I've noticed a trend of having dictator/world-ruler/people in a position of power characters. Normally, I find these types of characters fascinating - I love hearing the minutiae of how they keep their regime in control, the cults of personality they develop, their rise and their fall ... it's one of the reasons I love 1984 so much; is Big Brother real? Did he even exist in the first place? Who is the real leader of Oceania? Unfortunately, I've begun to see it addressed shoddily and without much thought, so I decided to make a guide of sorts (more like a glorified checklist) for anyone who is curious on how to develop their dictatorial character, and to make them realistic.
1. Why do they want power?
I have seen this written away with, "because they want to control everyone", which is true to an extent with many historical figures who were dictators, and also fictional characters. However, this often goes much deeper than "wanting to control everyone" or "they're mad, I tell you! MAD!". What are their reasons to act this way? Why did they seize power? I'm pretty sure the majority of us wouldn't mind being waited upon hand on foot as we see the territories we own slowly expanding under the steady march of one hundred-thousand booted feet. The difference is, most of us see this as purely fanciful, a bureaucratic nightmare, and just plain stupid.
Yes, I know generally, this is true, but is normally hidden by other reasons, the most common one being, "I want to make the world a better place. I will build a utopia". This simple idea can be expanded wonderfully - what exactly does your character dislike about the world at the minute? A broad spectrum of ideas can be considered - is it poverty? Ideological differences which keep people from getting along? The current government's policies? Obviously, these are very simple, and can once again be expanded - what caused the poverty, has it directly affected your character? Why are there radical idealogical differences, does your character hold fast to one particular idea? Do many people like the current government, are they ineffectual, are they too effective?
Worried you don't know enough about either politics or history to work this out neatly? Well, learn! You'll find it much more satisfying to be able to fill in plot holes you'd left before, and find it gives your character more personality. You can link them more personally to their regime, things will make more sense, their past can be expanded - what started this desire, why did they choose to act on it?
2. How will they gain power?
This next point is linked in closely to the first - how will takeover be achieved? I've seen a lot of, "oh, they just walk up and kill the previous government", but in reality, this step up is often hard worked for (over several years, maybe even decades), and much more subtle. Of course, former leaders have been murdered for the new position, but it still has to be worked for - do they have allies in the right places? What do the public think of them? Would people be desperate or willing enough to follow?
Generally, for a big political change like this to happen, an equally large catalyst is needed - for example, the famine of 1889 in Russia could be argued to have started the rumbling that lead to the Revolution in the 1910s. A lot of characters I see don't have such developed worlds in which they inhabit - the loopholes that allow them to gain support aren't specified, or make little to no sense. Was there a crucial international affair handled terribly by the government, perhaps, or a history of only a privileged few being treated well?
Hitler didn't just storm in and become Führer, Mao didn't just walk in and tell the whole of China that they would be going from aristocratic rule to Communism; these things take planning, often years of being patient and gathering followers have to precede becoming the leader. I don't care how powerful your character is, I don't care if his only weakness is glitter, he is not going to become leader by (presumably) charging in and going "I rule, now!". Which neatly brings me to my next point.
3. The Cult of Personality fail
Another thing I notice is barely touched on, or completely messed up. Yes, your character can be an unpleasant person - they can be short tempered, arrogant, and childish, but unless they project an image of benevolence and care for their citizens, there will be widespread political unrest. Look at propaganda used by real life dictatorships - the leader is often presented as unable to do wrong, or even godlike - they may be pictured as almost Jesus-like saviours of their people, maybe shown as omniscient - in 1984, Big Brother is said to see whatever you do, and as you can tell from Winston's distress, many think he can know the thoughts of his subjects, even though he obviously can't.
How does your character present themselves when in public? As a passionate warrior for their people, or a generous and kind-hearted aide? Do they stay out of the public eye, feigning immortality long after they die, or do they live in it, kiss babies, and embrace adults? And what about out of the public eye? How do they cope with the stress of keeping an entire nation in adoration?
Read this short article on the Cult of Personality, and see how Stalin is presented; compare this to your character, or character in progress - www.historyguide.org/europe/cu…
4. How do they hold their position of power?
The Nazi Gestapo, the Hungarian AVH, the Soviet KGB, all were used to simultaneously terrify and control the citizens. I don't see these types of organisations too much around the types of character this article was written to help improve. Once again, this tends to hinge around world building more than anything. Sometimes a vague secret police is mentioned and then handwaved away, but is never again felt, there never seems to be fear hanging heavily on the shoulders of the characters, they're just brought in where the plot calls for it, and are often nameless, faceless, and we have no idea what they actually do. Why are people so scared? I know sometimes less is more, but still, vague ideas as to what they do should be addressed.
How does your dictator remove potential opposition? Through careful political manouvering, quiet assassination, or blatant murder? How do they crush revolution? Do they outright kill dissenters, or do they turn revolutionaries against each other. Do they prevent it by drugging the water, through propaganda depicting rebels as inhuman, wanting only to tear families apart?
This point links in very neatly with the Cult of Personality - if you develop one well, the other comes much easier. Both are great opportunities to show your character cracking down on what their people do, to show their nastier side.
5. What will they do in power?
Once again, there are a lot of characters I have seen that do nothing in power, apart from maybe gain new lands (without the stresses of war) or have statues of themselves built. There is little to no detail on home affairs, diplomatic relations with other countries/nations, or even smaller things such as healthcare or tax. What are their policies? What do they tell their people they'll improve upon or change? Once again, this may seem intimidating if you don't know much about politics, but it can be easily sorted out, and adds more flesh to the world and your character, tells the reader of their personal beliefs.
Look at the policies historical dictators have stood for, other than war or their own gain. How did they carry on convincing their people everything is done for the country? How did they deal with war? How will your character? Will they go with diplomacy and creating allies, or fighting other countries into submission? How will they deal with the economic strains of war?
6. One-sided characters.
Something I have noticed happening with 'evil' characters in a position of power, is that they don't really do all that much evil. Take Galbatorix from the Inheritance Cycle as an example - what has he done that is so awful? We're told something vague about taxes being high, but Eragon's supposedly poor family can eat chicken for breakfast and have spending money at a fair. We're never really shown what he does that's so awful - for all we know, the Varden could be a terrorist organisation, whilst Galbatorix raises taxes to give his subjects a higher standard of living.
Another simplified version of "they're evil" I often see is something like this -
My character is evil and awful and a bad person.
They kill babies.
Because they're evil and awful and a bad person.
It's very rare this is expanded upon. Very few reasons are given for atrocities. Even something as simple as paranoia could work, but is very rarely mentioned.
We don't often see another side to the character, just the stereotypical cold bad boy, occasionally. We never see how they act with family, or friends, or if they're actually a decent person with twisted ideals. Someone can still be pleasant and a bad person, in the same way someone can be moody and a good person. People who don't develop their characters very well often stick with making the bad guy a one-sided 'bad' character because it's much easier than giving them a personality, dreams, hopes, goals and quirks that can also be associated with a 'good' character.
In conclusion, I hope that this guide helps people with characters they want to make a bit more solid and realistic.