Villain Crafting: You don’t come for the Dark Lord; he comes for you!

I wrote a few months back about how the latest Hobbit movie, the Desolation of Smaug, fumbled the dragon’s portrayal a bit at the end and presented him as a bumbler. There’s a certain art to portraying a villain in a way that communicates emotional impact on the audience. Peter Jackson’s opening with Smaug was fantastic; the scene flew off the rails.

More months back, I talked about crafting dark lords. Continuing with both these thoughts, I’d like to analyze the video game, Diablo III, as an example of how your narrative presentation undermines any feelings of fear or dread for the villain.

I’ve recently picked up Diablo III again as we get closer to the release of the expansion set. I absolutely love the gameplay, artwork, story, and overall cohesion of the package. There’s one huge flaw, however. The character of Diablo, Demon Lord of Terror, is anything but terrifying. Blizzard narrated the story in such a way that he evoke no terror at all, and comes across in the end as rather pathetic. That’s probably not the goal for the audience the writer has in mind when architecting a dark lord.

Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy both the Hobbit movies and Diablo II immensely. These analyses are not intended to say these are bad works of art, but rather to examine and learn. So, what did Blizzard do wrong to make Diablo (the character) seem pathetic (in an otherwise awesome game)? Diablo certain looks terrifying, appears menacing, has a great booming voice, and lots of powers to overcome. And he’s huge and hard to kill… what went wrong?

It’s the plot itself that drives Diablo to a veneer of theatrical fear rather than any actual terror. Throughout the entirety of the game, you (the player hero) are hunting the demon lords. Diablo is your prey when it should be the other way around. Your character never shows fear (the sorceress is downright flippant and assured of her destiny to defeat Diablo). Your character seems completely removed from the horror that’s going on around them. The consistent message throughout the game is that Diablo is scary for everyone else, but not for you. Diablo’s scared of you, and you’re going to go kick his ass.

In Act 1, it starts well enough. You go to Tristram to investigate the falling star. After starting to discover that the demon lords have returned to the lands, you move to Act 2 and defeat Baal. It’s still fairly ok, as far as plot goes. Baal toys with you, and you’re not sure yet whom the enemy is in Act 2, until towards the end. You defeat Baal and move on to Act 3, where it falls apart.

In Act 3, you start defending the keep against the demon armies of the Lord of Gluttony. The first mistake is that the Lord of Gluttony starts appearing before you throughout the act, telling you how insignificant you are, and how mighty his armies are. But every time he appears it’s because you just buck-slapped what he threw at you. You take out one of his lieutenants, and he appears and says, “RAR! But you won’t stand a chance against the next guy!” And then you buck slap the next guy and Azmodan appears again, and it’s like, “NO, RAR! For REALZ this time, I mean it. U gonna die beyatch.”

So then you buck-slap Azmodan and chase Diablo into Act 4, where the formula is repeated. Diablo’s armies are invading heaven and you go to stop them, yet it feels like he and his armies are rats scurrying off a sinking ship, and you’re the monster coming to get them. You chased them out of the world, and then through hell, and now it’s like heaven is the last place they can hide. So they run there, and you chase them there. You close one of the waygates they’re using to invade heaven, and Diablo talks to you and says, “Do you think that’s the only one? I have another waygate!” (Or something to that effect).

At which point I put my mouse down for a moment, looked up from the game to the ceiling and said, “You’ve got to be kidding me. Diablo’s just a whiny, petulant bitch. I almost feel sorry for her.” (He’s a she in this game).

It’s almost like the script goes something like:


  • Diablo: If you follow me, I’m gonna send Big Baddie 1.
  • Hero follows and kills Big Baddie 1.
  • Diablo: Wha? Um. Ok, leave me alone, or Big Baddie 2 is coming for you.
  • Hero kills Big Baddie 2. “Yeah? Whatchyougot, D-man? D-woman? What are you these days, BTW?”
  • Diablo: “Don’t make fun of me, it’s not nice. Please go away.”
  • Hero: “No.”
  • Diablo: “Well, Big Baddie 3, and my armies are gonna—”
  • Hero: “What armies? I’ve destroyed all your armies.” SMACK. “And killed that guy too.”
  • Diablo: “Wait, Big Baddie 3 wasn’t suppose to die! Oh come on, just leave me alone. I’ve no where else to go now.”
  • Hero: “No, I’m coming for you.”
  • Diablo: “That’s not how it’s supposed to work. Ok, well, you can’t possibly face my wrath. I will end you. RAR RAR RAR. I’m coming for you!”
  • [doope dooopee doooo… Diablo hides and waits for you….]
  • Hero: “I thought you were coming for me, Diabs. No? Well, find, I’ll go get you then.”
  • Hero buck-slaps Diablo. “Well, that was easy. I mean, I was never in danger, I guess.”

Ok, yes, the hero dies in the game and you resurrect. I’m not saying I never died, because it’s a video game. But the narration leaves something to be desired in portraying a big bad as being scary.

How might we fix it? Well, there’s a certain artificiality in a video game like this one. You go through levels, kill demons, and eventually kill the Big Bad Foozle at the end. That framework channels the narrative somewhat. However, Azmodan and Diablo should never have wasted time taunting you. You should come across as an unimportant speck, barely worthy of their attention. The amount of attention they give you betrays their weakness and fear of you, a mere mortal. (Ok, a nephilim, but they don’t seem to fear the Archangels, so why fear you?)

The formula in Lord of the Rings works. Sauron is coming for all of them, and even at Minas Tirith you get the feeling that their victory will be futile against Sauron in the long run (they lost their undead army). Frodo is just too insignificant to capture Sauron’s notice. Frodo’s not fighting his way to Mount Doom. He’s forced to go there, and escaping his way there, narrowly avoiding death at every turn.

Ok, what else might a game like Diablo do differently? If transitions between Acts could feel like escapes more than pursuits. Or, if somehow the state of the world got worse in each act, until you finally pull victory out of your butt by the end, along with some luck. A feeling of “That was a close call!” is missing, and could have added to the effect.

Or… if we’re not retreating in each Act, the world needs to feel worse with each Act. We should feel the desperation of losing… winning the battle in the Act but losing the war/world overall. Instead, I feel like I saved the first land, saved the second land, and keep pushing back the darkness. The darkness is “thicker”, but that’s because I’m going into it and taking the battle to them. Instead, I’d like to feel like the world’s losing with each act, until the end. (Mass Effect did a very good job of this, btw).

I’m not saying Diablo’s game formula is bad. A different game I love, same formula, was Sacred 2. But in that game, there was no overall feeling of fear or terror… nor did there need to be. You weren’t fighting “The Lord of Terror.”

So, what are our takeaways when crafting dark lords?

  1. Be mindful in how, and in how much, you show your dark lord. The more attention they give the protagonist, the more they take them seriously. If you don’t manage “why” they’re taking them seriously, it can come across that they fear the hero.
  2. The dark lord should be winning throughout the story, until the end. Don’t make it feel like the dark lord is always, always retreating. Because then, hey! We know everything’s gonna turn out okay.
  3. Heroes need to run/escape to survive at times. (This happens in some games… ME missions where you have to get in, get out, and not get noticed by the person you can’t yet face). There has to be moments where if the hero were to be brash, they would die. (Frodo tried to confront a ring wraith. That ended badly).
  4. The Dark Lord can’t threaten the same formula on the hero that the hero’s already overcome time and again. (e.g., “RAR, but my NEXT big bad evil champion will get you, you’ll see!”)

Ok folks, hope you enjoyed another look at villain crafting. (And Diablo fanboys, don’t get your knickers in a wad. I love that game, and critiquing something doesn’t mean it’s bad).

Until next time!



Characters and Power: The Heroines of Ahmbren

Capping off a series on high-powered character, which began with how to make super-powered characters interesting, then isolating effect that power has on a person, and continued last week with a look on how power facilitates corruption, this week we’ll delve into the three main heroines of When Dragons Die.

When Dragons Die centers around the lives of three heroines, introduced in Lightfall. Each of them either start with or gain power that puts them on the level of super-heroes, albeit set in a fantasy world. In a world where magic is fairly common, and people have access to gods’ rune magic, to say someone is a super-hero by comparison means they are as much more powerful than the average fantasy spell slinger in the world as Superman or Thor might be over the average soldier in the comics world.

Three Heroines

Aradma is the closest to the Superman archetype in that she’s born with god-like Aradma_sketchnature powers. She can summon and shape plant life somewhat like Ice Man does in the X-Men comics with ice bridges, encasing people in ice, etc. Aradma can bind anyone in vines, create sharp wooden thorns that fly at her opponents, and anything else along those lines she can imagine. Her power doesn’t make her tired either, as she’s a “low-resistance” channel to the elemental source of Life. This also makes her a natural healer (to a degree).  Her other power is that she’s a druid-savant, in the same way that Mozart was a music-savant.  So, every bit of druidic discipline that others have to learn (such as the healing, and the shapeshifting into different animal forms), she picks up intuitively. In that sense, she wasn’t born with shapeshifting, but he still didn’t have to earn the power. What keeps her from using her powers to overcome all obstacles is the idea addressed in part 1 of this series: just because you have a hammer, not every problem is a nail. She can’t make people love her, and she does care about her effect on people. She self-limits because raw power is not the best way to achieve her goals (such as saving the Matriarch from her fundamentalism), and also because she comes to a point where she doesn’t want to be involved with the world. She has the strength of character not to be corrupted by her power, and her moral challenges come from different angles. More on that later…

Arda is the person who earns her power. She’s a paladin, and she’s trained into her Arda_sketchmartial discipline all her life. She is the epitome of athletic capability (which is powerful without being magical), has an iron will (also not supernatural, but super powerful in the right character), and extremely skilled with pistol and sword. Her sword abilities rival the archetypes of Eastern martial arts movies, and her sword, though not magical, is unbreakable, un-bluntable, and fantastically sharp (it’s magic-like). She’s somewhat akin to the Iron Man style of hero, in that her gear takes her training to the next level. She also has cloth-thin armor, an almost nanotech substance discovered through alchemical means, that is soft and flexible, yet hardens on impact… a very sci-fi idea in this fantasy world (hence, “proto-steampunk”). Take this mix to the next level in that she can channel the mystical element of Light, and we had added the archetype of the Chi-based Eastern martial artist. She can empower her blades and bullets with the Light, and also has limited healing abilities (cure fatigue, for example). While her channeling of the Light is not as potent as Aradma’s channeling of Life, this still puts her on a super-level over the average citizens of Ahmbren in the same way that Jedi in Star Wars wield significantly more power than the average Star Wars citizens.

Because all of Arda’s power comes through discipline, coupled with a Light-based philosophy, her power is not a corrupting influence for her. She has the strength of character to use it when necessary and appropriate, just like any martial arts master.

Anuit’s character deals with the corruptive aspect of power more than the other two Anuit_sketchcharacters. She is a sorceress, and her magical tradition focuses on channeling the mystical element of the Dark, and the summoning, binding, and commanding of demon servitors. Her demons offer a physical representation in the story as to power’s corruptive, and seductive, influence. Unlike Aradma, Anuit is not born powerful. She does have to acquire her power, and to a certain degree she does earn it. Unlike Arda, however, her entire tradition (gaining power from demons) represents a shortcut. Sorcery is inherently easier than wizard magic, and more accessible, because the practitioner doesn’t have to learn to understand magic itself. It all is given by demons in exchange for the demon being able to manifest in the world. Where Anuit’s training and discipline comes in is not in the mastery of technique (though there is some of that), but in knowing herself, her fears, and learning when the demons might be manipulating her. It’s more psychological, and Anuit stumbles a lot on this path. Furthermore, Anuit does become the most powerful sorcerer the world has seen for generations, but that’s because she takes a shortcut even within the context of her own short-cutted tradition. She agrees to learn the secrets of necromancy from the demons themselves, rather than work at the pace her human mentor prescribes.

Anuit begins Covenant in a place where she feels pretty comfortable manipulating those around her to secure her place in her town. She’s not yet done anything to grab power for herself, and turns her powers mostly to secretly protecting the town from the roaming vampires of the wild. In these chapters, she reflects a classic super hero theme: the secret protector, and the secret identity as a mundane seamstress. She’s a good character at heart and the town unknowingly owes her their lives for her protection, and yet she uses her succubus to seduce the town’s lord and masquerades as his mistress in order to secure a place in the community. Her “Clark Kent” persona is much less a paragon than Superman’s. She’s not completely altruistic about it, because she set up her hidden persona before the vampire threat, and it’s also true she’s protecting the town as much to protect her own life as it is to protect the others. She’s a somewhat gray character here.

The demons’ efforts to corrupt Anuit continue into the Tides of Artalon (to be released late 2013), and the sense of security she finds at the end of Covenant, through her relationship with Arda, ends up lulling her into a certain bit of complacency. The demons don’t only represent power and its corruption, they also represent “inner demons” quite literally… as we saw in Lightfall, the demons are partially created from a piece of the sorceress’s soul. Inner demons know your weaknesses because they are you, and no matter how much you intellectually understand they lie, they’ll find a way to convince you to rationalize why they’re not lying this time.

Their Challenges in The Tides of Artalon

Culminating in the Tides of Artalon, each of the three heroines face a different challenge. Arda’s is simply pride. She stands at the pinnacle of her discipline at the start of Covenant and ends up killing innocents because of her pride. She realizes she’s not as perfect as she thought, and the guilt prompts her to seek forgiveness and atonement through the head of her order, the Gold Dragon. By the book’s end, this is pretty much resolved, and she stands as a moral anchor point for Anuit in The Tides of Artalon as Anuit continues her own struggles with the Dark. Arda has, for the most part, settled into who she is in The Tides of Artalon, and the question is, will she trust herself and have learned the lessons of pride enough to do what needs to be done when she’s handed power over the world and the gods?

Anuit’s power continues to only grow. She’s absorbed the aspects of two of her four demons by this point, and they start to manifest in her, sometimes visibly, more frequently. She has a hard time keeping herself from being swept away by anger and aggression as her soul’s channel to the Dark becomes more uninhibited. One of Ahbmren’s themes, unlike Star Wars, is that “the Dark” is not inherently evil. It’s been corrupted, and yes, demons are evil, but the Dark existed before demons. The Dark represents the power of choice, of discipline, and of negation (the ability to say, “No, I am not this… whatever “this” is.) The ultimate question will be, once she does master and find balance with the Dark, what will she choose to do when she’s handed power over the world and the gods?

Aradma has been the most challenging character to write. My beta readers have either loved or hated her, because her character concept is somewhat opposite the typical hero paradigm.  Most heroes learn when not to use their power (e.g., Luke Skywalker learning not to do everything he could possibly do, because that includes the Dark Side of the Force). Aradma’s character concept is different. She starts out observing the world, and acting in an overly restrained way. She explores the idea “with great power comes great responsibility”, but spends much of her life after Lightfall not living up to that responsibility. Most powerful character have to learn humility; Aradma is overcautious with her power. She doesn’t want to intrude and she doesn’t want to shape others lives (partially due to her failures with the Vemnai culture in Lightfall). Also, she doesn’t want to become entangled, which is a selfish motive. She has a daughter and all she wants to do is stay home and raise her daughter.

The problem with Aradma has been that eventually circumstance forces her to act. The choice to not interfere is a choice, and there are consequences for those choices as well. Every time she waits until circumstance forces her to act, the overcompensates, and there’s always a cost. If she had been measured and involved all along, the price for her interventions might not have been as high. Her challenge is not power, but a lack of wisdom, and an inflated view of humility (the desire not to impose on others). Most heroes have to learn restraint, and Aradma’s challenge is that she has to learn to live to the fullness of her power. This character theme has struck some beta readers as arrogance, while it resonates with others, making Aradma a somewhat polarizing heroine. The question will be, by the end of the Tides of Artalon, when presented with power over the world and the gods, will Aradma shirk her responsibility, overcompensate, trust in the people of Ahmbren, or take ownership of the fate of the world on her own shoulders?

I’ve liked the fact that my beta readers have liked and disliked the different heroines. Some gravitate towards Anuit, with her inner struggles made manifest as demons, and others prefer the valiant Arda. Some resonate with the unapologetic Aradma, while others find her presumptive. I’m okay with this, and I like the fact that readers can experience Ahmbren from different perspectives, especially when it comes to the application of power.

I’d always wanted to avoid what Battlestar Galactica did: decide things for their readers (viewers). Things will happen at the end of Tides, and not all readers will agree with the protagonists’ decisions. The protagonists’ won’t agree with each other, and that allows the readers to side with one or the other, and not have me as the author dictate whom they should think is “right”… because the world of Ahmbren is not black and white. It’s… ok, I was about to write “many shades of gray”, but given that’s become a popular book title recently, I’ll avoid that connotation.

Until next week then!

(portrait art by Erin Cooper © 2013)