Being The Evil Overlord

Guest post by Kate Paulk

(This is a past post by Kate Paulk on MGC.  Kate is letting me run this today as I’m kind of out of it. [I blame antibiotics.].  She has some excellent insight on writing EVIL, which trust me, is very difficult.  Check out Kate’s books on Amazon, or her posts at MGC where she’s doing The Extreme Pantser’s Guide.)

 
This is a piece on writing the Evil Overlord from the Evil Overlord’s point of view – specifically, a character who is not merely opposed to the hero’s goals, but is actively, deliberately evil. This is a heck of a lot more difficult than you’d think, not least because many of us were raised in an environment where no-one truly believes in evil.

Unfortunately, there’s no shortage of examples of people who not only know damn well that what they’re doing is evil, they choose to do it anyway. Usually the emergence of someone like this is accompanied by flurries of excuses ranging from the banal – “His mother dressed him funny” – to the bewildered – “But… he seemed so normal.” That, or the all-purpose, “He’s insane” comes out, allowing people to slide back into comfortable normality and forget that yes, evil really does exist. After all, there are plenty of insane people, and plenty of people whose mother dressed them funny, and even insane people whose mother dressed them funny, and very few of them are evil.

Mostly, they’re rational, normal-seeming people, with one exception: I have never yet seen evidence of a truly evil person who does not consider his (or her, although so far most of them have been male) desires and needs more important than anyone or anything else.

Okay, so having got the generalities down – I’m not going into psychological diagnoses, since the goal is to write someone like this convincingly, not perform remote psychology – how do you write someone like this? What are their motivations, their goals?

In a word, power.

Everything I have seen and read indicates that an evil person always wants some kind of power. This doesn’t necessarily mean political power, but it always means the ability to control what people do. For the purposes of this post, I’m going to work with the fantasy standard of the Evil Overlord ruling a large chunk of the landscape and trying to get hold of the rest. I’ll even throw in all the usual cliches: the dark beasts that ravage the countryside, the armies of ferocious monsters, the works.

Okay, so. You can’t convincingly write someone’s point of view unless you understand how they think, and you can’t do that without becoming them, in a sense – which is why I describe it as channeling the character. This is why some authors can do a wonderful build-up with a shadowy, distant evil, but as soon as said evil is brought into the open, it turns out to be a nonentity that leaves readers wondering why people spent so much of the book frightened of it. It’s also why others never bring the evil on-stage at all, or simply opt not to have evil.

If you need the Evil Overlord, though, here are some ways to make him convincingly evil. First, you need to decide whether he’s a pragmatist or an idealist. Yes, evil can be idealist. There is no rule that says ideals have to be good: as a rough guide, if it claims that any group of humanity is in any way inherently of less worth than any other group of humanity, it’s probably not a good one (this is distinct from the achievements or actions of those groups – it’s talking about the value of people as fellow human beings and nothing more or less). From “People with blue eyes are less human than people with brown eyes”, the steps to “People with blue eyes aren’t really human” and from there to “talking animals”, “beasts”, and finally, “need to be exterminated” aren’t really all that large. (reference http://pajamasmedia.com/richardfernandez/2010/03/29/the-man-in-the-mirror/)

An idealist Evil Overlord is likely to be utterly certain that his purpose in life is to guide people to the Truth, even if he has to kill them to do it. His Truth will include a perfect world, and an enemy group that isn’t really human. It doesn’t matter what the enemy group is: there has to be one to provide an external unifying force and a reason why the world isn’t already perfect. Usually he will portray himself as an almost godlike figure leading the chosen few to paradise – and in fantasy, he may well be a godlike figure.

If he is able to empathize with others – which is possible – he will empathize with them no more than normal people empathize with animals, at best. Regardless, he will take intense, sometimes even sexual pleasure in the knowledge that their lives are entirely in his control. Their knowledge that he controls them and that they have no escape merely increases his pleasure. Should they fail to worship him appropriately, he will lash out with what seems disproportionate rage: disagreement, however mild, brings the same response. His will and his alone is the only thing that matters. If reality fails to meet his expectations, then reality is at fault, and must be changed to match his desires. Killing hundreds, thousands, or even millions of people is at best a minor inconvenience – because he is the only person that matters. Everyone else is by definition of lesser value, and therefore expendable.

The true believer Evil Overlord is often intensely driven, using his kingdom as a proxy for his own status. Nothing less than conquest of everyone and everything that dares not to worship him will satisfy him – and probably not even that, although there aren’t any examples of anyone getting quite that far to extrapolate from.

It’s not possible to coexist with him: the mere existence of something outside his control and his ideals is sufficient reason to destroy it. No matter what ethical framework he uses, it does not apply to the enemy – and anything he does not control is the enemy. To the true believer Evil Overlord, “If you’re not with me, you’re against me,” is the cry of the wuss. His belief is “If you don’t worship me, I have to destroy you.”

He won’t think much, if at all, of his family. Every real-world case of this I’m aware of the family includes an absent father, a disinterested or marginalized mother, and minimal input or abuse from the rest of any extended family. That doesn’t mean that everyone with this background will become an Evil Overlord – it does mean that the character flaws typical of a true believer Evil Overlord are not mitigated in any way. I know people who have had to remind their children that just because other people are stupid (these are children whose intelligence is literally unmeasurable – while IQ is a reasonable ‘rule of thumb’ measure of computing capacity and strengths in particular processing areas (spatial vs verbal vs logic and so forth), the IQ of someone who aces the test is unmeasurable. Someone who almost aces it is also off the chart – they aren’t accurate more than a couple of standard deviations off the test norm, so when a 13 year old aces or nearly aces a test normed so that most adults will correctly answer approximately 25% of the questions, well… You might get one or two of those in a generation, and as far as that kid is concerned, everyone else in the world is dumb. If the kid is also short on empathy, you’ve got the makings of everyone’s nightmare, the genius Evil Overlord. Fortunately, most people at that level don’t want anything to do with other people – they’re like Leonard of Quirm and will be perfectly happy with unlimited time and space to play with ideas) doesn’t mean they aren’t human.

If he’s married, chances are it’s mostly a marriage of convenience or politics, and any children he has are mostly raised by his wife (obviously if the Evil Overlord is an Evil Overlady, it’s her children raised by her husband – it’s just that almost all the examples in fiction and life are male). He will probably see them more as symbols and tools for his goals than as people to love, and if they disagree with him, he will see that as betrayal, and act accordingly.

He will be reasonably intelligent and perceptive – able to see the weaknesses of the people around him and use them to advance himself and his cause (though the true believer Evil Overlord says otherwise it’s always in that order). Often the cause he follows will be something that has broad appeal, particularly to those without power when he begins his campaign. No matter which society you look at, those who have power are always a small minority. Something that attracts even a moderate percentage of everyone else will be able to topple or white-ant the ruling system, especially when led by an Evil Overlord who doesn’t care who he sacrifices in the process. They can always become martyrs to inspire the next generation and remind them how much they owe to him.

Perhaps the biggest flaw of this kind of Evil Overlord (who is probably more difficult to portray well than the pragmatic sort who will use any ideology needed to gain and keep power) is that he can’t understand why anyone would disagree with him. He knows that he’s doing evil things but his goal justifies that – so any disagreement with him must be disagreement with his goal which is, to him, by-definition-good. Anything is justified in pursuit of it, so anything that is in the way must be The Enemy and destroyed. He thinks in broad sweeps of generalization: in his world there are no individuals other than he himself.

Is there enough to portray a believable true believer Evil Overlord yet? It’s not a task for the faint-hearted. Writing them from the inside means thinking like them, albeit for a limited time, and that always leaves me feeling like I need to shower from the inside out. I’m still not sure whether I feel dirtier because being in the Evil Overlord’s mind doesn’t sicken and disgust me, or because I’ve been in the Evil Overlord’s mind. It’s a dark place to be.

Of course, me being me and having the hotline to evil bastard central in my head, a lot of my heroes tend to true believer Evil Overlord types with enough overrides that they don’t or won’t take that last step to true evil, and hover just this side of it in what turns into a quest for redemption. This may be why I can write the ones who are evil.

I’d give examples of well-written true-believer Evil Overlords, but right now I can’t actually think of any. I can’t even think of any good examples of the pragmatic type. Pratchett has quite a few characters who come close, like Lord Hong (pragmatic) and of course Lord Vetinari (also pragmatic and oddly likeable, which kind of disqualifies him). Who can give examples of really well written evil characters who take point of view?

17 thoughts on “Being The Evil Overlord

  1. I’d argue about “evil people” who know they’re evil.

    IMO most “evil people” don’t think of themselves as “evil”.

    Some may know that some of what they’re doing is “evil” but they aren’t “evil” because their goal is “good”.

    On the other hand, John Ringo had a character (in his Council Wars) who thought himself “evil” but thought that he was still working toward a “good result”. Mind you, he did consider some of his allies to be evil.

    1. Paul,

      It’s rare, but it does happen. The “true believers” – the idealists – usually are convinced that what they’re doing is good. The pragmatists generally don’t consider the question of good and evil relevant. Power is good for them, so they pursue power. No-one else matters anyway, so what happens to anyone else doesn’t matter.

      It was Stalin who said something along the lines of one death is a tragedy, and a million deaths is a statistic.

  2. Many modern horror-suspense novels open with a scene from the villain’s pov, especially if he’s a serial killer, about to off a red-shirt character in a disgusting way. I treat those scenes the way I treat prologues, ie, I skip ’em, so I can’t tell you if they’re well-written.

    Otherwise, Iago.

    1. Kali,

      Iago is a good example. He wants Othello’s position, and he doesn’t care what he has to do to get it.

  3. Thank you, that was interesting.

    Would a good way to study the evil overlord type be to read biographies of the real life examples? Hitler, Pol Pot, Stalin? Does anyone know if there are any good ones with real insight into the man behind the image? And to the people around them – and perhaps especially to the true believers. Stalin did horrible things, but there still seem to be plenty of people in Russia who only see him as a great leader.

    The recent news from North Korea are rather interesting too. How many of those people showing grief were really, truly grieving, and why? How is it possible to brainwash a whole nation to the point that even while they are starving they still can’t seem to even try anything like an uprising, at least not in big enough scale that news of it would filter abroad? And their new leader – puppet, evil overlord, something in between?

    Easy way to go is of course just have mooks serving that evil overlord, but I find the more realistic scenarios far more interesting. Why do his minions serve him anyway, and what would be a believable way to spark a rebellion among them?

    1. Marja,

      I’ve studied the lives of the likes of Hitler and Stalin a fair bit. Stalin was quite openly after power, and would do whatever he considered necessary to maintain his power. Hitler seemed more of a demagogue idealist, as did Pol Pot.

      I have another post where I talk about how a nation gets to the North Korea level (Overthrowing the evil tyrant). After a few generations they’re no longer capable of emerging by themselves absent something extraordinary because all their mental energies go towards staying alive and covering anatomy (often the two are the same thing).

      Evil fascinates me, along with the reasons why good people do evil things, evil people do good things, and the whole spectrum of possibilities,. There’s a reason people say I’m scary,

      1. In re: N Korea — think battered spouse syndrome. That is one reason such cultures tend to be excessive about their control of information. In many ways the ability to define normal is the ultimate power.

        Or think evolutionarily: all those who possess the fortitude to buck the system tend to be eliminated from the gene pool pretty quickly.

      2. all their mental energies go towards staying alive and covering anatomy

        This sounds like the victimized partner in an emotional abuse situation, as RES says. (youarenotcrazy.com is an amazing resource.) Or the kids in such a situation; even when you know it’s not really normal, there’s this huge pressure to pretend everything is normal. Is fine. We’re all fine here. How are you?

  4. I have to second Stirling’s antagonists. Not all of them, of course, but the Lord Protector and William Walker are great examples of the pragmatic, I-want-power-here’s-how-I’ll-get-it types, while the leadership of the Church Universal and Triumphant are idealistic. They just happen to prefer an uncomplicated world, and free men complicate things, so naturally they have to subjugate people in order to bring everything to rights. They don’t get POVs very often, but when they do, boy hooey do things get creepy fast.

  5. It is hard to write a whole story from the pov of an evil overlord. Even H. Lecter is off-stage much of the time. OTOH, a tale told from the pov of a failed hero has potential: we see what the character is trying to do and we see the personal flaws that doom them. Many of the character povs in Martin’s Ice & Fire exhibit this trait.

  6. Interesting-
    In a recent conversation, I was discussing something similar and came to the conclusion that best I could/can probably do is Operative from the movie Serenity/Firefly. He’s a complete monster and knows it but believes, really and truly, that the utopia he’s working for is worth what he’s doing.

    Lord Vetinari is often my example of lawful evil done _right_. He’s oddly likeable enough that he holds onto notoriously fickle Ankh-Morpork without reducing the city residents to the level of the North Koreans, BUT no one wants to cross him or can really imagine the city anymore without him running it.

    I think Jim Butcher has managed a rather extensive crop of really good villains in the Dresden files- Papa and Lara Raith, Nicodemus, and Johnny Marcone are in my opinion probably the most obviously evil overlords of the lot. Lara Raith and Johnny Marcone are the most human and is someways both the most likeable and the scariest- they understand what gets people and use it while putting their goal first and damning the consequences to anyone else (pretty much- Marcone does draw the line at deliberately harming children).

    Dawn

  7. You’ve pretty much described a sociopath, about 4% of the population. A pysch book titled “The Sociopath Next Door” was a great resource while writing my novel, PERIGEE. I knew my antagonist’s goals, but couldn’t get my head around what really made him tick. That book answered a lot of questions.

    They are most like predatory animals, no matter their fixation. Whatever their goal, they will do whatever it takes to achieve it with no second thought as to who may be hurt along the way. This applies whether they be genocidal maniacs, garden-variety murderers, or scheming sleazeball coworkers.

    Suffice to say that none of us with any sense of conscience (and therefore empathy) can truly understand such a person. The one red-flag marker they share is a strong desire for sympathy from others, which is most often revealed if they realize you’ve figured them out.

  8. David Weber’s Honorverse series has an interesting crescendo of Evil overlords. He starts off with some pragmatic evil overlords who say ‘the only way to keep my inherited power is to do x so there is no point worry about the thousands of people will get killed when I do x.’ They are then overthrown by idealist evil overlords who say ‘anything is justified to protect the revolution, of which the really important part is my security and power.” It’s only after they are defeated that we get an inside look at the really Evil Overlords, who seem so sane. They are going to fix humanity’s problems. They have a step-by-step plan for replacing everyone else in the universe with people who conform to their ideas and will obey them.

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