Category Archives: Villains

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?


Moral Escapism: Speculative Fiction’s Evil Twin

Primum non nocere–First, do no harm.

Last week I talked about some of the unique opportunities that speculative fiction offers us as a broad genre.  About the time I published it, I got some good, strong, fair criticism about my own attempt at speculative fiction.  So, while I finish digesting that and decide how best to address it, I thought I might take a post and talk about what I’ve jokingly called “speculative fiction’s evil twin”:  moral escapist fiction.

Moral escapism is, to be accurate, more of a rebellious child than it is an evil twin (“Evil twin” just sounds better in the title).  It’s a particular brand of speculation where the normal rules of morality are suspended to a lesser or greater extent and characters–not to mention the reader–are set free from the need to obey regular conventions of right and wrong.  Therefore, it allows people to escape from the constrictions and pressures of having to decide between the two; he or she is able to indulge some secret fantasy.  Note that very few speculative works are specifically written for this purpose, but many indulge in it.

I'd say there is a 50-50 chance you really don't want to see the next image in the series....

There are plenty of examples of this sort of fiction out there, and they range from the vaguely innocuous to the downright disturbing.  On the one extreme, some of the various scenes in Harry Potter come to mind, where Harry and his friends purposely lie to adults and not only get away with it, but it turns out to be the right decision.  On the other extreme, we have everything from well-written high fantasy and science fiction to cheap romance novels–which make adultery and unfaithfulness look harmless–to various kinds of anime/manga where people can legally depict things under the protection of “freedom of speech” that, if they tried to commit such an act on real people in the real world, would result in a life sentence or even execution.

The problem is, of course, that real life and human culture simply doesn’t operate in a moral vacuum.  We all live, every day, with a set of moral laws.  I call them “laws” intentionally, because though there are various culturally relative, non-binding standards* that we sometimes confuse with moral laws, there are lines that simply cannot be crossed without consequence–even if that consequence isn’t legal in nature.  Violating them, for whatever reason, will lead to disaster as surely as attempting to ignore gravity by stepping off a high-rise on the premise that you just don’t feel like paying attention to physics that day.

I know that’s a “backward” thing to say in this upside down culture heading for Hell in a handbasket and desperately looking forward to the trip, but I think the reality is undeniable.  Some obvious examples that few even in this postmodern age would argue with would be rape and premeditated, cold-blooded murder.  Both are wrong, no matter what the extenuating circumstance, if we are talking about the events that those terms imply.  Another more controversial example would be adultery, which some circles now actively promote as positive.  People who, in all good faith, have made the vows necessary to enter into a marriage cannot violate those vows without significant and direct effects.  Hollywood and pop-psychology can romanticize and legitimatize affairs as much as they want, but it doesn’t change the fact that engaging in one will have serious, painful consequences not only for your wife/husband and children, but for yourself as well.   (Kenny Rogers has a great song that really sums up the moral angst of one of those poignant moments called, “She’ll Believe You.”)

What does all of this have to do with writing speculative fiction?  There comes a point where our imaginations can do far more harm than good.  Fiction that is specifically designed to allow the moral compass to spin freely can be dangerous, and it can cause specific harm to specific individuals by encouraging them to repeatedly test their moral boundaries in their minds–the author first and foremost.  That by itself may not sound like much, but regularly transgressing these moral boundaries intellectually and emotionally encourages us to do it in real life too.  This is especially true with younger readers, who are often just forming their strong moral guidelines for the future.  “As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he.”  Or woman.  Or child.

Am I saying that if you have an evil character in your stories who glories in murder and mayhem, that you are influencing generations of children to become serial killers who torture furry animals in their spare time?  Certainly not, and I get tired of people tossing that strawman argument up in discussions like this.  As I’ve argued before, your readers should see real evil.  I have no problem with your villains quite literally causing people nightmares.  I have no problem with realistic shades of moral belief (i.e. the pathological liar or serial murderer who literally believes that what he’s doing is “right” and can make a tempting argument in his defense).  I’m not even saying that you shouldn’t have “good” characters making “wrong” choices; that’s just reality.   The key is how you portray them in the end.  Readers should leave knowing right from wrong.  As C. S. Lewis noted,

Let there be wicked kings and beheadings, battles and dungeons, giants and dragons, and let villains be soundly killed at the end of the book.

If evil in your book or story is depicted in such a way as to make it good, make it something that otherwise reasonable people would want to admire, then there is a problem.

As you’ve noticed, then, I’m not one of those authors who believes that we can write whatever we feel like writing and forget the consequences.  I’ve heard multiple arguments from a number of different people that say that the author is his or her own entity, and that we must be true only to our characters and our story–what readers choose to do as a result of reading us is their business, not ours.  I’ll more than happily grant that there comes a point where we just have to loose our stories on an unsuspecting public and trust that we’ve done the right thing.  Our readers are indeed morally responsible for their own actions.  Still, there is a certain callous disregard for people around us in the harder forms of that argument.  In some cases, it might not be too far from giving a suicidal person a loaded shotgun and saying, “I hope you won’t pull the trigger, but it’s your fault if you do.”  It’s technically true, but somehow I can’t get away from assigning blame in more than one place.

I could go on, but I’ll spare you.  I’m not really sure I’ve fully succeeded in communicating the nuance that needs to come across.  In the end, I believe that being an author of speculative fiction isn’t just a privilege–it’s a responsibility.  We need to keep that in mind.

Of course, there are plenty of ways to go wrong–some of which I’ve fallen into myself.  Come back next week and we’ll start discussing some of the positive points of speculative fiction in detail, and, by implication, hopefully learn how to avoid its downfalls.


*An example of this sort of thing might be clothing styles, hair styles, etc.

The Children of Hurin (part 1): Somewhere North

I was eleven when I finished reading The Lord of the Rings. And I remember how sad I was, thinking (since I’d already read The Hobbit) that I’d finished everything that J. R. R. Tolkien had ever published.  Life without the prospect of any yet-undiscovered Tolkien seemed unbearably bleak.

But about a year and a half later I found a copy of The Silmarillion at the local newsstand. I was thrilled. And though I found that the style of my $3.95 paperback treasure took some getting used to, I was happy to get fuller accounts of the various old heroes whose names appear in The Lord of the Rings: Eärendil, Beren and Luthien, and Turin (even if Tolkien knocked Beren and Turin down a notch by saying they couldn’t have pierced Shelob’s hide, not even with blades of Elf-steel).  And for some reason, in moving from The Lord of the Rings to The Silmarillion I sensed I had taken a few steps from the outskirts of Tolkien’s literary imagination toward the center.  I wouldn’t have put it that way at the time, but I simply found the stories of the Elder Days more awesome than those of Middle-earth’s Third Age.

After finishing The Silmarillion I thought, again, that I was done with Tolkien’s published work.  And then, again, I was proved wrong, this time by a visit to the local library.  I was looking for a book for a summer vacation to Maine, and I just happened to see a copy of the Unfinished Tales on the shelf.  I was thrilled to discover that two familiar stories – Tuor’s coming to Gondolin and the Children of Hurin – were the first two stories of the Unfinished Tales.  Here were even more complete accounts of the lives of two of the greatest men of the First Age, Turin Turambar, the son of Hurin and hero of The Children of Hurin, and Tuor the father of Eärendil.  As the family car headed northward, so too did these two stories take me ever further North, into the deepest Northern roots of Tolkien’s storytelling.  And in reading the lengthier account of the Children of Hurin, I just knew, somehow, that this must be the very core of the imagination of Tolkien the storyteller.

Trusting the intuition of a thirteen-year old is a gamble, and my intuition at that age was, like that of most boys in the first year of their teens, decidedly and often spectacularly fallible.  But in this case, I later discovered from Tolkien’s letters that I’d been right on:

The germ of my attempt to write legends of my own to fit my private languages was the tragic tale of the hapless Kullervo in the Finnish Kalevala.  It remains a major matter in the legends of the First Age (which I hope to publish as The Silmarillion), though as ‘The Children of Hurin’ it is entirely changed except in the tragic ending.[1]

So what is this story that so riveted me for so many hours on that family vacation to Maine?

It is certainly a tragic tale, set in motion by the capture of Hurin the Steadfast by Morgoth – essentially, the Satan of Tolkien’s world – at the end of the Battle of Unnumbered Tears.  When Hurin refuses to tell Morgoth the location of the hidden Elf-city of Gondolin, Morgoth curses Hurin and his kin:

The shadow of my purpose lies upon Arda [the Earth], and all that is in it bends slowly and surely to my will. But upon all whom you love my thought shall weigh as a cloud of Doom, and it shall bring them down into darkness and despair. Wherever they go, evil shall arise.  Whenever they speak, their words shall bring ill counsel. Whatsoever they do shall turn against them. They shall die without hope, cursing both life and death.[2]

What Morgoth purposes for Hurin and his family he in large measure attains.  Hope, to the extent it appears in the tale, cheats those who hold to it and ultimately disappears.  In this, The Children of Hurin is the most relentlessly Northern of Tolkien’s stories, following the Finnish tale of Kullervo and the tale of Sigurd the Dragon-slayer.  And the chief agent Morgoth employs in accomplishing his purposes for Hurin’s family is a decidedly Northern incarnation of evil: Glaurung, the father of dragons.

The fact that The Children of Hurin sets its protagonists against such cruel and powerful villains, though, and forces them to labor under the shadow of Morgoth’s curse, serves to display the great virtue of the North – courage and perseverence in the teeth of hopelessness – more clearly than it is displayed anywhere else in Tolkien’s work.  There are, of course, plenty of glimpses of this virtue elsewhere in Tolkien.  For example, after the fall of Gandalf in Khazad-dum, Aragorn tells the surviving members of the Fellowship that “we must do without hope.  At least we may yet be avenged.”[3]  But Gandalf returns to Middle-earth after death.  And while that doesn’t nullify this distinctly Northern kind of courage (which Aragorn had in spades), it does outshine it.  In The Children of Hurin there is no eucatastrophe, no unexpected deliverance where “everything sad comes untrue”, to outshine the valor and perseverence of the protagonists in the face of inexorable evil and the certainty of ultimate defeat.

In the weeks ahead, then, as the air gets crisper and the shadows lengthen, I’ll be exploring several threads that wind their way through The Children of Hurin, hoping to see more of what Tolkien has to show us about evil and virtue in this, the darkest of his works, and also the one in which the cold gleam of Northern courage comes into sharpest focus.

[1] Humphrey Carpenter & Christopher Tolkien, eds., The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien (Houghton Mifflin 2000)(1981).

[2] J. R. R. Tolkien, The Children of Hurin 64 (2007).

[3] Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring 347 (2d ed., Houghton Mifflin 1967).

The Best of Tobias Mastgrave: On Villains Part 3

As you know, Tobias Mastgrave has started his own blog after a good run with us here at LHP.  In thanks to him and recognition of his work, for the next few week’s we’re running several of his highest rated posts from days past.  Check out his blog at

Good luck and Godspeed Tobias in your new endeavors!

Lantern Hollow Press

I want to speak today on one of the most important factors of creating a believable, frightening, impactful villain: motivations.

Ok…I’m going to rant here for just a moment, it won’t be long I promise, if you’d rather get on with things just skip down to the next paragraph.  Many villains that we see in media today have no real motivations.  The deciding factor behind the majority of their actions seems to be ‘how do I PROVE that I’m evil’.  In the entirety of human history, I promise you, no more than a handful of people have gone out of their way to PROVE that they were evil…and the ones that did, NOT THE BEST VILLAINS IN HISTORY! Hitler, Mussolini, and Hirohito did not think of themselves as villains.  Nero and Caligula did not think of themselves as villains.  Real villains DON’T HAVE TO PROVE THEY ARE EVIL!!!

Anyway, short rant done now on to motivations.  Your villains should have reasons for pretty much everything they do, good reasons, believable reasons.  However the key to any character, villains included, is to define their central motivations.  What factor, or combination of factors, drives your villain to his wickedness? Does he lust after power? Does he want to become a god? Does he want to protect his people or his family? Is he running away from something in his past? Is it as simple as he just doesn’t know how to do anything else?

Let’s look at the motivations of some excellent villains. In my last post I used Star Wars as an example, I love Star Wars…to be honest I’m a little bit obsessed. Emperor Palpatine and Darth Vader are two of my favorite villains, they have excellent and CLEAR motivations.  Darth Vader falls into the dark side trying to save his wife, to protect his family.  However once corrupted, once he has lost everything he loved, he continues to pursue power despite clearly seeing it’s evil.  In a poignant moment in ‘Return of the Jedi’ he responds to Luke’s pleas with the statement ‘It is too late for me son, you do not know the power of the dark side. I must obey my master.”

Darth Vader understands his own darkness, his own evil, but he sees no way out. The Emperor, on the other hand, does not see his own evil.  He understands that others see him as evil but he sees himself as maintaining order by doing what is necessary.  Vader’s desire, his only real desire, is to feed the addictive hunger inside him which the power of the dark side has created.  He serves in the hope of destroying the Emperor and stealing all of his power.  The Emperor’s central motivation is to create order, secondary to that is his desire to contain non-humans. Both characters had very distinct motivations that lead them to commit evil acts in the pursuit of achieving these goals.

If we look at a couple of the villains, from our group of writers, which I mentioned in my last post we see that Korluus’s primary motivation is self-perfection.  His pursuit of self-perfection has led him to the assumption that whatever serves this pursuit is ‘good’.  Therefore he commits horrendous acts in the name of raising humanity to perfection, himself first of course, and classifies said acts as ‘good’.  On the other hand Loki, from Erik’s fantasy writing, is pursuing Ragnarök (the end of the Norse gods).  The question we are confronted with is why? The two possible answers that I have seen so far (I know you all haven’t) are 1) that Loki desires the end, that he believes it is a good thing. Or 2) that his hate is so complete that he prefers destruction, the destruction of all things, to his own continued existence.

Ultimately there are many things that go into writing a good villain, as many as go into any other character, however there are some that are more often ignored or handled badly than others. I was intending for this to be my last post on this subject, however (in an effort to make my posts more manageable) I am going to split this in two. So, next time, On Villains Part Four: On Humanity, That Poor Little Psychopath.


Among The Neshelim: My first novel, Among the Neshelim, is now available from Smashwords here, and Amazon here. Print copies are not yet available, but will be soon.

Among the Neshelim


Tobias Mastgrave

Understanding. One little word, and yet it means so much. We spend our lives pursuing it in one form or another. We long for it, seek it out, and break ourselves trying to find it. But it is always a rare commodity.

Chin Cao Yu, priest and scholar, has sacrificed all he held dear in its pursuit. Now he undertakes the journey of a lifetime, a journey among the mysterious Neshilim, a people of power unlike any he has seen before – all for the hope of understanding. This journey will turn upside down the world he thought he knew and challenge all of his dearly held beliefs. Has he found the ultimate truth or the ultimate lie? And what will he do with it when he learns?

The Best of Tobias Mastgrave: Demons, Monsters, and Ghosts, Oh No! Part II

As you know, Tobias Mastgrave has started his own blog after a good run with us here at LHP.  In thanks to him and recognition of his work, for the next few week’s we’re running several of his highest rated posts from days past.  Check out his blog at

Good luck and Godspeed Tobias in your new endeavors!

Lantern Hollow Press

  • The Ravager is generally the most common demon archetype found in fantasy.
  • The Ravager demon is the thug of the supernatural world, relying on brute strength and lacking in intelligence.
  • Ravager demons have their place in fiction but are generally over used or used to too little effect.

In the first installment of this series I introduced some of the differences between demons as they exist in mythology and in fantasy. In this and the next few installments I would like to discuss a few archetypal demons. Now I learned my lesson with my post on villain archetypes and I’m going to discuss these one at a time. The first archetype* I want to discuss is the most commonly used, the Ravager.

This sums up the Dresden Files pretty well.

As with all excessively common archetypes the Ravager has some problems. However, while it may be generally overused, it does have a solid place in fiction. The Ravager is somewhere in between a monster and a true demon. Generally Ravager archetypes are portrayed as the brute thugs of the demon world, very powerful but lacking in cunning and intelligence. One basic example of this archetype is found in the first book of the Dresden Files, Stormfront. The toad demon which appears in this book is a classic example of the Ravager, it exists for one purpose, to destroy, and that is the only thing which enters its mind. As with any Ravager the toad demon has one, and only one, approach to dealing with a problem, smash it. If the problem can’t be smashed then it is too much for the Ravager to handle. While the toad demon in Stormfront is relatively weak some Ravagers are very powerful. In Glen Cook’s The Black Company the Limper is another Ravager archetype**. The Limper is excessively powerful, able to confront entire armies on his own multiple times through the series, but he lacks cunning. Through the course of the series the Limper displays only one reaction to any obstacle, kill it, if it cannot be killed then smash it, if it cannot be smashed then he can’t do much about it.

Ravager archetypes generally see little character growth, they are too simplistic to truly develop as characters and generally exist to get in the way. For instance in The Black Company the Limper presents an excellent obstacle to portray the company’s main strength, its cunning. Though the Limper is excessively powerful he is defeated time and again by the cleverness of the company’s soldiers.

Ravager archetypes can also serve to exhibit the great power which opposes the main characters. In J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring the Balrog serves to show the great power which opposes the fellowship, both in Moria and as a foreshadowing of greater threats to come. Though the Balrog is portrayed in the novel as little more than a very powerful brute its power manages to, apparently, overcome the wizard Gandalf, who is the fellowship’s own ‘man of power’. This not only provides a sense of emotional loss for the reader but also underlines the very real danger which the fellowship faces on its journey.

An amazing showdown

The difficulty with the Ravager archetype is that it has been used so often that it has become mundane to think of fantasy demons as brutes who can’t think or plan. In The Amulet of Samarkand*** the image is created that Bartimaeus, one of the two main characters, is the only demon of any real cunning in existence. While there are shown to be demons of much greater power Bartimaeus inevitably overcomes them through his intelligence and cleverness. Also in many stories, The Amulet of Samarkand being only one, Ravager demons are beholden to mortal men who have bound them, again through cunning rather than power. This use of the Ravager demon does not mesh well with mythology, as discussed in Part 1, and so gives demons on the whole the image of being little more than lackeys.

Patricia Briggs, in her novel Blood Bound, combines the Ravager archetype with the Possessor archetype (which I will discuss in a later post) to good effect. Though the demon is still portrayed as being single-minded, obsessed with killing and destruction, it is given a certain low cunning which allows it to become a very real threat. Instead of the traditional use where the Ravager is bound to its summoner in Briggs’ novel the Ravager is clever enough to have overcome its summoner and become a threat to the world, or at least the surrounding area. In my opinion this, along with Tolkien’s use of the free-willed Balrog, is a better example of the Ravager archetype than the norm.


* Demons may sometimes be villains and villains may sometimes be demons. In this there is some overlap between the villain archetypes and the demon archetypes.

** While the Ten Who Were Taken are technically mortal sorcerers the power and persistancy they portray in the series has more in common with demons than with men. The Limper, for instance, ‘dies’ at least three times in the series (in one of his deaths he is chopped to pieces) and yet returns after each death to further harass his enemies.

***The Amulet of Samarkand, ostensibly intended for younger readers, has been challenged or banned from certain libraries.  While the novel itself shows quality writing the characters within display and, in my opinion, encourage a certain amorality which could be detrimental to younger readers.  I suggest you consider carefully before allowing children under the age of 16 access to this book and if your children are considering it as a reading option I suggest you read it before deciding whether or not to allow them access.  A review of the book which disagrees with my own opinion may be found here.



Among The Neshelim: My first novel, Among the Neshelim, is now available from Smashwords here, and Amazon here. Print copies are not yet available, but will be soon.

Among the Neshelim


Tobias Mastgrave

Understanding. One little word, and yet it means so much. We spend our lives pursuing it in one form or another. We long for it, seek it out, and break ourselves trying to find it. But it is always a rare commodity.

Chin Cao Yu, priest and scholar, has sacrificed all he held dear in its pursuit. Now he undertakes the journey of a lifetime, a journey among the mysterious Neshilim, a people of power unlike any he has seen before – all for the hope of understanding. This journey will turn upside down the world he thought he knew and challenge all of his dearly held beliefs. Has he found the ultimate truth or the ultimate lie? And what will he do with it when he learns?