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In a story I'm writing, there's a villain who is a genius strategist that can get anything he wants, whatever it is, by developing perfect strategies that can have only two possible outcomes: 1, success, or 2, success. His plans never fail because he always has a plan B, and each plan B has a plan B, always thinking of all possibilities and things that can ruin his plan and coming with a solution to each one of them. If that's not enough, he's also a powerful, almost invincible fighter, heir of two special abilities. Oh, and he also becomes immortal (though he can get killed in a specific, story way), and is an emperor.

In the end he is defeated by a flaw in his logic and a detail he didn't think about in one of his strategies (and by brute force too).

But sometimes you have the impression that he (the villain) is cheating, as he always figures out stuff and is always a step ahead and ends up winning, with no one able to defeat him in whatever way (except in the ending, along with specific story reasons), no matter what the heroes do, as if he is that invincible because the writer is "helping" him to achieve/win, and thus breaking the suspension of disbelief.

So how can I make it so that this quasi-invincibility or "Marty Stu-ness" is something to be amazed at, instead of something that breaks suspension of disbelief (besides justifying)?

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    @Cloudchaser I believe Marty Stu is the male equivalent... as is actually mentioned in the link you provided. – Thomas Myron Apr 16 '18 at 5:52
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    Perhaps if you can explain their plan in a near-watertight way. The cheating version is "This worked because he's smart". The non-cheating version is big, complicated, and makes the reader go "hmmmm", then 'huh'. – AJFaraday Apr 16 '18 at 9:26
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    @Cloudchaser It's not really duplicate. That question is about defeating an invincible villain without him making mistakes, while my question is about making a Marty Stu-like villain believable. – Yuuza Apr 16 '18 at 13:35
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    @Cloudchaser It's not a duplicate. The other question is about how to defeat a rounded but overpowered villain; this is about how to make an overpowered villain rounded to begin with so that the villain's defeat is believable. They are related but not the same question. It's the difference between "How can the Avengers defeat Loki?" and "How do I write Loki so that he's awesome, but the Avengers can eventually defeat him and the audience will believe it?" – Lauren Ipsum Apr 16 '18 at 13:57
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    You're attempting a Magnificent Bastard who uses something like Xantos Gambit, btw. (WARNING: TVTropes links) – jpmc26 Apr 16 '18 at 20:10

12 Answers 12

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There is nothing wrong with a hypercompetent antagonist.

The Mary Sue / Marty Stu is usually only perceived as bad writing when it is the protagonist. A story centered around a hypercompetent viewpoint character favored by faith is boring because the story offers no real challenge for such a character. But if you make the antagonist hypercompetent, you are doing the opposite. You provide the viewpoint character with an extraordinary challenge to overcome. You can create a lot of suspension based on how the viewpoint character will beat that overpowered villain. And if you can find a way to pull it off without using a deus ex machina or suddenly making the protagonist even more competent, you will likely end up with a pretty good climax to your story.

The only thing you need to watch out for is that the contrived plans of the villain are plausible. When you want to pull off a "Ha! Losing was part of my plan all along because [thing you wasn't aware of]", think about the following:

  • Was it actually possible for the villain to plan this? Or does the plan hinge on some information or resource the villain couldn't possibly have access to? (Using some foreshadowing can help to bridge such plotholes)
  • Is it believable that the antagonist could keep that plan B a secret?
  • Does it actually make sense resource-wise to prepare both plan A and plan B? Wouldn't it have been more economical to invest slightly more resources into one of these plans to make sure it succeeds?
  • Is plan B actually a plausible contingency for plan A? Or does the opportunity to switch to plan B only present itself because the villain was extremely lucky? For example, does plan B rely on precise timing of events the villain can not control or predict with sufficient accuracy? Or on certain people making certain decisions when they could just as well decide differently?
  • If the villain planned for plan A to fail and plan B to succeed, was plan A actually required in the first place?
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    meh, I disagree. When the antagonist is that hypercompetent, not only does the hypercompetence itself become unrealistic, it then looks preposterous for an ordinary protagonist to defeat the antagonist. Then you've turned the hero into a Mary Sue/Marty Stu purely because it would be necessary to beat such an incredible villain. You have to build all your characters with some degree of believability. – Lauren Ipsum Apr 16 '18 at 12:42
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    @LaurenIpsum Agreed. Readers understand that villains can be wish-fulfillment author-identification characters, too. – Davislor Apr 16 '18 at 18:44
  • @Philipp I was really divided between your answer and Chris' answer, but I chose yours as it's the most spot-on for my situation. – Yuuza Apr 23 '18 at 19:36
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Leave clues that make it possible to see at least the gist of his reasoning and line of thought for the observant and determined reader. Make it so that it's always possible, albeit very difficult, for the reader to predict his actions and to outsmart him.

For instance, let the villain disguise himself as some other character that interacts with (or is close to) the protagonist as a means of gathering information, but never tell the reader that outright. Leave breadcrumbs, instead. Here's another, much better and lengthier example. It should be noted that I loved this book and breezed through it, so I noticed exactly none of these clues; that's what I mean when I say that it should be possible, but difficult, for the reader to see the breadcrumbs.

Good luck!

P.S.: Consider giving the villain a power that grants the super-intelligence you speak of, rather than just ascribing it to his genius mind (and it doesn't have to be simply super-intelligence; for instance, Contessa, a character from Worm, has a power that tells her every step needed to achieve a desired goal and how to execute these steps). That would make it far easier for you to, as Amadeus said, demonstrate the villain's planning.

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    I'm not sure I can agree with this. When the reader can consistently figure out something that the heroes can't, it generally frustrates the reader. – Chris Sunami Apr 16 '18 at 16:17
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    @ChrisSunami Of course, that's why I said that it should be difficult. If it's too easy, it will indeed frustrate the reader, but if it takes effort and time, it's a reward for him or her. More importantly, when the reader looks back after a plot twist/revelation, they should be able to see how things got to the state they are in now and how they could have predicted it. This way, you'd avoid deus ex machina-like situations. – Demetre Saghliani Apr 16 '18 at 17:00
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I would carefully read the Sherlock Holmes books. I'd ignore the modern movies and TV shows for the purpose.

The author made it believable that Sherlock was super-intelligent. He also made him arrogant and almost unlikable. This was countered by his partner, Dr. Watson, who was much closer to an everyman.

Everything that Sherlock did, he was extremely good at. He was an expert in disguises, he usually made a surprising (until explained) deduction at the beginning of the story.

Luckily Sherlock never wanted power and was satisfied to be a "Consulting Detective."

He isn't exactly what your character is because aside from his intelligence and ability to observe, he had no special powers.

The only movie character I ever believed to be super-intelligent was Hannibal Lector from "The Silence of the Lambs." He was scary.

For your antagonist, I would make sure that some pieces of his reasoning is shown to the reader. Perhaps not the plans against the protagonist, but let the reader see him catch a cabinet member stealing, or catching a rebel cell.

I do think that it would be a mistake for the emperor to involve himself too much into matters which should be part of the police or army's regular duties. To have the emperor involve himself in catching petty criminals or rebels does stretch the suspension of disbelief. For one thing, he only has a limited amount of time each day, and he still may need sleep, food, and the occasional entertainment (maybe he plays cat and mouse with the corrupt minister).

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    TVTropes has a lot of examples for such characters. Most of them are villains. – Philipp Apr 16 '18 at 12:18
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    Funnily enough also played by Benedict Cumberbatch (he has a knack for intellectual arrogance), Khan (Star Trek - Into Darkness) almost describes OP's character to a tee. Genetically bred to be physically and intellectually superior to pretty much everyone else; which leads to Khan being infinitely arrogant. His superiority does not feel like a forced plot; because he confidently walks into the most impossible situations and never gets startled or caught off guard. The trick is to make his confidence (arrogance) match his success rate. He behaves like someone who wins as often as he does. – Flater Apr 16 '18 at 13:04
  • @Flater I like that as a comparison. I would note that Khan conquered governments to become leader (the emperor of the OP's question), so that's a more reasonable way for that plot point to be established. And Khan has his abilities because he was engineered by a group of scientists for that purpose, not just luck of the genetic draw. The Augments were designed to be incredibly smart/strong/powerful. – Lauren Ipsum Apr 16 '18 at 13:53
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    @LaurenIpsum: The genetic engineering helps sell Khan's superiority; but they are not necessary. One could argue than a "Khanlike" character is simply born this way. It all depend how much OP minds the "rare occurrence" (i.e. the exceptionally gifted character) compared to the "deterministically repeateable" (i.e. anyone could be created to be this exceptional character). From Game of Thrones, Varys and Littlefinger are good examples of "made" near-infallible characters; they achieved their greatness without external help. – Flater Apr 16 '18 at 13:55
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    @LaurenIpsum I was comparing them to their peers. They're not infallible, bht they are playing the game at a higher level than pretty much anyone else. – Flater Apr 16 '18 at 17:17
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First off, the easiest way to have your bad guy be less invincible and more defeatable is to make him less invincible. He's your creation. Don't give him so many benefits. Take away some of the physical stuff. He doesn't have to be such an amazing fighter (he can just be an average fighter, or not one at all) and he doesn't have to be next in line for the emperor (he can be a distant relative whom the hero/es think could only get there if 17 other people die... who start to die... one by one... as the plot advances).

Second, people like this may work on [TV TROPES WARNING] Batman Gambits, but they are also advance plotters and just-in-casers. They build up favors (and have secrets/blackmail/etc.) from other people on the off chance that somehow, someday, they will need something from that person. They put this piece in place over here and that one over there, so that just in case circumstances put them over by that person, they have an ally ready to go.

Third, Petyr Baelish, Littlefinger on Game of Thrones, gave Sansa Stark some surprisingly good advice which applies here:

Fight every battle everywhere, always, in your mind. Everyone is your enemy, everyone is your friend. Every possible series of events is happening all at once. Live that way and nothing will surprise you. Everything that happens will be something that you’ve seen before.

So your heroes think they can't outmaneuver the bad guy, but it's because he spends his time studying the board and planning for many, many outcomes. When X happens, he already thought about Y and Z and put something in place for that eventuality a year ago. If Q happens, he thought about that too. And if 12 happens, he goes through all his plans to see which one might work to his advantage.

As far as Littlefinger on the show:

He is finally defeated. He knew that Sansa's sister Arya suspected him of something bad, so he allowed her to follow him and "find" evidence which seemed to show that Sansa was disloyal. The one thing he didn't foresee was that the Stark siblings' family loyalty was stronger than whatever he was trying to sow between them. Arya went to Sansa, Sansa called in their brother Bran, the three of them compared notes about Littlefinger and figured out the truth, the two sisters led Littlefinger on, and Sansa eventually called him on his crimes. Arya executed him on Sansa's orders.

So you have the right idea about "a flaw in his logic" and "a detail he didn't think about." You just have to show more of the logic and details and planning so that the reader understands this is how this villain works, so that when the heroes exploit that flaw, the win feels earned.

  • @Alexander Not sure what you mean by "factual." You're disagreeing with my assertion of what his miscalculation was? you can ping me in chat if you want to discuss without spoilers. – Lauren Ipsum Apr 16 '18 at 18:18
  • You appear to leave another invaluable person out of the equation link – Alexander Apr 16 '18 at 18:33
  • @Alexander oh, of course, you're right, I'll edit. – Lauren Ipsum Apr 16 '18 at 20:12
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Thrawn was this (minus the physical fighting abilities) in Timothy Zahn's Heir to the Empire Star Wars trilogy. His gimmick was he could read species' and individuals' intentions and thought patterns through their art. We see this in various scenes.

He dies when his loyal bodyguard betrays him.

I think you need to show your mastermind character plotting/deducing/gathering intelligence whether he does it in the Holmes fashion with small details or with psychological analysis or with spies/traitors or just having that many contingency plans. Explanations to advisers/minions could be helpful.

If you can't show his actions, maybe you could have your main characters get into a situation where they realize they can't do their own back up plan(s) because of a small detail earlier in the story that is definitely caused by your evil mastermind but that they didn't pay that much attention to or didn't make much sense at the time? Troops where they shouldn't be, a rescheduled event, something locked out for maintenance?

Whether or not I believe the author is 'cheating' often comes down to how much I believe in the intelligent character's logic and probably is a matter of individual taste for each reader. Reading Sherlock Holmes (as NomadMaker mentioned) and criminal profiling information might help with the details though.

  • Thrawn is this, including the fighting abilities in the new Thrawn novel. IIRC There's nice fight scene where Thrawn handily defeats multiple attackers using the same pattern-reading skills. – muru Apr 18 '18 at 8:49
  • @muru thanks--I forgot Thrawn survived the EU purge! – mkbk Apr 19 '18 at 9:36
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You can show more of this planning and anticipation in order to make it more plausible. Show your villain expending large resources and manpower in the pursuit of plans and alternatives.

Take an intelligent (not superhumanly so) leader with an intelligence agency of thousands of specialists, with an army with generals that have trained for battle their entire adult lives. It should not be surprising to us that with such resources, they CAN put together the puzzle pieces, mount investigations for more information, and consider so many alternatives.

Your problem is making the villain a lone wolf that must do ALL of it alone, that becomes implausible by virtue of the effort. But a smart villain that can hire a thousand mercenary spies and investigators, we should not be surprised if his team collectively out-thinks and wins against a protagonist that does not have many resources.

In the end, he can still lose for dismissing a contingency he considered impossible (e.g. a suicide mission) or thought was already addressed (e.g. he believed Joe was killed falling off the cliff but Joe somehow survived the fall).

  • This. The best way to make someone appear superior but believably so is to show how much effort and work goes into their perfect plans. That they don't come from heaven, but are grounded in sweat and tears. The main difference between the James Bond movies and the James Bond books. – Tom Apr 17 '18 at 12:59
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I would watch any show with Greg Weisman as a creative writer/producer/whatever. The villain having a plan where the goal is achieved even if the hero defeats the threat is a hallmark of Weisman's writing (as is copious allusions to Shakespeare and very mature plots for a kids tv show).

Specifically watch Gargoyles for how the villain David Xanatos behaves (He did this so much, TVTropes named this particular trait the "Xanatos Gambit"). Spectacular Spider-man has a few, with Green Goblin and several of the big crime bosses playing by these rules, and Young Justice's main villains are a team of Supervillains who work with each other to make these plots happen.

These types of villains work for series where there is one villain who is the source of all the problems (or nearly all of them) that the hero will face. The idea here is that the villain will send the Monster of the week to attack the heroes in the park, while the villain takes a minor item that will be important later from a research park with little knowledge to the hero as to it occurring.

Another fun twist is that some of the members of the villain's organization are looking out for themselves and the disloyal elements as well as the loyal elements are so busy fighting each other that all their scheming results in the villain winning long term goals with heroes winning short term goals. This is often seen in shows like "Transformers" where one if not more of Megatron's underlings (Usually Starscream is among the disloyal) are looking to usurp Megatron, but their machinations are still beneficial to Megatron. For this to work, the villain must have a series of "generals" who normally hang out in his lair and who he consults.

Another way to give the villain a series of wins like this is to make them not all identified as his own machinations. Rather than fighting the villain time and time again, have him take a step away from the fight and allow a few other villains to do some of his dirty work. This is why the aformentioned Xanatos was so effective. In a 13 episode season, he was arrested and went to jail at the end of episode 5, serving his time until the beginning of episode 10. Despite this, he's behind the schemes in 3 of the 4 intervening episodes, without the titular heroes aware of his plans. And that's not including him being behind the plot of the 5 part pilot and the last two episodes... and he's a constant threat following that.

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To adapt Sanderson's First Law, the more something solves a writing problem for you, the better justified it needs to be. If the villain is hypercompetent and that makes things harder on the protagonists (and doesn't help you, the author, cheat your way out of a bind), the reader will tend to accept it as given. To put it another way, villains don't typically function as Marty-Stus. This is because they are antagonists. They aren't (usually!) wish-fulfillment versions of the author, they are an obstacle the protagonist needs to overcome. Amping up their powers and abilities just sharpens and intensifies the trouble the protagonists need to fight against.

That's fine, as long as the protagonist is losing. But it can put you in a bind when it comes time to pay it off by having your protagonist plausibly win. My sense is that the real problem is less that your villain is invincible, it's more that his invincibility fails precisely at the moment your plot requires it. In order for the audience to not feel it as a cheat, you'll need to both make it feel emotionally justified --in terms of the internal work the hero has put in --and logically justified. In other words, if (and only if) you can make your hero's eventual victory seem both plausible and deserved, you won't need worry about how overpowered your villain is. If you can't, on the other hand, then it's time to either tamp down your villain's powers or to give him a fatal flaw that the heroes can exploit.

If neither of those work, it's a sign that you're focusing too much attention on your villain, and not enough on your hero. You really don't want to spotlight your villain and his plans in too much detail. If your book is all about your magnificent villain, and the hero is an afterthought, then you've written a Marty-Stu anti-hero, and you've gotten your protagonist and antagonist reversed. (Which would be okay, but then his hypercompetence suddenly becomes a real problem.) Effective villains tend to be shadowy --the less you know about a villain, the more plausible that he might seem unbeatable yet be surprisingly possible to defeat. And after all, he's not the point of the story, right? (Right...?) He's just there to illuminate the journey of the protagonist. The most frightening villains are often the ones that are seen the least.

  • Thanks for your answer, and I'm sorry if I didn't explained clearly, but your answer regards making the hero's victory believable, but I'm asking about making the villain's hypercompetence believable. – Yuuza Apr 17 '18 at 18:56
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    @BrunoLopes I tried to cover that, but I've edited to make my answers more clear. To summarize: The villain's hypercompetence is most likely to be accepted by the readers if (a) it makes things harder on the protagonists (and doesn't cheat the way out of hard situations for the author) (b) it doesn't conveniently fail on cue (c) it remains "in the shadows", or in other words, if it isn't highlighted, foregrounded or over-explained. – Chris Sunami Apr 17 '18 at 21:19
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A good way to deal with reactions you worry the audience might have is to raise them within the story—if you have a good answer to them. Even if you don’t, hanging a lampshade can sometimes work. Maybe you have your villain say, “Were they stupid to just walk into Mordor instead of flying, or brilliant? All my air defenses!” or even “At least they didn’t ask the Eagles. I couldn’t count on the Ring making Gandalf too distrustful to tell them about it, but I’d have been screwed.” (And yes, there are many clever fan theories for that.)

For example, if you tone the villain down a bit (as Lauren Ipsum wisely suggested) then he no longer is the Crown Prince, but needs to manipulate the Crown Prince into doing what he wants. If he no longer is the greatest fighter in the world, he needs to manipulate someone else into fighting for him.

One way you could go with that is: now he has a justified, in-character need to explain his master plan to somebody. Or at least enough of it to convince his pawns that they’re his co-conspirators. And maybe they sometimes say, “But what if she ...?” or “How did you know she would ...?” or “No way you saw that coming.” An opportunity for him to explain how he poisoned both chalices. And he can also eliminate some people who have it coming while the audience roots for him.

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It's simply not enough to be "Marty Stu" to always have a plan leading to success. Marty Stu/Mary Sue are very resourceful and (when the story requires it) lucky, but they are not uber-Machiavellian schemers, as you seem to propose.

Having said that, you indeed have a difficult task of painting a realistic picture. Your villain has to have some sort of explicitly stated super-ability (omniscience, telepathy, future-telling), or else, having "plans always lead to success" will be taken with an increased amount of doubt by the readers. Real world geniuses just can't know everything, so ultimate "plan B" for them is "cut the losses and retreat". I am thinking your villain is close to [TV TROPES WARNING] The Chessmaster character type.

Thus, as others have already said, you should provide some weakness to your villain. This weakness, or the way to exploit it, would be the key to your plot.

  • Counter example: Your merchant ship is crossing the ocean, so you take out insurance on it for more than it is worth. Either a) it arrives and your buyer pays you (success!) or b) it doesn't arrive, and the insurer pays you (success!). No superpower needed - just some fast talking with the insurance agent ;) – Benubird Apr 17 '18 at 13:32
  • @Benubird: c) insurer invokes clause 73 of the contract and pays nothing ;) – Alexander Apr 17 '18 at 15:53
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    You can't casually throw in a TV Tropes link without a disclaimer. A lot of people get lost that way. – Monty Harder Apr 17 '18 at 17:48
  • @MontyHarder I added one. :) – Lauren Ipsum Apr 17 '18 at 18:18
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Adversity; You have to show that it's not easy to be this capable. If it is easy, then perhaps that's your problem. If it doesn't feel like the antagonist has "earned" his position and if the weakness is just kind of "there" for a story reason then it's not personal and wrapped up in a whole. Making your bad-guy too strong is the problem, you've already identified it.

Give him weaknesses or show the sacrifices he's making to patch his weaknesses and make it obvious, to the person who discovers the weakness, that the way the bad guy can be defeated makes sense with all of the other actions going on.

I will note that if someone has the ability to think of every consequence you might want to consider the theorems about the unknowable. That is, for any system described by logic, there will be some part of the system logic can't reach. You'll find talked about in mathematics/physics/philosophy. It seems like exactly the thing you want need.

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I'm not sure if you're asking the right question here. You say you don't want the reader to feel like your villain is cheating. I think what you should ask is how you can make the reader feel that you as a writer are not cheating.

As a reader, I don't care whether or not the antagonist is a Mary Sue / Marty Stu or not. I want the protagonist(s) and his/her/their journey to be believable and relatable. Does the protagonist have the ability to overcome the antagonist, without becoming unbelievable? And is it still satisfying to read? As long as you do not create a 'Deus Ex Machina' plot device, you should be fine.

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