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My Honest Thoughts on Dark Lords
This was a hard episode to write simply because the Evil Overlord List has covered so many of the tropes involving dark lords. Well at least they cover some of the many ways that an overlord’s plans don’t make any sense. However, my chief complaint with this archetype is how poorly characterized dark lords are if at all.
Opinion time. I believe that the archetype that dark lords represents is that of the corrupt leader. I know this seems obvious, but I sometimes think it helps to try to boil down exactly why a particular trope or idea is so popular. We meet lots of people like dark lords in real life from genocidal dictators to petty middle managers. They all have the same running theme: abuse of power. This is a part of the core appeal of the archetype of the dark lord or evil overlord. They represent the dark side of power and those who use power only for self gain.
I don’t believe that absolute power corrupts absolutely. Mostly because I have seen people spectacularly abuse even the most infinitesimally small amount of power they have at the first opportunity. It was not a slow descent into corruption and it was never power that corrupted them. The corruption is always there. The difference is in how people handle that power. Some people have the perspective needed to handle certain amounts of power (and even then only at certain times in their lives, a problem a lot of kings had throughout history is that they were really good at handling power without abusing it until they got older or sick).
Even all of this is only one part of the archetype. The other is the dark lord as a manifestation of evil. This is a lot harder to pin down because evil can be a rather nebulous concept with little consensus of its true nature. Pity that a lot of stories make no effort to even explore the concept of evil.
One can see both elements of this archetype at play with dark lords in popular culture. You have dark lords like Voldemort who get a fair amount of characterization and represent more of the corrupted leader. “There is no good and evil, there is only power and those too weak to seek it.” Voldemort espouses a similar philosophy to a number of vile ideologies in the real world with his social Darwinist outlook. Then you have dark lords like Sauron who is far more of a manifestation of evil than a character. He looms in the background, but never comes out to confront Aragorn or Sam and Frodo directly (or put a simple locked door on his stupid volcano or, you know, post a couple guards there).
Writing an interesting Dark Lord really comes down to which side of the archetype a writer wants to go for. A manifestation of evil tends to work better if shrouded in mystery. In this case, the trick is to keep the mystery compelling with lots of little bits to keep the reader engaged throughout the story. Otherwise, it might seem to the reader that the author is just keeping the dark lord ambiguous out of laziness.
The corrupted leader version tends to work better if characterized. Not just having a backstory, but to have the kinds of character traits that make them feel real. This is the trick with a lot of villains. Villains that act like Saturday morning cartoon villains run the risk of drawing the reader out of the story. This is compounded if the heroes all have stellar and well grounded characterization and then the dark lord stumbles in and talks about his coming age of darkness and how he is going to personally spray every pretty flower with weed killer.
Also for the love of good story telling don’t suggest that the dark lord’s tragic past is why he is such a jerk. Tragedy is not what makes people evil, it’s the choices they make. Having the story show off the villain’s tragic past is merely the first step in a long journey towards evil which is why it falls flat when shown at the climax of the story after the villain has been defeated. For one, waiting until the end of the story to offer insight into the villain’s character is dumb. Two, the tragedy is not that the villain experienced some kind of pain or loss but how that pain or loss drove them to do evil and destroyed the good person they could have been. Hence why a tragic past can merely be a catalyst for the beginning of their journey into darkness, not the end. So long as the Dark Lord is a character, don’t neglect their journey.