To Kill a Villain

What criteria do you keep when deciding whether a villain deserves to die? Is it “just cuz?” You know, he’s the bad guy? Der! Or is there more to it?

Kaisy and I were discussing this today. 

My criteria:

Basically, if the villain is irredeemable, has done truly evil acts, and acts and thinks in a sophisticated manner, they probably deserve to die. 

Example: if they have some kind of master plan that involves the genocide of an indigenous tribe in order to steal their resources. That mastermind should die. 

If he’s a soldier in the mastermind’s army who is a dupe and “just following orders” maybe not.

But it is a complex issue, because you might like your villain so much that you don’t want them to die.

So then there is this argument: do you keep them alive in order to have them make another appearance? Or do you kill them off in order to do the story justice.

If you bring them back is that a cheap gimmick? Does that cheapen the villain’s value? Or is there something to keeping that villain around?

What to do?


6 thoughts on “To Kill a Villain

  1. Everyone dies sometime! Well, actually, depending on the level of technology or magic, that may not be completely true.

    I’m reluctant to let a villain–or even any character–die, probably because most people and living creatures are reluctant to die. If there’s a way out of it, they’ll try to find it, and a lot of times the big mastermind villains can find it. They may be brought down low, though, perhaps to the point of no return, left with nothing. At that point perhaps they would take death as a release. Perhaps a belief that they could rise again keeps them going.

    On the other hand, if the villain remaining alive pretty much leaves the protagonists in a state of constant war with the antagonist, they probably have to die, as otherwise the story must continue. If the protagonists can resume a normal life, at least for a little while, without secure knowledge of the villain’s fate, then death need not be the end-all. So. I guess. My criteria seems to be “what makes sense for the story”.

    There’s also keeping a villain–or at least an antagonist–alive for an uncertain future. Not every story ends with thornless roses. Sometimes the fate of the villain is unknown. Hex, sometimes the fate of a protagonist is unknown. (Salman Rushdie has written at least one book like that.)

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  2. I also don’t like to kill characters, even villains. But if they have to die, and they’ve been good, juicy villains, I feel they deserve a really juicy death.

    In real life, 98% of all actual villains think they’re heroes. “The trouble with the world is that everyone has his reasons.” So there actually is the chance for villains to reform.

    I especially like frenemies, however, and they never have to die. There’s nothing like a good frenemy.

    Finally, to fall back on Rowling, who knows a thing or two about story telling: Voldemort dies, Bellatrix Lestrange dies, but Draco and Lucius live on, somewhat reformed. Tolkien, on the other hand, basically kills off all his major villains—I think Ted Sandyman lives to see old age, as does Lobelia Sackville, but that’s about it.

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  3. A truly well crafted villain is worth keeping around, especially if other characters (and readers even more) want him/her dead. I believe that there are worse things that can be done to a villain deserving of them in a story e.g. a megalomaniac and greedy villain turned into a beggar. I suppose it depends entirely on the narrative, though. If the plot is advanced in a meaningful way by the villain’s death, then by all means!

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  4. I hate to see a good character, evil or not, die when there doesn’t seem to really be a need for it. I hate even more to have a villain survive simply so he can be used over and over again as a foil just so we have someone to despise.
    Example: in the Southern Vampire Mysteries by Charlainne Harris, Bill Compton was kept (reportedly because HBO wanted to continue using him the show inspired by the books, True Blood). There are 13 books in the series and he survived through them all even though he should have been ended in book 4 or 5. He served no purpose after those books other than someone to give Sookie Stackhouse a hard time and make her life more miserable than it already was.
    If the villain serves a purpose in later chapters then, by all means, keep them.
    As for bringing them back?! Uggg! No! It is never believable when an author brings a character back from beyond (other than seances and the like). They can always just disappear for a time, take a vacation or whatever, but IMNSHO, dead is dead and they should remain that way.

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  5. Killing the villian has to die. That concept the high stakes the hero is facing. And the unsermountable danger from the villian’s survival. The villian’s actions and later worthiness of redemption are usually the caveats to our hero’s moral system.

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