Today’s blog is the last installment of my series on creating fictional governments.
A lot of books, shows, and movies feature tyrannical rulers (kings, queens, emperors, etc.) that are very cruel, childish, or just very unlikable.
These stories tend to be very predictable—the tyrant is really bad, people rebel and eventually overthrow the tyrant, and a better person is put in charge (hopefully).
This predictability isn’t always a bad thing. After all. it can be so satisfying to witness the clash of ideas—ruler against rebels, freedom vs tyranny, right vs wrong.
However, you may notice that some fictional stories which feature tyrants make no logical sense.
Not to say that having a tyrannical ruler in charge of a bunch of citizens isn’t realistic—after all, history is full of stories about tyrannical rulers who mercilessly abused their power and put a swift end to any hint of rebellion. But if you have a tyrannical ruler in your story who everyone hates and wishes was gone—and there aren’t already a ton of plots in place to get rid of them—you may have to ask yourself a very important question:
How can a tyrant have so much power over people who hate them?
5 Steps To Create An Intimidating Tyrant
Even if you can’t think of a single reason for the people in your story to tolerate a terrible ruler, don’t freak out!
Believe it or not, there are many ways for your tyrant to rise to power and keep a firm grip on their position. In this blog, I’ll be going over five basic steps to help you create a complex and intimidating tyrant for your stories.
To make explanations easier, I’m going to operate under the assumption that your tyrant is a king or queen, but this information can be used to create a tyrannical ruler in any genre (sci-fi, dystopian, etc.).
#1 Gather Support
Even if your tyrant was next in line for a throne, that doesn’t necessarily mean that people will automatically obey their every command. The first thing your tyrant needs when they come to power is support. People who are willing to enforce your tyrant’s words and laws.
After all, if no one actually listened to a tyrant, there wouldn’t be a tyrant—just a really bossy, annoying, and potentially insane person.
But why would anyone in their right mind support your tyrant’s tyranny?
The answer is actually quite simple. A lot of people are willing to help people—no matter who they are—as long as they get something out of it in return.
Perhaps your tyrant promised that the nobles, merchants, etc. who support the crown will be given special privileges, like land, livestock, money, favors, or even some power of their own.
Or maybe your tyrant’s supporters have similar viewpoints to your tyrant, and are supporting them because of the views they share.
These ideological supporters would be far more loyal than the ones that were bribed, so if your tyrant happens to be a more intelligent character then they would realize this, and try to get as many of these supporters as possible as they establish their rule.
#2 Collect Weapons & Issue Threats
Once enough people have been won over to the tyrant’s side, the tyrant can start showing their true colors—first in small ways, like ensuring that they’re the only ones with access to powerful weapons (or any weapons at all if possible), then in bigger ways like disposing of dissenters or anyone else who could challenge their rule.
All right! It’s time to show what happens to those who disagree with your tyrant, and to do that, your tyrant needs to make it clear that the only way to be safe is to follow their commands—but a show of power and authority like that is risky.
If the tyrant is too unjust right away then the warning bells will start going off in everyone’s minds, and some of them may start talking bad about your tyrant.
To keep that from happening, your tyrant will have to employ special measures…
#3 Limit Communication
Your tyrant can’t just come out and say, “hey, I’m a tyrant and I’m going to kill or imprison anyone I don’t like”.
Fear is a great thing for a tyrant, but too much fear could turn into frustration and anger, which could lead to rebellion.
Instead, your tyrant needs to consider what they want people to know, and what they’d rather keep hidden, or manipulate.
To do that, your tyrant will need to limit unfiltered communication as much as possible. Instead of letting the people hear that your tyrant is sentencing someone to death because they disagreed with them, the people should hear that the person committed treason against the crown, and must die for justice to prevail.
It’s possible that some people won’t be convinced by this explanation and will voice their doubt to each other, but as long as the majority accepts it and no one cares enough to look into it, your tyrant will be safe from suspicion.
#4 Control Education & Produce Propaganda
Another way for your tyrant to get people to accept their authority is by teaching them to accept it.
Laws can be made so people and their children will only be taught what your tyrant deems “acceptable”. Books and other sources of information should either agree with your tyrant’s beliefs or be hidden from the public’s eyes, if not destroyed.
Of course, your tyrant will have to be subtle or risk being found out, but if your tyrant can figure out how to get the people to believe that their lives would be so much worse if it weren’t for your tyrant, then the tyrant’s crown and title will be safe from danger.
#5 Distribution of Goods & Technology
To ensure absolute control and power, there is one more thing that your tyrant would need to do, and that’s to either seize control of or monitor the means of production and distribution of goods in their kingdom.
The easiest way to do that is to go through the merchants, guild masters, farmers, blacksmiths, and whoever else creates the goods used in the kingdom daily. Having the ability to determine where these goods go gives the tyrant many options. If a rebellion should arise, then goods can be cut off from that part of the kingdom until the rebellion is dealt with. It also gives your tyrant access to the best goods for themselves or their supporters.
Besides monitoring the production and distribution of goods, your tyrant may also want to keep up to date on technology. If there are people in the kingdom who are intelligent or innovative, they may create inventions or have brilliant ideas that could make significant improvements to the kingdom.
These inventors and intellectual types are the people that your tyrant will either want to employ or dispose of. If they’re on your tyrant’s side, then they’re useful, if not, then they’re dangerous.
Give Your Tyrant A Personality
So, there you have it. To create a complex and interesting tyrant for your rebels or other characters to face off against, you need to give the tyrant some level of intelligence and plenty of ambition. Of course, they’re going to make some mistakes and enemies, even if they are smart. But having a tyrant with skills, hopes, desires, and more of a personality than being “cruel, childish, and insane” will elevate your story to the next level.
Before You Go…
As I said at the beginning of the post, this is the end of my latest world-building series: Creating Fictional Governing Systems. Did you enjoy it? What other topics would you like me to cover?
Let me know down in the comments!
Check out the last blog here!
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This is really cool! Thanks for the post, Thirzah!
Thanks so much, Abby! I’m so glad you enjoyed it!