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How to Write a Tyrant

by Wadzanai Mufunde

Fantasy is filled with kings and queens, both kind and cruel alike. Today we will focus on the cruel ones and dissect what characteristics make a truly tyrannical leader and how to write a tyrant.

Narcissism & Selfishness

Portrait of a businessman looking at himself in the mirror

A narcissist is a person who has an excessive interest in or admiration of themselves. It is a personality disorder, but nowadays it is used interchangeably to mean a self-centered individual. This can lead to confusion, but in this article I will use it to refer to the disorder.

Characteristics of of Narcissistic Personality Disorder include but is not limited to:

  • Frequent lies and exaggerations
  • Rarely admits flaws
  • Aggressive when criticised
  • Rule breaking
  • Manipulation
  • They are emotionally abusive
  • Extremely jealous
  • Believe they are special and only relate to other special people

Only 1% of the world is diagnosed with NPD. The rest are just selfish individuals. Some psychiatrists, however, believe the disorder exists on a spectrum, verging from mildly narcistic to pathological. In order to write a tyrant I advise you showcase at least 3 of the above symptoms.

Here is an article that explains the difference between narcissism and selfishness. Click here to read it.


Not every hedonist is a tyrant, but most tyrants do give into their sexual urges. We can see this through multiple wives or concubines, and frequent orgies, such as is the case with Roman Emperor, Caligula. While such sexual pleasures can be healthy and consensual, we know that tyrants do not often accept the word ‘no’. Historically, practices like prima nocta existed which allowed rulers to sleep with subordinate women, often on the night of their wedding, before they slept with their husbands. While it is possible to sleep around and be an effective ruler, in order to write a tyrant, your tyrant should focus solely on their own wants and desires pursing sexual partners and leave matters of state to others.

Lack of Empathy

Ramsay Snow Bolton

You forgot to ask one question! You forgot to ask me if I’m a liar! I’m afraid, I am. Everything I told you is a lie. This isn’t happening to you for a reason. Well, one reason; I enjoy it!

-Ramsay Bolton from Game of Thrones

Lack of empathy is a hallmark trait of those with ASPD, or Anti-social Personality Disorder. Those afflicted with it do not know how to put themselves in the place of others and feel what they might be feeling.

Characters like Joffrey Baratheon and Ramsay Bolton are infamous for their cruelty. This is because they simply don’t know how to empathise. Of course, a character can have little to no empathy and not actively torture people. In this case the characterisation would have to be a bit more subtle. Perhaps your king or queen doesn’t spend much time with their children because they know they can never love them. Or maybe they don’t know how to say the right words to their partner when they are going through a hard time. My point is, not every person with ASPD is cold-hearted murderer. Sometimes they’re the CEO of a successful company, or someone who enforces the law, or yes, a king or queen.

Iron Fist

Emperor Nero
Portrait of roman emperor Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus

Tyrants never allow for criticism of their governing. Emperor Tiberius infamously began a series of trials known as the Treason Trials, which meant that citizens were arrested and sentenced to die for simply saying something against the emperor.

Tyrants will disregard centuries of tradition in order to put into place laws and traditions of their own that will better serve themselves. A good example of this was Henry VIII. He undid centuries of Catholicism to become a protestant in order to marry Anne Boleyn, and so he could become the head of the church and amass more wealth.

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Taylor May 24, 2019 - 1:03 am

This is good info! Do you recommend adding a bit of humanity with the tyrant qualities so everyone doesn’t absolutely hate them and want to stab them immediately?

wmufunde May 24, 2019 - 8:25 am

As with every villainous character, even the tyrant should have some humanity. They may commit genocide, and yet be a decent person to their family, for example. I did think about adding this caveat in my post, but I mostly wanted to focus on the negative aspects. I think I’ll go back and update the post though. Thank you for your comment.

Silvera May 25, 2019 - 2:21 am

Well, I guess now I have the checklist for a tyrannical villain. This was great information, very neatly complied too!!

wmufunde May 25, 2019 - 5:13 am

Thank you! I’m glad you found it useful.

Erudessa Gentian May 27, 2019 - 9:46 am

Thank you for the tips! And I also checked out the link describing the differences between narcissism and selfishness. It helped to keep in mind as I finished your blog.

wmufunde May 28, 2019 - 11:44 pm

You’re welcome! I’m glad my article was useful. Thank you for reading 🙂

Joshua Reid June 5, 2019 - 4:36 am

This was a great post about writing a tyrant. What’s interesting is that I was thinking about writing a tyrant for a potential historical fiction book.


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