Stories need problems to solve and heroes to solve them, which sounds simple enough at first. But then you realize that in most settings, there are authorities whose job is to stop these problems. They might be police officers, teachers at a magic school, or the royal space fleet, but they all present the same problem: it’s boring if they solve the problem instead of the hero. Even making your hero part of the police or magical faculty doesn’t solve this, as they always have the option of calling in reinforcements when the going gets tough.
It feels extremely contrived if the authorities just stand by and do nothing, so it might seem like you’re trapped between two bad options. Fortunately, we storytellers can be wily when it suits our purposes, and there are a whole host of ways you can keep the authorities from being a problem in your story.
1. The Authorities Are the Villains
You know who doesn’t usually save the day? Villains. You know who we’re worried might save the day? The authorities. Presto change-o, now they’re the same thing! The evil authorities certainly aren’t going to save the day from themselves, now are they? Even if your heroes aren’t battling the authorities in every scene, being on the most-wanted list will still keep them from calling the police for help.
You might recognize this as the strategy employed by Star Wars, The Hunger Games, Mistborn, and Star Wars. All of these stories involve rebelling against the authorities in one form or another, which is where they derive the majority of their conflict. This is a great premise for a story, as it not only protects your plot from being solved by anyone but the heroes, but it also ensures you have plenty of conflict against a formidable enemy.
However, there are drawbacks to this strategy too, namely that it’s an all-in move. Rebelling against the government isn’t a part-time job, so only use this strategy if you’re fully committed. At the same time, revolution stories can often get into morally tricky situations that might bog down the story if you aren’t prepared for them.
Star Wars keeps most of its battles to conveniently civilian-free wildernesses, but it’ll be hard to ignore the likelihood of innocent casualties if your freedom fighters start a gunfight in the middle of downtown. It gets even more complicated when your heroes win, as now they have to replace the government they overthrew. Still, none of these challenges are insurmountable, and this is a great option, if you’re ready for it.
2. There Are No Authorities
It’s so frustrating when the authorities muck up your plot – don’t you sometimes wish they just weren’t around? Surprise, your wish is my command, or at least it’s your worldbuilding’s command. That’s right: if you build the right kind of setting, you won’t need to deal with the authorities at all.
Your best option for this is to craft a world that’s made up mostly of small, scattered communities without any central leadership. The whole world can be like this, or just a part of it, depending on your needs. At most, each town might have its own militia, but none of them would have much reach or power. That way, your villain can easily skip from town to town, forcing the good guys to follow a trail of crimes. Or your villain might have conquest on their mind, looking to forge these lonely villages into a brutal empire. Either way, only your heroes can save the day.
Post-apocalyptic settings lend themselves particularly well to this approach as we see with titles like Fallout and Mad Max. In the film Fury Road, Furiosa can’t call the police on the warlord Immortan Joe because there’s no government around anymore, so she has to take matters into her own hands. High-fantasy settings also work quite well here, as fractious feudal lords are unable to extend control beyond their own tiny fiefdoms.
The main drawback is that this option doesn’t work well for technologically advanced settings. It’s just hard to maintain societal infrastructure without strong central authority. Even a cyberpunk dystopia of corporate objectivism needs some kind of shared control, to keep the broadband flowing if nothing else.
3. The Authorities Are Jerks
A sad truth about authority is that those who have it don’t always use it responsibly. That’s a serious problem in real life, but in fiction, it’s a major boon. If going full rebellion doesn’t work for your story, then perhaps the authorities could just be a moderate nuisance instead, not someone to count on in a crisis.
This is where the cyberpunk dystopia really shines. Corporate enforcers care quite a bit about crushing organized labor, but stopping a serial killer? Maybe they’ll get to it eventually. Plus, the heroes probably have more than a few infractions to their names, loose-cannon troublemakers that they are.
Cyberpunk not your cup of tea? Don’t worry, this approach can fit in just about any setting, so long as you don’t want the authorities to be benevolent. The king’s knights care a lot more about glory on the battlefield than they do about justice, and the space inquisitors are too obsessed with rooting out heresy to deal with an actual invasion. You can even use this premise in a modern setting, as we see with shows like Black Lightning, where part of the premise is that the police can’t be trusted to protect Black neighborhoods. Of course, that’s a highly sensitive subject, so I advise extreme caution before taking it on.
The only setting that doesn’t go well with this approach is the magic school story, at least when it’s played straight. Magic schools rely heavily on wish fulfillment, so the school usually needs to be somewhere the audience would want to attend. That’s hard to do if all the teachers are mean and incompetent.* It’s also important to keep the conflict’s scale in mind, regardless of genre. Even the most apathetic police force will act out of self-preservation, so they’d have a vested interest in stopping the city from being destroyed.
4. There’s No Time to Call the Authorities
When considering how to keep the authorities from ruining our conflicts, we tend to imagine the long-term. That’s perfectly reasonable, as most novels and TV shows take place over an extended period, but not every story has to be told that way. If your time frame is short enough, you might not need to consider the authorities at all.
This approach is a staple of horror films, where the slasher arrives in the scene, murders a bunch of teenagers, and is either stopped or flees before the police can arrive. Whatever genre you’re in, you’ll need a conflict that both escalates and resolves quickly; otherwise the whole thing falls apart. Maybe your entire story is one fight scene, or it’s about a single engineer who has to fix the engines before they blow.
Once you have the shortened time frame figured out, you’ll still need to consider why the heroes don’t call for help, especially in a modern setting where most people carry a smartphone. Fortunately, a brief plot makes this more feasible. The comedy-horror film Ready or Not takes place over a single night, and in that context it’s believable that a few signal jammers and snipped phone lines are enough to keep the protagonist from contacting the police. A longer story would lose that benefit, as at the very least, someone would have noticed she was missing.
In most cases, a shorter time frame means you’ll be working with a shorter story. While it’s possible to write an entire novel that takes place in one day, it’s a real challenge. Long sections of text imply the passage of time, even if less than a minute has gone by in the story. That’s why this method is easiest to employ in short stories and films.
5. The Authorities Are Underpowered
Most heroes are special people, but it turns out that if you really crank up that specialness, you can use it to explain why only they and no one else can solve a problem. If the power levels in your story are skewed enough, no one in the audience will even ask why the authorities aren’t stepping in.
This method shows up most often in the superhero genre, where it’s a natural fit, since the whole point of superheroes is that they’re more powerful than anyone else. When Captain Marvel crashes on Earth to fight Skrulls, even the elite SHIELD admits they can’t be much help here.* Regular humans simply aren’t powerful enough to address this kind of problem, so the best option for them is to stay out of the way and let the living gods handle it.
You can use underpowered authorities in any setting with sufficiently powerful abilities. In fantasy, supernatural powers can easily give your hero the edge, whether they come in the form of magic spells or enhanced strength. In scifi, your hero might be the only one with the expensive or dangerous cybernetic implants needed to take down the villain. In space fantasy, you can do both!
The main risk with this approach is making sure your character actually has the power to make it believable. A lot of superheroes talk a big game but aren’t any more dangerous than a human with a gun. At the same time, if the authorities are at all competent, they’ll try to get their hands on some superpowers of their own, so you’ll need to account for that as the story goes on.
6. The Authorities Are Spread Thin
So far, we’ve looked at making the authorities either somewhat malevolent or straight-up villainous, but what if I told you there was another way? That’s right: you can actually keep the authorities in your setting both benevolent and competent, so long as you give them a job that’s too big for their numbers.
My favorite example of this method in action is Mouse Guard,* which has a relatively small group of mice tasked with patrolling an enormous area. At least, it’s enormous by mouse standards. That means every patrol of guardsmice is on its own, short of a full-blown war. If the patrol runs into something it can’t handle, backup is days away at best.
As you may have guessed from the Mouse Guard example, this premise works really well for stories where the heroes are part of the authority themselves. It gives them an inherent responsibility to help, which is a great motivation, but denies them easy reinforcements. That’s a super sympathetic situation, and it’s likely to generate attachment from the audience.
While you can theoretically do this in any type of setting, it works best in worlds that have relatively slow travel. Even an overstretched police force can quickly send the heroes reinforcements if everyone can teleport. That doesn’t mean your setting has to be low tech, just that travel times have to be long. A space-opera setting where it takes weeks to travel between stars will work well.
7. The Authorities Are Elsewhere
Look, all of these fancy worldbuilding strategies and complicated plotting schemes are great, but sometimes you need something simpler. Sometimes you just need the authorities to not be there anymore so you can get on with your story. Good news, you can absolutely do that! At least, sometimes you can do that.
A little-known cult classic you may have read called Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is a by-the-numbers example of how to do this. The story features our child-heroes safe and sound* under the care of their teachers at magic school. They don’t have to worry about the big bad, because Headmaster Dumbledore is there to protect them. But then Dumbledore is called away, oh no! Now the kids have to defeat the villain themselves.
The main advantage to this method is that it can be combined with most plots, provided that there are few enough people in authority that it’s plausible for them to all go away for a while. Even Harry Potter stumbles here, as the other teachers are still around. To cover this, the book has to invent the excuse that only Dumbledore would have believed that there was a threat. I guess one of his magic powers is being easily convinced by children.
The big drawback to this approach is it quickly outstays its welcome. In my experience, most stories can only use it once before it starts to feel contrived, no matter how logical the explanations are. It’s possible you might be able to get away with a second or third time, but I don’t recommend trying.
8. The Authorities Have Been Tricked
We all get taken in sometimes, usually by links claiming to have one weird trick, and the same thing can happen to the authorities in your setting. If they’ve been convinced there isn’t a problem, they won’t intervene, now will they?
In comedy stories, this can happen through a series of unlikely coincidences. The Home Alone series is (in)famous for this, as the police are constantly arriving just in time to miss the villains, and they can never seem to find poor Kevin McCallister to get a statement. Home Alone is meant to be funny, so these wacky antics fit right in.
Besides missing the problem by coincidence, it’s also possible for the authorities to have a simple misunderstanding, like mistaking a murder for a suicide. However, if you don’t want the authorities to seem really incompetent, they shouldn’t constantly miss or mislabel problems. These explanations work best if you only need to use them once.
In more serious stories or for repeated issues, you’ll want a clever villain who intentionally tricks the authorities by laying false trails and obfuscating the real plan. If the villain is your big bad, you could stretch that out for a while. However, if any villain can do it, that will still make the authorities look pretty gullible.
9. The Authorities Can’t See the Problem
Whew, I’m starting to run low on ideas. What if the conflict is… invisible? Ah ha, that’s perfect. The authorities can’t solve a problem if they can’t see it. I’m a genius!
Seriously, this is actually a viable strategy in the right context. In most cases, it requires a masquerade setting, where the supernatural exists but most humans don’t know about it. Shows like Buffy: The Vampire Slayer and Supernatural exploit this model to the hilt. They have demons and monsters running all over the place, sometimes in broad daylight, but the police won’t do anything about it because no one knows that magic exists.
The advantage of this method is that it covers a wide variety of situations. If your heroes are part of a very small group that knows about magic, then you can justify not only a lack of police interference, but also people going outside at night en masse to be attacked by vampires. Or you can go for a smaller scale and tell a story with a child hero who can’t ask their parents for help because the monsters are invisible to adults.
However, the cost of this strategy is high indeed: you need a masquerade. Masquerades are so complicated and difficult that we’ve written two articles about them, and we’ll probably write more in the future. So in most cases, you’re exchanging one difficulty for another. At the same time, if your magical society is advanced enough to have its own authority, then you’re back at square one.
10. Your Hero Is the Authority
If you can’t beat them, join them. In this final entry, we don’t try to fight the authorities anymore. Instead, we become the authorities! At least, our heroes do. That’s basically the same thing, right?
This technique gives us characters who are powerful enough that there’s no one they can easily ask for help. Ned Stark is at the top of his particular power structure; even the king is more or less his equal. Admiral Adama leads all that’s left of the human military – no one’s coming to help him. When T’Challa is challenged for the throne of Wakanda, there’s no one he can turn to because he’s already the most powerful character on the block. Well, he could probably ask the other MCU heroes, but Black Panther isn’t a team-up movie, so they don’t exist!
Instead of asking for help, your hero is now the one that others come to when they’re in need. This means your conflict needs to be bigger, stronger, faster than before! Or at least it has to be of a grander scale. It’s very unlikely the leader of Vampire Hunting Inc. will be investigating a single blood sucker. Instead, they’ll be dealing with the politics and economics of running a vampire hunting business, trying to get the best deal on bulk stakes and garlic.
Heroes like this have a lot of power, so they’ll need to face powerful foes indeed. They fit best with tales of revolution and epic political drama, of invasion and the fall of empires. If that’s the kind of story you want to tell, then this is the perfect option for you, and you won’t have to worry about the authorities stealing your hero’s spotlight again.
Every entry on this list has pros and cons. Most work better in some stories than in others, so you’ll need to decide which one is best suited to your work. You can combine them too! Maybe your authorities start off unable to see the monsters, but later on the masquerade is lifted, and then the police are simply outclassed by the horrors pouring through cracks in the dimensional walls. Maybe your setting starts out with no authority at all, but as the story goes on, your heroes build a network of overstretched peacekeepers. What matters is that you plan ahead and make sure only your heroes can solve the problems you put before them.
P.S. Our bills are paid by our wonderful patrons. Could you chip in?