I'm not a big fan of the Schwarzenegger Conan the Barbarian, but there's a scene that sticks with me, even though I haven't seen it in over twenty years. At one point, Conan is talking to James Earl Jones, who leads the cult of evil snake-hippies (or whatever was going on in that movie-- have I mentioned it's been twenty years?), and Conan is espousing his belief in the strength and power of muscle and sword. James Earl Jones scoffs at this, and demonstrates real power. With a simple, kindly spoken call ("Come here, child."), one of the snake-hippie cultists on a high balcony takes a step closer to him... and happily plummets to her death.
I bring this up because very few fantasy villains ever seem to truly deserve the to-the-death loyalty they often receive. James Earl Jones in Conan is literally the leader of a cult, so it works. Plus, he's James Earl Jones, so he's got that voice and charm. It's easy to buy. But other times, I really wonder.
Take, for example, the Grolims in David Eddings's The Belgariad. They worship Torak, the evil god. Now, at least in the world's beginnings, Torak (and the other gods) had a direct, physical presence, which can go pretty far in inspiring loyalty. He's an actual god, and he's standing right there telling people what he wants them to do. But in the time the series takes place, Torak has been asleep for centuries, presumed dead. But the Grolims still act with fanatical loyalty. More importantly, they have fanatical loyalty to the two heads of the Grolim Church: Ctuchik and Urvon. (Zedar, in theory, is also one of the heads, but he doesn't seem to actively wield any political power, mostly due to disinterest.) But how do Ctuchik and Urvon inspire such loyalty? It's unclear. Urvon, in particular, is depicted as a sequestered, babbling moron who couldn't inspire fish to swim, let alone get a cult of unswerving loyalty to kill and die at his command.
This is what I want in my villains, at least those that aren't lone psychopaths: some sense that they inspire people. Even if those people are woefully ignorant and misguided. But if your underlings going to have the kind of loyalty that transcends just-earning-a-paycheck, I need to understand why they have that unswerving faith.
Hmm. Well, with the real-life example of Islamist fanatics, it's brainwashing from childhood that fosters both a fanatical belief that everything about their religion is Truth and everything else is a lie, coupled with blame on "Those That Are Not Us" as being responsible for everything that sucks in life. In that environment, objectivity and introspection aren't exactly celebrated traits.
But there can also be a component of helplessness on the part of True Believers, because in their real lives, they have nothing--for example, in a culture where polygamy is the norm, many men can't find wives (usually because they are too poor), so they can't lay down roots and build the lives and families that will give their lives meaning. When one has no hope for financial stability, love, family, etc, and an extremist movement that seems to provide all of the answers and a sense of being part of something important exists, the appeal is considerable.
As for those who may be higher up in the hierarchy, motivation could be one of at least two things: First, that lackeys are every bit as narcissistic and power-hungry as their leaders. They think to themselves, "This man has power. This is true power, and I want it." But for others, the motivation is fear... fear that if they don't play along, they will become the victim, so they wall themselves off from emotions over the despicable acts they are required to undertake, because they know it's a choice between destruction and survival. And they value their own asses the most.
From any of these mindsets, the choices seem logical. Reasonable. These aren't insane people necessarily, but people who see only two choices and find one far superior to the other, so that's what they do to survive.
I agree with Leigh; cult leaders prey on people who are desperate or who have low self-esteem. They might get a few self-confident egomaniacs to play along as well, if said egomaniac is attracted by the offer of power. In a climate of fear (where the cult reigns supreme), the cult will be able to get a lot more followers.
One of the best cult stories I've read was "Geek Love," by Katherine Dunn. Artie is a crippled circus freak who gets his minions to mutilate themselves and commit all sorts of crimes. He does it through a combination of scare tactics, and inspiring worship through people who either pity him or admire him for overcoming the handicap he was born with. He basically exploits the way people feel about him. His character really comes across as a skillful psychologist (although he doesn't have any college degrees) and a megalomaniac. This is a believable dictator/cult leader/super-villain.
Just imagine Rip Torn playing your cult leader and you're all set.
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