Do Rulers in Fantasy Need to be Evil or Inept?

The White Witch . . . Queen? Turkish Delight Dealer?

I’m not sure where this idea came from, but I’ve seen a lot of people run with it and claim that it’s how the genre works.  You have a ruler, but he/she/it is either a villain or so inept that it makes the heroes look even better.  There may be a kind and smart leader, but that person is minor, gets killed, or manages to still be inept.  It makes one wonder how all of these magical kingdoms exist when nearly every leader is terrible.

Now, this is a generalization and we can all come up with rulers in fantasy who didn’t fall into this category.  They even survived and made a difference in the story.  Maybe it’s that we pay more attention to the negative here and it skews our observations.  For every Theoden of Rohan, you end up thinking of ten Bavmorda of Nockmaar examples.  I can think of a few reasons for this:

  1. It feeds the concept of ‘power corrupts’ and that is a favorite within fantasy.  It can be a magical artifact, ruling a kingdom, or controlling a powerful demon that brings a character into villainy.  We also have a habit of believing that this is true and seeing corrupted leaders in fiction helps to cement this belief.  Seriously, how often do we say that politicians cannot be trusted?  That’s very similar to the idea that all rulers in fantasy need to be evil.
  2. A flawed ruler explains why the heroes are needed.  You would think that both could live alongside each other, but it might not be true.  No reason to have a wandering warrior save the day when the wise and capable king can send out the army.  By making the leadership evil or inept, you create a hole for your heroes to fill.  They are truly needed because there is nobody else to do the job.
  3. It’s fun to have a villain who controls so much political power.  You immediately believe that they have near endless resources, which means they can do anything that is needed to push the plot.  Need an army?  They have that.  Assassins and special agents?  Finest that money can buy.  Demons?  The bad guy just hired a summoner and two dragons.  These villains can also be over the top because they don’t have a big connection to the common folk.  This would explain why they are cruel to their people and take actions that we would see as evil.  For example, you can imagine an evil ruler ordering a guard to be executed for a minor offense than a villain who doesn’t have much to work with.

Now, I understand the use of warlords and evil sorceresses.  Those have been around for a really long time.  The former is an actual thing in some sense with historic leaders setting out on bloody campaigns of conquest.  It might not be the same in fantasy, but it’s still an aggressive ruler that would be seen as evil by anyone in their path.  If you think about it, we remember these kinds of people more easily than the good ones too.  Perhaps it’s the way the human mind works or how society allows us to grow.  We fixate more on the negative than the positive, so it feels that certain roles are more naturally attuned to leaning the one direction.  It could explain why I see people complain that a kind and capable leader is unbelievable and took them out of the story.  Doesn’t say much about our society if we have an easier time accepting dragons than good kings and queens.

So, what do you think about the use of evil rulers in fantasy?

About Charles Yallowitz

Charles E. Yallowitz was born, raised, and educated in New York. Then he spent a few years in Florida, realized his fear of alligators, and moved back to the Empire State. When he isn't working hard on his epic fantasy stories, Charles can be found cooking or going on whatever adventure his son has planned for the day. 'Legends of Windemere' is his first series, but it certainly won't be his last.
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17 Responses to Do Rulers in Fantasy Need to be Evil or Inept?

  1. I see your point of playing the hero and/or the hero’s purpose off the leaders deficiencies.


  2. L. Marie says:

    Great post! I can’t help thinking of Denethor in LoTR and of course Sauron (to a larger extent) and also King Leck in Kristin Cashore’s YA series, Graceling. Leck was extremely evil. Seems like a lot of heroes rise up to take down oppressive rulers. But I saw a film by Zhang Yimou (Hero, 2002), where the oppressive ruler actually served a good purpose. That was very compelling.


  3. Another great post. I think it depends upon what the story demands. I admit, I’ve seen more evil for the sake of being evil, and inept than I want to see again. All characters need flaws and soft spots, so what can we do with those points as a foundation? Evil from one perspective, but with a reason? Maybe not perfect, but a few flaws that don’t quite reach Three Stooges Levels?


    • I agree it depends on the story, but we do seem to default to ‘evil/useless leader’. It isn’t even creating characters with flaws and soft spots here. For some reason, a leader in fantasy tends to be the enemy or inept as long as they’re not the main character. So, it’s more of a stereotype/cliche that gets thrown into the mix very often. One can do whatever they want in a story, but many think this is a staple of fantasy. You can just treat these characters the same as all the others, which would be a first step. Avoid the stereotype or using them as a symbol of bad government unless that’s the point of the tale.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Lord Vetinari, the ruler/dictator of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld city of Ankh-Morpork, wasn’t a traditional type of evil, even though he assassinated the previous incumbent, nor was he inept, but he was still regarded as a villain – mind you, heroes never got the better of him, even if it appeared they’d won 😂


  5. It’s like people have a tough time accepting a kind and generous business leader.


  6. Being at odds with a powerful ruler is certainly how one could create lasting obstacles to place in the way of characters. They can’t get too smug, that way. But I think your point #2 also applies if the ruler themself is limited in some way. They might send out a group of characters to handle a certain situation because they don’t want their own followers to be directly involved.

    It’s true, though, that so many of our fantasy kingdoms are needing to be saved!


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