In my world a nation currently involved in a civil war between multiple warring factions is nearing an end.

The man who has appeared as the victor is a blood thirsty tyrant, who continually suppresses and objects to any freedom being given to civil society.

In terms of the leadership of the country all decisions fall on a single head of state, and is almost a regression back into a system of monarchy.

However for the story to continue I require the effects of the dictatorship to have positive outcomes for the state, resulting in the unified state warring with other nations to implement their system of government, to which they have achieved substantial success.

How do I allow the leader to loosen his grip on power, resulting in social benefits to the nation, without it resulting in him being usurped?

Edit: I understand the question in this context is to broad, my apologies for the oversight on my part.

In order to clarify the aspect in which I require assistance, the question fundamentally relates to a type of governmental structure or possible oversight mechanism that could be introduced without necessarily having this result in the leader being place in a position in which he is unable to perform the same task he would, if per se he was still using his military force to hold on to absolute power.

  • $\begingroup$ Hi nESH! Since you're new, do take a moment to review the help center and tour. Right now your question is in the close queue on account of it being too broad in scope. The Stack Exchange model is to write a fairly narrow question focused on one single problem or issue within a worldbuilding context. Please edit your query accordingly, or perhaps make use of our Sandbox. $\endgroup$
    – elemtilas
    Commented Feb 12, 2019 at 13:45
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ The trend for most dictators is for their control to become more intrusive over time, not less. Simply, this is because they (rightly) fear an uprising as their (necessary) cronyism and other policies are (understandably) perceived as injustice and mismanagement. $\endgroup$
    – user535733
    Commented Feb 12, 2019 at 13:58
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    $\begingroup$ I believe this question has been the primary focus of most political philosophers and many religions since the dawn of humanity. Research is in progress, but for now, I suggest closing as “Too Broad” for this site. $\endgroup$
    – SRM
    Commented Feb 12, 2019 at 14:04
  • $\begingroup$ OP you may be interested in this perspective on how people stay in power: youtube.com/watch?v=rStL7niR7gs $\endgroup$
    – Jared K
    Commented Feb 12, 2019 at 15:02
  • $\begingroup$ Could you tell us the technology level / time period of this scenario? $\endgroup$
    – komodosp
    Commented Feb 12, 2019 at 16:20

5 Answers 5


A good example of warlord turned dictator would be Qin Shi Huangdi the "first" Emperor of China. Through massive numbers of troops, mass produced arms, and controlling vast amounts of natural resources Qin conquered the other warring states and proclaimed the Qin dynasty.

Was he benevolent, sorta. To the old guard he was a bloody tyrant that massacred thousands. To scholars he was a book burner known for burying scholars alive, but overall he was a reformer. The true strength of Qin was not his armies, but was his legal system. Qin also embarked on building campaigns expanding the road, irrigation, and canal network which had a dramatic effect on China's population. While the Qin dynasty was short lived it centralized China and led to the prosperous Han Dynasty.

In this case have your dictator focus on reuniting the land and centralizing the rival states into a single government again. Big building projects also help, plus big statues.


He is fair.

His grip need not loosen. He is ruthless. He can be brutal when it serves his purpose. His brutality is brutality with confidence - he does not over react and his measures are always proportional to the situation. He is not capricious and he is not random. He does not play favorites. He has a long term vision for his people, and this does not involve petty rivalries or enrichment of his entourage.

People who want to get away with something fear him. Most people are happy to be living in a stable state, without petty warlords or crooked local politicians. People rise up in revolt because they are hungry and poor and perceive that they are being treated unfairly. They revolt not because they are hungry but because they want fair treatment. If the populace feels it is being treated fairly and they are working as a people to ameliorate the situation, they will not revolt.

  • $\begingroup$ The first paragraph is a great, cohesive and short description of the right person for the job. Also by coincidence, a perfect description of what AI would do on that job. $\endgroup$
    – Alma Do
    Commented Feb 12, 2019 at 14:23
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    $\begingroup$ This sounds like the kind of plot I'd love. At first sight it's clear who's good and who's bad, but nothing is that clear with a better understanding of the situation. $\endgroup$
    – Masclins
    Commented Feb 12, 2019 at 14:29
  • $\begingroup$ You, Sir, are my new hero! Thank you for this! $\endgroup$
    – L Maen
    Commented Mar 2, 2019 at 17:42

TLDR : He doesn't want to be cruel or benevolent, he needs to be in order to stay in power

This answer is inspired by the work of Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Game theory in general. If you speak french, you can also see this video of Science4All.

Basically, your dictator will not act by ideology, or because he is "evil", but will simply do anything to stay in power. Be it kill some opponent or grant some liberty to people.

Let me introduce an historical example to understand how one can be both "good" and "evil" at the same time, just to stay in power : Leopold II Leopold II was King of Belgians in the late 19th century. He was also ruler of Congo. Here some facts about his reign :

In Belgium

  • free school
  • legalize labor unions
  • make child work illegal
  • instore Universal suffrage

During the same time, in Congo,there was a complete military control over the population, with around 10 million deaths.

Yep, the same king granted lots of liberty to one part of his kingdom, while doing atrocities on another part of his kingdom.

But both way of ruling served the same purpose : keep ruling.

The major danger in Belgium was a revolution by the people, so King Leopold was very benevolent to the people. In Congo, which was a colony, things were different, the army held the power. In order to keep the power, he needed to be benevolent to the soldiers, not the congolese population. Therefore, all the rubber system in Congo was made to grant power to soldiers, and make them rich, so they remained loyal, even if this had terrible consequences on the population.

You can adapt his to your dicator : he needed to be brutal in order to win the war, unify the country, and suppress any counter-revolt, but once this was done, he could do more "good" things while remaining in power.


Despotism is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians, provided the end be their improvement. (John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, 1859, as quoted by Wikipedia s.v. List of enlightened despots)

"How do I allow the leader to loosen his grip without it resulting in him being usurped, or possibly to stay in power while at the same time not altering his character entirely?"

The best way to describe the actions and accomplishments of such an enlightened absolute ruler is to model them on the real actions and policies of actual enlightened despots, who have been recognized as such by history.

  • Enlightened absolutism is the conventional name given in history to the "conduct and policies of European absolute monarchs during the 18th and 19th centuries who were influenced by the ideas of the Enlightenment, espousing them to enhance their power" (Wikipedia).

    Everybody agrees that at least the following absolute rulers deserve the name of enlightened despots:

    Considering himself "the first servant of the state", Frederick was a proponent of enlightened absolutism. He modernized the Prussian bureaucracy and civil service and pursued religious policies throughout his realm that ranged from tolerance to segregation. He reformed the judicial system and made it possible for men not of noble stock to become judges and senior bureaucrats. Frederick also encouraged immigrants of various nationalities and faiths to come to Prussia, although he enacted oppressive measures against Polish Catholic subjects in West Prussia. Frederick supported arts and philosophers he favored as well as allowing complete freedom of the press and literature.

    Catherine reformed the administration of Russian guberniyas, and many new cities and towns were founded on her orders. An admirer of Peter the Great, Catherine continued to modernise Russia along Western European lines. [...] The period of Catherine the Great's rule, the Catherinian Era, is considered the Golden Age of Russia.

    Maria Theresa promulgated institutional, financial and educational reforms, with the assistance of Wenzel Anton of Kaunitz-Rietberg, Count Friedrich Wilhelm von Haugwitz and Gerard van Swieten. She also promoted commerce and the development of agriculture, and reorganised Austria's ramshackle military, all of which strengthened Austria's international standing.

    Napoleon's influence on the modern world brought liberal reforms to the numerous territories that he conquered and controlled, such as the Low Countries, Switzerland, and large parts of modern Italy and Germany. He implemented fundamental liberal policies in France and throughout Western Europe. His Napoleonic Code has influenced the legal systems of more than 70 nations around the world. British historian Andrew Roberts states: "The ideas that underpin our modern world—meritocracy, equality before the law, property rights, religious toleration, modern secular education, sound finances, and so on—were championed, consolidated, codified and geographically extended by Napoleon. To them he added a rational and efficient local administration, an end to rural banditry, the encouragement of science and the arts, the abolition of feudalism and the greatest codification of laws since the fall of the Roman Empire".

    Napoleon III commissioned the grand reconstruction of Paris, carried out by his prefect of the Seine, Baron Haussmann. He launched similar public works projects in Marseille, Lyon and other French cities. Napoleon III modernized the French banking system, greatly expanded and consolidated the French railway system and made the French merchant marine the second largest in the world. He promoted the building of the Suez Canal and established modern agriculture, which ended famines in France and made France an agricultural exporter. Napoleon III negotiated the 1860 Cobden–Chevalier free trade agreement with Britain and similar agreements with France's other European trading partners. Social reforms included giving French workers the right to strike and the right to organize. The first women students were admitted at the Sorbonne, and women's education greatly expanded as did the list of required subjects in public schools.

    (All quotations come from the respective Wikipedia articles. Note that I have intentionally selected the good parts; those rulers were absolute despots, and beside the good they also did quite a few bad things. Some of them were intolerant of religious or national minorities; some were blind to the fate of the lowest strata of the society; and none of them hestitated to involve their countries in wars with uncertain odds, sometimes succesful, but sometimes with long-lasting negative effects.)

    Wikipedia has a longer list of enlightened despots.

Wikipedia has an enlightened observation on the matter of enlightened despotism:

Generally, dictators who serve in office for a very long period are more likely to be regarded as enlightened because they will often be forced to pay some attention to the public interest in order to remain in power and, more importantly, to be regarded as legitimate. Dictators who hold office for a brief period of time or are simply members of a rotating dictatorial elite (such as those heading some juntas) may have less charismatic authority and prove to be forgettable and are therefore often easier to demonize.


The Measure of a Man

You have stated that your story ends with the ruthless barbarian in power, and now that he has that power you want him to be a benevolent ruler. So I am going to do a slight reframing and say the inherent question is: What kind of man does anything to gain power and then uses that power to elevate his subjects? I can see a couple of options here that focus on the backstory and personality of your tyrant.

Note that I am moving away from the idea of this benevolence being caused by governmental structures. The fact is that if the ruler has absolute power and was ruthless enough to gain power, he would not hesitate to remove or subvert anything that stood in his way. It would just be another extension of his initial rise to power.

The Dauntless Ideologue

Your tyrant is a man of uncompromising ideals who is willing to do anything to remake the world into whatever he feels like it should be. In this case I would consider him being a victim of injustice caused by the previous government/system. He joins the civil war not out of a desire to rule, but a desire for change. He is a man that steps up to solve the problem because no one else will.

Whatever kind of positive outcome comes from his rule is intentional. The whole point to all of his previous actions was to get a place where he could enact change and raise his people up. His actions looked ruthless and cruel to the factions that he fought against but his supporters see him as a guerilla fighter and a hero of the people.

The Heartless Altruist

This tyrant is after power and actively sought out his rule using any means necessary. Violence, assassination, blackmail, extortion. Your ruler is coldblooded and sees the people around him as little more than pieces on a game board, to be moved and used and manipulated in whichever manner provides the optimal results for himself.

All of that said, this kind of ruler is not a cartoon villain who is Evil for Evil's Sake. Manipulating people for your own goals does not inherently mean harming them. After a brutal civil war the nation will want peace and to heal. Your tyrant will do as much as possible to facilitate this and make the common people happy as part of his plan to consolidate his power. With enough political savvy your ruler could easily purge his political enemies and spin it as him casting down the old guard and reforming the nation. Taxing the nobility or wealthiest merchants lets him raise capital to be spent on civic projects like better roads and more schools or hospitals. And if that also happens to bankrupt his political opponents and naysayers then really everyone wins.

The Charismatic Fanatic

This one is a bit simpler in terms of motivation, but also requires some assumptions about the people in the nation. This ruler is driven similar to the Ideologue but his motivation is external instead of coming from a personal principle. The tyrant is a true believer in a religion or other cause, and sees the civil war as a way to further that cause. He is able to rally the people using impassioned speeches quickly gains massive amounts of popular support in his bid to unite the country. His army of peasants and farmers may not have the same quality as the other factions, but quantity has a quality of its own.

This is going to be a finer line to walk for what you want than the other two examples, just because it is so easy for this type of leader to be exclusionary. Our history is pretty rife with people who rode a wave of demagoguery to power and then proceeded to only make things better for the part of the population that agreed with/supported them. Depending on your exact definition of "benevolent" there is a lot of wiggle room for some group to be suppressed while the ruler's base is elevated. That kind of dynamic is really sustainable unless the suppressed group is in the minority, in which case you have more or less invented Hitler.

Assuming you can get around that hurdle and not make the ruler a fantasy fascist, the rest of it comes together nicely. He is ruthless because he is serving a higher power/ideal and that always gives people an excuse. He is benevolent because that is also part of what he believes in. This leader even has something like a structure or group that can help mitigate their worst traits, since there is bound to be some church or organization already in place that will have a say in things.

Heavy Lies the Head

Your ruthless tyrant is a person and people are almost never one dimensional robots. He will have a history, personality, flaws, and a worldview which will all contribute to the actions he takes. You already know the end result, things getting better when no one would have expected that. The rest of the job is just working backwards from there and deciding exactly what kind of a man would end up in that situation.


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