Dark Lord Darkington Darkingly frowned while stroking his chin. A thought came to him that was so devious, so devastating, that he had to share it with someone. A useless henchman stood patiently before his table. He would have to do.
“I am going to destroy the world!” Dark Lord Darkington Darkingly shrieked.
The henchman arched an eyebrow “Why?”
“Because it needs to burn!” Dark Lord Darkington Darkingly pounded the table with his fist to hammer the point home.
“What will happen to you?”
“What will happen to me?” Dark Lord Darkington Darkingly stroked his chin in thought. This is where the plan failed. The henchman wasn’t useless after all.
“OK, Toby. Make sure you eat all your food. Remember, if you finish your peas, we’ll take you to the mall to buy you a new game.”
Dark Lord Darkington Darkingly eyed his peas suspiciously. His father always wanted him to eat his peas. They needed to burn. The whole world needed to burn!
Dark lords have been a staple throughout the human narrative. They show up in religions, in allegorical stories, horror stories, and in fantasy literature. They exist simply to give contrast to the protagonist(s), make them symbols of good, and to reinforce the reader’s moral beliefs. Dark lords represent evil, the other, the unknown. And we, by transposition, are on the right side of life, love, and happiness.
We constantly ask writers to review their cast of heroes, to make them individuals with unique characteristics and motives. We work on each, even secondary and tertiary characters, to make them feel real. But then the writer pits their cast against a one-dimensional antagonist who applied for the position of dark lord.
Identifying Your Dark Lord
If your antagonists display the following traits, please enroll them in Dark Lords Anonymous:
- They wear black masks.
- They want to destroy the world/universe.
- They want to summon a powerful, godlike dark entity with the slim hope of controlling them.
- They serve as strawmen to your protagonist’s moral code.
- Their sole purpose is to create obstacles for your protagonist.
- They do not display emotions typical of a functioning human (or insert other race that acts like a human).
- Thy have joined the dark side/power simply out of choice, even with the same opportunities available on the light side/power.
Before you stop reading, wipe that evil smugness off your face and verify that your dark lord has received your writerly love and attention. Your readers deserve better.
Dark Lord vs. Antagonist
First, let’s makes sure we get our definitions down. An antagonist is simply a person, group, or force that works against the goals of the protagonist of a story. A dark lord is the caricature of evil that serves as an antagonist to the goody two-shoes protagonist(s).
The Dangers of the Dark Side
Making an antagonist a Dark Lord associates opposition with evil. Opposition isn’t evil, just as the actions of your protagonist character aren’t necessarily good. This distinction needs to be made clear. The common narrative is that “we” who share a common identity with the protagonist are on the side of right, while “they” as associated with the dark lord are evil. The disservice comes from our unwillingness to explore the motives of the opposition, to give the dark lord human characteristics and fallibilities. The other side deserves to be identifiable so that we may explore our own shortcomings in them.
You Want to Do What?
OK, so you’re bent on your dark lord wanting to destroy existence. Without plausible motives and understanding of consequence, your dark lord will feel like a wobbly leg on a table. No one wants to sit at that table because you’re too worried about forcing the table to remain straight instead of eating a meal.
Let’s clarify your dark lord’s intent. Put your dark lord through the third degree of scrutiny. Make sure the you’ve tidied every loose thread, or gaping hole, until you’ve presented a seamless tapestry. Some questions to ask:
- Why does he want to destroy an empire, lives, existence, or whatever?
- If the goal is attained, how will his life change?
- Can he achieve his goal with another plausible, and not so sinister, method?
- Does the dark lord want to live beyond attaining his goal? If not, why?
- Why do the henchmen follow the dark lord? What will they gain? If there is a steady precedent of henchmen dying at the dark lord’s whim, why do they stick around?
- If you were writing from the viewpoint of the dark lord, could you write something plausible while remaining true to the Evil Plan™?
In the end, you want to analyze the motives and method of the dark lord from every angle. Be true to yourself. Put your dark lord through the ringer.
Why So Serious?
Why is your dark lord dispassionate toward everything but his goal? Why don’t dark lords laugh? Why don’t they love, cry, or even enjoy normal social interaction? What about being a dark lord makes them inhuman?
Are we, as authors, afraid to humanize dark lords because we don’t want to remind readers that evil can exist behind any smile? Do we not trust our readers to sort the cast by deeds and not by familiar physical characteristics?
This article has asked more questions than it answered, because every story and every antagonist is different. There isn’t a formula for creating the right villain. What matters is that you give your story the attention and consideration it needs. Readers will invest their time in your story. Respect their dedication and write something fantastic.
Which dark lord is the embodiment of the cliché?
What will you add to your villains to make them less cliché and more dynamic?
If you would like some feedback, share with us a description of your villain.