A.k.a., me wanting to talk about the wild stuff I'm learning about in my political science class and pass it off as advice on writing realistic evil governments. Or more accurately, what I'm learning when I'm not dozing off during lectures because of my inability to go to bed at a decent time.)
(Content warning: Violence and death are referenced repeatedly, but not with any more detail than is in this content warning.)
Evil governments are fun to write and read about from an outside perspective (a rebel, someone from another country, etc), but they can be daunting from an inside perspective. Too often, evil governments in fiction are flat and illogical. "They're starving most of the population! They kill people unnecessarily! They've picked sewage-green and neon pink as the national colors! How do people still consent to live under such a government, especially when its leader is blatantly evil to the bone and describes their style as 'red, black, and skull?’" is a train of thought many of us have related to while we've read or written, especially if the piece is intended to be realistic.
Well, every real-life authoritarian's favorite political theorist, Niccoló Machiavelli, is here to help. His tips and tricks should help turn any ruler suffering from symptoms of cartoonimonia into a powerful, threatening, and amoral force for your rebellious characters to oppose.
Now, before we get started on these fresh (i.e. hundreds of years old) tips, I should clarify some things about Machiavelli. He wasn't suggesting that politicians be immoral in works such as The Prince; he just suggested that they be amoral, or not apply morality to politics at all. And how much of these ideas he actually believed in is debatable, since the main purpose of The Prince was to get back in the good graces of the Medicis (hi Pooja), the family who'd taken over his hometown of Florentine and booted him from his government position, which probably upset him more than being literally tortured.
So, let's get to Machi's tips and tricks that your favorite morally ambiguous to straight up evil ruler can use to attain and retain power despite their more questionable actions. Each one will come with a few questions that you can use to go deeper. (Disclaimer: This information is from just two textbooks and is filtered through a high schooler's perspective. As far as I know, all interpretations are correct, but still. Don't use this as a source for any papers on political science.) (Disclaimer no. 2: I do not in any way whatsoever support authoritarian governments. This post is solely for the purpose of writing.)
1) Power is more important than justice
According to Machi, a government's efficacy shouldn't be analyzed in terms of justice, as many Greek philosophers suggested; it should be analyzed in terms of power, or an entity's capacity to get another entity to do something it doesn't want to do.
What does your ruler think the most important thing in politics is? Justice, power, security, the will of the people, etc?
2) Pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain
We're going to switch to Thomas Hobbes for this one; he argued that all human behavior is motivated by the pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain. As such, people try to gain power so they can ensure pleasure in the long run. Most people aren't motivated by power for power's sake; power is only the means to an end, not the end goal by itself.
Why is your ruler trying so hard to attain and maintain their power? This could be to achieve a wider, societal goal, like going to war with a certain country to enacting specific reforms, or a personal one, like upholding their family legacy by being a powerful ruler.
3) The ruler should be as strong as the lion and as cunning as the fox.
So to be the lion they need to be strong, able to use overwhelming force, and always be ready for war. But to be the fox, they need to be smart enough to know how to best use that force and how to keep up appearances while doing it.
Is your ruler more like the lion or the fox, both, neither, or something else entirely? Is strength, cunning, or something else their most important tool to gain and retain power?
4) It is better to be feared than loved...
When asked the question of whether it is better for a ruler to be feared or loved, Machi says that both are best; but if you must choose one, then it is better to be feared. His reasoning is that people love by choice, but they fear based on the actions of another, thus making them easier to be controlled by the ruler.
Does your ruler think it's more important to be feared or loved? How do they try to get either of those?
5) ...Just don't let fear turn to hate.
Of course, too much fear can lead to hate. Hate is bad for a ruler because hatred is an emotional, illogical state, which means that it's impossible for the ruler to predict and control.
Do people in your world hate your ruler? Who, and why? What does this hate cause them to do? What does the ruler do about it?
6) Dramatic entrances are KEY
When using force and issuing injury to the populace, Machi tells his readers to use a massive show of force early on in their reign. This will leave the injured section of the population in fear of the leader, while making the uninjured section of the population grateful that they were spared.
What was your ruler like early on in their reign? Is there a section of the population that they favor and one that they act against?
7) Those star stickers my teacher used to give me when I got an A
However, benefits should be distributed slowly. These benefits and privileges are important because they make the populace feel grateful for the ruler, but by issuing them slowly it makes the populace feel dependent on the ruler.
What benefits does your ruler issue (tax breaks, food distribution, free education, etc) and how do they use it to manipulate the populace? Does it work?
8) The prince should be decisive.
[Spoilers for Hamilton: the Broadway Musical] As the election of 1804 demonstrated in Aaron Burr's loss to Thomas Jefferson in Hamilton, when a leader is trying to play both sides neither one will trust them. According to Machiavelli, people trust leaders who appear self-assured and strong over those who appear frivolous and indecisive, even if they disagree with some of the former’s views and actions.
To what extent is your leader decisive? To what extent are they indecisive? How does this change depending on what situation they're in? How do they simplify situations in order to be decisive [i.e. reframing a war with several different parties involved and complex issues as "good guys vs. bad guys"]?
9) The ruler should build religion into the state...
Now, this is one of his most interesting suggestions in my opinion. It corresponds to Hobbes' theory that good societies need a "Leviathan" of some sort to ensure that citizens regulate their own and others’ behavior. This could be a political structure, yes, but it could also be a religious one. By uniting "church & state," as it's sometimes referred to, a ruler could have both political and religious authority, and thus the power to influence people's actions. (Also, because of their strong morality code religious groups may fight against an unjust ruler if the ruler doesn't have control over them)
Is there a state religion? Does the ruler manipulate it for their own ends? If so, how? Does it work?
10)...But the ruler should not actually be religious.
Remember what I said at the top about Machi promoting an amoral view of politics? Religions tend to have moral codes tied into them, since many religions were born out of questions like, "what does it mean to live a good life, to be a good person?" And if a ruler is restrained by such silly things as ethics, they might not be able to take the necessary actions to retain their power.
Is your ruler religious? If not, what moral code do they follow? How does this affect their governing?
11) The ruler should appear to be trustworthy but be willing to break those promises.
This is similar to the tips around state religion. By appearing to be trustworthy, the ruler gets closer to the people's love. But by being able to break their promises and keep it under wraps, the ruler can have the best of both worlds.
Does your ruler try to gain the populace's trust? If so, how? Would they break it? How and why?
12) Economy of violence
Machiavelli's a-ok stamp on violence has earned him a lot of (valid) side-eye over the years. But too many people interpret The Prince as saying that rulers should always use violence against their domestic population to maintain tight control. In truth, Machi only advised rulers to use violence when necessary; a.k.a. when it would prevent a larger resurrection that would result in more chaos and more deaths. He cites examples like Cesar Borgia, who brought political stability to the Italian region of Romagna through his viciousness, and Hannibal (not the one that's a cannibal), who was able to control his army because of his ruthless reputation.
How does your ruler justify using violence against their own citizens? How does this justification hold up in the eyes of critics of the ruler, supporters of the ruler, the readers, and your own eyes?
13) Croneyism may seem fun, but then you realize that government is that group project that's worth your entire grade
If you grab a history book on just about any country's government in all of history, more likely than not, you're going to find an example of a ruler surrounding themselves with flatterers and yes-men instead of people who actually know what they're doing. Even if the ruler is otherwise competent, this nepotism almost inevitably leads to a decline in society, sometimes to such a degree that the country is conquered by another or falls into chaotic rebellion. Machiavelli instead suggests choosing subordinates who a) actually know how to do their job and b) actually know how to do their job. Not only do they have necessary experience your ruler doesn't, your ruler can point at them when something goes wrong instead of feeling bad for getting someone they care about in trouble!
Who are your ruler's subordinates? What are they like? What is their relationship to the ruler? What is the public's perception of them?
A.k.a., evil patriotism. I don't remember reading anything specifically about nationalism in my political science textbook so far, but examples of it are rife in just about every tyrannical government in history. According to today's standards, nationalism is when people love their country to the point of obsession; they overlook and excuse its every flaw, trust their country's structures (or specific politicians, more often) to an unhealthy degree, and have an "us vs. them" mindset.
Are there people in your fictional country that are nationalistic? Does your ruler promote this? If so, how? And how do they use it for their benefit?
15) Follow these tips and tricks, or else...
Fictional evil governments are often overthrown. While rebellions do a lot of the heavy lifting, the rulers themselves tend to make large mistakes that leave them vulnerable to these rebellions.
What mistakes does your ruler make that cause them to lose power? How does this affect your plot and other characters?
So, there you have it. Fifteen tips and tricks from Machiavelli for your rulers to use to control their people. And of course, these tips can be applied to just about any character in a position of power—the CEO of a company, a malicious teacher, etc. I hope this helped develop your government, and enjoy your writing!