You all know who they are. A large organisation devoted to crushing everything the main characters hold dear. They’re the ones who spend every resource, use any means, have way more hidden knowledge, and somehow maintain a force of elite monsters as reinforcements for the final battle. Thousands of heroes were set upon their path because of the Evil Empire. Palpatine’s Empire, the hordes of Sauron, or that big shot cola company dumping toxic waste into the river, these guys are baaaaaaad.
So what makes for an Evil Empire? Because honestly, their form depends entirely on the setting. You’ve got conventional Vast Factions Of Doom, but they can just as easily be clandestine groups working from the shadows or mighty big businesses.
Well, obviously Evil Empires are opposed to the main characters. Like any antagonist, they are there for conflict on an epic scale. One step below Deities as final bosses (sometimes equal or above them), the common thread is that however the main character acts, whatever their strength, the Empire has that on an international level. Their armies (or the forces by which conflict is engaged) are better and more numerous, their spies are more cunning and widespread, their resources might as well be infinite, and their ‘special fantastic advantage’ is usually better developed. Oh, and they usually have the equivalent of Weapons of Mass Destruction. These strengths go together in various combinations, though sometimes they pay a price for it. But even then, characters are usually forced to fight covertly, seldom from the front until the end approaches.
Additionally, Evil Empires are usually effectively immune to attrition. Sure, the heroes will achieve their fair share of victories over the course of the story, many of them epic and vital to bringing them down. But ultimately, they’ll still have vast legions and powerful leaders stored up for the Final Battle. Heck, you’ll seldom hear things like how those defeats are causing political unrest and catastrophic war debt. Nope, it’s usually business as usual as they absorb losses and keep on going.
There are limits to Empires, though, and those usually take place unless their supremacy is a plot element. Usually, they lack something their rivals have, something that leads to a stalemate or at least slows down their advance. And of course, no matter how competent they may seem, hubris tends to lead to their downfall. As seen in those that build their entire empire on a single plot device and would be doomed without it.
However, that archetype isn’t always the rule. Because the fun thing about antagonists is how you colour them. Whether it’s the darkest black, the brightest grey, or a freaking rainbow. This applies to the mightiest gods and the humblest rivals, and it applies to even the widest Empires. For the Empire, this usually boils down to how much depth they have.
The Faceless Hordes are there simply as an obstacle to overcome, though naturally they’ll have enough backstory for context and enough menace to be awesome. And usually, this puts the focus on the heroes and draws you closer to them.
The Mean Team, on the other hand, is the one that stands in everyone’s memories. Oh, sure, they could still be unapologetically villainous. They might readily burn down your town, kidnap your childhood friend, and kick your puppy, but here’s the vital element: They’ll actually FEEL something about it. And those emotions are what makes them stand out. They’re the guys you want to be, oozing confidence and coolness, or just plain old HAAAAAAAAM and charisma. These are the ones who are immortalised in our memories, because somehow, they made it personal. And unless the story gets DARK, this usually makes for a really fun ride.
This level of depth, followed to its logical conclusion, leads into Noble Demons. This is where the line between good and evil gets blurred, where the Empire might not be all that bad. This is usually achieved through excellent world-building to flesh out a plausible nation that, while opposed to our heroes, is able to function with frightening efficiency. It remains in power not just because of its physical might, but because it has successfully won the hearts of its subjects. These guys are prevalent in more ‘realistic’ or ambiguous stories where characters frequently question what they’re fighting for, and they’re usually represented by their leaders, flawed but not without their virtues. But that’s not always the case; a throwaway line from the commoners and the rank and file can haunt you for a long time. After all, do you really want to demonise the enemy soldier who is lamenting the horrors of war, or the family that finally has stability, order, and justice under imperial rule?
Well, sure, if we go even FURTHER down the line, you get into territory where the Empire is good and the protagonists are bad, buuuuut that’s a little too far. Unless that’s your premise to begin with, going too far usually paralyses the audience with ambiguity or leaves them disgusted with monstrous protagonists.
One important note, however: The actual depth of the Empire isn’t a sign of a story’s quality, simply its direction. Any level of depth can be used to potentially great effect, and a story with the blackest of villains can be just as good as one where the lines are blurred. It all rests, as always, in how that’s used.