In the battle between good and terrible storytelling, we look for personal conflicts with complex characters. Yet one trope gives our villain vague power and simple goals. It promises our readers a straightforward fight against the forces of evil.
There’s one trope that just wants to rule them all. So let’s reboot the Dark Lord.
Shedding Light on the Darkness
The Dark Lord is evil power simplified, shown in every aspect of the character, from abusing henchmen to conquering innocents, from spooky aesthetics to mysterious abilities, right down to a willingness to tinker with the integrity of his or her all-spark of a soul for power. The Dark Lord typically offers a simple but terrifying form for our villains.
It’s also why the Dark Lord brings so much emotion to a story.
Evil can be frightening. But battling evil, fighting without having to worry about moral restraints and repercussions, that fantasy of letting it all out in the face of utter doom, can be both frightening and exhilarating. The murkiness of the morally grey can stifle and confuse and complicate the emotions you feel. While readers may want nuanced and believable characters, that doesn’t mean we always want to drench ourselves in complicated and conflicting emotions.
But there’s a fine line between simple and impersonal. The Dark Lord risks being the joke that doesn’t land, a distant character, with broad abilities, minions that are repetitive and generic, and goals that shift towards whatever unnecessary evil can be squeezed into a scene. The antagonist side of the conflict collapses into one omnipresent evil force instead of a well-developed conflict with complete characters and internal political nuance.
As we develop Villy the Dreadboss in this article, we want to give our villain grounded motivations and a dynamic personality while maintaining the terrifying presence that comes with the Dark Lord title and the following key aspects of the trope.
- Dark Lords want to do evil. But evil doesn’t mean random jerkishness. Evil isn’t that simple. People have a purpose and a background. Does the Dark Lord conquer for vengeance or for a vision of the world? That question needs an answer. Villy the Dreadboss needs something to fuel and focus the evil.
- Dark Lords wield mysterious dark magic. Readers usually don’t know what the Dark Lord can do until it happens on the page. Before that point, the power is implied, and therefore more threatening. But the difference between implied and vague can be thin, causing the power to appear as if it comes out of nowhere. Villy the Dreadboss needs more than magic to surprise the heroes.
- Dark Lords command terrifying minions. Not only are they generic and impersonal, but they serve as intermediaries between the Dark Lord and most important characters. Since characters rarely meet directly with the Dark Lord, and the Dark Lord almost never has friends, the character is detached and impersonal. Villy the Dreadboss needs more than minions, such as someone to open up to.
All three of these characteristics easily result in a powerful but impersonal villain, someone that many readers can’t relate to, someone too dark to be believed, an elaborate comic book kids’ show caricature of a person.
And yet, at least for some of us, if we’re honest with ourselves, we have to admit it might feel pretty good to toss aside our decency and emotional restraint to be Dark Lord for a day, which is perhaps the most terrifying part of this villain and the reason that the Dark Lord has cemented its place in fantasy.
The Dark Personality
Making the Dark Lord sounds like an easy task. Revenge. Greed. Jealousy. Keeping a secret. Protecting social status. Take the common motives for murder and crime, add an unhealthy obsession, a heap of ambition, some unlikely cleverness, and as much power as your fantasy setting can provide. Dark Lord, here we come.
But for real people, the internal conflicts that come with criminal motivations are more crippling than empowering. The stress that comes with guilt, fear and rage shuts down parts of the brain and limits the way a person thinks. They weaken the character. And simply eliminating those emotions only adds to the way that Dark Lords simplify the story.
Villy the Dreadboss needs a higher goal, the ability to see atrocities as beneath the normal range for guilt and anger, a chance to be the visionary of the fantasy world. Let’s have a Dark Lord who almost looks happy about it.
More importantly, Villy needs a character arc that lets us get to know Villy as a person as well as the Dreadboss. The best way to ground the entirety of Villy the Dreadboss’s personality is to let readers watch it darken on the page.
Finally, we want to personalize not just the character but the entire conflict. To do that, we’re going to layer the minions and the magic on top of the personal connections surrounding our unnamed hero and Villy the Dreadboss. Instead of the destructive masses of Mordor, let’s think of our evil mooks as an occupying force, coercing the support of the local population, making the setting and many of the characters into a personal and emotional experience for the hero.
Villy the Dreadboss is now Harketta Misvir, a quirky genius friend of the main hero who has travelled much of the world and frequently dreams about the way the world should be. In the early portion of the story, she uses her eclectic fascination with the world’s many magics to disentangle magical webs, diffuse magical runes, and slip past a host of magical guardians in a race with the kingdom’s forces to unlock an ancient power.
When she finds that power, the temptation is too much for her, and she decides against the intentions of her friend the hero that the best way to protect it is to claim it and use it. Harketta Misvir rises as a dark lord to invoke her better vision for a broken world even if she has to eliminate the existing regimes and establish herself against the will of the people.
Using her newfound power and minions, Harketta seizes control of the nation she loves, from the city of Forden to the trading post of Saddlebrook. She rallies or forces the support of local leaders Conffit, Mettick and Jorla, remakes the army into a Stability Guard under the coercion of her magics, imprisons dissenters in an underground work camp known as The Forward Underway, and burns the HeartKnole grasslands to create a fortified buffer between her and the nearby Kingdom of Clodentsa.
Yet she brings with her power and charm, she harnesses a loathing towards the old regime, builds a façade of deception around her cruelest actions, and provides an offering of magic which come to divide the people, both with her and against her.
Throughout the rest of the story, the hero receives letters from Harketta imploring the characters and the reader to understand her actions while she shares her giddiness about the progress that her horrifying cruelties continue to bring into the world.
By going from a friend to the archvillain who keeps in touch, Harketta Misvir should be anything but simple or impersonal. She achieves for our readers the one great evil that most Dark Lords, who broadcast their evil on every page, can never quite claim: a shocking betrayal.
Mooks and Magic
Between soldiers, orcs and demons, the Dark Lord’s armies are often an indistinct mass of chained killers built and bred for the purpose of being emotionally easy for the hero to justify slaughtering en masse. In the Harry Potter series, J.K. Rowling subverts this by using two dozen named and distinct Death Eaters who are emotionally satisfying to watch die. But for a Trope Reboot, we want to embrace the trope instead of subvert it.
We want the evil minions without the unrealistic simplicity.
We also want to empower Harketta with magic that is both terrifying and productive. We want her to have something to offer her people, to inspire loyalty in many despite her actions. And we want to eliminate any vagueness from her power, instead using these loyalties that she acquires to bring ongoing surprise challenges to our readers.
So here are three separate possibilities for the nature of Dark Lord Harketta Misvir’s minions, magic, and motives, in no particular order.
- Through the Lifewell Diamond brought to a ruined temple from the founding of their nation, Harketta Misvir summons the ghosts of their ancestors and fallen comrades. Suffering from intermittent periods of demonic enslavement, freedom, and banishment, the ghosts enforce the Dark Lord’s will as an army and internment force and occasionally visit their loved ones to bring warmth and wisdom. With them, Harketta can unlock forgotten magics and return her nation to its traditional heritage.
- By finding the Arcfae Vessel, a bowl of streaming magic liquid, Harketta Misvir gains the ability to pull tiny magical sprites from the aethers accessed within. Both oppressors and servants, these sprites tend to every minor whim of the population, while simultaneously keeping people in their place. Harketta can use this power in an effort to open up her population to artistic endeavors while simultaneously sapping them of their self-worth and work ethic.
- Within the infernal Deathwalk Grave created at the dawn of the world, when the gods slew the demons in the myths of old, Harketta Misvir has found a way to merge new magics with old, resurrecting an army of fiery demon slaves. When she doesn’t need her slaves to control her people and terrorize her enemies, Harketta grants them leave to live beneath the surface of her kingdom, where they generate enough heat energy to power technological designs and industrialize their nation. Dark Lord Misvir can use this power to fuel her inventiveness and create an efficient society.
Even with the details we’ve already developed, the writer’s choice in minions and power offer very different temptations for our Dark Lord. These details of the setting serve to empower the personality of the character they support instead of simplify and reduce Harketta into an ominous and distant evil.
Harketta Misvir is a clever traitor to the hero who seizes an army to empower her vision of the world. But can she control her power, her people, her protagonist, and her vision? Does she rule? Does she fall to the hero? Or do the demons and the sprites and the ghosts have intentions of their own? Her deeply personal arc, from friend to dark lord, could easily leave readers hoping for a third act, even a chance for redemption.
Will she deserve it?
Do Something Creative
Throughout her reign as Dark Lord, Harketta Misvir projects both power and personality. In fact, like many Dark Lords, her presence threatens to dominate the overarching tone of the story. Against the Dark Lord, the hero’s biggest challenge is to stand out as an unwavering light against the darkness.
So let’s do something creative and give our hero a real temptation.
Against her own darkness, Harketta Misvir offers her people and the hero something impossible and wonderful. Would you have the moral strength to fight against your own personal servant, heating your home in winter, or seeing your lost family again? Would you be able to stand up to a disloyal best friend?
I know that I’m not sure I would.
What trope do you want us to reboot next? Post your nominations in the comments below.
Who is your favorite Dark Lord from literature or film? What make him or her interesting?
Who is your least favorite Dark Lord? What about this character do you dislike?
What do most authors get wrong about the Dark Lord archetype?
About the Trope Reboot Series:
Anything can happen in a fantasy novel, but we don’t expect it to. Readers like familiar ideas, and writers want to build on the inspiration offered by others. Historic backdrops. Mythological creatures. Fanatic philosophies. Magic. Let’s do more with what we have to push our creative limits.
The Trope Reboot series tries to find creative ways to remake old fantasy tropes. All ideas presented in this series may be used freely.
To nominate a trope to be rebooted in this series, post your nomination in the comments section below.