If an antagonist doesn’t have enough resources at their disposal or is simply incompetent, the story loses urgency. There’s no tension if the audience feels like the heroes can steamroll the villain at any moment. Unfortunately, underpowered antagonists are all too common, and they inflict real damage on their stories.
Spoilers: The Collapsing Empire
1.Captain Swing: The Difference Engine
In this foundational novel of the steampunk genre, our heroes must keep a set of valuable computer cards away from Captain Swing, leader of violent revolutionaries.* Since the villains are rebels, you would expect the government to be weak and ineffectual, so the heroes can’t just call the police for help. This is not the case.
Instead, Swing is rebelling against the British Empire at the height of its power, when it was by far the strongest nation on Earth. The revolutionaries don’t stand a chance, even if they get the cards they’re after. The book avoids this problem for a while by keeping the action small, so it’s believable that the government wouldn’t notice what was happening, but that stops working when Swing launches a full-scale uprising for the climax.
This goes about as well as you’d expect. The revolution is crushed not by the protagonists’ heroism, but by the British military. Swing and his rebels are such underdogs that it’s hard not to cheer for them, even if you’re not particularly sympathetic to anarchist revolutions.
How to Fix It
The smallest necessary change would be to make Swing’s revolution a cover story. In reality, he could be working for someone in the government, someone who wants the computer cards for nefarious purposes. That would put the heroes in a tough spot, as they realize they can’t count on the authorities for assistance. This kind of fake out is common for a reason: it works.
Alternatively, the book’s setting could be changed to something more like Russia in 1917, when the government was crumbling and revolutionary groups were actually on the verge of seizing power. The protagonists would be the only ones who could stop Swing before he began his reign of terror.
2. Gilderoy Lockhart: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
The second book in Rowling’s magic school series features a new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, the charming Gilderoy Lockhart. At least, everyone says he’s charming. We find out quickly that he’s an insufferable ass. He claims to be an accomplished wizard, but near the book’s end, it’s revealed that he merely took credit for the accomplishments of others. He is, in fact, a complete fraud. This is important to the story because even though Lockhart isn’t the big bad, his poor teaching hinders Harry and co’s education. Plus, he almost stops them from saving the day as part of a twisted scheme to increase his own fame.
The problem with Lockhart is that he’s too obvious. To all but the youngest readers, he’s a fraud from his first class, when he releases a horde of pixies and isn’t able to recapture them. If that weren’t enough, he later challenges Snape to a practice duel and is defeated so easily it’s clear he has no idea what he’s doing. So when the big moment comes and he admits to Harry and Ron that he’s a fraud, it doesn’t mean anything. The only surprise is when he demonstrates that he’s actually good at memory charms.
Lockhart’s incompetence is frustrating. First, it makes Dumbledore seem terrible at his job, that he’d hire such an obvious fraud to teach the school’s most important class. It’s also frustrating to hear Hermione constantly make excuses for him, when he clearly has no idea what he’s doing. No matter how charming his smile is, our favorite witch would never fall for that.
Beyond frustration, Lockhart’s portrayal doesn’t even make sense. He’s been a fraud for years without anyone catching on, which implies he’s good at avoiding discovery. Based on his behavior at Hogwarts, he wouldn’t have lasted two minutes before someone found him out.
How to Fix It
Lockhart should have acted more like the professional conman he is. If he were ambitious, he’d have engineered situations that would make him look more competent than he actually is. Take the pixie scene. Instead of making a fool of himself, Lockhart could have bought a crate of specially trained pixies that would follow his commands, impressing everyone when he easily restrains the little monsters.
Alternatively, if he’s just looking to coast on his fame and fortune, he could make efforts to avoid situations where his skill might be tested. He’d assign a lot of reading and theory in his class but avoid practical demonstrations. When pressed, he could say something vague about the students “not being ready” to test the knowledge he’s imparting, granting him a sense of mystique.
3. Loki: The Avengers
With the release of Thor: Ragnarok, Loki has firmly transitioned into the role of sympathetic foil for his brother. But some of you might be old enough to remember a time when Loki was the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s big bad, making the heroes quake with fear. That time was 2012, and Loki didn’t make the heroes quake so much as mildly shiver.
At first, Loki seems competent. He starts the film by easily stealing the magic McGuffin and mind controlling one of the heroes to boot. Then he gets captured, but it’s one of those “I meant to be captured” moments. From inside his cell, he tricks the heroes into distrusting and fighting each other.*
Ironically, this all ends once Loki escapes. He reaches New York and unleashes his alien invasion, which turns out to be laughably weak. The aliens aren’t up to the task of defeating the US army, let alone the Avengers. Loki himself isn’t physically powerful either, which is a problem when he’s facing a team of superheroes. Once the Hulk smashes him around like a rag doll, any threat he might have possessed is gone.
This might have worked if the battle sequence was just a short conclusion to Loki’s plan, but it takes up a lot of the film’s runtime. We spend scene after scene watching the Avengers chew through Loki’s pathetic minions, and then even more scenes with Loki suddenly in the position of underdog against a team of heroes more powerful than he is. Remember, this battle is supposed to be so desperate that Shield’s leaders decided to nuke New York to keep Loki from winning. Watching how the father of lies fights, that never seems like a possibility.
How to Fix It
Making Loki stronger is the obvious solution, but how? It wouldn’t make sense for him to suddenly bulk up, as it’s been previously established that he uses lies and trickery because he’s not physically powerful.* One option would be for him to have stolen some kind of weapon during his escape, something to give him an edge against the Avengers. In the film he does steal his staff back, but that didn’t seem to help him much. Maybe Stark left a suit lying around that Loki could have borrowed?
Alternatively, the final confrontation could have been something other than a straight battle. This would be a challenge for a film about heroes who primarily interact with the story via punching, but there are still options. Perhaps instead of summoning an alien army, Loki uses his magic to turn NYC into his personal kingdom, everyone in the city a slave to his will. That would put our heroes in a tough spot, as they’d need to beat Loki without hurting innocents.
4. Caesar’s Legion: Fallout: New Vegas
In the post-apocalyptic Mojave Desert, a vast and brutal army advances on the New California Republic. This is Caesar’s Legion, and it has come to make war.* Technically, Caesar’s Legion is one of several factions you can side with in this post-apocalyptic video game, but since it’s a group of slavers who torture people to death for fun, we can confidently call them the antagonists. Even if you do end up siding with the Legion at the end, most of the game’s quests will have you fighting it.
The first problem with the Legion is their setup. In the backstory, they’ve already fought the New California Republic (NCR) for control of the Mojave once and lost. Now they’re back for round two, but so far as we know, nothing has changed since last time. There’s no reason to think this fight will go any differently, so the player can rest safe in the knowledge that if they do nothing, the NCR will defeat the Legion like it did before.
The second, far worse, problem is that the Legion mostly uses melee weapons. Meanwhile, the NCR is equipped like the modern US military, with some salvaged powered armor thrown in. If you’re imagining a bunch of Legionaries armed with gladiuses charging into machine-gun fire, that’s exactly what happens. Yes, it’s as ridiculous as it sounds. Of course, the game gives the Legionaries a mountain of hit points so they can still pose a mechanical challenge, but that doesn’t change how absurd they look.
The standard fallback here would be to give the Legion so many soldiers that they can exhaust the NCR’s ammunition with sheer numbers. That still wouldn’t have made sense, as even the most disciplined army will break and run in the face of total slaughter, but New Vegas doesn’t even attempt it. The Legion actually seems to have a much smaller presence in the Mojave than the NCR does. It’s possible there’s some dialogue buried somewhere about a massive hoard of legionaries hiding off screen, but what you actually see clearly favors the NCR.
How to Fix It
There are exactly two ways to handle this: either the NCR has fewer guns, or the Legion has more guns. Since it seems important to the canon that the NCR has the ability to actually make guns, not just salvage them, option two is easier. I know the designers wanted the Legion to seem Roman, but that shouldn’t come at the expense of their competence. Roman iconography and titles can do the job just fine.
5. The Nohamapetan Family: The Collapsing Empire
John Scalzi’s latest book takes place in a galaxy-spanning empire, with the emperox* as its protagonist. She came to the throne unexpectedly and has the unenviable task of preparing the empire for an oncoming natural disaster that will destroy its way of life, as the hyperspace lanes used for interstellar travel vanish from existence.
Opposing the emperox is the Nohamapetan family, scheming nobles who think they can use the disaster to their own ends. Even though the emperox’s word is law within her domain, this could still have worked. She’s inexperienced and unprepared for her role. The Nohamapetans should have had a strong edge to leverage in imperial politics.
Instead, the Nohamapetans are transparent and ineffectual from the start. They make a few half-hearted attempts to manipulate the emperox, and she sees through all of them. When the Nohamapetans are threatened by a rival house, they back down without a fight. When they finally try to assassinate the emperox, it feels more like an act of desperation than a master stroke. It’s not clear what would have happened if they’d succeeded.
The rest of the Nohamapetans’ efforts in the book are focused on repeatedly trying and failing to take over a single planet. They feel incompetent there too, as their representative is thwarted at every turn. Scalzi tries to end the book with a surprise turnaround as the Nohamapetans finally succeed in taking over the planet and blockading its hyperspace route, but even this feels incompetent. Sure, the Nohamapetans have their planet, but the emperox has the entire military at her disposal. It feels certain she’ll find a way to kick them out, no matter how much the book talks about hyperspace choke points.
How to Fix It
This one is tricky because the protagonist is the emperox. Her word is law, which makes it hard for any antagonist to obstruct her. The best option is probably to have her discover that her position is not as all-powerful as she’s been led to believe. Perhaps the Nohamapetans have been slowly building their influence for years before she even took the throne, making sure that powerful officials are in their pocket even as they pay lip service to the emperox.
This would put the protagonist in a position similar to Japanese emperors before the Meji Restoration: the subject of much cultural prestige, but with little political power. Another option would have been for the Nohamapetans to convince the emperox they were her allies before turning on her in the climax. This would have required someone else to stand in as the faux-antagonist, but it would have made for a more satisfying conclusion.
Stories where the hero has it easy are boring. If the protagonist never works to get what they want, then their goals mean nothing. Antagonists are the ones who make sure the struggle isn’t too easy. So if you ever find yourself with a story where it looks like the hero is sure to win from the first page, consider giving the bad guy a boost.
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