As a followup to our earlier article, in which we advocate the idea that if you’re going to kill a villain, you should kill them permanently, we thought we’d talk about the importance of meaningful villain deaths.
We have a general rule of thumb: henchmen, armies, legions of sentries, etc.–you can kill plenty of them, if your villain is the sort to have teeming masses of followers. In fact, that’s a piece of the puzzle: sometimes, the enemy has so many troops that one pretty much needs to destroy all of them before one seems to be making a dent. (“The Evil Empire has hundreds of thousands of soldiers! They outnumber our forces 8,763 to one!”) It makes those villain deaths seem a bit pointless, except in the sense of the narrative’s need for a challenge.
(“We must cross the border into the enemy’s land!” “Well, it’s not hard. The border is just spraypainted on the ground, and nobody’s checking it or anything” – that does, indeed, afford much less dramatic possibility than “We’ll need to get past that checkpoint! It’s staffed by an entire legion of crack troops! What should we do?”)
But even there, you really need something to lend it meaning. Going to destroy a whole garrison? Then you’d best have cracked some complex program in an interesting way, or improvised some unusual explosive, or learned some new magical power, or created a really meaningful trick. Unless you’re filming a martial arts film, it’s seldom satisfying to say, “Okay, there’s a problem in front of us, what do we do?” “Ah, we’ll just beat everyone up because our Kung Fu is invincible”. (Because in that story, it’s not necessarily about the ideas; it’s about displaying the martial skills. And even those tales are vastly better when they have an engaging plot and when it is genuinely difficult to tackle one’s opponents.)
The easier an antagonist goes down, the less powerful that antagonist’s life arc is going to be. Sure, if you want to establish how powerful a given character is, on either side of the fence, casually taking out a more “minor” villain is a good way to do it. But there are so many better ways of doing this, so many possible displays of power, ability, cunning and guile. There’s problem-solving, there’s creating some fascinating sorcery or technology, there’s the charisma of inspiring followers, and there’s simply being able to pull off interesting, complicated plans of dominion, conquest, or even simple wealth.
Don’t just kill off a villain just as a party trick. Or if you do, use it sparingly. A villain is a complex, valuable asset for a writer. Don’t just throw your villains away.
-Dark Lord Journal
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