Villains – Do you keep or kill them?

Darth Vader

First, a sad little announcement—I might not be able to keep up with my twice-a-week blogging schedule in the coming few months, due to some unforeseen events, such as the brain surgery my pet cockroach performed on himself, and which turned him into an evil mastermind out for world domination. Thus I’m regretfully announcing I will probably only find the time & energy to post once a week, which unfortunately also means I won’t be able to join my beloved A to Z challenge in April this year.

*chorus of heartbroken, wailing virgins crying in the background* 

But even though taking some time out to get my rampant minions in line and restore order to the galaxy is really tempting, I will not just stick my hands in my pockets and forsake you. I’ve sworn an oath (I think…) and I will always keep this blog alive in the mighty spirit of Cthulhu. I mean the mighty spirit of fiction. I live and breathe fiction. 🙂

So. Where was I?

Villains.

I love a good villain, especially when he’s as well rounded as the protagonist. It gives me a special, almost perverse kind of satisfaction to follow him through the story and get exclusive glimpses into his evil plans. It’s so delicious, knowing beforehand what he’s got in store for my dear protagonist, or even knowing to what lengths the villain is willing to know, thus understanding how deeply screwed the protagonist really is.

But what happens after the climax? Does he live or die?

What do you do with your villains in your stories? Do you kill them off in a grand finale, so your protagonist can emerge the victor? Or do you just teach them a lesson and plunge them into their own version of post-defeat hell? Or maybe… neither. Maybe you transform them, convert them to ethics and morals and goodness. Do you allow them to redeem themselves?

We’ve probably all encountered all of these versions and more. And I’m sure most of you have tried more than one way to end the conflict between protagonist and antagonist. But regardless of the many awesome techniques to bring a conflict to its satisfactory conclusion, we all have our favorites.

My favorite ending for a villain is the demise of his own making (any form of death: physical, psychological, social, whatever). Demise of his own making, meaning that all of his actions to thwart the protagonist have built this phenomenal construction that only becomes apparent toward the end of the story, and that requires one last action—an action performed at the climax, by the unknowing protagonist who tries to bring her own arc of growth to a satisfactory conclusion—to turn it all into the villain’s tomb. Demise of his own making, not of the protagonist’s making. Not a linear fight-to-the-death kind of story, but a puzzle.

I love this ending the most. It’s mind-wreckingly hard to construct, but it’s very much worth it.

What do you do with your villains at the end? Do you kill them off (if so, how) or do you let them live (if so, why)?

Which kind of ending have you enjoyed most reading?

I’d love to hear your thoughts! My thought-stealing nanobots are still in their design phase, so you gotta tell me the old fashion way.

*pries Mastermind Cockroach away from the miniature 3D printer*

Brian, I told you, no weapon printing in my house, okay? Now go think about what you did.

*flicks him back into his corner*

24 Replies to “Villains – Do you keep or kill them?”

  1. Brian creeps back into the office once the lights are off and continues running his evil schematics through the 3D printer. “Build my tomb, will you?” he heckles softly. “I’m constructing yours.”

    Ah, seriously, I’ll have to give the tomb concept a go, sounds like a fun idea

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      1. I absolutely love what you’ve just said. “But the author in the villain seat, where he belongs.” That is plotting GOLD.

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  2. As a reader, and subsequently as a writer, I’ve always preferred ambiguous endings (something that I’m being to forced to take a long, hard look at as I realize that most editors really, um, DON’T), which has meant that a lot of my villains have survived as a side effect, or at least left the question of their survival hanging in the air. Hell, sometimes it’s not even clear that my villains LOST.

    But the nerdy part of me also likes the false villain scenario, where the protagonist struggles to overcome the villain in the story, finally does, often taking his life in the process . . . only to discover it was only the “dragon,” the sub-boss, the bodyguard or second-in-command, and the real big bad is still out there, lurking and plotting. The battles has only yet begun. That way you can kind of have both, and the payoff is even sweeter in the next one.

    Also, to extend my tangent even further, I enjoy sympathetic villains. And sympathetic villains sometimes tend to stick around, either for redemption and a heel/face turn, or to torture themselves over the wrongs they’ve done, which may be a fate worse than death.

    Anyway, the moral of the story is that I like it ALL, if it’s handled well. As long as you do your due diligence in setting up the villain/protagonist arc correctly, I’ll buy anything you’re willing to sell me, including the villain’s ultimate fate.

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    1. The false villain kind of ending is interesting indeed, and typically no real villain ever acts alone (even if his “minions” are unwillingly manipulated). So it makes sense for the protagonist to realize that his mighty opposition was only the beginning, it really gives the ending a little extra. I haven’t written anything like that YET, but I like it. 🙂

      Also, yeah, I can imagine that publishers aren’t excited about ambiguity. It’s much too often associated with poor writing, when it’s anything but. Ambiguity is VERY HARD to write well, and it’s very different from a confusing or open ending. I bet if it were an already famous writer proposing ambiguity, they’d accept it without a blink. Several Stephen King stories come to mind here…

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  3. I think ultimately, I like to see my villains perish without the hero necessarily becoming the bad guy in the process. Villains producing their own demise is a good solution to that. So is karmic or societal justice where a third party or universal chance provides that mighty hammer.

    But then there’s the question of sequels. Do you hang on to your villain for the next book? I’m OK with this, AS LONG AS THE HERO ISN’T STUPID! At the end of Star Wars, Vader escaped. They didn’t let him go. In various points of the Harry Potter series, either Voldemort escaped to fight another day, or in some cases, our heroes escaped and called it victory just to live.

    But what I cannot stand is where the hero has the villain at their mercy but then decides to let them go, knowing full well that the villain will return for vengeance at a time and place of the villain’s choosing. That’s like saying, “Yeah, I know I’m going to have to kill you someday, but rather than doing it now when it’s easy, I think I’ll wait until some future time when it’s almost impossible.” And yes, I have seen this happen in quite a few books that were #1 of N.

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    1. Yes! Dan, you absolutely caught my biggest pet peeve with endings — when the hero doesn’t kill the villain “because he’s such a noble, and good person” (aka stupid as a brick) knowing that the villain will try to kill him again and again until he succeeds or dies trying, obviously hurting a LOT more people in the process. Maybe even tries to do it right then and there, the moment the hero hesitates to strike and turns his self-righteous back. It makes me so mad, it’s so freakin stupid! How can I go on supporting and admiring a protagonist that can’t be trusted to save his life (and everyone else’s) when the time comes? Failure to act is worse than any ambiguous morality, from a storytelling point of view. At least in my biased, vociferous opinion.

      Thanks a lot for commenting! Great points.

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    1. Absolutely, Julie. That kind of villain creates inner conflict in the readers themselves (do I hate him, or do I want to be him for a day or two, just for fun…). And that’s a guaranteed way to make the story unforgettable. Damn, I wish I to write that kind of story… 😉

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  4. For me, personally, I enjoy villains that don’t believe they’re villains at all.

    The villains I write about believe that they are HEROES. It’s fun to write about characters that are not clear cut, with a shade of ambiguity. I want the reader to sympathize with my villains. But then jolt them with their methods in order to achieve an end that they truly believe is righteous and good.

    That being said, my death count’s pretty high, and I have no qualms about killing even main characters. In my work, it’s all on the table!

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    1. YES YES YES!!! Villains who don’t know they’re on the wrong side of the story! Love that, Jay. I have villains who don’t even care about right or wrong, they just want what’s “theirs”, sometimes doing the right thing, sometimes the wrong thing, regardless of others.

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  5. So sad you won’t be joining the torture, um, I mean fun of the A2Z Challenge. But someone has to save us from cockroaches and other bugs, and Lord knows that won’t be ME!

    We will survive on our once-a-week fixes until you’re done with your extermination and are ready to pick up where you left off. Good luck with everything!

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    1. Thanks, Cindy! I’ll be rooting from the sidelines and eating popcorn. Wish you fun battling the alphabet, while I battle mutant cockroaches. 😉

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  6. Hope everything (other than the cockroach situation) is okay. As far as posting weekly versus twice weekly goes, all I have to say is that one post from you is well worth the wait. Yours is one of the few blogs I read (semi-)regularly. (It would be regularly if I stopped taking extended breaks from online life…) I’m not sure yet whether I’m going to dive into A-Z, although I guess I’d better make my mind up pretty darned quickly.

    Heroes, villains, ah, so many possibilities. I love stories where you think you know who’s who but halfway through you realize the hero isn’t actually all that heroic and maybe the villain isn’t quite as villainous as you’d originally thought. Now THAT’S tricky to accomplish in a credible way, but I’ve seen it done well. I’m also not a huge fan of monochromatic characterization, black versus white, good versus evil. It’s the shades in between that make characters interesting, and I share Jay’s (above) affinity for villains who believe they are heroes.

    Fascinating post, as always, Vero!

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    1. Thanks, Kern! 🙂 I’m really bummed that I can’t join A to Z this year, but sometimes we have to reshuffle our priorities. And the cockroach is really gonna get his share this time. 😉

      Villains who see themselves as villains and like it are also pretty cool, but those who genuinely believe they’re doing the right thing, or saving everyone, when in fact they’re ruining everyone’s lives are my favorites too. 🙂

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  7. Vero, I will mourn your absence all throughout April. It will definitely *not* be the same without you. But–as one who’s dropped the blogging ball so often it’s getting kinda hard to walk without tripping on them–I understand. And as you root for us in April, I’ll be rooting that all your cockroach issues get solved in speedy form to radiant success.

    Villains. Mmmm. I like villains 😉 I especially like the ones that don’t know they’re villains, like Jay said above. Then again, my kind of fiction doesn’t leave much room for any other kind. The realist in me feels that killing off a villain, as tempting as it may be, is too pat and tidy to be believable. The usual, for me, is that the villain-hero face-off brings both their internal conflicts to a climax. Resolving conflict will work for the hero: s/he will learn valuable life lessons, will become a better person. It won’t work, or perhaps only partially, for the villain: s/he will stay in the muddied swamp of their selfishness and small-mindedness with no hope of liberation. So there 😀

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    1. Thanks, Guilie! 🙂 I’m gutted I can’t participate this year, but it’s beyond my power right now. So I’ll just enjoy the show.

      “The usual, for me, is that the villain-hero face-off brings both their internal conflicts to a climax.”

      Now that sounds like a master-climax! The hero emerges a better person, the villain emerges all the worse off. Brilliant!

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  8. I’m a little late to this one. How did I miss it?! First, while I enjoy my weekly Veronica fix, you need to take care of what you need to take care of. But we can still have our chats, so I’ll be okay. 😉

    As for villains, I love that you wrote about this. Villains are my favorite characters, both as reader and writer. I think that’s why I love Stephen King’s work so much. He does write some of the best villains.

    As a writer, I spend the most time during my “planning” phase perfecting the story’s villain. I love the bad guy so much that occasionally he (or she) ends up playing the role of protagonist. Do I kill the villains? Depends on whether it fits the story. If I’m only killing him off to tie up loose ends, that’s cheating. And like other commenters, I love when the villain brings about his own demise.

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    1. If villains are anyone’s strength, they’re yours. Killing them off for special effect is not your style, but bringing them to a spectacular end through a twist of their own making and the hero’s cumulated efforts is much more like it. 😉

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  9. Hello! I just wanted to say HI and that I completely agree with you! I’ve loved villians since my childhood, I’ve always loved them more than the hero. In fact, there are very few movies to this day where I prefer the hero over the villian. (Spiderman and BBC’s Sherlock to name a few)

    Anyways! I love writing, but I’ve been having so much trouble coming up with a story idea lately. I feel like I should write a story with a prominent villian, or even bolder still, write it from the PERSPECTIVE of the baddie. I would be up for the challenge certainly.

    Peace!

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    1. Oh I LOVE stories written from the villain’s POV! They are some of the most exciting and interesting ones out there — if done well. Good luck!

      And thanks for stopping by to comment, Sarah. Nice meeting you. 🙂

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  10. This has been so helpful! I’ve been trying to put an end to my villain in my story for months, and this article helped. Thank you so much Vero!

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