Thursday, April 1, 2010

Being the Evil Overlord

Two weeks back I promised 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. (Some interesting commentary on this point can be found over at

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?


C Kelsey said...

Oscar Saint-Just from the People's Republic of Haven (Honor Harrington books) comes to mind. Although I'm not really sure he really fits the mold. David Weber has a tendency to have evil characters be evil, simply because it's necessary for the story. Pavel Young comes to mind as the perfect example of that. He didn't really have a reason to be evil. He was just a spoiled brat who got his pride hurt.

Anonymous said...

Not a POV Character, but I thought LMB did an excellent job on Wencil kin Horseriver in _The Hallowed Hunt_. As you say, he was extremely all about himself, and everyone else not quite real.

Getting inside heads like that is definitely not for the faint hearted.

Allen Edwards said...

William Walker, in S.M. Stirling's Nantucket series ("Islands in the Sea of Time", etc.). He KNOWS he's evil, and he revels in it. Power and excitement are what he craves, and he is REALLY good at getting both and enjoying both. Smart, ruthless, clever: his final failing is that his lack of empathy blinds him to the "qualms" of his "allies".

Stephen Simmons said...

Fred Saberhagen's "Books of Swords" series (just stick with the basic trilogy, the follow-ons got ... less good) had some excellent PoV Evil Overlords, each with their own piece of the pie. The Dark King in particular made me want to reach for the mental floss after just reading him, I can't imagine how Saberhagen wrote him.

Baron Harkonnen, from Herbert's "Dune". And, to a slightly lesser extent, Feyd-Rautha. The Emperor didn't make it as an Evil Overlord, for me, but the Baron was definitely an Overlord-ish character, and well-done.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Has anyone seen the Wallace and Grommit take off of Star Wars, the Evil Emperor scene?

They cut Wallace and Grommit scenes and put the Star Wars voice-over. It is so cool.

Evil Emperors just don't seem threatening in cardigans.

Kate said...

Chris K,

I'm not sure either of those fits the mold either. There really aren't that many examples in fiction.

Entirely too many in real life, sadly.

Kate said...


You're right, it's very difficult to get inside the head of someone like that. Every time I've done that, I wound up wanting to shower inside and out.

Kate said...


That sounds like an excellent example - I haven't read that series. Does he get any POV time, or is he seen solely from the outside?

Kate said...


Needing the mental floss after reading one is a pretty good sign the author got it right.

With Dune, I'd agree with you about the Emperor. Baron Harkonnen seemed to me to be more interested in the personal vendetta and his rather perverse entertainments than anything else. Feyd... I'm really not sure he was much beyond a well-taught tool.

Kate said...


A really evil Emperor is terrifying even if he's wearing fluffy pink pajamas.

Anonymous said...

I'm not exactly sure, but Darken Rahl from Terry Goodkind's first Sword of Truth book comes to mind. In a lot of ways he was just your stereotypical fantasy evil overlord type but, he was just wrong on a level that gives me chills. His goals were all important and the methods he would use to achieve them...

"Lady" Dawn

Kate said...

Lady Dawn,

That could just be plain old-fashioned ruthless - the question is whether he cared for anyone or anything outside himself. If yes, then ruthless :)

Allen Edwards said...

Kate: William Walker in the Nantucket series: he gets acres of POV time. I'd say at least 20% of 3 huge novels in the series. You see him planning, dealing with contingencies, recovering from failure, and always striving to be the Ultimate Evil Emperor. It's Alt History, handled well.

Anonymous said...

Kate said, "
That could just be plain old-fashioned ruthless - the question is whether he cared for anyone or anything outside himself. If yes, then ruthless :)"

Dawn says in reply:
You meet Darken Rahl for the first time tricking a kid he had been conditioning into drinking molten lead and it goes down hill from there. He doesn't give a d**n about anyone or anything unless he can use it and usually in a way that breaks it. His goal was to be the RULER of the WORLD!!! and everybody was supposed to worship him, literally.

"Lady" Dawn