1. Uberwatch
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    Uberwatch Active Member

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    Need help building a Cult Leader

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by Uberwatch, Sep 10, 2013.

    One of my writing projects is a screenplay about a lone survivor in a zombie outbreak who just moved into a town looking to scavenge food. But not all seems right when the town mysteriously has little or no zombies at all. I have not gotten to this point yet since the script is only 20 pages in but there will be a character introduced that is supposed to be a cult leader of the townspeople who have believe transformation into a flesh eater is forgiveness to one's sins or crimes against humanity. While I am developing the ideology of the cult, I need to work on the leader.

    So it could either be a he or she. But what I am trying to develop is the leader's personality traits. Should the cult leader have a mental disorder? Psychopathic? Or subtle but completely dangerous? I also don't want to make this antagonist cliche with caricature dialogue. Originally, one of the cultists was talking like he was reciting a poem but I think I messed that up because of how stupid it sounded. I don't want that kind of dialogue to go to the cult leader itself.

    So need help here, making a complex antagonist.
     
  2. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    A real cult leader needs charisma above all things. Sheeple is as sheeple does, but even they need the object of their attraction to be bright and sparkly.
     
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  3. Pheonix
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    Pheonix A Singer of Space Operas and The Fourth Mod of RP Staff Contributor

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    I agree with Wreybies, a cult leader needs to be Charismatic above all. Anything can lie beneath that, from a mental disorder to being a psychopath, as long as its well hidden and he inspired the people around him to follow his lead.
     
  4. Jack Asher
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    Jack Asher Wildly experimental Contributor

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    Historically cult leaders have been men, so you have the option of defying convention and making the Cult leader a woman. It'll take the reader out of their comfort zone a bit.

    There is pseudo-cult called God's Army (really more of a terrorist organization) which is run by a pair of twin children
    http://www.cracked.com/article_18492_5-shockingly-powerful-kids-who-make-you-look-like-coward.html
    Which cranks the creep factor to 11.

    When it comes to personality, nearly all cult leaders have been psycopaths, it's part of the psych profile. Narcissism also makes a strong contender. What's important to remember about those personalities is that they see other people as tools to get what they want. His/her dialogue should focus entirely on his/her wants and needs. The only time he should pay attention to someone else desires is when he's explaining that they aren't important.

    I imagine that the cult leader wouldn't like animals, because they would steal attention from him/her. You could write a particularly poignant scene where he forces a cult member to kill their new kitten
     
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  5. DeathandGrim
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    DeathandGrim Contributing Member

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    Draw inspiration from both fiction and factual. Two I can think of off the top are The Governor from the Walking Dead and Jim Jones. Often a cult leader is supposed to be silver tongued character able to persuade people to get over their insecurities and join with their cause
     
  6. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    I would think a cult leader would use, not assuage insecurities. Too strong of a tool one can wield over sheeple to dispense with it.
     
  7. Jack Asher
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    Jack Asher Wildly experimental Contributor

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    [​IMG]
     
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  8. Uberwatch
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    Uberwatch Active Member

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    The Governor of TWD is one of my inspirations for this character. I would like my cult leader charismatic as him, but different. Obviously, he's going to have his sheeple followers.
     
  9. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    A cult leader is invariably a control freak. Research the dynamics of abuse and domination.
     
  10. Uberwatch
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    Uberwatch Active Member

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    Thank you. I'd look that up.
     
  11. chicagoliz
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    chicagoliz Contributing Member Contributor

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    You could also check out Lawrence Wright's book about Scientology and L Ron Hubbard and the leadership of the group.
     
  12. E. C. Scrubb
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    E. C. Scrubb Active Member

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    The problem with mental disorder/psychopathy is that you are limiting the appeal of the cult leader to those who will fulfill a codependent role. If you want that group to be a bunch of codependents, then go with it. However, in order not to strain the suspension of disbelief, the leader should be somewhat narcissistic in that type of relationship.

    IMO, if you want to go that way and not fall into the cliche trap, make the leader your average pastor who, after seeing people that he's loved and taken care of in his congregation for years being killed, is trying to adapt his rationale/method of thinking and ends up taking on the role of a deliverer (don't use messiah, instead, make the focus more like a second Moses or David, if you're using a Christian based cult).

    If you do want the cult to be a bit more dramatic, make sure that the leader, as others have said, has a few key traits: (1) charismatic, (2) good public speaker, (3) emotive and good one-on-one (in a small community, this will be very important), (4) make his focus on the people surviving, rather than on himself (only), (5) authoritative. His word must be law.
     
  13. ScaryMonster
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    ScaryMonster Active Member

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    I'd suggest going against convention, maybe having a stereotypical cult leader as a front man. But actually having the twist somewhere along the line that one of the most positive characters turns out to be the master manipulator and the true power behind the cult. Make this person more Machiavellian than the obvious Bible thumping showman. That would make him or her seem much more sinister.
     
  14. Garball
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    Garball Sometimes nothing can be a real cool hand. Supporter Contributor

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    Like others have stated, charismatic is key. Tex Watson met Manson in one of the Beach Boys' homes. He was, poetic, smart, and deep. Cognitive dissonance is the most powerful force a cult leader manipulates. They don't tell you to join the cult, but convince you that you want to belong. This is often done by making others sacrifice their "normal" ideologies in order to fit into the cult's. Let them in and then kick them out; make the new member fight their way back in to be part of the family.
     
  15. E. C. Scrubb
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    E. C. Scrubb Active Member

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    I like that. Matter of fact, if the OP wants to write it so that it doesn't "offend" certain elements of the population, this would be a great way about it. Make the "front person" actually someone who believes what he is saying and in the end, does things the right way in order to try and make things right. Have him get cut down by the Machiavellian character (maybe even literally) in order to both cement the strength of the true leader, and add in a bit of "there's still humanity left in the world" in the character of the preacher who was trying to just do right, but got caught up in the events of the day. It'd make him a heck of a lot more relatable as well.
     
  16. MsScribble
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    MsScribble Member

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    Manipulation, manipulation, manipulation - this is they key. You also want to take into account that people have to be, in some way, willing to be manipulated - in your story's case because they are scared/trying to survive/looking for a leader etc. Its a two-way flow.

    Anyway, this is an interesting youtube video about this guy in Queensland who tells people he's Jesus - what I thought would be helpful is the cult expert making comments about the methods he's using, the methods apparently common of cult leaders. If you could find out more about the patterns they use you could build up a good personality type.

     
  17. Uberwatch
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    Uberwatch Active Member

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    I have been noticing a few posters have been associating christianity with this cult leader I am bringing up. I did say things such as "forgiveness" and "sins" but it was more of a moralistic aspect than a single religion.


    But anyways, I am thinking of having this cult leader a good looking guy who just seems ordinary and has manipulated people by turning themselves into walking corpses if they commit a crime in their own little survivor community. He also excludes outside survivors from coming into town. The way he and his followers handle this is to impale them or simply kill them. So he really could be having all this bulls**t just to gain power and respect the whole time, but I want to explore a dark path in this character such as hidden secrets. Any ideas?
     
  18. T.Trian
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    T.Trian Overly Pompous Bastard Staff Supporter Contributor

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    I did some research on cults for a course at the uni and one thing I found in common among them (in addition to the aforementioned charisma, good speaker etc) was cruelty. They often separated husband from wife, children from parents, and, of course, built a harem of what were essentially sex slaves, the wives / girlfriends of other cult members in addition to some single girls who were often these young, lost, homeless waifs with no other place to go to, and their inexperience made them prime targets for the cult leaders because they were so impressionable. The leaders also sucked their followers dry, monetarily, making them give their life savings to the cult (i.e. the leader), sell their houses etc. to fund the leader's wants.

    There's also a clear pattern of "divide and conquer": the leaders often made their followers sever all ties to their real families, their old friends, and have the cult members communicate with the outside world as little as humanely possible. This is one of the ways how the cult leaders are able to convince their followers of an impending apocalypse or that the government officials who want to inspect the cult's premises intend to harm them or whatever since the leader (and possibly his inner circle) are the only ones with any real knowledge of how things truly stand in the "real world."

    They also seemed to establish a clear hierarchy within their cult; they had their most trustworthy followers, then there was the majority, and the lowest caste, the trouble makers, whose lives within the cults were all but comfortable. These were usually people whose families / friends from outside the cult were starting to get to them, they were waking up to the reality, and wanted to leave. At least one cult leader ensnared his female followers by impregnating them and then, hiding behind the claim of fatherhood, forced them to stay. That wasn't enough retribution however: he often forced the women to give birth at the cult's premises, without any anesthesia, and, well, I won't go into the details here, but he did some pretty sick shit during the childbirths that could've been straight out of American Psycho's goriest scenes.

    So yeah, cruelty is another characteristic that many cunts, I mean, cult leaders share.
     
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  19. Jack Asher
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    Jack Asher Wildly experimental Contributor

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    Not too much a problem with all humanity dead.
     
  20. BUDDY GORGEOUS
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    BUDDY GORGEOUS Active Member

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    I researched cults when writing a novella of mine that included one.

    I read 'Helter Skelter' by Curt Gentry and Vincent Bugliosi. Look up the leaders and actions of these guys: Church of Bible Understanding, Aum Shinrikyo, Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God, Scientology (and what they do when you leave!!), The order of the Solar Temple, Branch Davidians, Jonestown. I found the research and insight very helpful.

    There are so many you can look up and draw research from and help aid you in your work. To be honest, look at some charismatic people up on a church podium and see how they captivate those who attend, how the speak and interact throughout a service. I'm not saying everything they say or do is evil, but it is surprisingly helpful watching and hearing them work a room. Take notes and see if any pieces can fit with your character.

    Some good info from T.Trian, above, too.
     
    Last edited: Nov 18, 2016
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  21. psychotick
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    psychotick Contributing Member Contributor

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    Hi,

    Cults are about control. If you listen to some of Jim Jone's old diatribes you'll realise they make little sense. But that's because we're outside them. From the perspective of those inside the cults they made perfect sense.The reason - control.

    As T Trian siad there's a system of divide and conquer at work - but its more than that. It's not so much about cruelty - though that may be there depending on the desires of the leader - it's about reducing the voices that followers hear. In the end the leader only wants his followers to hear his voice. That's why people are cut off from their families and friends. They might say things or provide a perspective that goes against what the leader says.

    Then there's the power dynamic. Most cult leaders from Jim Jones to Hitler who also fits the bill, can't control everyone. A stirring speech can only go so far. So they spread their power out to a few loyal followers, elevate them to some position of authority and then use them as their voice. Think the SS and the Hitler youth. These people believe in the leader intently. They cannot think negatively about him. And they've been rewarded for their loyalty. They will do whatever he asks without question.

    The other thing that cults prey on are fear and insecurity. Everyone's afraid of something. A successful cult leader will find that fear and use it. Afraid of being alone? The cult is your family. Afraid of not knowing what's coming? The leader will tell you the future. Afraid of going to hell? Follow the leader and you'll go to heaven. All of this of course is a two eged sword. Not only does following the leader protect you from year fear. But questioning him throws you back into whatever situation you were most afraid of - because the successful cult leader will also be magnifying that fear in the hearts of his followers. Afraid of crime? By the time the leader is finished his followers willknow that the outside world is absolutley chocker with crime. Afraid of the future - well the leader will explain that the end is nigh and you will all burn soon if you don't follow him.

    Lastly and this is important to remember. Not everyone will follow a cult leader. People like Jim Jones didn't convince everyone. They didn't need to. The hunt their prey / followers, looking specifically for the weaknesses that will make them willing followers. Those of stronger wills or with more questioning minds, those brought up in different traditions such as the right to ask questions, will not fold so easily. So for Jim he would ignore them. His few thousand followers were those he could control.

    This is where people like Hitler and Stalin branch out a little bit from the traditional leader. They look at the longer road. Hitler Youth, young communists, little red book holding children. If you want to rule the first generation will always be the toughest. But the ones that follow - the ones that have been raised all their live to believe and follow unquestionably, they will become your true army. Think the Westborough Baptists. Who is it that's on their picket lines? The children.

    By the way if you want an example of a female cult leader try Mary Clare Prophet of the Church Universal and Triumphant.

    Cheers, Greg.
     

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