Thursday, March 11, 2010

Overthrowing the Evil Tyrant

And why it's not quite as easy as it sounds.

We've all met them. Usually male, although the Evil Empress or Queen occasionally gets a look-in, the Evil Overlord, whether the CEO of Evil Inc. or the Emperor of the Galaxy, or a petty prince of some forgotten nation in Fantasyland, is something of a staple in science fiction and fantasy. Usually he, she or it exists mostly to be overthrown.

When you come down to it, it's usually pretty easy. Not necessarily easy at the "toss a trinket into a volcano" level (yes, I know I'm oversimplifying. Shut up.), but there's a big Final Battle of some description, the Evil Overlord dies, and all is happiness, sweetness and light. As often as not, the Evil Overlord is some kind of kludged-up metaphor for the hero's journey to some kind of enlightenment (something the hordes of Tolkien-imitators usually fail to notice is that Frodo did not gain 'enlightenment' per se. He was irreparably wounded by the trials of his journey, and ultimately unable to remain in/on Middle Earth. There was a happy ending, but it wasn't for him.).

So why do tyrannies in the real world last so long?

Leaving aside the obvious "they're not really that bad" answer that I'm sure people are thinking (if you are, you're wrong. Read on MacDuff), the most atrocious regimes of all political flavors have lasted a long time for reasons that can be illustrated by two things.

First a recent news report about the execution of a North Korean man for - officially - revealing state secrets. The state secrets in question? Work conditions at his factory, and the price of food. Who he revealed them to? A South Korean friend. Let's just consider that for a moment. How often do you bitch about your job, or about how much things cost? Has it ever occurred to you that you could be executed for that? Me either. What kind of a regime does that? A horribly abusive one, obviously, but more to the point, one that keeps very close tabs on its people, leading us neatly to the second thing.

After the Berlin Wall went down and people got access to the secret police files, they found out that in the worst regimes - East Germany and Romania are particularly notable here - something like one person in four was reporting to the secret police. Applied here, that would mean about 15 of our followers were spying on the rest of us, and one or two of your Mad Genius hosts was doing the same (technically, one and three-quarters, but I don't see any volunteers for 3/4 of a person). More than three people in your family? Odds are, one of them is working for the secret police.

Since I'd be prepared to guarantee that very few people here have lived in that kind of environment, I think it's safe to say most of us don't have the mental toolset to understand the kind of environment a tyranny always begets. We're all accustomed to a relatively free and open society where you don't face execution for bitching about the cost of food.

How does that kind of situation develop? It's remarkably simple. In every tyranny, regardless of ideology, the way to ensure your safety and by extension that of your loved ones, is to be a Loyal Citizen. If a theology, you go to church and make sure you're the first in, the last out, and you know every hymn and your scripture - and never, ever contradict the priests (even, or perhaps especially when they contradict scripture). If you're in Onepartystan, you join the Party, go to every meeting, and so forth. But the easiest, quickest, and apparently least costly way to show your loyalty is to offer to pass information on to the authorities.

So, you do that. It's only little things, you think, and it's not going to make you a bad person. And at first, that's how it works. You might mention the co-worker you detest complaining about the cost of food, or the crazy old guy down the street who's muttering "Dear Leader my ass", but it's not like they're actually traitors or anything, and nothing bad is going to happen. Then the person you report to drops a few hints that make it obvious you're being watched as well. So when Grandma mentions that these newfangled collective farmy things are a waste of time and she never went hungry before they did this, you feel like you have to tell them, in case someone else has already passed it on and you'll be in trouble if you don't say anything. You try to downplay it, but you still tell them. And some time later, you go to visit Grandma, and she's not there, and the young family who live there now don't have any idea who used to live there - they're just happy they have a home.

You tell yourself Grandma is in a nice retirement village somewhere, but you know, deep down, that she isn't. And that you, personally, probably turned her in as a malcontent, or a traitor, or whatever the official buzzword is.

This is why people don't rise up and overthrow the Evil Overlord unless an extraordinary event triggers some kind of spontaneous outpouring of repressed rage, grief and guilt. The Evil Overlord already has them trapped in chains they've made themselves, link by little link. If you're writing a story where overthrowing the Evil Overlord is involved, you need to remember that your characters can't chat about it in the local pub. Anyone could be a spy for the Overlord. They can't even trust their own group - remember that one in four ratio? The worse the Evil Overlord is, the more likely it is he's got that many people spying for him.

That doesn't make rebellion impossible - but it makes it a whole lot harder than Lord of the Rings and its multifarious imitators (or, for that matter Star Wars and any number of space operas) would have you think. The people you're trying to liberate don't trust you because they can damn near guarantee that anyone they don't know is spying for the Overlord (why else would a stranger come here?), and you can't trust them because you know some of them are spying for the Overlord. They're going to be suspicious, unfriendly, and arrange unpleasant, deniable "accidents" for you, especially if they suspect that they're likely to be on the wrong end of a purge because of you.

They're not going to welcome their new freedom when you win, either - after as little as a generation of tyranny, people mostly expect that the new overlord will be just like the old one, maybe with different words to wrap around the same basic reality. More often than not, they're right. We're wired to follow someone who leads. It's what kept little tribelets of our ancestors alive in a dangerous world.

The fact that good leaders are a whole lot rarer than bad ones and freedom is a lot of work is something that adds depth to your writing and world-building when it's there - and if anyone doubts this, I strongly recommend a closer look at Sarah's Darkship Thieves. Athena's paranoia is perfectly justifiable and sane in the world she's raised in - and her Daddy Dearest is very much an Evil Overlord. Yes, she is the Evil Overlord's beautiful daughter. And yes, she does manage to more or less kick off rebellion. It's nowhere near as easy as George Lucas would have you think, either.

Any other examples? Thoughts? "Someone shut that madwoman up" messages?


C Kelsey said...

It's a really tricky balance in writing. If you're using an Evil Tyrant as an obstacle to the Heroes Journey then that Tyrant needs to be defeatable by the hero. This, generally speaking, makes it exceedingly hard to be totally realistic. In reality it usually takes a mass uprising of the background characters, perhaps urged on by the hero, to overthrow the tyrant. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington rather than Frodo throws the trinket into the volcano.

And now, having referenced the greatest movie ever made, EVER, I have visions of Jimmy Stewart pulling out a sword and lopping off the Vice President's head.

The other thing is that real tyrants never see themselves as the bad guys. They tell themselves that the little people just don't understand. Watching the video on the end of the Ceausescu's that Mike Totten linked to it seemed pretty obvious that they were adamant that they were the agrieved party all the way to the end.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

The problem, and what I hope to explore in Darkship Treason and Darkship Renegade, is that a truly corrosive regime gets on the inside. You become a traitor to yourself. This is perfect at the end of 1984. Just perfect.

Anonymous said...

I've liked how Lois Bujold handles villains. They are, at least at the start, motivated to do what they think needs to be done. To save the kingdom or whatever. And a lot of people agree with them, and then the corruption sets in.

It's easy to see how it happens, just watching politics today. Counter arguments bounce of the opposite view, accusations of corruption, incompetence, and criminality fly. How soon would we notice that's it's gone too far and become more than rhetoric?

When do beauty pageants become truly evil?

Chris McMahon said...

Damn, Kate! You have discovered my terrible secret - reporting to the MGC Secret Police.

I think with regimes there is a lot of inertia with the populace. Things can seem OK at the beginning and slowly change. Inside that sort of thing it must be hard to know when things are just 'not OK' anymore.

The other thing is a social proof phenomenon, where you see that all your neighbours think its fine (and maybe they report as well), so you are reassured.

Gemmell does the bad guys well. He loves getting inside their heads and into their thinking - how they are really just doing what anyone sensible would do in their position. Fascinating to see how things are justified.

BTW - Gemmell had a pretty good female Evil Overlord in the Witch Queen (Skillgannon books). She was in love with the hero and vice versa.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Interesting post, Kate. And really good point.

We don't know because we haven't grown up in that regime. There's been an interesting series of documentaries over here on East Germans, looking at how their lives have changed. Many have found the 'freedom' is not what they thought it was and they were happier when they knew where next week's food was coming from. Their lives were more circumspect, but they were certain.

Kate Paulk said...

Chris K,

It is a difficult balance, and hard to get right - although I've got to agree, the vision of someone lopping off the Veep's head with a sword is kind of attractive... If ultimately rather pointless, because then you get into the mess of what happens afterwards.

Yes, the Ceaucescus were convinced they were in the right and they knew best. So are most tyrants. They truly could not believe that the cheers had turned to mockery, or that people hated them.

It wouldn't be easy to use that in a story, but damn it would be effective if done well.

Kate Paulk said...


Absolutely. The original series of V was an excellent TV treatment of the same phenomenon. That series deliberately used parallels between the rise of Nazi Germany and their world to show how it happens, and did so very well.

1984 shows the end result, and shows it in all its toxic, horrific evil.

Conveying the journey from one to the other and how it affects people - and what it does to them - is a challenge.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


This is a well-documented effect, registered in the Bible itself when the Israelites pined for the fleshpots of Egypt after being freed.

It seems as though the harsher the slavery the more this pining effect occurs.

However, in the case of the freed slaves of communism (considering communism is the proverbial vampire that won't stay in its grave and is now again popular with a certain class of intellectual) one must ask the motivations of those reporting this longing. Last I checked, no one is dying of starvation in Germany which has a substantial welfare net.

Kate Paulk said...


This is very true - the villains of a piece should have understandable motives, possibly even theoretically noble motives, along with a character flaw or three that leads them into the the "ruling for their own good" path and the inevitable corruption. (Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely, and power attracts the corruptible).

You don't want to hear my opinion on politics in the US today (I'm not qualified to speak on US politics in the past). It's very... er... Oh, screw it. I lived in Queensland in the time when politics was done via cash in brown paper bags. From what I've seen, the US doesn't bother with even the semblance of anonymity and just legalizes the bribes. I wouldn't trust any politician further than I could spit them - and this shows up in my writing. Gee. Funny that.

And beauty pageants are evil by definition. Always.

Kate Paulk said...

Chris M,

Oh yes. Inertia, the tendency to think that they couldn't REALLY be doing that, and the neighbors not noticing - or not appearing to notice - have a huge effect.

And WHAT are you doing outing yourself! You know the MGC Secret Police don't exist. There are no MGC Secret Police. Any MGC Secret Police you may see are nothing more than an illusion of an overtaxed mind.

Kate Paulk said...


We haven't grown up in the regime, no. The level of paranoia that kind of life would foster is almost unimaginable to me. I can extrapolate to it there at an intellectual level. I can't FEEL it.

As to those documentaries, I'd be looking for motives. In any kind of tyranny, you end up with people who have become beaten down by the regime and just accept it - these are the ones who stay in their cell when the door is opened, because even though it's horrible in there, outside is is a whole realm of unknown and that is even worse. It's a special kind of learned helplessness, I think. Then there's the ones who are trying, but they're - understandably - scared by all the changes and a bit overwhelmed and might occasionally wish for the old sureties back, but they don't really mean it.

The dangerous ones are the ones who were doing quite nicely thank you in the old regime. They don't like the new freedom. There's one playing puppet-master in Russia right now - which brings up book (or series) two - what happens AFTER you've overthrown the evil tyrant?

There's always a power vacuum, and what gets swept in isn't always the best of choices. It's certainly never what many books imply with All Being Good after the Evil Overlord dies.

Kate Paulk said...


Please don't do this to me. I don't need visions of Karl Marx and his followers pulling stakes from their hearts and going out in search of fresh blood. I've got ENOUGH problems already.

(p.s. Yes, you're 100% right about the whole "it was better in the old days. We might have been slaves but we knew where we stood" thing)

Unknown said...

I have reported this conversation. Despite the occasional references to South Africa's Apartheid as the equivalent to Nazi Germany, the situation was never that tyranical... and yet at university I was supposedly watched as a dangerous subversive (which all goes to show that tyrannies are both stupider and far less stupid than you may realise). I was on the list of people a friend was supposed to report on... principally because I had made a fool in public of the government's prime 'agent provocatuer' (Olivia Forsythe), by displaying that neither she nor her idiot coiterie of suckers loudly espousing communism actually knew what dialectical materialism meant. I teased an apartheid spy out of an inability to suffer fools... and ended up as a suspect myself. And to make things more complex the person who was supposed to be spying on me - with an impeccable Afrikaaner Nationalist pedigree, was a sympathiser of the then banned ANC...
Firstly, reality is often too complex, ambivalent and unbelievable for good fiction.
Secondly, unless you have been there, the brutality and intolerance of tyrannies is so far beyond the grasp of most first world westerners, as to make it implausible (although it is real). That's why Robert Mugabe can oppress a country - although he probably has the real support of about 5000 people (and oppresses 5 million - a parallel you have to go back to the Saxon era in Britain to find in the west) and you have people looking puzzled and saying well if he is unpopular, why don't they kick him out?
Fiction has limits :-( Still:
When an oppressive regine falls, it usually falls quite fast and hard, and it is very difficult to find any of those 1:5

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Kate, wrote it. The Blood Of Dreams in the Secret History of Vampires.

Dave, I was on a watched file. Um... they might have had more cause with me. (DST is NOT autobiographical for my younger self in personality and outlook. not at all. Go back to sleep.) Our phone was tapped for a decade. This being Portugal it was quite obvious when they clicked on. My friends and I delighted in having bizarre conversations. It's adaptive.

Your friend... you knew James Lorimer? :-P

You are right about it all being more complex. I started a post on this, for CV, but I haven't finished yet.

ChrisM -- I AM the secret conspiracy that rules the world. And if you think a single person can't be a conspiracy, kindly consider all the people in my head.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Kate, wrote it. The Blood Of Dreams in the Secret History of Vampires.

Dave, I was on a watched file. Um... they might have had more cause with me. (DST is NOT autobiographical for my younger self in personality and outlook. not at all. Go back to sleep.) Our phone was tapped for a decade. This being Portugal it was quite obvious when they clicked on. My friends and I delighted in having bizarre conversations. It's adaptive.

Your friend... you knew James Lorimer? :-P

You are right about it all being more complex. I started a post on this, for CV, but I haven't finished yet.

ChrisM -- I AM the secret conspiracy that rules the world. And if you think a single person can't be a conspiracy, kindly consider all the people in my head.

Stephen Simmons said...

Take a long look at Russian history. They overthrew the Tsars and got ... pretty much the same thing, with different labels and trappings, less liberty, and more poverty.

So they overthrew Lenin and got ... Stalin. Tens of millions murdered, less liberty, more poverty.

Tore down the Berlin Wall and got ... Putin ...

There develops a habit-like aspect to enslavement, after a people lives too long without liberty. Liberty and honesty become, in their minds, mythical beasts.

Anonymous said...

One other way I think tyrannies stay in power, in some cases, is the influence of outsiders, especially when it comes to the smaller fry -- provided that smaller fry has something the larger fry want.

I could just picture some official saying in a meeting, "Well yes, he does have this nasty habit of filling mass graves, but he keeps the supply of Resource X moving at the prices we want! And if the Rebels came to power, they might not only raise the price of Resource X, there's a good chance they might bring to light the... contributions by certain diplomatic and corporate officials to the current regime, which could prove detrimental to the careers of everyone sitting at this table. So, we definitely want to do everything we can to help our little 'President for Life' put down the rebellion."

(Why yes, I do have a very cynical opinion of international diplomacy. Why do you ask?)

Kate Paulk said...


There is no MGC Secret Police. There never was MGC Secret Police. There are no Squirrels in Black.

Reality is a lot more complicated than fiction can portray - and a lot crazier, too. I personally think that weaving a little of the reality in and tying it into a plot helps to strengthen the plot and - in the case of the Mugabe's of the world - make what they're doing seem less implausible than it does to most of us here. Like I said further upthread, I can imagine it and understand at an intellectual level. Part of the tyrant's toolbox is applied terror. You only have to abduct one prominent opponent and leave their mangled and barely recognizable body somewhere public to intimidate most people. The key is to have those 5000 in the right places.

It's truly amazing the way those 20% end up with amnesia. Whether they can - or should - be blamed is a bit more complex. The human capacity for self-deception is damn near infinite, and while in fiction we can punish the bad and reward the good, life doesn't draw neat little lines.

Kate Paulk said...


Stop that! I don't have TIME for more stories!

And I believe you. Thousands wouldn't, but I truly believe there is not one thing autobiographical about Thena. Not one.

Bizarre conversations when you heard the taps come on... I wonder if this is sociologically equivalent to starting/having weird discussions in elevators to freak the normals?

And remember, there are no Squirrels in Black.

Kate Paulk said...


I think you're over-simplifying here. Overthrowing a tyrant invariably leaves a power vacuum, and that's very tempting to the would-be tyrant who's been waiting for his chance ("Meet the new boss, same as the old boss").

In the case of Russia, Lenin and his cadre took power after several years of effective anarchy and civil war. He might have been the "face" of early Communist Russia, but Stalin was the enforcer from very early in the piece, and stepped forward when Lenin died - no overthrow required, and the Russian people didn't get a say.

Putin weaseled his way in after some classical dirty dealings - some of which may be a whole lot worse than anything that's known. In essence, he did what all effective would be Evil Overlords do. He used the system as it was to make himself look good and get in by apparently legitimate means, then carefully eliminated anything in the way of transforming things to what he wanted.

Like Dave said, it's a lot more complicated.

Kate Paulk said...

RJ Cruze,

Absolutely. Outside support is something that often helps weak tyrants to become strong ones - although sometimes all it takes is for the outside world to pretend not to see what's happening - a political scenario you rarely see in books of any flavor, possibly because no-one involved in that kind of politicking comes out looking good.