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Dark Lord? No thanks, I'm already choking on clichés.

Discussion in 'Novels & Stories' started by At Dusk I Reign, May 12, 2011.

  1. We've all been down this road.

    You've bought a book, possibly swayed by reviews, possibly as a random purchase. Before long you're delving beneath the (frequently) garish covers, eager to be transported to a world far removed from daily worries.

    Things go well to begin with. It's all there: believable, sympathetic characters, a well-realised world, silly place names with too many syllables to reasonably fit inside the human mouth.

    Then you stumble. The villain appears.

    He's the Dark Lord (seldom the Dark Lady – equality doesn't exist by torchlight, apparently). Dark in thought, dark in deed.

    He may even have glowing eyes.

    He wants the heroes dead. He wants all living things subjugated. He wants to cover the world in eternal darkness.

    What he never seems to ask himself is: why bother?

    Perhaps introspection is something far beyond the average supernatural evil-doer (and most of them do seem to have supernatural powers of some sort – wouldn't it be nice if for once the antagonist was a grumpy old grandmother with corns and an unreasoning hatred of music played on the lute?) Either way, it's all a bit of a bummer for anyone who's already waded through thousands of pages of the same old thing.

    Dark Lords don't interest me any more. I'm too used to them. Their very existence elicits a feeling good fiction should never conjure: boredom. I want more Grey Lords. I want to reach the end of a novel and think: 'hold on, I thought he was the bad guy? Was he right all along?'

    I realise most books in the genre involve epic tales of good versus evil, and there's nothing wrong with that: I'm happy to cheer on the heroes as they overcome adversity and make the world safe for kittens. It'd just be nice if more authors introduced an element of ambiguity in regard to the villain. Said malefactor doesn't necessarily have to be sympathetic (though he may become so through proper characterisation), but his motives should at least be understandable. Doing dirty deeds simply for the sake of it just doesn't cut it any more, at least not for me.

    Perhaps I'm just peculiar, though. That's always a possibility. What do you look for in your villains, fellow readers? Do you expect more, or have we been conditioned over time to accept less?
    Last edited: May 12, 2011
  2. Donny Bruso

    Donny Bruso Sage

    Fantasy, due to Tolkien's example, has always been largely a white vs. black category of literature. It is unfortunate, because I have rarely, if ever met a person who I could classify as completely good or completely evil. The world exists in shades of grey, and I think that some of the better fantasy authors are starting to paint their characters that way. Martin, Abercrombie, Cook, etc.

    I agree with you that giving ambiguity to the characters makes it more realistic and often a better story. People are too complex to be defined as any one thing. If your villain wants to conquer the world, he should have a solid, semi-reasonable chain of logic for wanting to do so, or just be flat out of his gourd nuts. Realistically, I think smaller goals are more reasonable. He wants to usurp the King because his brother was legally and fairly executed for something. Or maybe unfairly. He wants to control the country for that one reason, and decides that the ends justify the means.

    The other thing, is that just because said villain is focused on domination for some reason, doesn't mean he can't be doing something good in his spare time. Maybe he give outrageously to beggars. Maybe he rescues kittens from evil dragons. Maybe he rescues kittens from evil dragons, then takes them home and eats them. I think I said this in another thread, but every 'good' character has conflict built into their personality. Villains should be no different.

    The easiest example I can think of to demonstrate this as I digress farther and farther from the topic, is an atheistic priest. One who has comprehensively studied the bible(or other holy tome) and can alternately sit and preach at you about how God loves you, and rail about how God doesn't exist, so everything he's been preaching to you about for the last two hours is nonsense. It makes the character almost inherently interesting, because now you're wondering why he's such a knowledgeable and gifted priest when he's an atheist. You sink your hook into the reader with conflict, and villains should be no less conflicted than anyone else.
  3. Chilari

    Chilari Staff Moderator

    Didn't David Gemmell write an atheist priest in one of his novels? Can't think which; it's a while since I've read them.

    But yes, I agree. Dark Lords are boring. They're narrative devices, not characters. In the story I'm writing at the moment, my two main characters are in conflict with each other, but neither one is completely in the right or completely in the wrong; and they both have to learn that there are shades of grey, that the other isn't evil, and that theirs isn't the only point of view. However, they both have their causes to fight for, even as they start to respect each other, and in the end they've got choices to make about which option is the "right thing". I'm writing it because I find it interesting to explore their relationship and the way their choices influence their perceptions of each other. To me, that's far more interesting that a good guy fighting against a bad guy.

    It also means the ending isn't a foregone conclusion. In your boring Dark Lord story, it's obvious that the good guys will win and the Dark Lord will be defeated and the world will once again become a happy and healthy place, with freedom and flowers and kittens and stuff. But where you've got characters with interesting personalities and diverse motives and conflicting morals (which doesn't mean someone is Right and someone is Wrong), there is no way for the reader to predict who will come out on top, how the conflicts will be resolved, or how the world might be changed by the end of the book. Which is far more fun to read than the old good vs evil: who will win? With that you've only got the how - how will good overcome evil - and not the what - what will happen? - or the who - who will die, who will succeed, whose goals will be realised, whose will be crushed?
  4. Neunzehn

    Neunzehn Scribe

    I've never understood why the dark lords want to destroy the entire world, as if existence itself is what they hate. In LOTR Sauron at least has a vision for Middle Earth (Also he is so old that there was no need to describe his decent into evil).

    As far as the "gray areas" are concerned, I don't believe in them. Many actions and predicaments may seem ambiguous but there are always intentions behind them which dictate their morality. Thorough blackness in the soul a villain makes (notice I didn't say antagonist). This not to say that any character should be completely evil or Good. However the actions and thoughts that build up a character are.
  5. Amanita

    Amanita Maester

    Oh yes, Dark Lords. What do I expect?
    Many fantasy stories live depend on a powerful evil entity who’s not ambigious put more of a personification of evil. Like almost everything this can work well if written well and doesn’t work if not. In such stories, evil is more of an archetype or a metaphor for things in real life and not expected to be realistic.
    Something I generally dislike are one-dimensional Dark Lords who are supposed to be human or at least have been that and act like examples of the first group anyway. Sometimes, those are so absurdly evil and stupid that it’s hardly to understand why they have plenty of human followers (such as Voldemort in the last book) or they and everyone who supports them is called absolutely evil by the narrative but we never find out why. (Eragon is an example of this.)
    If the villain is human, he or she should be human and have human motivations.

    I do think that many fantasy readers expect a certain division between good and evil and an obvious moral division between hero and villain. This might be part of the desire to escape the complicated real world, I’m not sure.
    Personally, I like to have fantastical issues prominent in the story. A story that’s only about the question if ambitious noble A or ambitious noble B makes it into the favour of the king doesn’t interest me at all.
    And a Dark Lord as in example one offers a fantastical issue and sets the stakes very high.
  6. Digital_Fey

    Digital_Fey Troubadour

    While I'd be the first to admit that heinous crimes have been committed whilst trying to follow in Tolkien's footsteps, I don't think the blame for this particular issue can be laid on his doorstep. Tolkien himself was imitating a much older formula - the white knight is good, the black knight is not. Most myths and folktales present one race/character/group as being pure and the other evil, allowing of course for traitors on both sides to keep things interesting - although their motives are seldom very complex.

    I am highly in favor of more Grey Lords - or even better, no Lords at all. Perfectly ordinary people are capable of doing terrible things through sheer stupidity, grief, stubbornness or any other of a hundred very human reasons. Who needs some crafty bugger in a black cloak with a load of orcs at his command anyway? :p
  7. Behelit

    Behelit Troubadour

    Omnipotent narratives will definitely provide you that greater sense of stark evil. Try writing from a different POV. Could you prove that same character a be-all end-all villain with equal definition? Come to think of it, you can. Misinformation is a powerful tool. Also, focusing on the 'Dark Lord' is picturing the destination and not relishing the journey.

    I do agree there is an unrealism to pure evils(except I'd be hard-pressed to find a scholar looking for some good in Hitler) and life is more accurately colored in shades of gray. Like Amanita said, its nice to escape from that constant and I mean CONSTANT questioning of what is and isn't. The moment you define something you are making it black or white. That's where some people tend to bring out that struggle, trying to find definition. If you make the "villain" out to be right all along, you aren't creating a gray, you are merely role reversing and still finding something to be right and wrong(aka black vs white).

    I don't always care for the growing number of novels/screenplays that clearly attempt to humanize people that have acted disdainfully and demonize what would 'normally' be a good person. What is that teaching me? Bad people do good things and good people do bad things? That just leads me to knee-jerk harder towards mistrust of people in general. I'm not religious, but can anyone give me an example of a character of faith with some zeal that does not personify hypocrisy?

    Conflicts between a hero and a villain is not the only way to write a novel. You can make an antagonist out of an object or nature. You could also write a hero or heroes to be unsuccessful at their direct attempt at overthrowing an evil yet their efforts cause an uprising, sparking a fire in the hearts of the people that ultimately leads to a positive resolution. Or negative, for that matter.
    Last edited: May 15, 2011
  8. Telcontar

    Telcontar Staff Moderator

    I can still be cool with Dark Lords, if they are done incredibly well. They have to be Evil with a lot of style. Keep me distracted with how charismatic the guy is and I won't care as much that he has little depth.

    However, the problem is that it's difficult to have a 2D bad guy, and then give your protagonists any depth of their own. Chances are your whole book is shallow, in which case there's no reason to read it.

    In other words, The Dark Lord is a beloved fantasy trope, and can still be pulled off in this day and age. Maybe for a quick Swords and Sorcery read. It takes far more talent to pull off that, though, than to just flesh out the character a little and remove his Dark Lordiness.
  9. Donny Bruso

    Donny Bruso Sage

    @Digital_Fey - You're right, Tolkien didn't invent the pattern, but nearly every person who loves fantasy has read Tolkien, or at the very least is familiar with the story; and he is widely considered to be (erroneously in my opinion) the definition of epic fantasy. More or less what I was getting at is that a lot of people are sheep and follow what has come before, so they follow Tolkien's example.
  10. Digital_Fey

    Digital_Fey Troubadour

    Agreed about the sheep comment, DB. As Pratchett says rather succinctly, "Most modern fantasy just re-arranges the furniture in Tolkien's attic..." :p
  11. JBryden88

    JBryden88 Troubadour

    ... I once toyed around with the concept of having a story where the characters get psyched out over a big bad dark lord, they're ready to face him, only to discover it was a hoax to weaken the resolve of their countrymen, thus the heroes can do nothing, as its too little too late, there's no dark lord to kill, and morale is already shattered. The heroes die as a result.

    ... one of many discarded ideas.
  12. Behelit

    Behelit Troubadour

    I know it's a discarded idea, but that scenario would still require there be someone or a number of people to initiate that degree of misguiding and the heroes are still being killed. Unless of course they killed themselves? That would be wicked and twisted to do.

    Without doubt, with the concept polished and then written well it could still be a great read.
    Last edited: May 17, 2011
  13. DameiThiessen

    DameiThiessen Minstrel

    I rather like it when it's a whole organization - faceless and omnipotent - that's the bad guy. It's so much scarier when you don't have one character to focus on, because you can't feel oppressed and in danger if it's one king and his minions. When it's whole system, and citizens are brainwashed and scared into fighting the protagonist, it makes the story so much more thrilling.

    Of course, I don't know if I'm talented enough to write a story like that. But I like reading them. As much as they freak me out.
    Last edited: May 27, 2012
  14. Feo Takahari

    Feo Takahari Auror

    I love, love, love Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House, and one of the things I love about it is that Ibsen never tells you who you're supposed to agree with. Modern readers would at least conclude that Torvald is wrong, but it's completely up in the air whether Nora is right. Much of my reading has been attempts to find something else that good, and much of my writing has attempted to mimic that same air of neutrality.

    In short, agreeing with OP: it charms me when a story has the guts to make its antagonist something other than purely evil.
  15. ThinkerX

    ThinkerX Myth Weaver

    My 'Dark Lord(s)' include a number of very powerful Lovecraftian things; who for quite a while, have been mismanaging a large nation 'behind the scenes'. However, thats just it: save for a few fanatics (unfortunately at the very top *BECAUSE* of their Lovecraftian sponsors), those creatures are usually, but not always behind the scenes. These Lovecraftian entities have an utterly alien agenda all their own for the planet, but are so alien to the world they can't quite pull it off.

    Or to put it another way, in Lovecrafts tales, every now and again, the 'good' people did score a victory of sorts; cults of elder gods destroyed, the elder gods themselves bound, and what I'm writing is something of an elaboration on that - one where the elder gods are hurled back, but at horrendous cost, and meanwhile the world is changing technologically and socially.
  16. ArielFingolfin

    ArielFingolfin Troubadour

    As has been pointed out before in another thread, fantasy is where the good vs. evil battle is continuously playing out. Therefore it makes sense to have a villian that's pretty much evil. However, that doesn't mean the villian has to be evil for no reason. Even Sauron had a reason for his villiany and a pretty well thought out back story if you read the Silmarillion. And while I enjoy villians with some good (and heroes with some villiany), I'm not opposed to someone who's completely beyond redemption so long as there's a reason for that. No one wakes up and decides to be evil; there's always a path to it. Even if it's not spelled out, you can usually tell when it's there.
  17. Even Tolkien was not without some characters who are difficult to categorise though. Saruman was a proud and reliable spirit, the head of the Istari and the White Council before he fell from grace. Gollum is perhaps the biggest victim of the piece (being a hobbit originally), and Boromir just became misguided in his desperation to save his people. Denethor and Grima are also pitiful, weak characters who hinder the protagonists.
  18. Mindfire

    Mindfire Istar

    I have a group in my mythos roughly equivalent to dark lords. This article has inspired me to name them "the Grey Lords" or "the Grey Legion" just for the sake of irony. xD
  19. I've got no problem with a dark lord, it just has to make sense. A guy who goes around being evil and destructive isn't going to garner a lot of followers, because they're all going to be violent psychopaths, and such people simply cannot cooperate to the level needed for large-scale oppression. So then there has to be some sort of large-scale magic involved, e.g. the dark lord has such immense magic powers that he actually *can* oppress thousands or millions of people at once, or he has a large corps of mind-controlled soldiers who carry out his will. Something like that.

    But in general, antagonists who believe they're in the right (e.g. Lannisters) are much scarier. :)
    Jabrosky likes this.
  20. Rikilamaro

    Rikilamaro Inkling

    Personally, I look for villains that are either misdirected or misunderstood. There's very little 'take over the world' motives that can be believable. I prefer the villains I write to be tragic - meaning they're essentially good, but have one major flaw. Whether that flaw be pride or inflexibility is up to me at the time I write them. But this makes the story interesting in my opinion. People in real life are rarely all good or all bad. It's important to me that my writing reflects that element of reality.

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