Ghost In The Mirror

Can we see ghosts in mirrors?

Seeing ghostly images in the mirror is a form of scrying. I’ll get into that shortly…

But let’s begin by agreeing that mirrors are, of course, portals to other dimensions.

Just ponder the rationality of that simple statement for a moment. When you look into a mirror, you don’t see yourself. Not really. You merely see a mirrored version of yourself. The tint, texture, and contour of the glass will slightly modify or manipulate the mirrored version that you observe. Therefore it’s not you. It’s a version of you. Remember this when checking your face in the morning!

Snow White Evil Queen Complex

What’s more (and this is even more difficult to understand, so take a breath): the person in the mirror is not the same person that everyone else sees. Not only is the person in the mirror not you (because it’s a modified version) but it’s not even the “you” everyone else sees! Others see a presented image of yourself. The mirror provides a reflected image of yourself. In short, if you really want to examine your “true self” ditch the mirror and don’t worry about what people think or say; instead look deep into your inner being. Right, that’s the Snow White “evil queen complex” dealt with — but it’s drifting away from the main point… so let’s get back on track —

It is important to stipulate that I am not suggesting (at this stage) that anything supernatural is going on when we look into mirrors. But on the other hand, I also think we should properly appreciate how genuinely weird a mirrored surface is. We take shiny surfaces for granted, probably because we’re staring at them for much of the day. Shiny surfaces have a magical authority over us… and even an absolute control over our existence in certain cases. If you don’t believe me, try taking someone’s phone away or denying them a television screen.

Ghost in the Mirror

But back to common-or-garden mirrors, I think it’s because the symmetrical reality of the “mirror world” we experience (I call it the symmetrylity) seems so compelling and perceptive that we don’t recognize the deep and intrinsic flaws in our thinking. We honestly believe that the mirror world is real. However, it is not. It is another dimension. For example, how strange is it that when two people look into a mirror at the same time, they see different images on the same surface! And when a person looks at himself in a mirror, what he really sees is the front and back reversed! You need to be a mathematics teacher if you want to explain the inter-dimensional aspect of mirrors.

Although we might expect a “standard” mirror (perhaps the mirror in the hall) to behave in a rational way, and to always provide an accurate representation of the world around us (albeit in reverse) it’s not true. It won’t! When a glassy surface is not held completely flat then it will behave like a lens and will distort (magnify) what we see. And a mirror that is tilted even moderately (maybe not flat against a wall) will give seemingly realistic results, but it will skew images. While a mirror that curves even insignificantly will, nonetheless, reduce larger images.

Can't Look At Myself

If you add these factors to the strange ability that mirrors possess (they allow us to “see behind ourselves” without turning around, which is one of the most useful benefits of reflective surfaces, but it’s also a bit like looking into the past) — when all these attributes are put together you can guess why some folks claim to see visions in mirrored surfaces. And it’s why humankind, since prehistoric times, has used reflective surfaces to attempt to perceive future events or “see” outside the perspective space & time they found themselves somewhat limited by.

Halloween Mirror

Mirrored surfaces, such as the still dark waters of a sacred pool, or the waters glimpsed in a baptismal font, or polished stones & jewels, or very shiny goblets, or glass spheres, have been used since prehistoric times — for clairvoyance (seeing into future), augury (interpreting omens), and divination (the gift of prophecy). When a reflective surface is used for these paranormal activities, it is called scrying.

Concentrating on the medium of exploration (the reflective surface) is said to help scrying practitioners “focus attention” and “free their mind” in much the same way that a guru might meditate or a priest might be prayerful before a religious service. Maybe it’s a kind of self-hypnosis. After this approach, a scryer might report “seeing” images in a reflective surface. Some scryers even report hearing voices. The famous French seer of the 16th century, Nostradamus, practiced scrying before making his famous predictions; he’d stare into a bowl of water or use a “magic mirror” to see the future world while in a trance. Mirrors seem to lift the veil between what we consider our physical realm and a glimpsed spiritual realm. And it is true that ancient civilizations (such as the Mayans) thought mirrors functioned as two-way portals between humanity and gods.


To understand how mirrors might act as portals, we need to recognise that luminescent surfaces are regarded by some as representations of liminal space and can therefore be thresholds between natural and spiritual realms. To learn more about the fascinating topic of liminality, you’ll need to listen to episodes 13, then episode 40, and episode 51 of my Myth & Magic podcast. I also cover the subject of liminality in depth, in my non-fiction writer’s manual “So You Want To Write Fantasy?” But I think it’s interesting to note that people tend to approach mirrors to ask important questions about their existence and future opportunities at liminal moments in their life (at any thresholds they might encounter.) For example, on a wedding night, getting ready for a funeral, before a big presentation at work or in the dark waters of a font at the moment of baptism. (Note: a child younger than 18 months cannot “see” a reflected image, but what do the godparents see?)

Through the Looking Glass

In literature (especially in fantasy fiction) there is a tradition of using mirrors to combine thoughts on mythology and cosmology and to describe a method of visiting multiple worlds that are typically outside a character’s limitations. I am sure you can think of a hundred examples. A mirror is a useful device because it allows the protagonist to wander (in mind and spirit) without having to leave a prosaic existence. Sometimes there is even the suggestion of a physical trip to an “otherworld”. Thus, Alice reflects on what it must be like to live on the other side of a mirror’s reflective surface, so she chooses to travel “Through the Looking-Glass” in Lewis Carroll’s much-loved tale. Alice discovers an alternate dimension in which everything is reversed, including logic (so, for example, running takes you nowhere, walking away from something returns you to it). She finds that her mirror world is divided into sections by streams (reflective surfaces too) suggesting there are a myriad more dimensions to choose from. Harry Potter comes across a “mirror of desire” perhaps that he might be tempted to use to turn back time (a mirror of Erised) or that can be used as a scrying tool to see his (dead) parents.

The Crystal Ball John William Waterhouse 1902

So, returning to the central question, can ghosts be seen in mirrors? Some people, notably those who are prone to such things, are almost certain to “see” puzzling images in reflected surfaces. Some reported sightings might be because of sensory deprivation (the darkness of the pool or the glow of the chalice), or skewed images that might prove unreliable because of a less than perfect surface. We must also take the mental state of the seer into account (is she at a threshold in life? Is it a time of stress and change?) And the health and mindfulness of the seer must be examined, plus their use of recreational, religious / mystical substances, medicines or intoxicants, and the seer’s lack of sleep, and a host of other factors.

There is probably a lot of pareidolia going on too. Pareidolia is the disposition of all observers to see recognizable objects, patterns — and even messages — in totally disconnected presentations. So, for example, we all see faces in everyday objects. How often have you looked at an electrical socket and thought it seemed to be a smiling face looking back? We all see visions in clouds. And we all see spooky humanoids in reflections. Pareidolia is not some kind of psychosis: it is a normal human tendency. And it explains many curious things.


We must also consider the subjective nature of experience: sometimes we too easily forget that we perceive our environments in a completely different way from those around us. The “seen and understood” universe that we experience differs entirely from the “seen and understood” universe that everyone else experiences. This is due to our sensory perceptions being unique to us. They say that each of us has a unique pattern: but we ought to remember that each of us also experiences a uniquely different world — and although our worlds overlap and seem to have many things in common with each other — each world is experienced in a totally different way. So anyone, at any point in their life, might experience what psychologists will call a benign hallucination on a mirrored surface. It is likely to happen to all of us!

Yes, ghosts are seen in mirrors. And that’s perhaps the least disconcerting aspect of reflective surfaces!

Give Him Money

Agree? Disagree? Ideas or comments? Tweet me @neilmach

Words: @neilmach 2021 ©

Neil Mach is the author of “So You Want to Write Fantasy?” and host of the Myth & Magic fantasy writer’s podcast.

a spurious eurocentric medieval age

Where is the when of your story? In what period should you set your fantasy?

Once upon a time…

Three jaded words that should upset any fantasy author worth her salt…

It implies that the writer is fixing the events of a story in an imperfect & illusory moment in history. A time that is indefinable but, in some unspecified way, oddly familiar to us. If you were a gambler, it’s worth betting that the “when” of a story that starts with “Once Upon a Time” takes place in an abstract and (probably) spurious, eurocentric, medieval village. Yawn!

This lurch towards medievalism is presumably driven by a conscious desire by some writers to emulate their distinguished predecessors, notably Tolkien, CS Lewis, and George R R Martin, but might also stem from an unconscious desire to duplicate the fairy tale, make-believe, world of medieval Europe that was typified by Walt Disney. (Such a special & magical place that we became enchanted by the notion of it while we were still children.)

Medieval Castle

I’m not saying you shouldn’t set your fantasy story in medieval times… if that’s what you want to do, I won’t stop you. In fact, that’s why I discussed some “true” medieval insights in my non-fiction manual: “So You Want to Write Fantasy?” I even explored a range of tangible characters that you might want to use: the true knight, the minstrel, the castellan, the peasant: to provide you with (what I believe) is beneficial information about such roles, hoping to suggest some interesting opportunities for you while at the same time trying to thwart common misconceptions and stereotypes that some writers fall too quickly into: for example, peasants weren’t downtrodden morons, kings weren’t all-powerful, and women weren’t ineffective or helpless.

But back to the key point… In what period should you set your fantasy? The straightforward answer is: the period you know best.

Lady Sarcasm

I’m lucky, because I’ve been here a long time. Tolkein, C. S. Lewis, and George R. R. Martin were also older men who, like me, had seen a bit of life: I can set my adventure in the 1960s, seventies, eighties, or later. The three authors I mention could take their own experiences and rediscover and recreate the adventures in their novels. I am the same. I know “my times” and so they are easy for me to replicate and depict: I have a “feel” for my times. You do too. You know your time. They knew theirs. You will be passionate about your time in the same way they were passionate about theirs.

It is no bad thing to celebrate a simple life...”

― J.R.R Tolkien

But if I ever tried to place my fiction within an unexplored time zone, a period in which I did not feel altogether comfortable and familiar with, then it would present me with additional problems over-and-above the standard task of simply writing a narrative — it would become an investigation project. That’s the problem with writing “costume dramas” (because that’s what they are): the author will have to use due diligence to recreate an authentic picture of a world they have never seen and never been a part of. And that requires mental work. It takes time. And if you don’t do justice to it, it will be gibberish. And you’ll be criticized. And it’s a rigmarole too. I am not suggesting that it’s not entertaining and even quite fun to undertake historical research… but does it not take an author away from the principal task: writing a wonderful story? I think historical research is a diversion.

I guess the hardest part of the writing process is the transformational ability to convince the reader that he/she is reading about a genuine person, something real, an actual place, or an authentic situation. This is what I believe to be the transpersonal element of fiction, and I suppose it will be more profound if we derive the representations or illustrations we pen from our own (author) experiences or consciousness.

Angel of Mons

So Tolkein never fought the hordes of Sauron in Mordor, but he fought in the murderous chaos of the trenches of the Somme, during World War I.

Similarly, CS Lewis never became an adult in just a few weeks after having travelled through a wardrobe and into a magical world, but he experienced trench warfare (also on the Somme) and the experience felt as if it lasted much longer than it literally did and he suggested it felt like an “absence from Earth”. 

J.R.R Tolkien
― J.R.R Tolkien

George R R Martin never experienced The Long Night, but he was a product of the Great Depression and knew great hardship. And though he was never a sworn brother sent to patrol the Wall, he was eligible for conscription in the Vietnam War (he got conscientious objector status) and did alternative service work as a VISTA volunteer for two years. He “patrolled” his wall.

You often hear them say “write what you know” but to be honest, I think that is utter nonsense. I prefer the affirmation: write what you feel passionate about. I think Tolkein, Lewis and Martin had close scrapes with destruction. They looked barbarism in the eye and witnessed atrocity and inhuman cruelty for themselves: and this inspired them: it is what makes their writing unshakable, moving and intense.

But let’s get back to discussing in what period you should set your fantasy: have you ever wondered why authors don’t set their fantasy tales during the First World War? Or the Second World War? Or Vietnam? Or during the armed invasion of Iraq? I guess it’s the impression that there is already “too much going on” in times of conflict and that the people involved in the comings and goings of wartime have little time for the whimsical or the fantastic.

But that’s not absolutely true: a supernatural entity protected the British Army from defeat at the Battle of Mons in Belgium in August 1914 (supernatural archers and an angel witnessed by several hundred military personnel) and there were frequent reports of angelic interventions, ghostly visions, “White Cavalry” (in Bethune), many prayer-provoked supernatural events, angels seen during air raids on the front lines and at home, visions of crosses in the sky, and many miracles involving chance mists that came out of nowhere to hide (and protect ) allied armies. Imagination and fantasy were alive and very real, even during war.

So, in short, be credible, try to use your own experiences (which will make your writing more exciting), avoid unnecessary research by setting your fantasy in a time period which you are familiar with; or try to establish your story at a critical moment in real-world history. Be resourceful. Be brave. Above all, be inventive.

Let me know where your “when” is… tweet me @neilmach

Words: @neilmach 2021 ©

I heartily recommend the book shown below. It’s a sensible shape and size, written by someone who’s not at all famous and it’s relatively unhaunted: “Moondog and the Reed Leopard” is available for purchase now:

Poppins Paradox

What is the only essential ingredient of fantasy? The Poppins Paradox explained

Apropos something else entirely my wife yesterday suddenly exclaimed: “I didn’t think Mary Poppins was a fantasy adventure…

I looked at her and grinned, then I made a sarcastic observation along the lines of: “No, I reckon it was a documentary film…”  but I later added, “What do you think the story of Mary Poppins is, if not fantasy?” As you can imagine, there was no answer to that question (probably just a slap!) However, the exchange got me thinking: what ingredients are required before you can say that something is a fantasy?


For example, using the Mary Poppins source to extend the argument: is one criteria of fantasy that it must reproduce an imaginary universe? Do not all works of fiction, be they speculative fiction, magazines, art, movies, etc. don’t they all fabricate imaginary worlds? Are not even daytime theaters, prime-time soap operas, and even the most daring kitchen sink dramas, regardless of the creator’s impressive attempts to depict reality & literal truth, are they not imaginary universes? So why don’t we call them fantasy?

real London?

The Poppins Paradox is that the story is based on a (in the film version, clumsy and hackneyed, I agree) “real world” setting, in this case London, at a point in “real world” history (a Disneyfied Edwardian England, I suppose) and it incorporates a cast of what seem to be, anyhow on the face of it, ordinary “real world” people. Actually, the British-Australian writer P. L. Travers always knew (and she always intended) that her books would be classed as fantasy adventures… and that’s because they featured a magical English nanny. So is it the addition of a “magical” element that makes a story a fantasy — rather than any attempt to create an imaginary universe?

Oz World

As fantasy writers, I think we can get bogged down (and easily convinced) into thinking we need to create imaginary universes. From L.Frank Baum’s Oz World (above), via Tolkein’s Middle Earth and across DC Comics’ multiverse and into James Cameron’s ecosystem, dropping by the continents of Westeros and Essos on the way through —  we have so much enjoyed reading about & creating our own detailed imagery for invented worlds that we get lost within them. (By the way, these are paracosms, and I discuss them in my non-fiction manual “So You Want to Write Fantasy” — and I also explain why you and I might be drawn into paracosmic worlds) — I’m not saying this is a bad thing — I’m just saying it’s not essential for fantasy…

But that brings us back to my original thought: what is the essential ingredient of fantasy (if it isn’t an imaginary universe?)

As I have said before, in much more detail, the supernatural and the fantastic have always been an essential part of any fiction project (not just fantasy fiction.) In fact, ancient civilizations couldn’t separate storytelling from fantasy… and maybe neither can we!

We're Diabetic

Imagine if I gave you a true-life account of one hour of my life from yesterday… a bit like a witness might give his accurate testimony in court… I think it would bore you to tears, and you would probably unplug or fall asleep before I’m done. Not only would my minute-by-minute and step-by-step story be tremendously tedious… it would also be long (endlessly long, you might think) because it would have to take-up more than an hour to narrate, because every component or aspect would have to be fully explained. Most undesirable of all, though,there wouldn’t be any point to it. There’d be no benefit. So you would ask: what was the point of all that? Why did I waste a good part of my life listening to it? What did I get out of it? In short, a real life account of an hour of my life would be an absurd and unproductive waste of time. Knowing this to be true, ancient storytellers sensationalized, romanticized, and glamorized their stories: they made them fantastic, even if those same stories were based on true events or real-world history. In other words, they hyperbolized the cojones out of their accounts! And the public loved it. So the storytellers knew they were onto something. And that’s how real life and the fantastic got mixed up.


Along came a Bulgarian-French historian named Tzvetan Todorov (1939-2017) who famously claimed that the “fantasticis a liminal space within the architecture of life. This is why I bang-on about liminality so much!

I previously covered liminality in greater detail in my Myth & Magic podcasts (you’ll need to listen to Episodes 13, then Episode 40, and Episode 51 please find the link below) but basically (very basically) it’s the idea that there are moments in our lives when continuities and situations dissolve or become uncertain or outcomes that are previously certain will be thrown into doubt… these are liminal periods (or thresholds) in our life; we meet them rarely (but occasionally) and we all experience them.

We will find (all of us) that during liminal moments (most often experienced in rites of passage) our understanding of time becomes fluid and malleable. And when time is amorphous like this, everything we think is true can be doubted.

Why do I feel so tired?

I propose that conjuring liminality, the positioning of ourselves or our readers on an impermanent (almost evanescent) threshold — is the only essential criterion of fantasy. This is why portals are so important in fantasy stories: you leave from a “real place” and enter the magic world of Narnia through a wardrobe, you board the Hogwarts Express and enter an imaginary world from King’s Cross station in London through Platform Nine and Three Quarters. Bilbo Baggins and, after him, Frodo leave the Shire to enter into their magical adventures at a liminal moment in their real lives (their joint birthdays.)

Even the act of picking up a book and immersing oneself inside the world it describes (or luxuriating in a fantasy adventure on screen) is a temporary journey into a metaphysical dimension. Yes, reading and viewing is a transitional moment (a temporary interruption) in how we experience the mechanical passage of time. How often do we suddenly blurt: “Good grief, is that the time?” after reading in bed for too long. How often do we leave a cinema and enter the pale sunlight (blinking) and think “gosh, the real world seems so weird...”

And Mary Poppins? She is caught up in the lives of the Banks’ children, Jane and Michael, and twins John and Barbara, by the east wind. Why then? Because it was a time of liminality: a fluid, malleable and impermanent time when new rules could be established for the young family, and a new “normality” could begin. Poppins always promised she’d “pop out” of their existence once the wind changed… and she did. Poppins’ period was transitional and she, the bearer of change, was merely a temporary evanescent visitor.

So to sum up: fantasy has many desirable ingredients: magic, supernaturalness, fantabulous plot elements, highly imaginative themes & settings, magical creatures, and detailed imaginary universes… but it has only one essential criterion: a sense of disorientation at a transitional moment: liminality.

Agree? Disagree? Ideas or comments?

Words: @neilmach 2021 ©

Comments? Tweet me @neilmach

Neil Mach is author of “So You Want to Write Fantasy?” and host of the Myth & Magic fantasy writer’s podcast.

Is magic impossible? How can an author make magic more believable?

Is magic impossible? How can an author make magic more believable? Why do some readers hate the idea of magic? Here are things you can do to make magic believable

We want to believe in something that’s exciting, wondrous, and dumbfounding. It’s the nature of human expectation.

Our worldview has evolved so we expect to “attain” the unattainable “reach” the unreachable and “think” the unthinkable. This gives us the drive and determination to create and develop. So, of course, fantasy authors turn to sparkling promise and glistering dreamstuff when they write fantasy epics. They choose to rustle things from thin air, and they like to create characters that come super-equipped with extraordinary — perhaps even preposterous — potential.

And let’s be clear, science has taught us that nothing is truly impossible: “Any science or technology which is sufficiently advanced is indistinguishable from magic” said novelist Arthur C. Clarke. This means that if anyone ever reliably demonstrates magic, it’s not magic any longer… because it has become science!

But why do some readers hate magic so much? And what can we do, as fantasy authors, to offset or reduce these reader aversions?

Three Wishes

Well, for a start, it might be because these folk think of themselves as rationalists so they don’t base their beliefs on emotional responses and untested knowledge. They almost certainly don’t base their understanding of this universe on tittle-tattle. Such level-headed individuals are quite certain that there’s little or no physical evidence to show the existence of what we like to think of as “magic.” Most accounts of magic are just urban myths, cautionary tales based on symbolism, superstitions based on quasi-religious beliefs, fantasy inspired hoaxes or enjoyable ‘campfire’ anecdotes.

Often we learn of magical happenings by re-quoting or hearing about the experiences of a friend of a friend. (This is what’s known in social science circles as: FOAF) When sharing knowledge of supernatural experiences, there is a tendency to offer no actual firsthand testimony of a magical event; neither will any witnesses be put forward to test the accuracy of the testimony — in fact, the identity of witnesses is never known to the narrator, because witnesses to supernatural events are generally FOAF; in other words, the narrative is little more than hearsay. 

Second, there has never been a magic spell or an enchantment that has been subjected to peer review. So, without refereeing, how can we ever trust something that’s not been tested for quality standards or performance? How has its credibility been proved?

Book of Spells

Next there’s the upsyturvy conundrum. How come, not once, has there ever been an empirical scientific discovery that has been deemed wrong, only to be replaced by a more convincing magical explanation?  Yet, the upsyturvy upshot is very often the case —it happens the other way around, all the time. For example, here are some magical ideas that have scientific explanations:

  • stones that fall from space [physicist Ernst Chladni proved meteorites come from space, in 1794]
  • human-created force fields [these became a verifiable fact in 1995 with the invention of the “plasma window”]
  • invisibility [research into metamaterials to make objects disappear continue, breakthroughs were in 2006]
  • teleportation [entanglement of large molecules was proved possible in 2002]

And what about controlling gravity to move things around? Or manipulating cells so wounds fix faster? Research is being done into both those things right now, with marked success. So, how come we can’t “wish” a spacecraft into orbit or make a talisman that provides its wearer with immunization against all ills? How come angels don’t arrive to save people from disaster? How come voodoo doesn’t protect the rain-forests? And when (if) these things ever happen, won’t they be scientific break-throughs?

Lastly, there’s the immutable balance of universal forces to contend with. In the universe there’s an equilibrium that depends on fundamental forces such as: gravity, strong force, weak force, and electromagnetism. It’s possible that there are universal forces yet to be discovered, though there can’t be many and they must be rare. But we can safely assume that the balance of the universe can’t be shifted or confounded without Cartesian notions of causation.

So what can we do about these inconsistencies as fantasy authors? How will we make our magic more believable? How will we bridge the gaps and jump the obstacles?

Magic Orb

As a fantasy author, you might one-day face a crisis… how do you include “acceptable” magic in your writings? Here are some tips:

  • Write about emotions. Emotions are magic. We cannot see them. They cannot be evaluated. And they manifest themselves in different ways and differently from person to person. However, they are part of our human experience and being emotional is a magic we all perform. Concentrate on emotions in your storytelling.
  • Write about storytelling. Words are magic. Think about it. As an author you pass a “thought” from one person to another using telepathy and a scatter of runes (runes are just the ink spots on paper or dots on the screen). How does this magic happen? How does a story materialize into the mind of the recipient?
  • Write about maths. Numbers are magic. Numbers don’t really exist. They are simply convenient ideas that might be scratched onto paper or evaluated.
  • Write about money. Money is magic because numerals are magic. Money doesn’t exist. Money is just a convenient idea that can be easily assessed within a spreadsheet.
  • Write about humans. Humans are magical beings. You don’t need unicorns and werewolves to add magic to your story. We come “out of nowhere” and one day we will enter “into nothingness.” However, for a short time we are capable of singing, laughing, inventing, creating and loving. Isn’t that magical? We seem so ordinary, yet we encompass everything that is impossible. And that is true magic. Isn’t it?

Comments? Tweet me @neilmach

Neil Mach is author of “So You Want to Write Fantasy?” and host of the Myth & Magic fantasy writer’s podcast.

The Dark Lord Trope

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.