I’ve shared my thoughts about several clichés in the past – but not all of them. Today, I’m returning to this topic with another one: inept and/or corrupt rulers (with focus on fantasy).
This cliché can take many forms, but the base premise is still the same: a character at the top level of political power (often a king) is unable to prevent a bad guy from rising and sending the world into a turmoil. Worse, their ineptitude may actually help the villain gain power. Possible outcomes range from the leader being made to serve the villain or being overthrown and either imprisoned, sent into exile, or killed.
This tends to be a major part of stories focused on watching a character go from nobody to the savior of the world: an inept leader makes the journey harder as the character can’t count on any help from those who should’ve taken care of this mess in the first place, and has to find their own path.
To use a well-known example: in Harry Potter series, Cornelius Fudge’s fear of facing the reality gives Voldemort an extra year to build his forces.
Why it works
One big reason is that it reinforces the notion that power corrupts. And it does, in many cases. And since justice isn’t always met in reality, people will seek that in fiction. Thus, seeing a corrupt or inept figure of power brought to justice causes a significant reader satisfaction. More so if combined with the hero being from common origins.
It also brings further challenge for the hero, who now needs to deal with two issues: defeat the main villain, as well as try to clean up the mess that allowed the villain to arise in the first place – because if you leave the corrupt undergrowth unattended, it’ll grow another diseased forest. Or something, because I pulled this metaphor out of my hat just now.
How it works
There are several ways how this can work. One of the easiest ways is if the leader falls to darkness, for whichever reason. This may be subtle machination of the main villain or just falling into a series of disillusions and misguided ideals sending the character on a downward spiral.
This can be exacerbated by the character being given more power (whether political, physical, magical, …) than they’re ready to wield. This can lead to the path to hell being paved by good intentions scenario.
In case of direct corruption, the defining traits are likely to be different. Being power-hungry is likely a major aspect, though the source of this may be different. Another scenario is saving the world with a blade’s edge – a villan that wants to remove the inefficient system by force only to become something much worse.
All said above was taken with the corrupt character of power being a major player, but this can work well (and maybe better) as a secondary threat: someone oblivious to the real scope of the dangers about may (intentionally or not) undermine the efforts of a good ruler. Alternatively, they might be too greedy to take the world’s well-being into account – or feel themselves far from the danger.
Such an approach can have some benefits: it shows that there are different types of people at positions of power, and can create actual struggle instead of being just bad. This would be a case where the haggling between people in power would delay the attempts to actively combat the villain and give the them more time to work on their plans.
A long-term issue?
Now, I’m going to backtrack a bit. What has brought me to this topic is the ongoing development of World of Warcraft: Shadowlands. The Warcraft universe has a long history and a backstory that gets more and more complex every year – which leaves it vulnerable to plot holes.
One of the major struggle over the past few years – in larger scale since World of Warcraft: Cataclysm, though there were many examples even before that – is in the development of major leaders. Both Mists of Pandaria and Battle for Azeroth relied on obvious and poor execution of the inept leaders cliché just to put them in motion. More so when the lack of any actual involvement of the major characters was in direct conflict with their character and their past.
Let’s steer a bit aside to avoid a Warcraft-related rant and look what is possible to learn from it: in a story happening over a long timespan, the author(s) should not only stay careful to not contradict themselves but also to not use the same way to set up plot lines… at least not too obivously.
This is a larger issue than it sounds, though: if the world reaches some decent state, it might be very hard – or almost impossible – to let another villain emerge if the people in power are vigilant and doing their job well. In such cases, inept leaders may be just a plot device to allow new threats to emerge all the time (which is the point of videogames especially, but can be a problem in books and movies as well) – and easier to execute than complex reasons why no one saw the next villain coming.
I’ll wrap it up here, and welcome your comments. Do you have an example (good or bad) to share? Personal experience writing such a story – or reading it? I’ll welcome it.
And, in case you’d want to have a look, a list of all the other cliché-related posts from the past.
And that’s all from me for today.