Tough Guide to Fantasy Clichés: Dark Lords and Evil

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.

DSC_0332.JPGWhen 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.

A soulless bunny would make an excellent villain.

A soulless bunny would make an excellent villain.

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?

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About Melissa

generally 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 , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 25 Comments.

  1. Jadis . . . the Green Witch . . . Maleficent . . . Duessa . . . Cruella DeVille . . . Nancy Pelosi, Michelle Obama–or Sara Palin, depending on your political preference . . . They do exist.

    • Of course, the White Witch is an obvious one. I knew I was forgetting someone. There’s a good example of a Dark Lady (or pale in this case) done well.

  2. I was just going to mention the White Witch, but I see I’ve been beaten to it. 🙂 There’s also Tsarmina, Queen of a Thousand Eyes, in Brian Jacques’ Mossflower. …and…erm….this strays into sci-fi, but the leader of the Dominion (an evil empire in Star Trek) was a female Changeling. Beyond that, I can’t think of any other Dark Ladies. Which may be why one of the main villains in my own stories is Susan, ex-Mistress of all Character Hell. It’s fun defying cliches. 😛

    • Oh, yes, Tsarmina was excellent. A bit over dramatically evil, but in keeping with Jacques’ wonderful style of characterization so I can’t complain. Mossflower is my absolute favorite Redwall book! Your villain sounds delightful.

  3. 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.

    Those who read The Lord of the Rings, without reading The Silmarillion and the Akallabeth, really miss out on his subtle development of Middle Earth’s two dark lords. Especially Sauron. By the time of the War of the Ring, he had become almost completely character-less; you never see him, never hear him. It’s like evil has eaten away any trace of personality all but completely. For that reason, I find him more terrifying in his earlier stages of corruption — as Morgoth’s ruthlessly efficient lieutenant, and as the corrupter of Numenor.

    • I agree our view of Sauron in the trilogy is not complete. I wouldn’t class Tolkien’s villains in the cliche category, but his imitators often have trouble seeing the nuance of his evil characters.

      • That always seems to be the way with Tolkien. He gets criticized for using cliches that were not cliches before he burst on the scene. 🙂

        • In a way, it is Tolkien’s fault we have all of these fantasy cliches because his brilliance was so admirable that it became the pattern card for future writers! I wonder what he’d think of that…

          • Yes, ’tis true! 🙂 I think he’d be taken aback, and I’m sure he would shake his head at a lot of his imitators, but I hope he’d be pleased to know how much his works mean to people even now.

  4. A classic: “She (Who Must Be Obeyed)” by H. Rider Haggard.

  5. It’s shocking and horrifying how spot on you were in painting the picture of my own dark Lord! (With some differences of course.) I had never really thought much about cliche villians before, so this was quite eye opening! Thank you for that.
    I can think of only one dark lady: Morgan Le Fae aka Morgana- the evil sorceress in Arthurian tales.
    Thank you for that insight!
    -Zozie

  6. Morgan le Fay is like the most sinister evil sorceress out there.

  7. I’ve never noticed a Dark Couple (husband and wife or siblings).

    Disney has had a few “Dark Ladies”: The Queen in “Snow White”, Cruella DeVille in “101 Dalmatians”, the dark fairy Malficent in “Sleeping Beauty”.

  8. There’s Achren, from Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain, but I don’t know if she counts as a Dark Lady as there is a more powerful male “Dark Lord.” Hmm

    The main antagonist in the story I am writing is female, but because I prefer writing ” smaller scale adventures” I don’t know that she counts as a Dark Lady. As with most tropes, I think the Dark Lord riff can be done well, but it’s certainly tricky and easy to do badly.

    • I think the benefit of “smaller scale” in your plot is that the villain doesn’t normally fall into the same traps. Grand epics require villains that are nearly always overdone because of the need to make a villain worthy of an epic storyline. Plots that aren’t quite so “fate-of-the-world-in-the-balance” can have a massive variety in their bad characters.

      • True, but sometimes the framework of the epic tropes can be used very creatively, and when that succeeds, it’s wonderful. The problem, of course, is how rarely it succeeds. Anyone who walks on well-trodden ground, narrative-wise, has to work even harder to make something that doesn’t compare unfavorably to the greats who went before.

  9. beautycalyptique

    I agree with gidzmo – I can’t think of an evil couple either. Would be quite interesting, if properly developed and written.
    My 2 cents: What I find most scary is Faceless Emotionless Horror, maybe it’s a bit too Lovecraftian for fantasy but it gives you the most thrills. You can’t figure out any reason why it is doing all those Horrible Things TM. And you fear the most what you can’t explain.

  10. What about Gaea from “The Heroes of Olympus”? She is basically a female Sauron. You almost never see or hear her. She is constantly mentioned, but makes only a few appearances by herself. But honestly, I dont think she is the perfect villain if looking back at her role in Greek Mythology.

    • I haven’t read “The Heroes of Olympus”, but this sounds like a potential proper Dark Lady. I know they’re out there, but I think they are greatly outnumbered!

      • She is quite a good villain actually. The thing is that you really don’t see it coming when her identity is revealed.

        However, is it possible to have TWO dark lords in one story? What I am writing now takes place in the 19th century Europe. I am having Lucifer in the role of the ultimate dark lord, however, there is another being, a female, who is working against Lucifer but also against the main characters and she is pretty much a main villain as well. Does this count as having both, a dark lord AND a dark lady in the story?

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