What To Do With Villains? #atozchallenge #amwriting #fantasy

Villains are a part of a great deal of fiction. Not every story has to have one, of course, but the action/adventure, science fiction, and fantasy genres tend to rely on the presence of evil-minded characters pretty heavily (and even romance can have a trouble-making rival).

Pirate skull and booty by Penywise

But what are our options when it comes to the villains ending? Having created these fascinating and unpleasant characters, what do we do with them?

Have them win. As rare as this is, we could actually have them succeed in their plot and get the happy ending they so richly don’t deserve. I usually see this in a series, as the villain gains the upper hand, temporarily, and the heroes retreat, licking their wounds, but you could write a story where the villain achieves ultimate victory. I’m just not sure how popular it would be (but I’m sure it could be done, and done well…under the right sort of circumstances).

Kill them off. This is one of the more popular choices with readers, especially if the villain was of the very nasty, unpleasant sort. Readers want to see justice done, and they’ll want retribution to be painful. (Save for those readers who might like the villain, for one reason or another, and would like to see the struggle between villain and hero continue.) And you could always bring the villain back, as a ghost or with some fantasy magic/science fiction, so the “end” might just be an escape for the time being.

Let them live to plot another day. If you want a series with a sustained conflict between hero and villain, you’re going to have to come up with some means of letting the villain get away. Whether he vanishes in a puff of smoke, gets taken off to prison, or escapes in a TIE fighter, spinning through space, your primary villain may need to keep living…with his or her villainousness intact.

Redeem them. This has been done well–and it’s been done poorly. One of the most unbelievable endings is to have the villain suddenly have a change of heart and beg pardon of the heroes (like Shakespeare employed in As You Like It: the conniving, sneaky, heartless usurping younger brother met a holy man, got converted, and went into seclusion, giving his dukedom back so everyone else could have a happy ending).

A satisfactory redemption is possible, but it takes a long time and it should be one of the main points of the story (like in Megamind, where the whole story is about the villain becoming a hero). You have to establish reasons why the villain might change, and you have to indicate how he or she is genuinely struggling with continuing to do evil.

You shouldn’t just have the other characters state that a struggle exists à la Star Wars: Return of the Jedi. Luke just says that Vader is struggling, but we’ve seen no evidence of the struggle. He hasn’t started pardoning people. He hasn’t started helping the Rebellion. He’s luring Luke into the Emperor’s trap, and any grace he’s been giving thus far has been because he needs Luke alive. That doesn’t truly indicate that he’s “becoming soft.” If you can’t set up a villain redemption properly, you might need to save it for a later book (or a different villain).

Neutralize them. I haven’t seen this used often, but I think it could create a unique situation. Maybe the villain could be injured to the point of memory loss, or to where he or she is no longer a threat. (If the villain was only dangerous in battle, having them handicapped to where they can’t fight would take them out of the struggle. Or they could lose their magic powers, becoming just a dangerous human being.) They’d still be alive, and they might still be just as evil as ever…but they’ve become a side character instead of the primary threat. Which could make things interesting, in a series, as the primary villain might consider using them as an ally, or a red herring, and the heroes might want to hire them as a consultant. All kinds of possibilities…

What about you? What is your favorite way to handle a villain?

Copyright 2016 Andrea Lundgren

Photo by Penywise, Creative Commons

12 thoughts on “What To Do With Villains? #atozchallenge #amwriting #fantasy

  1. Using the primary villain as an ally when someone worse appears is so much fun – and it’s been used successfully in TV shows like Teen Wolf (Derek’s villainous uncle) and Arrow (Malcolm Merlyn). It requires a lot of thought and character building – and tends to become confusing to writers as to who the real villain is: the hero or the villain-turned-ally? Because everyone is the hero in their own story… Until you remember why the villain is the villain and the hero the hero in your story 😉


      1. Perhaps. Though I think if we truly tried, we could do the same in YA fantasy/ paranormal series. I’m not sure how that could work in YA contemporary romance…


  2. As much as I believe in happy endings, I rarely redeem my true villains. It has been done badly way too often. Besides, mine are typically demonic in nature, so that makes it kind of hard. But those characters who are merely deceived or misguided? I think at one time or another I’ve used all of the above.


    1. When you have tremendously wicked characters, who aren’t really human but the source of all wickedness, I’m not sure redemption is an option, really. (At least, theologically, satan is never given a chance to apologize and regain his place in heaven, so there’s really no precedent for that kind of wickedness coming back from hell, as it were.)

      Liked by 1 person

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