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Ultimate Guide to Villains and Antagonists: Bureaucrats

Ultimate Guide to Villains and Antagonists: Bureaucrats

Mr. Clete of the Musicians' Guild Dolores Umbridge The entire race of Vogons Bureaucrats can be infuriating for the simple reason that there is nothing they can do to help us achieve our end goals. When our desires go against the “established order” or we find ourselves up against red tape, the classic bureaucrat antagonist is inflexible. Worse, there are petty bureaucrats that use their limited power (middle management) to actually hinder the protagonist's efforts. Return to main list

Bureaucrats: The Origin

Since organized society has existed, there have been people who have helped to maintain that organization. Humans crave structure and order in our chaotic world, so it stands to reason that we would look for ways to formalize and regulate our society. Where there is any sort of political, religious, judicial, or mercantile structure, there is a need for people to govern the various tiers of that structure. Thus was born the bureaucrat! Bureaucrats fall into a strange category of people: they are experts in their singular field. They know everything about the regulations to take out a loan, obtain a driver’s license, or file your taxes. When you come to them with problems, they subconsciously look down on you because of your lack of expertise. They fail in “theory of mind”. Theory of mind is “an understanding that other people have minds, thoughts, and feelings, and that what someone else experiences, knows, and feels is different from our own thoughts and feelings.” This understanding helps us to interact with them more efficiently, because we’re interacting with them according to THEIR mind, not our own. This is something that most of us tend to learn as children, and it’s ingrained into our subconscious. However, bureaucrats tend to be so focused on what MUST get done—the application MUST be filled out correct, all the forms MUST be present, and so on—that they fail to take into account the other person’s thoughts, feelings, or experiences. In the mind of a bureaucrat, there is only one way to do things—in truth, thanks to regulations that state precisely the terms and conditions of every bureaucracy, there really is only that one way. According to one scientific study, “The bureaucratic mind has two needs: to achieve the financial goal set for it, and to keep being employed. With employment comes a pension, perks, status, a title and the chance to move up in the organization.” “The bureaucratic mind is akin to the legal mind. Both believe in the supremacy of rules. The legal mind calls these laws; the bureaucratic mind, well, rules. Both minds believe that without rules other humans not gifted with their insight into human nature would go off the rails and descend into anarchy. Neither believe that individuals can govern themselves with few rules or that training produces autonomy. Much time is spent devising rules for every situation. Both minds have deeply pessimistic views of human nature and its ability to self direct and learn, and believe rules are written to make life easier for everyone, and to ease the burden of thinking.” It’s fairly easy to see how that sort of person could end up falling into an antagonistic role! All they have to do is obstruct the protagonist’s desires and they are the “enemy” that stands in the way of achieving the end goal. Return to main list

In Stories

Bureaucrats are rarely the primary antagonists, but they can make some infuriating secondary enemies!
  • The Vogons from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is an entire alien race of bureaucrats, with the callous nature, bad temper, and officiousness to match. The author uses their bureaucratic nature to humorous effect: “They wouldn't even lift a finger to save their own grandmothers from the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal without orders signed in triplicate, sent in, sent back, queried, lost, found, subjected to public inquiry, lost again, and finally buried in soft peat for three months and recycled as firelighters.”
  • Dolores Umbridge from the Harry Potter novels uses her bureaucratic powers to stop the truth of Voldemort’s return from leaking to the wizarding community. She also passes a plethora of decrees that make life at Hogwarts harder for teachers and students alike.
  • Lord Walder Frey from A Song of Ice and Fire is a corrupt bureaucrat willing to leverage his small power (fortress sitting on the best river crossing) to charge high taxes and extort lavish promises from the Lannisters and Starks.