In my world, there is an "evil" empire trying to expand its rule. However, in reality, they are just like any other empire expanding. Despite this, I still want to make them like a force the protagonists need to defeat.

When trying to create it, I suddenly realized that I ended up making it way better and less corrupt than the main kingdoms. Though this does sound like a good concept, I am trying to make it so, story-wise (but still worldbuilding), the empire is a greater evil than the smaller corrupt, feudal kingdoms and citystates. What are some ways that the evil empire can not be all that bad, but not too humanized?

For facts about them I have for now:

  • The evil empire is based on the Ottoman Empire in their golden years, and also some Mediterranean influence

  • While they are intellectual and socially ahead of other kingdoms, having gender equality, racial equality, and lgbtq rights, they are ruthless and brutal in warfare

  • They do not really have any rules of war or chivalric codes, so they are seen as animals when it comes to war

  • They offer smaller nations the ability to peacefully join, but if they refuse, they will mercilessly butcher their military and destroy their cities

  • Like the Ottoman Empire, they will allow the practice of outside religions, though will have a tax on it

  • The empire is highly Jingoistic, and as mentioned above, are highly expansionist

  • $\begingroup$ "The evil empire is based on the Ottoman Empire in their golden years" well there you go then, problem solved, your large empire is founded on large scale systemic slavery, particularly among its government structures and military, just tone down the pretty decent treatment and career advancement many slaves had in the ottoman empire a bit, play up the negative aspects and don't use slavery in your small empires, now why did you need to ask again? or didn't you know that about the ottomans? $\endgroup$
    – Pelinore
    Dec 9, 2022 at 21:29
  • $\begingroup$ @Pelinore: The problem being that significantly altering the meaning of the word slavery will make the empire utterly disfunctional. The Ottoman Empire worked (and was not evil at all) because the people called slaves in their administrative and mostly military structures were actually in a position not very far removed from what we would call guaranteed lifetime employment. Making them into American-style slaves would be completely impractical. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Dec 9, 2022 at 22:37
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @AlexP Ahh! Hmm, I think you need to take a closer look at the Ottoman empire, guaranteed job for life isn't really what they had there, that would be a bit of a misrepresentation, they couldn't leave and they served at the Sultans pleasure in the post and location he decreed, also the janissaries and other high position slaves where merely the select and privileged tip of the slave iceberg in the Ottoman empire and not all or even most had it anywhere near as good as they did, yes even the greater bulk of it was rarely comparable to US slavery but I suggest you take another much closer look. $\endgroup$
    – Pelinore
    Dec 9, 2022 at 23:09
  • $\begingroup$ Could you be more specific about what you mean by "not too humanized"? Do you mean that you're worried about people rooting for the empire instead of the heroes (which does seem pretty likely), or what? $\endgroup$
    – Cadence
    Dec 10, 2022 at 0:38
  • $\begingroup$ @Cadence By "humanized", I mean as in they do not seem as bad compared to the other kingdoms. While it is a good concept, the main thing of the story is that, while the main kingdoms are bad and corrupt, they are the lesser evil compared to the evil empire. $\endgroup$
    – Crafter
    Dec 10, 2022 at 3:58

8 Answers 8


Add inhuman goals

I think the reason you're stuck is that you've based your fictional civilization on a real society, and because that real civilization had human (i.e. non-insane) goals, using Reason as a guide to flesh-out its activities will result in non-insane actions.

Now you want to make this civilization bad. That's hard because the source civilization was not designed to be a villain -- it was a real society that emerged from a natural setting and succeeded in the real world for a long time.

You could either discard Reason (which is what some real-world societies actually do, e.g. climate change, subordinating politics to wealth), or you could add goals that are inhuman, which will result in inhuman actions when fed into the same Reason-based system.

My go-to top-level dysfunctional goal these days is "Leader Ego." You describe this society as an "empire," which implies it is a monarchy ruled by a single person. It does not take much imagination to assume that this monarch -- like 95% of historical monarchs -- is a vile piece of shit with numerous personality and character defects. So, just follow through with that line of thought:

  • the POS is a narcissist who has been fed BS from birth about how awesome they are (while actually being a worthless slug)
  • the POS recognizes that their political strength is inextricably linked to the support they receive as a unique individual

As an example, this monarch has decreed that 2% of the national economy be devoted to celebration of his personal rule. That's essentially a 2% tax on all goods and services, to be spent commissioning:

  • flattering statues of the monarch in heroic, philosophical, and other pretentious poses
  • worshipful paintings and portraits of the monarch
  • poems and other formal written paeans
  • parades

It might not seem like a big deal that every town has 5 large statues of the monarch, with regular public poetry readings about how awesome he is. How bad could a North Korean-style national cult of personality be?

But when you tell people that vital, scarce resources are being diverted from worthy causes for the sole purpose of publicly masturbating the head of state, it suddenly becomes very hard to make peace with their society, for the simple and obvious reason that it makes zero sense for a massive population to devote any substantial portion of their efforts to the selfish personal goals of any single individual.


You can't because you put them on a cultural divide

Gender equality, racial equality, and lgbtq rights, and stopping religion are major goals for a lot of people. A lot of people are fine tolerating a few other issues if you achieve those things. Someone who say grew up being called racial slurs isn't likely to want to want to side with the 'good' faction which loves racial slurs over the 'evil' faction which doesn't. You could make them more evil, but then people might just hate everyone.


They are only good for their own

You have already given the answer. They might be good in so many ways to our western ideologies, but there are some ways they show thrir brutal teeth. If you don't join them peacefully? Genocide, torture, brainwashing and camps.

The thing is this can be done for everyone, including inside the kingdom. You mention you think women aren't equal to men? You'll be transported to a camp where they brainwash and torture you to make you think like them. Anthing that you do out of line for this utopian culture is met with unreasonable punishment.

Your story actually allows for much more finesse though. Warfare often includes demonising the enemy. You can be as good as you want, but your enemy can still make you look inhuman and cruel. This might be the reason to attack.

But in the end it can be a matter of perspective. When Irak was invaded many were killed. Accidents kill innocents, but even in the soldiers some have simply been coerced, forced or was this the only opportunity for a good job. Imagine just trying to do your job and some invaders with tanks shoot at you? Or kill part of your family? So many might have opposed the invading forces, simply because their house was destroyed, or their business shut down, or family members and friends killed. If you take their perspective you can easily find reasons for terrorism.

I'm not saying this absolves either party for what they did. I'm just saying that taking a certain perspective anyone perceived as good by one can be a demon for the other.


Congratulations for trying to create a villain who has some plausible motive, who doesn't just break into insane laughter and shout, "We will destroy all that is good and right and true!" In real life, evil people routinely believe themselves to be justified. Like the Nazis didn't say, "We will kill all the Jews because we have an irrational hatred of Jews." They said, "The Jews betrayed our country in the last war and we must take steps to protect ourselves from them betraying us again." People who supported slavery didn't say, "We enslave these people because we hate them for no reason". They said, "These poor people do not have the intellectual capacity to rule themselves, and so we must provide them with our wise guidance and rule for their own good." Etc.

As to how to paint a believable evil empire ... I don't see the problem. There are many forms of evil in the world: from genocide to mild censorship. Why can't you just attribute enough evil to these people to make them the bad guys while not being over the top? If you look back at your first draft and say, Hmm, I made these people just a little bit TOO good, then throw in some relatively minor evil. Say they shut down some opposition news media or arrested a dissident poet on trumped up charges. If you say, I made them a little too evil, then drop out some evil you attribute to them or give them an excuse for it.

Presumably some of their evil will be integral to the plot and can't just be added or dropped. Like if the plot centers around them invading a neighboring country without provocation and the whole story is about this war, you can't just drop them being expansionist and militaristic without destroying the story. But they probably have many goods and evils that you tossed in just to set the tone, and that you could add or subtract without changing the whole story. Just add a mention of the hero hears about this evil thing they did, or the leader of the evil empire gives a speech where he explains why they committed this evil and it sounds at least marginally plausible.

You give a list of the goods and evils you ascribe to them. Whether that makes them evil enough or too evil is hard to say. Compared to what? And by what standard? What I would call a perfect society and what you would call a perfect society are not necessarily the same thing.


They are efficient and impersonal.

Imagine a "good kingdom" based on the traditional feudal pattern. The king (and it is a king, male primogeniture) rules by birthright and the grace of God. He claims to own all land, and then grants feudal fiefs to the earls and dukes. The dukes grant fiefs to the barons and minor gentry. Each village of serfs is tied to the land they till for their landlord, they are not allowed to leave or to change the "inherited contract" in any way.

But their personal overlord lives in that manor over there. He knows when the harvest was bad, and he has an interest to preserve the village, so that his son will inherit it one day. Sure, the lord won't go hungry even during famine. And every now and then there is a bad lord. But it is their lord, the one they knew since birth -- his or theirs.

Now contrast the "evil empire." There is a bureaucrat in the capital who expects a certain amount of taxes from the province. In specie, not in kind. Even if there is famine, provincials always complain about famine and hard times, they never want to pay in full.

You called them relatively advanced and enlightened, but there are a couple of ways even such a society could be hard on the colonies:

  • A merchantilist economy which sees the outer provinces as captive markets.
  • Revenues collected by tax farming, with limited oversight over how the contractors collect from defaulters. ("So what if this is your seed corn? I need to pay the crown this year.")
  • A somewhat random military draft, which takes some young people to serve for a decade in another part of the empire. Administered with ruthless disregard for local customs. ("Your only son? No excuse, you have all those daughters.")
  • A set of patent laws that give heavy weight to filing first, in the capital office, and little weight to prior art. Provincial artisans will owe atrocious license fees to patent trolls in the capital.
  • Entry into the administration by competitive exam, taken at a prescribed age. One try at 18, or 21, or maybe 16, win or sink. The exam may be reasonably objective, but if one did not grow up as a native speaker of the central provinces dialect, one is at a clear disadvantage. Part of the exam is to summarize a ten-page report on one page, with grades for style and grammar.

Blood libel

Your society might be otherwise enlightened, progressive and prosperous - but they engage in one utterly horrific thing, and therefore are not really human and deserve extermination. This rationale has been applied again and again in history to dehumanise enemies, especially in contexts of conquest and ethnic cleansing. The term "blood libel" is typically used to refer specifically to the false accusation that Jews performed ritual murder of Christian children in their religious practices; but the Romans accused Celts of human sacrifice, the Christian conquistadors accused the Aztecs of the same, and similar rumors are common fodder in fringe contemporary conspiracies like QAnon. Note that the rumor doesn't even need to be true: the Jews most certainly didn't engage in human sacrifice, the Aztecs most certainly did, and for the Celts the historical record is mixed.

You can pick another taboo, but by and large "abducting people (implied: from my group) and murdering them" is the most common form of this trope. Cannibalism, infanticide and creepy rituals can be added for extra gore.


The nature of their culture is not as important as their role in the story. All that's really necessary for the reader to root against them is that (a) they're getting up to trouble and need to be stopped, and (b) the protagonists are against them. If they're causing a great deal of needless death, suffering, and destruction in going about said trouble-getting-up-to, all the better (or worse, I suppose).
It sounds like this empire is already terrible enough. If they're razing prosperous cities and slaughtering innocents by the thousand, the reader isn't going to be touched by their tolerance of minorities.


Give your Empire a timetable.

They believe they should rule all for they are the strongest and the best. They plan ahead. They conquer a land, consolidate it, repair their weapons, restore their economy, and then choose the next. I remember that wonderful sentence near the start of H.G. Wells' "The War of the Worlds"...

Yet across the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us.

Maybe life is much the same if you are not in the elite. But invasion is coming. Maybe not your turn next, but it will come. I think you can make them dreadful without making them evil.


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