Q: How many evil sorcerers does it take to change a light bulb?
A: One — he holds up the light bulb, and the universe revolves around him.
After reviewing chapters from several first-time authors writing epic fantasy novels, I’ve been inspired to set down a few thoughts about evil sorcerers. The following observations apply equally well to evil gods, demigods, protogods, semigods, wizards, magicians, witches, unholy hags, emperors, kings, princes, dukes, earls, and barons.
You must first, last, and throughout your writing understand that these characters are megalomaniacs who crave attention and live to take risks. There is simply no other excuse for any of them to visit a smelly dungeon, far from his or her perfumed quarters, merely to gloat over victims and indulge their trivial questions and last wishes before granting them an exquisitely gruesome death. Indeed, the sensible thing would be to order the victims cut into little pieces and dumped into a crevasse. Where is the epic fantasy in that?
When writing the character you must honor the megalomania, or you risk creating a merely semi-evil character, and thus a not-so-epic fantasy. There is no place where the risk is higher than in dialogue.
Before you allow your villain to speak, you must sit him or her down in your writer’s den and lay out the following basic rules:
- Never use contractions. When speaking aloud, remember, you are On Stage and In Control. If you could speak in rhyming iambic pentameter, you would; thank God, you can’t, so don’t try. But don’t let that affect your delivery. Contractions are for the little people. Furthermore, you must always speak with a London theatrical accent. If you grew up in Brooklyn, we’ll need to get you a speech coach.
- Never use slang. No self-respecting evil demigoddess will say, “I’m gonna whack your kid, dude.” It will be, “I shall kill your child, mortal fool.”
- Never apologize to your victims.
- Never admit being subject to fate. After all, who is in control here? The Laws of Physics? Pah. You’d break them right now if you hadn’t just done your nails.
- Never scream, with two exceptions: either a) you are meeting your well-deserved end, or b) you have irrecoverably lost control of the situation and have just figured this out. Note that in either case, you get at most one screaming fit per novel.
- The above rule may be ignored if you are a schizophrenic megalomaniac. In that case, you may periodically lose control during an ordinary conversation and scream abuse at minions, victims, thin air, or even yourself. Such fits are usually accompanied by gratuitous vaporization of the occasional minion and/or rare object d’art.
- You may indulge in purple prose with self-reference in third-person plural, such as, “We, the Lords of Death, have vowed to slay the Child of Destiny, that troublesome child who emerged into the world of mortals on the day you were born!”
Please note that I’m not recommending purple prose. But if anyone can carry it off, it is your megalomaniac. If your heroes try it, your readers will swiftly turn against them and start to hope the villain will cut them up into little pieces and dump them into a crevasse.
Now, any of the above rules may be broken if the result is clearly deceptive, cruel, sardonic, or patronizing. Indeed, insincere apologies are a staple of evil dialogue: “I am truly sorry, Mr. Bond, that I cannot spare the time to watch my pet sharks devour you.”
The megalomaniac’s need to be the hero of his own drama is what allows the real heroes to extract information from him. Yes, he’s the bad guy, and he does bad things. But he really means well, and he’s obsessed with convincing people that he’s merely tragically misunderstood. He has a Vision. He wants to share his Vision, and wants everyone to see his point and agree that he really ought to rule the world. The heroes can play along and entice him to reveal all sorts of things he really should keep to himself. However, the evil character is not stupid –- he will soon see through these attempts to lead him on and will progress to the gruesome death part.
Your villain’s need to take risks is what provides the heroes their opportunity to escape or foil his plans. There must be a flaw in the trap, or there is no risk; if there is no risk, the bad guy might as well order them cut up into little pieces, etc. If the heroes are recaptured after an escape, the evil character will be compelled by his own nature to offer them another flawed trap, simply to prove that he has outsmarted them this time.
Honor the megalomania, and your evil characters will reward you with a truly chilling “Bwaaa-haa-haa!”