Trope Time: I crawl through TV Tropes so you don’t have to.
Since this won my twitter poll, let us pretend we want to write a story with a ancient evil that has been lying around waiting to come out. Because that is the only way I can figure out how to make this post work. What could we do with a story such as this? Quite a lot, it turns out.
Step One: Create the Evil
The first step is to create your Evil. How long has it been there? It has to have been for a while. Maybe hundreds of years, maybe thousands. It could have been there since time immemorial, or predate humanity itself. Maybe it is even as old as the universe itself.
The Evil can be whatever you can imagine. And some you can’t. Eldritch horror? All good. Formless, nameless, and all consuming? You bet. Want something recognizable? Why not Satan? Need an entire civilization? You can do that.
We can go further, though. We can create a Evil so big, so dangerous, so all consuming that it can be part of the landscape itself. It can just be there, effecting things just by being a background presence. Evil doesn’t actually have to do anything but exist and wreck absolute havoc. And if that isn’t good enough, we can go subtle. Unleash the Pandora’s Box. Subtle changes. Paranoia. Feel the sneaky.
Step Two: Imprison the Evil
Now that we have an Ancient Evil, they have to be imprisoned. They can’t be dormant if we can’t make them go away for awhile, now can we?
But who did the imprisoning? Why? A god, perhaps. Or it could have been some long-gone civilization that put it away because they weren’t powerful enough to deal with the threat. They may not have had the capabilities to kill the Evil, but they sure could lock it away – even if they meant to get around to defeating it when they could (even though they didn’t, curse them).
Perhaps instead, they could kill the evil once and for all, but they didn’t want to. They thought killing was morally wrong, perhaps? Or maybe they hoped the evil creature would have a change of heart if only they could were put away for awhile. Because that always works out well.
Maybe it was meant as a punishment. “GO TO YOUR ROOM!” someone said. The Evil was then probably forgotten about. Which in turn made them even more evil than they already were. Good job, jailers. That’s exactly what you wanted. It is entirely possible that the criminal imprisoned doesn’t even understand why they were being punished, an incapability of understanding Good.
Maybe no one wants to kill this Ancient Evil because they’re afraid of what might come after. Balance must be maintained between Good and Evil, and if Good gets too good, Evil may produce something too bad to handle. No one wants that.
Or maybe the Evil DID die. Dun dun duuuun.
Also, try to create a good home for them, okay? They’re going to be stuck there awhile. Or…maybe not so pleasant since they are Evil, huh?
Step Three: Introduce the Players
Well, we’ve created the Ancient Evil and we’ve locked them up. Now what? We decide the people who are going to unleash this evil on the world.
We can do it very easy. Perhaps some dwarves dug too deep. Maybe the seals wore out and the cage opened on its own, or the seal was only meant to last so long before expiring. Or a hapless explorer who has ignored every single warning there is. They do that, you know?
Or we can go with the tried and true: the Villain did it. They planned, they plotted, they bargained. It was probably a lifetime’s worth of work. Or Villain after Villain has worked for centuries until this very moment when all the plans came together. But wrapped up in all of this, is the villain releasing the evil for their own selfishness. They think they can either or control or bargain with the Evil, or maybe the Evil will feel gratitude to the villain for helping it out. This typically ends poorly, with death, enslavement, or worse.
Or we can just go the full on “you dun fucked up” route. Yes, we’re talking about the Hero, and boy did they make a hash of it. The Hero got something cool they wanted, like a Sword, unleashing the Evil that they now have to fight. Their very birth could have been a signal for them to wake up, like if they’re some kind of doomed Farmboy or something. Maybe the Hero thought they were in the right, but they broke the Balance or they defeated the Villain holding the Evil at bay. Good job, Hero, should have read the fine print, huh? To take it even further, the Hero could have been tricked by the Villain into believing they were doing Good when instead they were doing the bidding of Evil.
Step Four: Release the Evil
Well, now we have to release the Evil we spent so much time and energy sticking into whatever hole, dimension, jar, can, or whatever else sounded good at the time. We have some things to decide. Like maybe the Evil is released on a schedule. Or maybe the Evil was dead and they’ve been Resurrected or Reincarnated. Maybe they were even sent into exile and have come back with a burning passion of destruction.
We also need to decide what happens to the World when Evil gets out. Does it destroy part of the world and create a wasteland? Or does it actually destroy the entire world, with people, plants, and everything else on the planet? Maybe it wanders around and spreads corruption wherever it goes.
What becomes of the Ancient Evil when it comes out of imprisonment? Maybe they learned their lesson and have become good. Maybe they are lying. Maybe they’ve become weak over time, and they’ll gain their strength back over time. Perhaps the new world they have been unleashed on has so many new wonders they want to learn – the better to crush everyone with.
How much time has passed? Perhaps the world doesn’t even know about the Evil about to be unleashed, catching everyone by surprise. Or they’ve planned for centuries for just such an occasion. Perhaps the Ancient Evil unleashed is outclassed by newer, bigger, badder Evils that came about while they were imprisoned. Maybe those new kids have even enslaved the Evil you have unleashed to create an even bigger problem than anyone could have imagined.
Does the Evil even want to come out at all? Maybe they wanted to stay in the hole they were in. Maybe they liked the nap. Maybe they’ll react poorly to being woken up – and all without a cup of coffee! Unless the world has that, of course. And maybe waking up Evil has consequences and they’re angry at everything and wants revenge for being woken up.
Step Four and a Half: Addendum
All of this to this point has been supposing that the big bad got out at all. Maybe it died in there, and there has been all of this hullabaloo for nothing. Or that some ancient race already killed the thing they’ve been worried would come back the entire time.
Or that it was even Evil in the first place. Perhaps the person was innocent, framed, or in the wrong place at the wrong time. Maybe Good was sealed away, so Evil could flourish. Maybe the World was sealed away from the Evil, which has now broken through.
Step Five: Cleanup
Now all that is left is for you to figure out how your Hero is going to save the day. Should be no problem, they’re the best at what they do.
Oh, you thought we were actually going to get to see the cleanup here? Sorry, we don’t do that. Maybe we’ll see how everything got to be peaceful and happy again in the sequel, when someone else decides to be a fool and release the damn thing again.
This is one of those tropes that are very ubiquitous. It is very easy to find, both in fantasy and scifi. What are some of your favourite applications of this trope? What made those stand out against the others you have seen?