The Staleness of the Dark Lord Trope

— and why you should use the “banality of evil” to create your Demon King

The jury is still out on whether you should use a Dark Lord archetype in your fantasy fiction.

Most say the argument is this: if it’s good enough for Tolkien and good enough for Rowling, it should be good enough for me!

But that has never been an acceptable reason to imitate someone else’s artistry, has it? Why copycat their (undoubted) ingenuity? Is there another (an even better way) to portray a super-villain?

Well, yes, actually there is…

There is an interesting concept known as the “banality of evil” and it goes something like this:

Banal antagonists are not true fanatic sociopaths, but in fact they are extremely average and probably mundane persons of low-to-average intellect, who rely on cliched responses instead of thinking for themselves, and are motivated by “getting ahead” — promoting themselves beyond their limitations, to earn more cash and live a more relaxed lifestyle, instead of following any wicked or perverse ideology.

These guys really believe that success relies on them earning a little more money so they might feel comfortable in their down-time. Everything they do is motivated by this simple selfishness, although it might be interpreted as “good for society” by the wider world and their circle of sycophants.

In the “banality of evil” theory, Demon Kings and Dark Lords are motivated by complacency. They are totally unexceptional. They are not cunning, they are not shrewd, they are not devious, they are not conscientious, and they are certainly not talented. They are completely nondescript.

In the Wizard of Oz story, the Wizard character created by author L. Frank Baum (Oz, the Great and Terrible) is actually quite a pathetic con man who uses his magic tricks and ridiculous props to make himself look big and powerful.

A banal antagonist might be better described as a VILLAIN OF OZ — if you’re using the “banality of evil” theory — and he’d be clumsy, unworthy, woefully inept, and a second-class individual who somehow became the Supreme Ruler of the World — but through nothing more than a little underhand magic, sloppy showmanship, a good proportion of luck, with spare change in his pocket. This VILLAIN OF OZ dummy sees himself as a great sorcerer, and adored by his subjects. Although he is not. The VILLAIN OF OZ is not a great sorcerer, neither is he adored.

But how did a VILLAIN OF OZ antagonist gain power and influence, you might ask? How did he come to rule over an entire realm and inhabit the darker side? Well, the “banality of evil” theory answers these questions: it recognises there is potential in all of us… even in the banal nearly-men…

We can all make the world a better place. We might all achieve greatness. So when Oscar Diggs (the real name of the Wizard of Oz) becomes stranded in a magical country, after his promotional balloon failed and crashed, he used the few tricks and deceits he had at his disposal to survive in the world he dropped into. He did not expect the surrounding people to adore him: but since he had always been self-centred (although always too unprincipled and lazy to be truly ambitious) when he saw the opportunity to surpass his own limitations without effort, he accepted what was offered with both hands. The worst thing that could be said about the Wizard of Oz is that, in the end, he became grabby and indulgent. He was never actually “dark” at heart! He was never actually a Lord of Darkness — he remained the seedy con artist he always had been. So, when Dorothy met him she was unimpressed, disappointed and even disillusioned. When he put on his big show (to impress and scare her) it backfired.

So I think you should give your Dark Lord a list of flaws, but I also recommend that you use the “banality of evil” concept to create a truly believable Bad of Bads. And here is why I think you should go down this route:

  • There is a moral sense of conscience in all of us (unless the person has a mental disorder, I’ll talk about that shortly) and so the VILLAIN OF OZ type always tries his best to “be good” but his lack of intelligence gets in the way of his best intentions
  • Arrogance and lack of remorse are often used defensively by these types (Oz dudes don’t mean to harm anyone by what they say or how they act, they are just protecting themselves)
  • Their frequent temper fits are often caused by frustration caused by their own shortcomings
  • These Oz guys are often promoted beyond limited abilities so become prone to substance abuse and narcotic addiction; this doesn’t help with the consistency or coherence of their message
  • Their emotional ties are weak, and they will also have bad interpersonal relationships; they often make friendships based on manipulation and exploitation rather than strong bonds and genuine love
  • They are generally spineless and cowardly but hide these negative traits under bluster and ostentation
  • They dislike virtuosity or intellect because it casts them in a poor light, and reminds them how useless the really are, thus they minimise the efforts of experts and intellectuals to “big” themselves up
  • Relationships with family members and relatives are often strained because those close to them know “the truth” about their many limitations and shortcomings. For these reasons, the Oz types often exclude themselves from the family group or an inner circle of decision makers. Consequently, this makes them feel excluded and persecuted (even though it’s their own fault) and they moan about the exclusion

I think it is better to go down the VILLAIN OF OZ route when developing your antagonist, rather than turning your Dark Lord into a dastardly PSYCHOPATH. Why? Because true psychopaths cannot function in society, while the VILLAIN OF OZ gets away with it. (He even climbs to the top of the tree, whereas the true psychopath will whither on the vine.) Why? Because true psychopaths —

  • are fearless and have a high tolerance for stress, which means they will doubtless succumb before “their time”
  • have poor impulse control, so lack foresight (it means they take outrageous risks, so are likely to die sooner)
  • their poor impulse control means they will get addicted to substances rapidly. And, because they lack foresight and fearlessness, they will get addicted early to the most deadly narcotics or other dangerous highs
  • have a desire for immediate gratification, so quick fixes are common. It means they are unable to establish close interpersonal relationships
  • don’t have empathy, so will come across as mean & cruel to those closest to them. This means they are likely to be overthrown or even killed by their closest allies or loved ones. If they acknowledge this (probably too late, because their lack of foresight will mean they won’t recognise the signs) — it is likely to cause them to act even more capriciously and wickedly than usual, making them highly unpredictable
  • cannot use violence as an instrument: as they lack foresight and have poor impulse control. This means they only indulge in cruel violence to gain immediate gratification for themselves, but cannot use violence in any strategic or methodological way. Contrary to popular opinion, psychopaths don’t make efficient serial killers
  • have no place in crime syndicates. Although psychopaths are often associated (in our minds) with organised crime, economic crime, and war crime, they would be of little (or no) usefulness in any of these scenarios. Their poor impulse control, lack of foresight, and dependence on narcotics means they would find no place in any highly sophisticated criminal enterprise: they would never achieve greatness and would probably never get promoted beyond the rank of enforcer or the despot’s own knuckle-headed torturer

Think hard before creating your Dark Lord, Prince of Darkness antagonist. Please, I beg you, don’t go down the stereotypical and frankly cartoonish two-dimensional Dick Dastardly route. Think about the banality of evil.

Good luck with your writing. Please let me know how you get on.

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