Bad Antagonist

There is a trope that I seem to be encountering more frequently lately, enough so that it is starting to really bother me: the omniscient antagonist.  Now, it is in the nature of antagonists to be frustrating, so it’s important to be clear that the part of this that is troubling is the omniscient part.  You expect an antagonist to cause problems; you expect them to cause breakdowns; you expect them to generate conflict.  After all, the protagonist needs something to overcome, so the antagonist plays a necessary role.

However, when the antagonist knows everything, every possible move that a protagonist could make, every potential outcome, every relevant piece of information to a situation, they become not only capable of creating chaos, conflict, and confusion, but theoretically unstoppable.  If knowledge really is power, then the omniscient antagonist may as well be omnipotent.  And if there is one figure in any narrative who is both omniscient and omnipotent, that person is the author.

In other words, just as there is a Mary Sue problem in making the protagonist too capable, likable, etc., there is a similar problem in making the antagonist too knowledgeable, too capable, etc.  For, when the antagonist and the author become too closely related, it defeats my identification as a reader with the protagonist.  As much as the protagonist needs an obstacle to overcome, that obstacle should not be the author.  As a reader, I am already giving the author my time, my attention, my money, and my suspension of disbelief.  The last thing I want is to have an antagonistic relationship with them.  That’s not entertainment; that’s abuse.

There are all sorts of valid complications of this over-simplified structure: unreliable narrators, unreliable narratives, meta-narratives, and so on.  But part of what makes a good storyteller is that the story takes center stage, and the hand of the author disappears behind the various machinations of the characters in the world that they inhabit.  When an author resorts to giving god-like capabilities to the antagonist in order to advance the plot, conflict, and characterization of a story, it calls attention to the man behind the curtain.  Whether it happens through incompetence, arrogance, or polemicization does not matter.  It breaks the fundamental contract between narrative creator and consumer.

Totalizing narratives, like conspiracy theories, are comforting in their own way.  It is easier to believe that someone is in charge and making bad things happen than to believe that no one is really in charge and bad things happen sometimes to good people, for no discernible reason other than life isn’t fair.  We do not celebrate art, though, for doing what is easy, comfortable, and reassuring.  If you want me to take you seriously as an author, you need to find a way to make your villains threatening for credible reasons other than your need as an author to have them be so.  Otherwise, you’re just wasting my time.