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To quote the tropes page:
Running The Empire is hard work. No Dark Lord, no matter how powerful and feared, can manage everything on his own and a military-style hierarchy is usually the best of delegating tasks to the various henchmen and minions. As a result, if the heroes wind up having to topple The Empire, they’ll end up going against a Standard Evil Empire Hierarchy.
That is all well and good. But…the real reason why this trope exists is to give a human face to a faceless organization. Each member of the hierarchy represents an aspects of the evil empire, from it titular head down.
- The Emperor is the face of the Empire. He/She/It is the ultimate ruler, the raison d’tre of the whole enterprise, be it a galaxy spanning empire or a vast criminal conspiracy that rules the streets.
- The Right Hand Man/Person/Enforcer is the troubleshooter. The reason why Empire exists it is because of its directness (real or implied). The Right Hand Man is therefore the ability of the Empire to reach and touch anyone no matter how distant or insignificant. If you crossed the Empire, sooner or later this guy will show up to ruin your day.
- The General personifies the military side of the hierarchy. A master strategist will lead a well oiled military while a bumbling political appointee will be a stand-in for your brute force military that blunders into every trap set by their opposition and only survives by its sheer size.
- The Guard is your basic rear area crony. The paper pusher, the reservist, the empty uniform compared to the more competent or at least dangerous General. He is the face of the bureaucracy mired in paperwork, minutia, and procedure. The Guard may aspire to greatness but rarely achieves it. Often the Guard is the “Go-Along-to-Get-Along” kind of person, who doesn’t care who is in charge as long as nobody messes with his petite domain.
- If anyone represents the evil in Evil Empire it is the Security Officer. Regardless of rank, they tend to be loyal to the cause (but not necessarily suicidal in their devotion), and it is willing to get their hands dirty to do their masters bidding. Taking hostages, torture, murder, mass murder, personage, double crosses and other dirty tricks form part of his repertoire. This character is also a bit of a sadist, just for the extra measure of evilness.
- The Evil Counterpart appears when the heroes make their mark against the Empire. You fight fire with fire and this fellow is it. This is more of a mirror self, what would happen if the heroes have decided to go along with the Empire rather than to fight it. Often the Evil Counterpart if either an old ally (or a agent inserted into the heroes organization by the Security Officer) or a future hero to be, sometimes both if the creator decides to switch characters back and forth between the two sides. Either way, this character is the perfect set up for a Not So Different situation.
- The Odd Ball exists to throw a monkey wrench on the audience expectation, as well as provide a glimpse into other forces outside the Empire vs. Heroes dynamic. The Odd Ball is an outsider and that gives him a particular advantage against the heroes because he doesn’t play by the Empires rules, doesn’t follow the General’s doctrine, and is more than just a mirror image of the heroes.
All of these characters conceptualize and give a face/voice to the machinery of the Evil Empire because readers prefer characters they can relate to/hate rather than abstract concepts. A faceless bureaucracy may be imposing, but put someone behind a desk that revels in power, or has an absolute faith in the evil they are committing and your have a source of true terror. Want a bit of pathos? Nothing brings it to the fore like a former ally turned traitor or a old soldier trying to do his duty in spite of the circumstances. And it is far more satisfying to defeat the man sitting on the throne than a discussion about death of a political movement.