Friday, February 26, 2016

Gul'dan the Secret King, and Other Notes on the Cult Leader Archetype

Curious things happen in the minds of a writer. Questions arising from matters of craftsmanship lead to all sorts of places, and in this case it's the question of how to create a convincing antagonist.

Part of the re-write for The Burning of Hugo involves the mastermind of the cult that this story is about. So it came to mind that it would help to dig into what would get someone to become a cult leader. That turned into quite the reading odyssey, as I began mixing psychology and mythology together to find useful parallels and correlations.

Then, being an active World of Warcraft player, it hit me while logged in and working on one of my characters doing (what is, as of this post, currently endgame) raid-prep in Draenor. This involves following a long quest chain where you're helping Archmage Khadgar thwart the master of the Shadow Council, the orc Warlock known as "Gul'dan". Gul'dan's Shadow Council is a classic Conspiratorial Demon Cult, and he's the leader, so of course using him as one of the models to compare and contrast with would be worth while.

In short, the cult leader is what Vox Day calls a "Gamma", but here I'm focusing on the aspect called "The Secret King":
There’s a male totem-pole for almost every activity – sports, politics, money, sex. Men naturally sort themselves into hierarchies, usually based on each member’s usefulness to the group project. If you’re good at what the group is trying to accomplish you get promoted and lavished with respect. If you’re a dead weight, you’re the goalkeeper. These hierarchies are based on performance, and they require other people to comply with you. You can’t simply declare yourself high-born and slot in at the top. The other men won’t tolerate it.

Gamma males are much too precious to accept their lowly position on the totem pole. They seethe with resentment over it and look for any way at all to climb up the pole – any way except through improved performance in the group’s task, that is. This makes Gamma males a source of instability. The Alpha/Beta/Omega hierarchy is stable because all know their place and accept how ranking battles take place: Alphas make power plays, Betas ace performance tests, and Omegas show willingness to carry out the drudge work without bitching. Gammas cheat and scheme.

This is why so many movies use the gamma archetype as the sneaky back-stabbing social climber figure (think the treacherous vizier in the king’s court, or the jealous weasel among the group of survivors in the zombie movie). Stories require drama and gamma males are the rogue internal element that upsets a previously stable social arrangement. If the beseiging horde overruns your castle or the zombies stream through a breach in the boarded-up windows, you can bet it was the gamma who let them in because he’s jealous of the team’s alpha.

Vox has made a number of predictions about how Gammas will interact, though unfortunately he hasn’t collected them all in one place so I can’t simply link to a page. As I remember it, they include:
  • Gammas will actively pick fights they can’t win against higher-ranking men. This is because the Secret King can’t accept that nobody appreciates his value but being feminised they don’t really understand how men handle conflict. Their risk assessment is faulty, like a belligerent woman screaming “you can’t hit me I’m a girl” before she’s decked on WorldStarHipHop.

  • Gammas can’t back down from these fights because that means admitting defeat, which goes against the Secret King belief. Also, everything is too personal, being feminised. So rather than slink away from a beating they have to keep running their mouth and keep getting beaten up. Gammas will lie, spin, and employ sophistry to maintain the illusion of winning when obviously losing. The evidence doesn’t actually support the winning, so it’s avoided, but they don’t realise how transparent their defeat is.

  • Gammas use the feminised debating tactic of tackle the man not the ball. They will directly insult in order to create badfeelz, because they project their own fear of badfeelz and assume their opponent is similarly wounded by it.
You better believe Gul'dan fits that archetype, both the new version currently in the game and the original version seen in the RTS games (and in the upcoming movie). His move to get Grommash to drink the blood of the demon Mannoroth (and thus become yoked spiritually to the demon horde known as "The Burning Legion", as Gul'dan is) is just such a coup attempt against the Alpha Male in this situation. The Shadow Council as a whole is an institution expressing this pathology against The (Iron) Horde that it entered into, turning each succeeding dominant in turn into its pawn.

Therefore, the classic Cult Leader antagonist is a Gamma Male fantasy, but classically it's considered a villainous archetype because (until the current era) the aberrant psychology of such men was seen for the dyscivic, dysgenic, and barbarous thing that it is and regarded appropriately with contempt and disgust. If you want a pair of glaring examples in popular culture, look no further than Starscream and Cobra Commander (both voiced by the same actor, mostly in the same tone) from the 1980s cartoon versions of Transformers and G.I. Joes(and COBRA is certainly a cult; Starscream is a Cult Leader without a cult).

The core of the fantasy is that the Secret King's delusions somehow turn out to be correct. With Gul'dan, it's that he really is smarter and more clever than everyone else and thus thwarts the heroes and his rivals (until he doesn't) and thus acquires and uses power better than everyone else. His cult is one part fellow-pathologies (and thus has to be managed, which he isn't that good at) and one part useful idiots (which he sees as disposable tools, demon and not alike, and regards with contempt). In real world terms, you're going to have to look at the LaRouchies, the Scientologists, and similar cults whose durability usually exhibits such a mix to it.

And so, with this in mind, back to my own work I go.

The cult leader is very much the Secret King sort, who has surrounded himself with others he feels he can keep on the leash, some of whom have vital resources he seeks to exploit (such as access to deniable minions such as street gangs and outlaw biker clubs). He's a Villain with Good Publicity, and he falls because Ken just Doesn't Give a Shit About Publicity. (If you're all about making Gordian Knots, don't fight Alexander.)

More on this some post down the road, when I have something to share.

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