Tough Guide to Fantasy Clichés: Dark Lords and Evil
Posted by Melissa
This month, I’m exploring some cliché fantasy concepts through the perspective of Diana Wynne Jones. We’ve looked at fantasy names and fantasy colour-coding, and now it feels like the right time to bring up the most important issues that our characters might face in their epic fantasy quests, namely the ever present Dark Lord and the encroaching Evil upon our unfortunate heroes’ lands.
When we are pondering what horrors and difficulties we want our characters to face, we have to choose the overarching Problem of the story. In a fantasy world, it is very tempting to have our heroes facing some sort of great Darkness, a single evil character who is running everything and must be defeated, or some other evil problem. This is reminiscent, of course, of Tolkien’s Sauron, but other books have followed suit. Let’s see what Jones has to say about Dark Lords. Oh, and Dark Ladies.
Dark Lady. There never is one of these – so see Dark Lord in stead. The Management considers that male Dark Ones have more potential to be sinister, and seldom if ever employs a female in this role. This is purely because the Management was born too late to meet my Great Aunt Clara.
Dark Lord. There is always one of these in the background of every Tour, attempting to ruin everything and take over the world. He will be so sinister that he will be seen by you only once or twice, probably near the end of the Tour. Generally he will attack you through Minions, of which he will have large numbers. When you do get to see him at last, you will not be surprised to find he is black (see Colour Coding) and shadowy and probably not wholly human. He will make you feel very cold and small. Actually, when it comes down to it, that is probably all he will do, having almost certainly exhausted his other resources earlier on. You should be able to defeat him, with a little help from your Companions, without too much effort. However, the Rules state that at this stage you will be exhausted yourself and possibly wounded by Magic. So be careful.
I do think it is interesting to note that the leader of any given Dark Force tends to be male. Not to suggest deliberate misogyny, but why is that? I’m trying to think of a novel in which the arch-nemesis was a great and all powerful female. Any thoughts?
Having a Dark Lord is extremely tricky. What Tolkien accomplished is difficult to emulate without overdoing it. Dark Lords have a dangerous tendency to be very cliché and often far too dramatic as villains. I think that fantasy stories have also moved into a less polarizing portrayal of good and evil. A lot more gray exists now, so having a Dark Lord who is evil for the sake of Evil makes a lot less sense to most readers. We want a villain with depth and a purpose beyond simply Destroying All Good Things Because It Is Fun.
So what is this insubstantial element called Evil, according to Fantasyland’s Tough Guide?
Evil is generally around somewhere in Fantasyland and seems to cast quite a blight. It has two states, active and passive. In the active state, it is rampant, embodied in puppet Kings, Armies of Undead, Monsters, and creeping pollution of the countryside, and it is out to get all Tourists (who are by definition Good). In its passive state it ponds in deserted spots, where it lies around waiting to be aroused by the unwary. The active state is usually connected with the Dark Lord, and must be overcome in the course of the Tour. The passive, when not connected with a predecessor or avatar of the Dark Lord, is either fallout from the Wizards’ War or the work of some God way back at the Beginning of things. When it is in this form there is not much to be done about it but stay clear.
The problem of evil extends far beyond the pages of a fantasy novel, of course. How do we portray something like Evil? The portrayals of undead armies or monsters or other beings under the Dark Lord’s sway, along with the corruption of the actual landscape, are difficult to manage without being cliché. The fact is, we want our characters to face and overcome something meaningful, and a fantasy novel is an excellent place to take incorporeal Evil and give it a form. By representing Evil and sending our hapless heroes off to defeat it, we can represent the greater problem of Evil that we face in both spiritual and physical forms.
However, once again, the dichotomy of Good vs Evil can be too dramatic to allow for the necessary middle ground – the failures of “good” people and the empathy of “evil” ones. Furthermore, the sheer exhaustion of reading (or writing!) a novel about the scrappy band of heroes facing the seemingly insurmountable problem of All That Is Evil can make that sort of book simply too much. Living in a Fantasyland shouldn’t be a constant struggle between Good and Evil. Political intrigues, character-driven stories, and much less drama-ridden adventures can be equally meaningful and enjoyable.
So, I guess the moral here is to choose your Evil with care.
What do you think of the epic Good vs Evil stories as opposed to smaller scale adventures? And which kind do you prefer to write?
About Melissagenerally in love with things Celtic, mythological, fantastic, sharp and pointy, cute and fuzzy, intellectual, snarky, cheerful, or some combination thereof. Such things as sarcastic bunnies wielding claymores might come to mind...
Posted on May 15, 2013, in Authors, Cliches, Diana Wynne Jones, Fantasy, Humor, Lantern Hollow Press Authors, Melissa Rogers, Story, Villains, Writing Hints and Helps and tagged cliche, dark lord, diana wynne jones, Evil, fantasy, villain, writing novel. Bookmark the permalink. 25 Comments.