2 did, or if they even found the heroes. The lack of information proves fatal.

    • Paul

      Something like this happens in Advance Wars 2. The 2nd in command for the bad guys is told that if he doesn’t win the last (where all the less incompetent generals had failed) he’ll be executed. so when he loses, he just ditches the army and only shows up again to shoot the big bad after the big bad lost to the heroes

  8. C. R. Rowenson

    It occurs to me that trope #3 is akin to the classic struggle of showing vs telling. It is so much more satisfying when the hero Understands the plan rather than having it explained to them.

    *Spoilers* The climax of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a perfect example. The reporter puts the pieces together just in time to be cornered at the house and taken to the basement murder chamber.

    On the other hand The Incredibles handled several of these tropes with incredible style by building in the seeds early in the story so they can bloom naturally in time for the conflict. Monologue get is less overblown when half the plan involves the satisfaction of gloating.

  9. Sam

    The best subversion of #3 is “I did it thirty-five minutes ago” You get the satisfaction of Veidt explaining his plans and motivation and totally owning the heroes regardless. You can’t get much safer than already having executed your plans.

    Making it work before the end of a story seems like a great way to give the villain a minor (or major) victory that sets the heroes back and can really up the tension.

    • GeniusLemur

      The flip side would be
      VILLAIN: Ah, Hero, we meet at last, just in time for my triumph! Anything you want to know before I kill you?
      HERO: Yes, Why did you use (unimportant detail) for (unimportant part of the plan)?
      VILLAIN: That’s it?
      HERO: Yeah, I’ve figured out the rest.

  10. Jesse

    Kilgrave from Jessica Jones is a fantastic example of how to do #s 1 & 2 correctly. It has to be personal, otherwise it seems contrived.

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