Twists on Tropes: Dark Lords

Storm clouds are gathering… Photo by Alex Conchillos on Pexels.com

Welcome to week 2 of our series on shaking up default genre trope assumptions. If you missed the article on Chosen Ones, check that out. 

The Dark Lord

What epic fantasy or sweeping space opera is complete without a shadowy figure looming threateningly over the universe? Before we get into ways to shake up the norms, let’s define a baseline for the default Dark Lord: 

Not just any villain, the Dark Lord is an existential threat to the setting, and has the power to pull it off. A strong opposing force, usually ancient, held the Dark Lord in check until very recently, but the wards are slowly weakening. This creates a ticking time bomb for the protagonist to race against. The Dark Lord’s motive is either simple – typically either power or destruction for its own sake – or is entirely missing. We know that they are Evil and the heros are Good, and that’s taken to be enough for the basic Dark Lord setup. 

Why do so many look like this?

There are reasons these unequivocally evil figures appear repeatedly in literature. Their unquestionable evil creates a clear, unifying, and undeniable motivation for the protagonist. The complete evil and universal nature of their threat is reason for the heroes to set aside any petty differences and unite against one common enemy. It can be disorienting to read some books and not know what the goal is by page 100. That’s not a problem with the typical Dark Lord tale. That clarity of purpose allows the meat of the tale to focus on action and external conflicts. Whether this is a good thing is a matter of taste.

The downside to the default Dark Lord is that there is a boring lack of nuance. Ba’alzamon is the Winter Witch is Sauron is Dagda Mor is Emperor Palpatine… you get the picture. The clear motive the pure evil of the Dark Lord presents for the heroes comes at the expense of his or her personality. We do not know them, so we don’t really care about them. They become setting, not character. 

Let’s dive into some variations on this basic theme for those who want to make their ultimate Big Bad Evil Guy a well-rounded character: 

Title

Often, the Dark Lord is either extremely long-lived or eternal. This adds to their mystique and complicates the protagonist’s mission. What if, instead, the villains run the “Dread Pirate Roberts” play, and their longevity is a scam? What if a sudden change in Dark Lord activity and motive is related to a transfer of power? What are the changes that that power transfer was smooth, and that all factions within the new Dark Lord’s organization are on board with the new vision? There are interesting opportunities for real interpersonal plotlines with this approach. 


Force of Nature

Some are more successful than others…

If the default Dark Lord is a thinly disguised worldbuilding element, the Force of Nature approach leans fully into this aspect. We often see this in horror, especially the lovecraftian sort. See Stranger Things if you need a recent film touchstone. The Dark Force is unknowable and inevitable. It cannot be negotiated with or understood. It is unpredictable and insatiable. 

Puppet

What if the Dark Lord was once just like you and me? What if their darkness is the result of an outside force overwhelming their free will? Does that force still exist? Might it threaten the protagonist or his or her allies? Is the effect reversible? This approach turns up the sympathy dial for our tragic Dark Lord and introduces a new source of conflict. 


Sympathetic

Getting into modern trends, we find the sympathetic Dark Lord. To pull this off, you typically need an understandable goal and motive for the villain. They want a homeland. They want respect. They want to see injustice righted. Whatever it is, it is often similar or identical to the protagonist’s motivation. The difference between the two then becomes an issue of execution. The hero and villain are two sides of the same coin. This approach is excellent for exploring issues and strongly reinforcing a theme. 

Reluctant

One step beyond the sympathetic Dark Lord, we meet the Reluctant villain. In addition to an understandable goal, the narrative must explore the internal conflict they experience taking one compromise at a time on their path to darkness. They would probably argue that if the protagonist experienced what they had, the hero would be on their side. Played well, the reader might even cheer for this character for a time until the inevitable tragic moment when they cross the final line. 

Happy Writing

What makes your villain unique, not only in the context of your tale, but in the marketplace? In the end, these are just suggestions, but I hope they encourage you, reader/writer, to dig deeper the next time you outline your world-shaking evil. 

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