Dictators are not an unusual phenomenon across the breadth of human history. They can wield absolute power over an entire country (like Napoleon, Hitler, Stalin, Hussein, Castro and Pol Pot), or just have total power over the local primary school, but whether they are at one end of the spectrum or the other they tend to be a complicated and extraordinary individual. Where did they come from? How did they get to where they are? What motivated them to rule? How are they able to maintain their power so completely? What is their is their fatal weakness? Who or what do they truly love? What do they do to people who won’t bend beneath their power? What drives them? Have they reached the limits of their ambition? Where will they go to from here?
Consider creating a dictator or two in your own writing, then explore these types of open-ended questions, and you’ll find that you can form a fascinating and multi-faceted character. They could be the tyrannical bad guy, they could be the misunderstood good guy, or they could be an omnipotent presence lurking at the edges of your fictional world exerting various pressures on your characters. Being creatures of power, dictators can quite literally dictate what your characters can and cannot do, which may make them bend like reeds or provide the impetus to fight against the system. But dictatorships need not all be bad news, there can be aspects of them that are quite stable (usually temporarily), which can make the other characters hesitate in bringing them down. I’ve listed a few dictators below, both real and imaginary, which you might like to draw inspiration from. I’ve included ones that are deceased as then you can find out their full story, from start to end. Sometimes its not the end product that’s the most fascinating, it’s how the person became a dictator in the first place.
- 1984 by George Orwell – This is a truly depressing book based on Orwell’s fear of where communism might lead humanity, but it is an excellent example of using an omnipotent dictatorial power that hovers over the main characters like a dark cloud. It is where the term ‘big brother is watching you’ first arose, and it’s this unseen menace that keeps you fearful for the characters throughout the book as they never know who can see what they’re doing or hear their conversations. You hope against hope that the characters will rise up against their oppression, and despair for them when everything goes wrong. Usually writers use dictators that are present in the action, such as Darth Vader and Palpatine in Star Wars, and Sauron in Lord of the Rings, but a dictator that’s invisible to the characters (and therefore the reader) can provide an unusual and uncomfortable atmosphere for your fantasy world.
- Henry the VIII – I have mentioned Henry before in my blogs and it’s worth mentioning him here as he was a dictator, not only over his people’s political, personal and business powers, but also over their very beliefs. This was a man who held sway with a fist that could be open one day and clenched the next. He was a lover, murderer, charmer, business man, religious reformer, politician and hunter. He could be hypocritical, angry, generous, selfish, bewildering, insane, ruthless and gentle. His reign was one of terror (particularly the latter half), possibly because of the inherited uncertainties of his father’s precarious kingship before him and the genetic illness he’s likely to have had that made him so paranoid. If there’s a person to draw inspiration from for an utterly terrifying and exasperating dictator, look no further than this man.
- Saddam Hussein – Hussein had humble enough beginnings; he never knew his father, his brother died very young, he spent his formative years with an uncle and when his mother remarried he ran away from an abusive stepfather. Because of those early experiences and influences, it’s probably not surprising to hear that he had strong revolutionary tendencies early in adulthood. It’s these kinds of stories that help you to understand the dictator who develops later. Strangely, Hussein was very supportive of his leaders as he rose in status and power and once he became leader he quickly moved to bring stability to his country. The social services available in Iraq early in his reign were unprecedented in the middle east at that time and he also managed to gain support from various western powers. But slowly things began to crumble under his rule; corruption was rife, political arrests escalated, genocide of social minorities occurred, tensions rose with neighbouring countries and war erupted, not only with Iran and Kuwait, but then with the west. And for Saddam it went from bad to worse – his eventual capture and execution were humiliating.
- Ancient Rome’s emperors – The term ‘dictator’ arose in ancient Rome, where a temporary dictatorship was created to rule in times of national emergencies. But no matter the origins of the word, personally I feel that the majority of the Roman emperors were dictators. Many may have been ‘voted’ into their position of power, but once installed, they were usually all powerful. Julius Caesar is one of the best documented Roman dictators. His was a truly hard won rise to power, but he was a highly charismatic and intelligent man who could inspire his men to perform superhuman feats. He also had a weakness for the ladies, including Cleopatra, who was a powerful dictator in her own right. Caesar was a man who people couldn’t say ‘no’ to, but when he eventually did rise to the top of the pile he had his weaknesses and vanities. By limiting the power of those around him and increasing his own (and his titles) he became more and more of a tyrant, and it eventually drove others to murder him in an astonishingly public manner. He wasn’t the first dictator to be murdered and would not be the last; being an emperor in ancient Rome was definitely a precarious position to hold and not one that was beneficial to one’s health.
- Ranavalona I – Dictatorship is by no means the preserve of men, there have been many women who ruled in their own right or who became a dictator alongside their husbands. Ranavalona was a Madagascan queen who elevated to power when her husband died very young. She then aimed to isolate her country and eradicate the growing Christian movement. Ranavalona used forced labour as tax payment, and through this type of labour amassed an army and completed public works, which also resulted in a high mortality rate, disease, regular warfare and harsh justice. It’s believed now that she was simply trying to expand her kingdom while minimising growing European political and cultural influences, particularly French and English efforts to dominate her land. But at the time she was seen by Europe as a tyrant, bordering on the insane. The traditional means of doling out justice was used expansively during her reign and was seen as a celestial form of judgment. It was a ‘trial by ordeal’ using tangena: eat 3 pieces of chicken skin with the poison from the nut of the tangena tree, and if you vomited all 3 pieces you were innocent, if you died or failed to regurgitate all 3 pieces you were guilty. Often animals and slaves would be trialled before the accused was put through the ordeal. About 20% of the population died using this method of trial during Ranavalona’s reign.
I’ve started a Pinterest page on this subject if you’d like more inspiration.