Break Free of Redemption: Time to kill your villain

I have a confession to make: the power of redemption enslaves me.

While I once suffered from cardboard villains with no motivation other than thwarting my hero and heroine (one was named Captain Plunder, I kid you not), I have now swung completely in the other direction. Now, my villains have a tendency to get too interesting. So interesting, they keep demanding their own books. Thus far, three so-called villains are slotted for their own stories of redemption, self-discovery, and love.

Usually, this isn’t a problem. The issue, though, is that I know the path my series is going to take, and there’s no more room for new and suddenly interesting characters … even though I’m in the process of creating a new villain right now. He will be interesting. I will torture him. And yes, my inclination is to “save” him, but after what he will do, this cannot be possible.

So, I have determined he must die or be punished. Now I’m just trying to come up with the reasons why (because he’s darned well not getting his own book!). Together, hopefully we can both decide when a villain needs to suffer and be punished for his sins.

1)      His sins have been too great and too many. This is plausible enough. But these sins need to be truly great, placing him beyond redemption. I already have one pseudo-villain who plotted to destroy the mortal plain, and she’s redeemable (based on the fact she was crazy and didn’t really mean it). Another two who sought to assassinate my heroine, and they get to fall in love (they were pawns of this uber-villain, so it wasn’t really their fault). What does this mean? It means the sins of this villain need to be so great the only redemption can be through traditional literary means: fire, water, sacrifice, and/or death. What he does needs to be unforgiveable.

2)      He wouldn’t really want his own book anyway. Admittedly, I’m reaching. But I think for this villain, he isn’t “hero material.” He doesn’t play by the same rules, does not desire a happy ending in which everyone wins, but only wants one in which he wins, everyone else loses. This is not a happy ending, and grounds for punishment.

3)      His death or punishment can bring about the redemption or salvation of one of the protagonists. If placed in a situation where it’s life or death for only one of the characters, either villain or hero, my hero has to win. Therefore, the villain has to die.

4)      The villain’s personal desire for death and punishment as redemption. This has potential. It means I can still save my villain, but he has an arch of personal growth rather than simply growing madness or “evil.”

5)      The villain’s motives and convictions are too strong, he will never accept defeat. It has never occurred to him, and when it does, he refuses to accept it. He can’t be redeemed because until the end, he never believes he’s done anything wrong. What he did was the only thing possible, and is still the right decision, no matter the consequences. He cannot go back to the way things were. In this situation, he may well take his own life to avoid accepting defeat, or being returned to the status quo.

6)      At the end of the war or great battle (as my series concludes with), someone has to be blamed for what happened. A scapegoat is required, whether deservedly or not. My villain really is responsible for the war, though of course, it takes two to have a fight. Nonetheless, could a reader be satisfied with a war which ends with no one being punished? Though war and its consequences may be punishment enough, historically someone is usually “blamed.”

7)      His very villainy leads to his death. This is like Gollum at the end of Lord of the Rings, when his last grasping effort to gain the ring results in his death, though Frodo’s salvation. This demands a path where the villain does increase in desperation or villainy on a path which can only lead to his destruction.

8)      The villain and his sins are symptomatic of every “evil” or “bad-guy” in the real world which goes free, but which in fiction may finally be punished for his sins. In this situation, readers would only be satisfied with punishment of the villain, the most thorough usually being death.

9)      Someone has to be punished. If everyone else escapes or is redeemed – including all the other villains or heroes with less than perfect slates – then doesn’t someone need to be punished? Should someone be the scapegoat for all their sins? Symbol of punishment, and in his sacrifice redeem the others?

10)   The problem is solved once and for all. If the villain dies, whatever problems he caused or actions which made him the villain are punished and are supposedly eradicated with the death of their puppet. Of course, this isn’t always the case, but it could be. If the villain who wants to take over the world is killed, HE can’t try to take over the world again if he’s dead (though this says nothing for the legion of would-be-villains waiting to fill his shoes).

Well, fine then. I guess I have to kill my villain. Am I convinced? Not entirely. Like I say, I’ve become a slave to redemption. Why do you kill off your villains? Do you have better reasons why a villain needs to die or can’t be redeemed than I’ve provided? Please, share, and help me understand and accept the death of my villain.

10 thoughts on “Break Free of Redemption: Time to kill your villain”

  1. I don’t think I’ll be much help. LOL. I tend to not really write many villains, and I have never killed one off. It is interesting to me that you’ve come up with so many reasons as to why certain villains must be killed off. In my current WIP, there really isn’t a villain, even though there are a couple of protagonists. I do have a WIP where I need to spend more time working on my villain, but even in that, it won’t come to the point where he’s killed off. Hmm. I’ll have to think about this one some more.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Catherine. And yes, I see where you’re coming from; I very rarely have a villain myself who is deserving of the title “villain”; they’re usually just antagonists who may reform or have their own motives to be explained later. It was as I was creating this latest character though, thinking of all the terrible things I needed him to do, well, redemption seemed a bit of a stretch even for me. Enjoy your writing and the rest of your day.

  2. Great topic, Shelly! I would love to meet Captain Plunder sometime. LOL! That’s just hilarious!

    As for villains…I’m not going to be much help…or maybe I am. I always hate my villains. They don’t in any way deserve their own books. And they always end up in jail. I end up making my villains very real-life. The things they do are things that would never be forgiven in today’s society, so there’s no way I could try to redeem them in another book.

    I do love a good villain that can be changed – I just don’t know how to write them. I think you should totally embrace your redeemable villains. LOL! Sorry…I told you I wouldn’t be much help 🙂

    1. Thanks Jerrica. And unfortunately, no outings for the Captain: “Captain Plunder” has been destroyed, buried and hidden forever. Argh, how humiliating! Thanks for the visit. I never write “straight” villains, so they all end up as interesting as my heroes … which is why sometimes they get their own books. In this situation, I decided enough was enough, and as it is, I think the current villain (even the term sounds strange) will be likable even if he himself would never accept redemption.

  3. Hi! I’m like you in that I always want to redeem my villains. I like characters who don’t turn out to be who we first think they are. But when I think back on the truly memorable movie villains, they are obviously beyond redemption. For example, the wicked stepmother in Snow White. Nobody wants her to get her happily ever after. I have a hard time writing that dark.

    1. Hi Gail,
      I’m feeling very comforted that I’m not the only one who wants to “save” them all. You make an excellent point – maybe that’s part of my problem too, because my writing is likewise not quite so dark, so there’s still a place when characters can be redeemed. This is perhaps part of why as reason to bump off a villain, perhaps he really does have to pass the point of no return – in my case, perhaps a couple of times, just to confirm, “yep, has to die”. 😉

  4. Shelly!
    I love writing villians it’s one of my favorites part of writing. I get to make them as bad or as nasty as I want them to be and there’s no reprocussions! It’s great. I’ve never been one to want to redeem them. I find it hard to give them a redeeming quality to make them more realistic and not the cookie cutter villian – so we’re opposite on that lol.

    I don’t like to kill them off though because then I know it’s the end of the book lol. But all good things must come to an end though right? Great post!

    1. Hi Melissa, yes, I love writing villains too, or have come to be that way. I just got to a point where making them bad was less important than also making them really interesting – which is probably part of why I’m having such a terrible time killing them. 😉 Thanks for the comment.

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