The Tyrant Villain

A common trope in stories is the merciless ruler whose reign must be toppled by the hero. I admit to being guilty of shameless adherence to this archetype. My current fantasy WIP features a villainous tyrant on the throne, and boy, am I having a tough time making him convincing.

What are the first things you think of when you think of a tyrant? Madness? Cruelty? Lust for power? A god complex? All possibilities, all easy to come up with on the spot during a lazy bout of brainstorming. After these character flaws might come the political implications of what a tyrant is: an absolute ruler, a leader of vast armies, an arbitrary judge. When I started thinking about the things my tyrant might do, I came up with capricious murder, genocide, induced famine, city-razing, and general disregard towards the value of a human life. Personally, thinking about tyranny leaves me in desperate need of rainbows and cupcakes, so when I approached my fantasy, I perhaps hadn’t given my villain enough thought, and it wasn’t until recently that I forced myself to confront it.

I started with the character flaws. Madness, cruelty, lust for power, and a god complex. In no time, my tyrant was a caricature. But there was nothing wrong with that, as long as I worked towards fixing it. It’s always good to start with base flaws and virtues when trying to flesh out a character. Once you have those, though, you have to begin adding depth. The shock value of mindless murder wears off very quickly. What never becomes dull is the potential for logical reasoning behind the tyrant’s twisted actions. So we venture into the realm of “whys”.

Backstory

Every tyrant starts small. After all, I believe a god complex is created through experiences. Perhaps there’s a string of eerie coincidences and close calls with death that lead him (male, because my tyrant is male) to believe that somebody is watching over him. Following that, he starts comparing himself to others, and if his intelligence is above average, begins to truly believe that he’s better. Already suspecting his divine status, he just needs one friend to tell him what he wants to hear to become brainwashed by the seductive prospect that maybe he actually is a god. And since gods know better than people about what’s right and wrong, it’s a god’s job to guide them in the proper direction. And if that has to be done through absolute rule, so be it.

The idea is that the tyrant actually believes that what he’s doing is for the good of the people. He’s driven by what he thinks is right. Nobody views their own self as an evil person. He has a set of values by which he abides, shaped by his childhood and relationships, and everybody against them is in the wrong.

But he can’t just waltz into a palace and plop down onto a throne. He has to convince everybody else that he’s a god first; he has to earn his power. And he can’t earn his power until he has some kind of control over the people. Fear works, of course, but even then he needs soldiers to confirm it throughout the countryside. And the way he gets those soldiers is…

Charisma

A charismatic person is someone who displays magnetism and charm in everything they do: someone you would follow off a cliff if you didn’t stop and think about it. No tyrant gets to where he wants to be without the ability to lead an army. But armies aren’t stupid. Of course, mob mentality sometimes makes them act in questionable ways, but they wouldn’t follow just anybody. A tyrant is a person who has successfully won over a massive amount of people to do their bidding. You have to have insane talent for public speaking to pull that off, and you have to value the people around you who do their jobs well. So often, tyrants in media are portrayed as baby-killing cracks who behead their irreplaceable right-hand man when he accidentally bumps into them. And while he might end up doing that eventually (especially if he boards the crazy train) it’s important to remember that throughout history, those events were the beginning of the end of a tyrant’s career. Somebody always ends up killing him off. So unless you want your story to last about two pages, don’t make everybody hate the tyrant.

A more convincing reason for not making everybody hate the tyrant is that the hero has to have opposition, and the opposition has to be great. If everybody agrees that the world would be a better place without Emperor Quintus the Bat-Shit Insane, chances are somebody else will kill him before your hero can even walk.

But most importantly, a tyrant with charisma is disturbing. They make the reader feel like maybe they’re rooting for the wrong person. A charismatic villain is one that you dislike not necessarily because of the bloodbaths they cause, but because they trouble you by forcing you to challenge your own beliefs on things you thought you knew. They’re the kind of villain that you love to hate. You’re relieved when they’re gone, but you also miss them.

Doubt

Bringing this back to the characteristics of your tyrant, doubt is one that is essential. Doubt is the root of power lust. If the tyrant is a god, he should have no problem taking over the land. So why is it so much trouble? Probably because he still doesn’t have enough power. If the doubt is “Maybe I’m not a god,” the answer is to continue taking over lands until you prove that you are. If the doubt is “Maybe I’m wrong,” the answer is change the laws until they prove that you’re right.

There’s the old saying that absolute power corrupts absolutely, but the truth is, power corrupts those who don’t have it. If you want a corrupt tyrant, never give him absolute power, because then nothing would have to change. He would be satisfied. Instead, you have to always make sure to keep the tyrant unsatisfied with what he has by making him riddled with doubt over the sustainability of his empire. If he has full control over the people, don’t give him full control over himself, too. Don’t give him confidence in his own abilities to keep the people in his sway. If confidence is hidden from him, he’ll struggle to find it by going to extremes, and he’ll take it out on his people in an attempt to assert his rule. As time passes and his fist tightens, the penalty for tax evasion eventually turns from a few days in the stocks to death by stoning. Hunting on royal grounds slowly becomes punishable by the chopping off of limbs instead of a simple fine. The gradual increase in brutality has to be just that: gradual. A continuous one-upmanship against himself to see how far he can go. As the tyrant’s doubt rises, as madness settles in, the times change to reflect his state of mind, but the people’s memory of his greatness stalls any action against him. Because remember: the tyrant has charisma. There are people that like him, and might be blind to the changes until they begin to directly affect them. And as long as they don’t steal or hunt on royal grounds, the people think they’re safe. But because the tyrant is crazy, that’s not quite the case.

Eventually, the tyrant’s enemies become his own people. As a conqueror, when it was his armies against foreign armies, the distinction was clear. But as it turns into his armies against his own people, what does he do? How can he make the right decision? How far can he push until they turn against him? How much more control does he need until he can be sure that civil unrest will never happen? Who can he preemptively kill for the good of the peaceful state?

Commitment

Finally, we get to the most important point of all. Commit to your tyrant. As you continue to explore the possibilities within his character, you’ll be tempted to turn him into a victim. I did this in my fantasy WIP. Twice. With two separate characters that had started out as villains. Now they’re both misunderstood good guys. And it was when I almost did it a third time that I had to stop myself, because it would’ve made conflict impossible, and a story with no conflict is boring.

Always remember: your tyrant is a bad person. He kills. He destroys. He threatens humanity. Because you’re a fantastic writer and you developed his character so well, your knowledge of his motives will trick you into feeling empathetic towards him.

Don’t. He is a bad person.

You want to show his side of the argument, and you want to show it well enough to make the reader conflicted over his eventual defeat, but you have to maintain the status quo: He is the villain, and the hero has to defeat him. When he and the hero meet, they can’t just sit around and talk about their feelings over copious amounts of chocolate cake and then decide to hold hands and start over. Even if your hero ends up understanding him, they cannot agree. Because as soon as they agree, poof goes the conflict. The best stories are the ones where the differences in ideology are understandable, but irreconcilable.

And ultimately, how do you forgive cold-blooded murder? How do you forgive genocide? How do you forgive systematic oppression and mutilation of a people by their own leader?

You can’t. And even if, in the end, the tyrant is repentant, it’s too late. He must pay for his sins.

That’s the tragedy of a perfect villain: they are beyond saving, beyond any hope for atonement. But regardless of all their terrible actions, you are able to understand and pity them, because you can see the forks in the road at which they took the wrong turns.

  

10 Responses to The Tyrant Villain

  1. Rowenna Sep 29 2014 at 12:04 pm #

    Great points! I think some writers are a little scared of the tyrant villain, because there’s almost something implausible about someone committing that much evil. But look into history and…tyrannical, despotic individuals abound. I do think that one can empathize with a despot and still keep them as irrevocable villain. I think the key is as you describe it–they are people who chose the path they took, and though we might understand where they came from, we do have to see the places where they chose, shall we say, poorly.

    The concept of doubt and fear as motivators for the villain are excellent, too. Fear that retaining power is threatened leads to plenty of otherwise inconceivable choices. I think about how Hitler’s choices became more and more horrific the clearer it became that absolute victory for the Axis was not possible. Fear of losing power led to some truly unforgivable choices (as though he wasn’t there already…) You’re spot-on that the villain needs to fear or doubt something–losing power perhaps most of all.

    • Biljana
      Biljana Sep 29 2014 at 2:48 pm #

      I get why people feel apprehensive about writing tyrant villains, especially ones you might be able to relate to, but the fun part of doing that is that it can give you insight to actual tyrants, or people who exhibit cruel behaviour. Obviously, it’s always important to keep reality separate from fiction, but discovering why one person, even if they’re imaginary, chose the “wrong path” can help you in attempts to keep others from doing the same…or even yourself…

      RE doubt and fear, I’m glad you agree. It’s the source of the spiral into inescapable darkness, and writing in a way that shows it can make for a really dynamic villain, who’s perhaps at the point where they think they’re too far gone to stop. It’s pretty tragic. Buuuut then you have the villains that are just plain psychopaths. But that’s a whole new can of worms.

  2. jeffo Sep 29 2014 at 8:25 pm #

    “What never becomes dull is the potential for logical reasoning behind the tyrant’s twisted actions. ”

    Amen to that, Biljana. Psycho for psycho’s sake–or because the story needs it–is generally boring to me, though there is room for it (See Sauron, Lord of the Rings, for example, though we never encounter him directly).

    • Biljana
      Biljana Sep 29 2014 at 8:55 pm #

      A psycho for psycho’s sake can only really be valuable as a dangerous side character to act as a wildcard, I think. If they’re unpredictable, that could be interesting, but only because we’d be able to see the main characters react and adapt to them. But they wouldn’t be able to be your biggest focus because after a while the wildcard nature can start to sound like you’re just pulling things out of the air and saying, “It’s okay, they’re a wildcard! They can do anything!” And lord knows I’ve ranted until I was blue in the face about how much I hate that because of how cheap it feels.

  3. Susan Sep 29 2014 at 8:46 pm #

    Love this! Sometimes I think villains end up being the most fascinating characters because their development into a villain can come from so many places. Jax Teller (Sons of Anarchy) is one of my favorite TV characters- he basically fits all your above points, and that’s what makes his story do compelling. I find myself wanting to root for him before I realize he’s murderous and doing nearly everything opposite of what would actually be good.

    • Biljana
      Biljana Sep 29 2014 at 8:59 pm #

      Ditto. Some of my favourite characters are villains for exactly the same reason; they have this fantastic ambiguity about them that lets you explore both sides of the metaphorical coin of good and evil.

  4. Haneen Ibrahim Oct 17 2014 at 4:56 pm #

    Wow! A.MAZE.ING post! loved everything about it. My villains give me a hard time because I love them so much I can’t but keep them alive which is of course a big mistake, Thanks for reminding me I need to be ‘a ruthless killer’ 🙂 Can I also add, the writing of this post is simply perfect. Good luck with your WIP.

    • Biljana
      Biljana Oct 24 2014 at 9:31 pm #

      Glad you enjoyed it! Good luck to you, too!

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