Dark Lord Darkington Darkingly — How to Avoid the Dark Lord Cliché

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.

Further Discussion

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.

Kassan Warrad

I'm a contributing author to the Iron Pen Anthology. Other projects include stories in the Call of Heroes universe and a yet-to-be-named super hero series. My dream is to have the Call of Heroes universe expand into an RPG, both pen-and-paper and video games.

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psychotick
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psychotick

Hi,

He was a very misunderstood man!!! I would have voted for him!

Cheers, Greg.

pmmg
Member
pmmg

Damn

Orc Knight
Member
Orc Knight

Too late. Ghandi just nuked y'all.

pmmg
Member
pmmg

Hmmm…I'd like to nuke him, but I fear I have no choice but to vote for him until I can…:):):) yes, I'll vote for you.

psychotick
Member
psychotick

Hi,

But am I getting your vote first?!!! (You know I really am just misunderstood – that should be my campaign slogan! I mean really I'm a nice guy. A pussy cat. While I'm building. After that things change.)

Cheers, Greg.

pmmg
Member
pmmg
psychotick

Hi,

Instead of going for my usual moral ambiguity type answer I think I'll just put this in gamer terms. Anyone else play the CIV's and Alpha Centauri games? Because if you do some of you may well understand my style of game. I build. Build, build build, play nice and even grovel with the other races, develop advanced tech, finish off the tech chain, and then when it's time – I NUKE EM! I nuke em all!!! Friends, enemies, the ones I barely even know! I love to watch em burn! Their cities fall! My rivals call me wicked!

Does that make me evil? A dark lord? Or am I simply misunderstood? (I mean clearly I was misunderstood – but that doesn't preclude the other possibilities!)

My point here is simple – do not deny my existence. Don't send social workers around to my home. Don't bother trying to justify me either. I don't want to be explained away. I just want to nuke em all! And the only thing keeping me in line is fear of the consequences- which is why I make all nice – until there are no more consequences. (And I could be your neighbor!)

By the way – running for President of the World soon. Appreciate your vote!!! (You can trust me!)

Cheers, Greg.

Man, I would so nuke Greg if only…well, a few more things to build first I think.

psychotick
Member
psychotick

Hi,

Instead of going for my usual moral ambiguity type answer I think I'll just put this in gamer terms. Anyone else play the CIV's and Alpha Centauri games? Because if you do some of you may well understand my style of game. I build. Build, build build, play nice and even grovel with the other races, develop advanced tech, finish off the tech chain, and then when it's time – I NUKE EM! I nuke em all!!! Friends, enemies, the ones I barely even know! I love to watch em burn! Their cities fall! My rivals call me wicked!

Does that make me evil? A dark lord? Or am I simply misunderstood? (I mean clearly I was misunderstood – but that doesn't preclude the other possibilities!)

My point here is simple – do not deny my existence. Don't send social workers around to my home. Don't bother trying to justify me either. I don't want to be explained away. I just want to nuke em all! And the only thing keeping me in line is fear of the consequences- which is why I make all nice – until there are no more consequences. (And I could be your neighbor!)

By the way – running for President of the World soon. Appreciate your vote!!! (You can trust me!)

Cheers, Greg.

Ewolf20
Member
Ewolf20

I avoid the dark lord trope like the plague a lot. in a current story, the "dark lords" are just people who care deeply for their mother and would do anything to free her from her unjust imprisonment. the thing is, she's a ancient earth spirit that could surely end the world if she is freed. they don't really know this at all as their "mother" keeps this a secret. there's your conflict among my antagonist….and they're centipede people.

D.G. Laderoute
Member
D.G. Laderoute

Ah, the BBE (TM)…the Big Bad Evil. In my writing gig for the Legend of the Five Rings game setting, the desirability of a BBE to oppose the characters is a matter of much debate. In the original setting for the story (when its IP belonged to the original owner, a company known as AEG), the story started with the various clans of "magical samurai" vying for power in the world of Rokugan; this soon evolved into the realization that the TRUE antagonist was Fu Leng, a fallen and evil demigod i.e. the BBE. The story was excellent and, in this case, the BBE worked very well.

That was in the mid-late 90s. The debate began as the game setting continued for the next 20 years (and it's still going strong). The story kept going back to the BBE well in one form or another, and it became…kinda repetitive. "Oh, look, another massive, evil, supernatural threat. We'd better all put aside our political intrigue and internecine wars and unite to defeat it." This made me start looking at the whole idea of a BBE in some detail.

So, Sauron is one of the preeminent "prototypes", and probably THE preeminent one until Voldemort came along. Interestingly, what makes Sauron work so well, I concluded, is that he explicitly is NOT a character–he's a plot device. If you haven't read The Silmarillion, then all you know about Sauron from LotR itself is that he's wants to rule over Middle Earth, that he'll do all sorts of evil things to accomplish that, and that he's really powerful BUT he sunk a lot of that power into the One Ring, the story's MacGuffin. And that's it. We never see him on screen, he doesn't have any lines (yes, the Mouth of Sauron kinda speaks for him, but that's not the same)…he just remains a looming, ominous presence, hovering over the story like one of his winged Nazgul. That works quite well. We don't NEED to know anything about him other than this because, again, he's not a character–he's just a plot element (and, btw, those Nazgul? They were really the closest thing we got to an "on screen" expression of Sauron…more a way of letting Sauron actually DO some things himself in the story, by proxy, without really turning him into an interactive character).

The trouble with introducing a BBE as an actual character is that he (or she) is immediately diminished. And the more they appear on-screen, the more diminished they risk getting. The writer/reader collaboration that is the foundation of every story simply can't maintain the degree of menace a BBE really needs when they get "humanized". Legend of the Five Rings had a BBE named Iuchiban who, for the first ten or so years of the game, was just a name spoken in ominous tones. He was what the reader imagined him to be and, with so little detail, readers could bring the full weight of all the dark things they could imagine to bear on how they perceived him. And then…he was brought back into the story as a character. All of a sudden, he was a guy, he had lines, through which he revealed his motivations, he acted and reacted…he was no longer "malign and ominous off-screen presence", but rather "evil on-screen guy". It just wasn't the same. He kinda futzed around being all dark and conquer-ey, before having his ass kicked. Kinda lame, actually.

So I guess my contribution to this thread is…if you're going to have a BBE in your story, give some serious consideration to making him (or her) the looming, dangerous "thing" off in the distance, wreathed in smoke and shadow and menace. Your on-screen antagonists can be his (or her) minions, with all the things that characters need i.e. characterization, motivations, flaws, strengths, etc. As soon as the BBE comes on-screen, you risk turning them–no matter how powerful or evil you portray them–into "just a guy".

Because, in the end, the BBE is going to be thwarted…right…?

Writer man
Guest
Writer man

I’m writing a book, and I’d really appreciate some help with my Dark Lord, Gelezothk. Basically, he found you could kill something, and absorb it’s soul to get it’s power. He went on a mad genocidal killing spree, and is the strongest thing in the universe (For now). I’m really proud of what I have now, but there are 2 main problems, one is WHY, why does he want power, why did he conquer the world with said power, WHY. The other is what he’s doing now, since he’s already conquered the world, what’s he doing now? I don’t want him to just sit in his throne, cackling, but I can’t think of anything.

H4RRY P0113R L0V3R
Guest
H4RRY P0113R L0V3R

I know people will hate me for saying this, but I’ll have to say, voldemort embodies a dark lord cliche.
Don’t get me wrong, I love Harry Potter even more than the next guy, but think about it. Remember, these are the guidlines for a dark lord:

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™?

1) To get a horcruxes, he gets step one.
2) It really won’t, he just lives forever.
3) No, he gets step 3
4) Yes, there’s no win or lose for this one, but I’d say he won.
5) There’s literally no motivation for the death eaters. Some people say it’s for his power, but they could just make their own horcruxes and be voldemort 2.0
6) You really, really, couldn’t.

I know he wins step 1 and 3, maybe 4, but that’s not all 6, you want all 6 to win.

Gumihomihomiho
Member
Gumihomihomiho

What to add to make a better villain.

1.Motive,they should have a rational reason why they want to destroy the world.
2.Unique traits, in a webtoon that i read titled i don’t want this kind of hero the villain is a cat lover. He even using his henchmen’s id to sign up on a cat website, that’s the unique traits I’m talking about guys.
3.Not wearing all black, that villain will be suspicious

WooHooMan
Member
WooHooMan
Ankari

I agree. Just not to the point that one character is purely in either state.

I think this is the difference between our viewpoints. I don't consider an antagonist's function as externalizing the protagonist's conflict. I see the antagonist as a character working against the goals of our POV character. I believe a story should be symmetrical. Meaning, an author should be able to flip the POV from the protagonist to the antagonist and be able to write the story to convincing completion.

That is the crux of the article. An antagonist isn't a function, it's a dynamic character in its own right.

I think this might just be an irreconcilable difference between how you approach fiction and how I approach fiction.
But hey just for the sake of keeping the discussion going…

Working off of your definition: "the antagonist as a character working against the goals of our POV character". Nothing about this definition requires that the antagonist be a fully fleshed-out character. He can be but that's not necessary for him to fulfill his narrative purpose.
I'm trying to argue that if a "character who embodies characteristics that we would traditionally call evil" works in the story, then there's no reason for the writer not to use that character.

I genuinely don't believe that Lord of the Rings would be better if Sauron wasn't pure evil. I would wager that No Country For Old Men would've been worse if they tried to make Anton Chigurh more morally dynamic. And The Birds wouldn't be a better movie if Hitchcock made sure that the birds could be the heroes of their own story. These narratives all have their own story, their own themes and messages, to convey and the creators created the antagonists for the story.

Also, antagonists serve a function in the story just like setting, tone, pace and the protagonist serve functions in the story. They can also be dynamic characters but if an antagonist doesn't first-and-foremost serve the function of an antagonist, then they are not an antagonist.

Ankari

Oddly enough, I'm writing a story where a reader will point to an antagonist and say "ah ha! Pure evil!" But there are always twists to a tale. What a reader may think is an antagonist is just a trick of the mind.

Believe it or not, I have very few characters who can even be called "mostly evil" let alone "pure evil". Most of my stories are heroes vs. heroes. Mostly anti-heroes since I also have very few "pure good" characters.
However, I know that there can be some use of morally simplistic characters in other stories. Those just aren't the stories I deal with.

WooHooMan
Member
WooHooMan
Ankari

I will not deny that I do. Such absolutism is extremely rare. Every person (characters, no matter the race, are modeled after our human experiences) has at least a seed of good or evil in them. Morality is a spectrum.

How did race enter this conversation?
Not to turn this into an argument over moral philosophy but morality existing on a spectrum still means that there must be a good and an evil. It's just that rather than a harsh line between black and white, you instead have a blur of grey. I think that some characters can exist on both sides of the spectrum as well as the middle.

Ankari

We often talk about internal conflict of the protagonist. The source of the internal conflict can be anything, but I often see it manifest as moral choices; greater good vs personal good, do what's right vs doing what's needed, etc. Why is this expected in a protagonist but not the dark lord antagonist. Even if you take one of the most common stories in the Western hemisphere, what we assume is the dark lord himself has known good.

A story is an episode of development for the protagonist. This development is brought about through conflict, both internal and external.
The reason why the protag and the antag are held to different expectations is because they are different narrative tools and thus serve different functions. The antagonist, speaking in strictly practical terms, is meant to externalize conflict. This is why antagonists can take the form of a natural disaster or fate while a protagonist must always be a person (or humanized thing).
If you're writing a story that is about the protagonist being/becoming a good/better person, there is little practical necessity to adding the bells-and-whistles of moral complexity to the villain. Of course, you can if you want. I think most writers do.

I'm having a hard time expressing my thoughts here so I hope I'm making sense.
The point is: there can be practical use to pure evil villains and I don't think it's wise to discourage their use entirely. We should be discussing when you should and when you shouldn't use dark lords – the best way to use the archetype rather than just saying "never use it".

Mythical Traveller
Guest
Mythical Traveller

Sorry, but I just can’t relate to this idea that dark lords wanting to destroy the world typifies this trope. My impression has always been that your stock dark lord wants to *enslave* the world, not destroy it!

Voldemort? Wanted to conquer the world and impose his regime of a pureblood wizard ruling class.
Sauron? Wanted to get his ring back so that he could reign in all the races of middle earth and make them his slaves.
Palpatine? Built a friggin’ gigantic planet-killing space station, not with the direct purpose of annihilating, but with the purpose of imposing fear and therefore obedience upon the galaxy. (Alderaan’s destruction was simply a means to an end and not an expression of his true goals).

I’m not saying that the outright destructive dark lord doesn’t exist, but IMHO, they are a far rarer breed than the one who yearns for world domination. And I would think that this agenda would be one far more interesting to explore as it isn’t nearly as irrational as a fixation on destroying one’s world and by extension, themself.

This is the quandary that I am wrestling with ATM. My villains seek to impose their cult upon the world, yet the full motivations of the cult – more specifically, why they need to destroy the protagonists’ cult to achieve their ends – eludes me.

TheCrystallineEntity
Member
TheCrystallineEntity

In my latest short story, the heroine meets a priest who lives in Incarnachant, a magic/fantasy realm. They stop at a town that is a blatant parody of fantasy RPGs, and the priest shops for a backstory. He chooses the Dark Lord backstory, which in turn warps reality to make everything part of the backstory actually happen. He then takes on the characteristics of a stereotypical Dark Lord and starts complaining about heroes breaking into his house every other week. He eventually becomes the gardener of the heroine's next door neighbour.

rktho
Member
rktho

My main protagonist is the emperor of the realm, but instead of sitting on a throne inside a volcano, he takes care of everything himself. He operates incognito so as not to let slip the secret that the emperor is a wizard. He’s only emperor of one dominion, but his goal is to unite five ancient swords that will give him godlike power. This goal is sidetracked when his horcrux thingy gets swiped out from under him and promptly lost. The protagonists happen to find it, and hearing of the reward the emperor has offered for it, set out to give it back, not even knowing what it really is. The emperor, meanwhile, watches them from afar, realizes the main protagonist looks like he could be the son of someone he killed, and goes after them. The protagonists and the antagonist spend part of the book heading straight toward each other and the protagonists don’t even know he’s coming for them. Once he catches up to them, he manages to cause trouble for them but not to take his horcrux back. Which is a little redundant of a goal because they’re literally trying to return it to him, but he wants this to end on his terms. He wants the protagonists safely dead even if they’re not planning to kill him at all. Besides, if he waits for them to bring the horcrux back, someone might steal it from them, and they might be more inclined to destroy it and kill him. His only friend is his pet snake who makes sarcastic remarks in snake language. The only emotions he is capable of are “good mood”, annoyance, anger, blind rage, and “calmly roasting his inferiors”. (His snake isn’t the only one with a wicked sense of humor.) He’s not the evil laughing type, or the destroy the world type. He just thinks it would be pretty awesome to rule the whole world instead of just part of it. Those selfish good wizards can’t seem to wrap their heads around the fact that the evil wizards deserve the key to unlimited power simply because it exists.

In a reversal of the typical, he, the Dragon, is actually pure evil and irredeemable, while his master, the Big Bad, was corrupted into choosing a dark path and actually gets redeemed in the end while his apprentice is destroyed.

Stereotypical dark lord? Eh. Maybe. He’s not the big bad, he answers to his teacher who taught him magic. He goes rogue after his teacher orders the other dark wizards to leave him for dead. You mostly see him operate solo. Not like Sauron commanding hordes of orcs or Voldemort sending his Death Eaters to cause havoc.

Sheilawisz
Member
Sheilawisz

I see no problem at all with the Dark Lord style of antagonists.

In this very real world where we live, there have been Emperors that really wanted to live forever and they sought desperately a way to somehow conquer Death. Other rulers experienced a very intense desire to take over the world, and since they believed that it was actually possible they did their best to attain this goal and they did terrible things in the process.

Apart of historic examples like that, we also have (by loads!) people with emotional sets that are either broken or missing and they find great enjoyment in causing any type of suffering to others. We are just lucky that they do not have supernatural powers! There are other types that would love to destroy the world even if it means their own death, and they would be happy and satisfied to kill all of us by releasing a deadly supervirus or setting the atmosphere on fire or what not.

So yeah, I have no problem with Sauron and Voldemort and others like them.

I agree anyway that it's a good idea to explore a Dark Lord in depth, to really know what is behind the character. They are important too, and getting to know them in a more personal level can help a lot in the development of a good Fantasy story.

My Alice into Darkness story has confused some readers, since they get the impression that Alice Layttel is the super villain of the story. Well, I do not blame them since Alice is a cold-blooded psychopath that enjoys stabbing children to death. One of my readers even believed that the goal of Queen Amethyst was to get rid of Alice one way or another!

Alice is actually some strange type of anti-heroine, while the true Dark Lord of that story acts from a distance and she only appears in person near the end of the adventure.

Insolent Lad
Member
Insolent Lad

As I see it, the guy who wants to 'destroy the world' is basically doing a murder-suicide thing, writ large. I would assume the reasons for it would be about the same.

WooHooMan
Member
WooHooMan

My favorite dark lord character is O'Brien from 1984.

I do have an issue with this article: the dark lord represents evil, sure, but where is the writer getting this business about "the unknown, the other" or "they vs. we"?
I suspect that the writer might have a bias against moral absolutism. Or at least, they have an issue against the idea of parables about morality. Perhaps, they conflate this worldview with the action of "vilifying the other/unknown". And so they see the dark lord archetype as a symbol for both. Or something.

As far as my relationship to this trope: I've never had a dark lord character. I almost included a parody of one in a story but dropped it.

Guy

When I was a kid and first saw the villain who wanted to destroy the world in some cartoon or comic book, my first thought was, "This guy does realize he lives on the world he wants to destroy, right? Isn't that a bit of a problem?"

Believe it or not, I've seen stories where this fact is brought-up and justified.
The idea itself is never the problem, it's all about execution.

Orc Knight
Member
Orc Knight

I love to play with this trope. I've got everything from the stereotypical Sauron in the spiked armor to the ruthless megalomaniacs running about in my writing. It mostly ends there and then can sometimes be looked into. Others, while, not of the destroy the world type, at least want to take over it. Then, the world I've created for them is meant to be play with the trope and lot's of other Fantasy ones too. Tall, dark and spiky is probably better behaved then Tall, light and shiny. Then again, maybe not. They all have a reason to fight and it usually ends badly.

Good article though, pointing out the general flatness they tend to have. But, hey, still Fantasy, the Big Bad Evil Guy will be there in a myriad of forms. Keep the spiked armor though, that's too classy to go out of style.

Guy
Member
Guy

I had an idea for a "dark lord" type character. He was a solitary, aloof sort of fellow who studied magic and sorcery, but he really isn't evil. He doesn't hate humanity. He doesn't especially love it, either, but so long as others leave him in peace he'll return the favor. He doesn't want to take over the world. The only thing he wants to conquer is himself. But because of his aloof nature and dark clothing and study of magic, the surrounding populace thinks he's evil and treats him as such.

When I was a kid and first saw the villain who wanted to destroy the world in some cartoon or comic book, my first thought was, "This guy does realize he lives on the world he wants to destroy, right? Isn't that a bit of a problem?"

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