World Crafting: The Anatomy of a Dark Lord (and other Archvillains)

What goes into making a Dark Lord?  What separates a Dark Lord from a mere Archvillain?  Ooh ooh, this should be fun.  We get to talk about characters, and morality, and my favoritest of uber-geek topics: alignment.  What amounts of good and evil do we put into our characters, and how they come out on the moral compass?

Dark Lord.  What makes a villain a Dark Lord?  No, not just being evil, and wanting to take over the world.  Not just being powerful, and being a lord who is dark.  I’m talking about THE Dark Lord (or Lady) of the world.  The head honcho of evil in the world, who out-evils every other character no matter how bad.  Through the course of this essay, I hope to come up with a sort of descriptive analysis criteria of different Dark Lord and non-Dark-Lord-Archvillains, and see if any underlying theories fall out.

First, let me also get out of the way: this, in the end, will be somewhat subjective.  I’m going to first rate the villain as to whether he or she “worked” for me or fell flat.  Then I’ll look at the analysis and see if there’s any correlation.  Not every one I look at will be a Dark Lord.  They will all be from classics in the genre, except I’ll add in a villain or two from Lightfall because, well, I’m the blog author and dammit so I can.  The other thing I promise:  no concept-villains.  Every villain will be a tangible character in their stories and not some overall theme (for example, “bigotry”).  Finally, after analyzing and theorizing, I’ll revisit the list and see if they get into the Dark Lord club, the Archvillain Club, or are they merely villainous.  I also won’t consider people from history (like Hitler), or characters that some people believe to be real (like Satan).

Ok… the lineup:

  1. Sauron, the Lord of the Rings, from Tolkien’s, well, Lord of the Rings.  I won’t consider Morgoth, the true Dark Lord of Middle Earth, because he’s out of the picture and pretty much irrelevant by the time the Lord of the Rings story takes place.  He seeks to enslave all the free peoples of the world and cover Middle-Earth in a second darkness.  (For “first darkness”, which is decidedly different from “first breakfast”, see the Silmarillion, and Morgoth).  Sauron is second darkness… is there halfsies and afternoon darkness as well?  Hmm… maybe it was all a big misunderstanding.
  2. Shaitan, The Great Lord of the Dark, from Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time.  WoT is probably the longest-running, most anticipated ending (14 volumes) epic fantasy ever written, with the final 3 books finished posthumously.  (I’m still reading the last one).  The Great Lord seeks to unravel the world itself… to undo reality.  One bad motherfucker.
  3. Takhisis, the Queen of Darkness, from Weis and Hickman’s Dragonlance.  Dragonlance is probably the classic Dungeons and Dragons franchise book.  Every fantasy ran should read it, just like Tolkien.  She is the head of the pantheon of evil gods of Krynn.  Perhaps too hot to be a Dark Lady (in the Dark Lord sense).  That’s the Y chromosome talking.  I mean, if you’re going to have to die, being seduced by the Queen of Darkness, well, there are worse ways to go, right?
  4. Raistlin, from Weis and Hickman’s Dragonlance.   A human wizard who picks the path of evil magic and challenges the gods… successfully, becoming a god himself.
  5. Voldemort, from Rowling’s Harry Potter.  A human wizard who carves off pieces of his soul and stores them in phylacteries (oops, I mean “horcruxes”), becoming a lich (oops, I mean “dark lord”), in an effort to have pureblood wizards rule the world with him at its pinnacle.  “I’m the only one who can live forever.”  I wonder if he should have gotten a clue when he lost his nose.
  6. Darth Vader, from Lucas’ Star Wars.  Jedi who is corrupted and turns to the Dark Side of the Force to become a sith.  Oh Anakin… you could have been an awesome Dark Lord were you not a boy band wannabe when you started…
  7. The Emperor, from Luca’s Star Wars.   Palpa-palpa-palpaTINE! The head honcho sith from Star Wars, who obviously has a crush on Anakin, since he doesn’t kill him when he loses the Death Star to an Aluminum Falcon.
  8. The Joker, from Nolan’s Batman, the Dark Knight.  Um… I won’t try to pin him down in a description in case he’s waiting to ask me how he got his scars.  On the other hand, maybe I shouldn’t take this analysis so seriously.
  9. Magneto, from Ashley Miller’s X-Men, First Class.  Surviving Jew from the holocaust with mutant powers; makes a compelling case how humans suck and he should rule them.  Somehow, I find myself rooting for him at points in the movie, over Xavier’s  whining platitudes of “Coexist.”  Plus he probably gets to sleep with Mystique, so props to him.  Wait, he’s a villain, right?
  10. The Matriarch, from Lightfall.  The feminist environmentalist goddess-worshipping version of the Taliban.  Yeah.  I went there.
  11. Skole, from Lightfall.  The godfather of a drug ring, using potent opiates to trap women in the human trafficking sex trade… later guilty of elven trafficking.  At least he has an equal-opportunity streak, right?
  12. Klrain, the Black Dragon, from Lightfall.  The Evil One.  Dies before the story starts, so maybe he’s not so great after all, I mean what can he do now?  He’s dead.

The Criteria:

  • Seen?  Do we, as readers, see them in the story?  To they have active roles in any scenes?
  • Unseen?  Do we never see them?  Are they always merely a looming threat?
  • Perspective?  Do we get a feel for their perspective or viewpoint?  Is this the kind of villain that, even if we don’t agree, does things that are understandable, or we could relate to if we had a similar situation or background.  In other words, is the villain’s motivation understandable?
  • Pure Evil?  Is this villain just True Evil(tm), choosing evil for its own sake?  This is usually mutually exclusive with “Perspective?”.
  • Twisted?  Well, one might say that all villains are twisted, but I’m going for something specific here.  Is the villain operating under a twisted or skewed world-view?  Does the villain misunderstand reality?  If a villain is twisted, they might think they are doing good from their own point of view.  This refers to the adage, The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Ok, I’m sure we could come up with more, but for the sake of a blog article written the night before the deadline, I think this should do…

On these criteria, even though some on the surface might seem mutually exclusive, I don’t like “either/or” functions, so each of these will be yes/now to allow the possibility of “and” functions.

Unseen vs. Seen:  As a general rule, the more someone sees the big bad, the less mystery there is.  The devil you don’t know is usually worse than the devil you know.  This is why Sauron will always eat Voldemort’s lunch (not just because he’s a Maiar spirit, and Voldemort’s just a wimpy man next to him, but from a story perspective as well).  There are exceptions to this rule.  The more I see Joker in The Dark Knight, OMG, the devil I know gets worse.

Perspective vs. Pure Evil.  There are two camps on this.  There is a certain sophistication that comes to the story when the villain is relatable.  If you can get into the enemy’s head and empathize (if not sympathize) with their actions, that can make for an engaging story and a particularly interesting and sophisticated antagonist.  Unless you’re Anakin Skywalker.  There is something to be said for the Pure Elemental Force of Sauron’s evil.  I think this is amplified by Sauron being an Unseen Enemy.  The more screen time an enemy has with the reader or viewer, the more pressure there is to have perspective.  Being Unseen helps amplify the effect Pure Evil.  It takes a good storyteller to pull off the opposite mix.

First, a graph.  I’m a professional Powerpoint/Keynote ranger, we need a chart… (click on it for higher-res):

dark lords.001

Now, before we get into the thought process behind this, what makes a Dark Lord?  Each person will have a definition, but I’m going to define it as this:  the Dark Lord/Lady is THE Prime Evil in the world that drives the story.  As such, the head of an evil pantheon (Takhisis in Dragonlance) aspires to fill the role of Dark Lord.  A Dark Lord should be awe-inspiring.

… and then an EXSUM for the rationale of each character.

  1. Sauron–we never see him, and it works.  When I read LotR for the first time, I wanted to get to the end when we finally saw the Lord of the Rings.  I was surprised when we didn’t, and I realized that worked better.  Peter Jackson did a good job with him in the prologue scenes of the Fellowship, but I think more impact would have been made if P.J. did two things: no Sauron in the beginning.  No physical red eye at the top of Bara-Dur.  Lame, and even comically funny at the end when it widens in surprise.  He should have kept it to the psychic arena… when Frodo had the ring, or Gandalf almost touched it, or the palantir.  But I digress.  Sauron is the prototypical Dark Lord for modern fantasy.  He knows he’s evil, and hold no goal other than evil.  Verdict:  Dark Lord, and awesome at it.
  2. Shaitan, The Great Lord of the Dark, I have never read a version of evil so compelling and terrifying as the Great Lord of the Dark in the Wheel of Time.  He is the opposite of God in every way.  He does not snivel, he does not tempt.  He commands, and reality warps around him.  He is everything Sauron hopes to become.  He is the source of evil, so there’s nothing relatable or twisted (misguided) about him.  I classify him as both unseen and seen, for while he is bound away and the reader hasn’t seen him individually act, the reader has seen him manifest and speak to his servants.  Dark Lord:  Yes.
  3. Takhisis,  For some reason, I never got a sense of dread or terror from her.  She is the prime evil in Dragonlance, but she’s a temptress as much as she is a 5-headed dragon of wrath.  In the end, she tries to fill the role of Dark Lord, but I find her uncompelling in that role.  She also acts in the world in several scenes.
  4. Raistlin.  Certainly an interesting character.  We follow his perspective and motivations for power, and can admire his drive and perseverance to overcome adversity.  He choses evil as a means to an end, so in the end, I would say he grows into a dark lord.  He’s never as terrifying as the Great Lord or Sauron, even though he consumes the world in a possible future.  He’s been too relatable along the way.  A Dark Lord, but not awe-inspiring.
  5. Voldemort – Voldemort is a very well done Archvillain.  He thinks too small to be a true Dark Lord, and in the end, while fearsome, isn’t awe-inspiring.
  6. Darth Vader –  He’s twisted.  He participated in his own self deception, but he continues to choose evil because he feels trapped by it.  He fell because of angsty pride, and lied to himself about falling because he wanted to save his loved ones.  But really, that was a lie.  He wanted power.  If it weren’t for the prequels, he could have been great.  Now, he doesn’t quite inspire the awe.  A Dark Lord, but of the weaker variety.
  7. Emperor Palpatine – The Emperor is purely evil, not twisted.  He knows what evil is and embraces it freely.  He qualifies as a Dark Lord in the Star Wars context.
  8. The Joker –  Pure evil, chooses it, and is awe-inspiringly terrifying every time on screen.  Maybe not the prime-evil in the larger DC Universe, but from the perspective of Batman’s storylines, this Joker qualifies as a Dark Lord.
  9. Magneto – Too relatable to be a Dark Lord.  He’s not evil for evil’s sake.  He’s twisted, and empathetic.  Great Archvillain.
  10. The Matriarch – Thinks she’s doing good from her own point of view, as any religious zealot does.  This leads her to want to kill all men and wipe out civilization, which has evil effect… but she’s not a prime evil.  Not a dark lord.
  11. Skole – He has no illusions about what he’s doing.  He doesn’t think he’s doing good–he just doesn’t care.  Not a dark lord–no where near important enough to be considered a prime evil.  Just a villain of the vilest sort: a rapist, drug-dealer, and pimp.
  12. Klrain – The Black Dragon who dies at the beginning of the book, but was the Dark Lord for thousands of years.  He’s embraced the malice of evil, and is unseen.  However, despite being pure and unseen like Sauron and the Great Lord, he does have (did have) an understandable motive, which comes out in the third book of When Dragons Die, after Lightfall.  No spoilers, though.

Another thought that occurred to me when building charts.  Some characters understand the world, and choose either good or evil.  Other characters misunderstand the world (are twisted by false beliefs), and can choose good or evil according to their beliefs.  But, whether they end up doing harm or good depends on the nature of their beliefs.

dark lords.002 Now, exactly what good and evil means in a world… that’s up to the author to define.  Dungeons and Dragons defines good as simply meaning valuing live vs. a willingness to kill.  That’s, by in large, good enough for most stories.  I define good–for my stories–as valuing truth, compassion, integrity, and joy in oneself and others.

dark lords.003And that about wraps it up for today, folks.  I didn’t really learn much other than that there’s different ways to look at villains, and it’s fun to make slides of such things.  In subjective conclusion, however, I think characteristics of a good Dark Lord are this:

  • A Dark Lord is not misunderstood, and doesn’t misperceive the world.  He or she chooses evil for its own sake, makes the free choice, and understands it.
  • A Dark Lord gets a minimal amount of “screen time”. There is power in mystery.
  • A Dark Lord has tangible impact on the world, even when unseen.  He haunts the character’s minds, strikes dread at the mere threat of his action.
  • A Dark Lord’s appearance is always imminent, even if remaining largely unseen in the story.  Unseen doesn’t mean distant.  He should feel near… threateningly near.
  • Dark Lords inspire awe and terror.
  • Exceptions are possible, but rare (The Joker).

Archvillains may have different traits that a Dark Lord, but can be equally compelling villains.

Oh, and the grand prize winner, the Darkest Lord of Darkest Lords:  The Great Lord, from Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time.


World Crafting: of Hobbits and Boy Scouts

BLUF:  Every world needs an element of familiarity in order for readers to be able to put themselves in that world.  Good characters and neat world ideas aren’t enough.  There’s an element of world crafting that can only be revealed through story scenes, an underlying tone that brings readers into the world in a subtle, yet necessary manner.

It’s been said that the problem with Tolkien is that his work is all mythological and heroic, and that the characters and situations are not real enough to relate to.  If we’re focusing on a lack of character flaws, romantic strife, or political infighting based upon selfish motives between heroes (Boromir doesn’t count–he was being acted upon by an external corrupting agent), I agree.

The characters in Tolkien aren’t sophisticated protagonists where no one is truly good or evil.  His story misses that people are complex, and will act with a blend of selfish and selfless motives, and that sometimes enemies are made simply from pure misunderstanding or differing perspectives.  Tolkien’s world is, metaphysically speaking, somewhat Catholic in its portrayal that everyone is basically good (and essentially the same), and that evil is an external agent that acts upon us.  Evil is ultimately a thing that extends from an external source, and good characters are those who reject and resist evil.  The measure of a character’s goodness is directly related to how successful they are at fighting temptation and corruption.  Tolkien doesn’t use the word “sin”, but the concept is there (Tolkien was Catholic after all, and his writing reflects this–especially the Silmarillion, which echoes Biblical mythology, but without the presence or need for a sacrificial savior).  In Tolkien’s world, characters which successfully resist evil and stay true will ultimately find themselves in harmony with each other, fighting on the same side, and in generally getting along quite agreeably.  This world view leads to somewhat static characters which are all variations of the same heroic ideal.  I’ve no problem with this–I love Tolkien’s characters and I love heroic idealism.  I only say this to acknowledge there is some fair criticism here, and if a reader is looking for realistic people, Tolkien’s world-view is somewhat simplistic.

However, there’s another side of Tolkien’s craftsmanship that seems to get overlooked in discussions about his work, one that personally connected with me since my first reading of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings when I was in the 5th and 6th grade.  It all started with the Boy Scouts of America.

I read them the same year that I joined the Boy Scouts and went on my first camping trip.  It seemed that our troop had somehow angered the weather gods.  The first time out, it rained so hard and all night that most tents got flooded.  Most of us were young and inexperienced in setting up a site to weather the rain.  Ironically enough, it was that first camping trip that I had brought my mom’s hardcopy of the Fellowship of the Ring and it was a casualty to a water-soaked backpack.

The second time out, the same thing, although my tent fared better this time.  Eventually we had the Klondike Campout, a winter mountain gathering of the regional gathering of Boy Scout troops.  It snowed, and stayed well below freezing through the night.  My toes were so cold, and wet with sweat from earlier in the afternoon–I’m amazed I didn’t get frostbite that night.  Camping got better after that, but that first year in the Boy Scouts it seemed that every outing we were cold and wet, and usually somewhat hungry.

Since then, I’ve joined the military.  The Combat Communications training in Korea, where we established and defended a comm site against OPFOR (opposing forces) and outfitted our M16s with blanks and laser-tag style transmitters with our flak vest sporting sensors (MILES gear), while fun at times was also cold and wet.  November in Korea is not a pleasant time to be in the elements at night.  We had puddles flood some of our defensive fighting positions, and had to dig drainage trenches while under “threat” of the enemy (the instructor cadre).  That night it grew cold, and at least our cots kept our sleeping bags up out of the mud.  The fuel (jet fuel–yes, gas) heater did not seem to want to stay lit.  When it was lit, it made everything near it over-hot, but the edge of the tent was still cold.  There was no in between–you were either too hot or too cold.  And of course waking up and having to use the latrine induced a cost-benefit analysis how bad did you need to go vs. how bad was the outside chill vs. the warm cocoon you had finally managed to trap in the sleeping bag.  Conversely, summer in Qatar is the opposite extreme.  I remember a friend of mine telling me she couldn’t wait to get home because she wanted to know what it was like again to poop without sweating. On a similar note, the last night I had in Afghanistan before flying home was an unheated tent in January (the power generators that ran the tent’s heating system kept failing around midnight or so).  By 6 in the morning you would wake up deep within the sleeping bag.  You would poke your arm out to test the sub-zero air, and then pull it back in and say to yourself, “Nope, nope, nope.  Don’t need to go that badly yet.”

So what does this have to do with crafting fantasy worlds?

When you go camping, or deploy to the field, you leave behind the comforts of modern life.  Fantasy expeditions, more-so than sci-fi (with their Enterprises, replicators, and whatnot) leaves behind the comforts of modern life, and takes us out there, away from home.  The epic quest is all about leaving the grounded center of our lives behind to make a journey.  Sure, there will be fantastic moments of heroism, but these are the accent points.  The backdrop is the travel, the journey, the discomfort of being out of our element because we’re out with the elements.

The first thing that struck me about Bilbo’s journey was neither the dwarves, trolls, or the storm giants in the mountains.  He was wet, cold, and miserable, and the memory of the comforts of his home, with warm biscuits and tea were vivid in his mind.  And this is what Tolkien captured, either intentionally or unintentionally: travel and being out in the elements suck.  Some people like this sort of thing (thank you special forces), and more power to them.  For most of us, however, that’s not the case.  I like enjoying the bounty of civilization.

It is important to capture this mundane struggle in an epic quest story.  It’s the part of the heroes’ struggle that people can actually related to, and it provides a transitional point of commonality that then lets readers experience the more fantastic with the feelings of reality.  There should be a rhythmic punctuation between being “away” in discomfort, accented by the warmth of hospitality.  The moments in the rain should be cold and unpleasant.  A beautiful night beneath the stars around the campfire should feel restful compared to the day’s journey.  Being welcomed in an inn, or by friendly parties should even make more of an impact.  The reader rests with the heroes, and these moments of community in the world can also be valuable times for an author to reveal conversations–because it’s safe to converse.  These moments can be some of the greatest points of character interaction, development, and revelation about the world.  We need those moments of safety and comfort in the story to compare against the moments of being away.  This is one of the reasons that two of the chapters in the Fellowship of the Rings were both the chapters with Tom Bombadil (“In the House of Tom Bombadil”) and then later at Rivendell (“Many Meetings” and “The Council of Elrond”).  Campfire meals are lesser moments of comfort in between.  This rise and fall of comfort and companionship with the miserableness of travel in hostile lands (remember the bugs? Ah yes, the bugs.  Remember, Tolkien was in the Army.  He fought in WWI).  It creates a sort of underlying musical theme and structure to the Epic Quest story.

Then, against that backdrop, the fantastical encounters the heroes experience bring out the heroic, magical significance of the story.  Magic and dragons are all very well, but the surrealistic without the realistic backdrop makes for a less-relatable world.  And this is why this article is categorized as world crafting.  Tolkien may have been idealized in his character portrayal, but his world is certainly not idealized.  For all its fantastic elements, it is believable.  It is this element that is common in both Tolkien’s work and in Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series (they were both military veterans–Jordan was veteran of Vietnam, a recipient of the Purple Heart, and a graduate of the Citadel military academy in South Carolina), and probably no accident that these are my two favorite fantasy series (as an aside, Jordan gets the character depth down more than Tolkien, and so creates a very rich story, getting both “character-character” and “world-character” down).  And so, when writing a story and focused on character depths–as modern writers do nowadays, everything is about character–don’t throw out the baby with the bath water.  If you want your readers to believe in the world your characters live in, you need to portray some of the mundane, common human experiences of struggle with the environment, even in a story with magic, dragons, and whatever other fantastic surrealism makes your world unique and interesting.

Cheers all,