Dark Lord Rant
I'm posting this here because I thought you would enjoy it.
So you want to have a dark lord for your hero to overthrow? Okay, I’m always willing to read about an interesting dark lord. However, there’s just one problem: most dark lords are as dull as re-used dishwater. Boring dark lords occupy so many fantasy books that it takes a lot to make me pick up a book with a dark lord.
1. If the Dark Lord does disgusting or cruel things, give him a good reason in his own mind to do them.
I cannot tell you how sick I am of reading and hearing about random torture scenes. A random torture scene is one where the villain has no reason to torture the hero, the hero’s girlfriend, or whoever else he’s torturing, but he’s doing it anyways just so the author can show the reader that yes, the Dark Lord is EVIL.
So the Dark Lord’s just evil is he? He doesn’t think that they’re a bunch of terrorists and he needs to extract information from them in order to save lives? He’s not trying to extract a confession? (Many witch hunters believed that only confessions extracted under torture were valid) He doesn’t see any other way to get the necessary information from the heroes? No, he’s just EVIL.
This applies to other cruel actions, too. The reasons don’t have to be nice, but they have to be there. I find actions like torture and rape far more chilling and creepy when the villain’s come up with his own justifications for why his actions are necessary and/or justified than if the actions just seem to be random EVIL on the Dark Lord’s part.
Please don’t use arrogance or insanity or stupidity. Those reasons are so overdone using them now will just alienate your more worldly readers. Give the Dark Lord a solid justification for his own actions and the cruelty will feel more real. If the cruelty can’t be justified in his own mind, it has to go.
Heroes get all sorts of justifications from the authors for their cruel actions yet these same authors just call their Dark Lord evil whenever he does anything cruel (the Inheritance cycle is a nauseating example of this double standard). It’s a sick double standard that needs to be stopped. Please don’t do this. Balance out the justifications between the heroes and the Dark Lord and your narrative won’t suffer a bit. In fact, I’ll bet that it improves considerably.
2. Either justify or excise the Dark Lord clichés from your narrative
Let me see, what are some good reasons not to use a cliché?
1. Most readers are tired of them 2. They don’t add anything to a story 3. They’re lazy, unless justified well by the author 4. A pile of cliches does not make a good villain
You get the point. So what are the cliches?
1. The Dark Lord wears black for no reason 2. His minions will also wear black 3. The Dark Lord has stupid minions 4. The Dark Lord is insane and/or arrogant 5. The Dark Lord has a Barad-ur style fortress and lives in a Mordor-like land 6. Many of his soldiers resemble orcs 7. Everyone serving him is evil 8. His minions are faceless and easy to kill with no remorse on the hero’s part 9. He has an elaborate plan where a simple one would be far better 10. The Dark Lord is ugly or show his “true ugliness” at one point 11. The Dark Lord wants to take over the world Just Because 12. A Dark Lord cannot love or be loved
There are more, but those one tend to show up over and over again with absolutely no justifications from the author other than Just Because. Just Because is not a good enough reason for me to accept cliches in a narrative. Either the author needs to breathe new life into the cliches or scrap them. I certainly won’t miss them.
3. Give your Dark Lord a reason for his power.
I always wonder how those Dark Lords whom nobody in his world agrees with ever ascend into power in the first place. If he was a backwoods Dark Lord with only a few followers that would be one thing, but most fantasies want their Dark Lord to be powerful so they give him power without explaining how he got it.
My question is how did he get power if everyone else hated him?
There can many reasons for this. Perhaps, the heroine’s definition of “everybody” leaves out certain species or groups of people who benefit under the Dark Lord’s rule. Perhaps he only needed the support of a few powerful characters in order to seize control. Maybe he was a rebel who used popular support to snatch power away from a tyrant, only to become a tyrant once he gained power. Or maybe he started out as a good leader, but then he became a tyrant later in his reign.
One reason I would be hesitant to use is that the Dark Lord was so magically powerful that he just blasted his opposition away with his magical powers. If the Dark Lord’s that powerful, how in the world is the heroine going to defeat him unless her powers are astronomical? There are so many overpowered heroes and heroines out there already. Even a villain with superpowers should use other means to get and keep power. Otherwises, what’s to stop the next supowered character from blasting him off his throne?
4. PLEASE do not have your Dark Lord defeated by the power of love
I am so sick of this that this gets a point all to itself. I am so sick of Dark Lords who cannot love anybody, be loved or be destroyed by the power of love. Dark Lords who scorn love and get defeated by love are overused to the extreme.
With this trope, the hero doesn’t have to be clever in order to defeat the Dark Lord he just has to have the ability to love. So someone’s a hero because they can love? Well lots of people can love so what makes your hero different? His Love is more pure and innocent than everyone else’s? Excuse me while I go get a sick-bag. If the Dark Lord can be defeated by something as simple as love, why hasn’t he been defeated before?
Dark Lords who can’t love are a dime-a-dozen in fantasy. A Dark Lord who could love would far more interesting for your readers. Give him the ability to love and see what happens. It might make him more human and give him justifications for his heinous acts. People in the real world have done terrible things for love. A Dark Lord who does terrible deeds for love would be a nice change from those dime-a-dozen emotionless Dark Lords.
Let’s have the hero defeat him in cleverness instead. Or have a hero who tries to use the power of love to defeat the Dark Lord and ends up losing.
Which leads me into my next point….
5. Why not let the Dark Lord win for once?
Another common feature of mediocre fantasy Dark Lords is that the author never gives them a chance to win, even when there seemed to be no logical way that the heroes could win. Instead, the author performs an Ass Pull and gives the heroine mysterious new powers or a loophole. Screw that! If the Dark Lord should win, the author should let him win, or re-write the story to make his defeat plausible.
Most authors don’t want their Dark Lords to win for obvious reasons. It makes the story depressing and they fear that the fans won’t like it. However, I think that fans can be more tolerant of a dark ending than many authors think they are. There will always be some fans who hate depressing endings, but many fans also hate Ass Pulls and would rather have a dark ending than a deus ex machina ending. I’m one of the latter: if a story can’t have a happy ending, I would rather have the dark ending.
A dark ending is a risk, but good writing should take risks. Try not making your ending happy at the expense of the story and I’ll bet that your story will be far better story than one with a happy ending that’s only possible due to an Ass Pull.
6. Why are Dark Lords always male?
Even in this day and age, Dark Ladies don’t seem to exist, except as sexpots. Why not? If your fantasy world doesn’t give power to any women that’s one thing, but many authors don’t hesitate to have powerful women in their world so why is the Dark Lord always male? I suspect that many non-mysoginist authors don’t want to be accused of being anti-feminist by having a Dark Lady so they stick with Dark Lords. Or they’re the crazy kind of feminist who thinks that a woman could never be as evil and power-hungry as a man.
I call bullshit on this.
I believe that a woman can be every bit as evil as a man and the story won’t be anti-feminist. I would only call a story anti-feminist if it put all the women down as more evil or less worthy than the men. Implying that women can’t be evil is just as bad in my book. Saying women can’t be evil makes them less human than men and I don’t think that’s the intention of most feminist writers.
I want to see female characters on the entire spectrum of good and evil and that includes Dark Ladies who are not sexpots. The Sexpot is just another way to put women down because it implies that they can only wield power through sex. Show me a Dark Lady and women who fight against her and I will be happy.
That’s all I have to say for now. Now you can see why most Dark Lords frustrate the hell out of me and why I stay away from mediocre high fantasy.