Thursday, March 22, 2012

5 Simple Ways to Kill Your Villain

Today's post is easy as pie: five ways storytellers have killed off villains before--and the pros and cons of each one of them. Plus, I've included a bonus point at the end. So pull on your gloves, and let's get down to business to defeat the Huns! Er, villains. Or both.

1. Falling from a height

-- Examples: Tangled, Lord of the Rings: Saruman
-- Pros: doesn't force the MC to kill the villain, which satisfies your reader's sense of justice. The MC doesn't have to resort to morally evil means to kill the villain.
-- Cons: very overused. Can also seem like a "deus ex machina," otherwise known as unrelated elements taking a hand in the climax to provide an instant happy ending. Too easy, in other words.

2. Suicide

-- Examples: Saul in the Bible, Denethor (Steward of Gondor) in Lord of the Rings
-- Pros: the villain is messed up already anyway! Psychologically, if he's set up for it, then it works nicely as a logical result
-- Cons: only works if the character has the psychology and situation for this. after all, villains have ambitions and goals, and they think these goals are justified (in their own view of morality), so they wouldn't be likely to just abandon their schemes and kill themselves on a whim

3. Villain's Plans Backfire

-- This form of death is when the villain's plans are turned completely on their head, and he ends up with the punishment that he was going to bestow on the hero.
-- Example: Jafar from Aladdin wants to become the most powerful genie in the world but does not realize that he will also be a slave to the lamp; in Batman Begins, *spoiler* the villain is caught on train that he was going to use to blow up the city's water supply
-- Pros: satisfies our sense of justice
-- Cons: can be very tricky to set up. Plus there's a fine line in whether the hero has the option of sparing the villain's life

4. Killed by Sidekick

-- Examples: Saruman in LOTR is killed by his henchman Grima Wormtongue; Scar from Lion King is killed by his henchmen the hyenas.
-- Pros: good because hero doesn't have to "dirty his hands" in killing the villain
-- Cons: don't let this be a cop-out option! set the villain-sidekick interplay well beforehand, and make sure the hero still has the main role in defeating villain. Perhaps hero saves villain's life, but sidekick, in a fit of jealous rage, kills villain. The important part is that justice is served in every way.

5. Killed by Hero

-- Examples: Maleficent was killed by a direct stab from the prince's blade; in the Star Wars saga, Anakin {a hero at this point} kills Count Dooku under prompting by Darth Sidious/Palpatine
-- Pros: it shows the hero has the strength to do what it takes to defeat the villain; he's not willing to let someone else do the dirty work for him.
-- Cons: morally...a tough question. For Anakin in the example above, Count Dooku was begging for mercy and Jedi laws said that unarmed foes should not be killed. After all, when you kill your enemy after he's down, doesn't that make you just as bad as the villain? There could also be lingering guilt questions and unsolved tension in your reader (and that's the last thing you want at the end of your story! You want the reader to finish with deep admiration of your hero. Or, you probably do.)

Bonus Point: Killed by Fantastic Powers

-- Hey, guys, this is fantasy, and we are the writers. We can kill our villains however we want to!
-- Examples: the wicked witch in the Wizard of Oz dies by melting
-- Pros: works brilliantly in fantasy books. After all, you have magic, so why not use it for the best possible use--killing the bad guy?
-- Cons: unless the powers are set up well beforehand, this can seem like a cop-out, like you're taking the easy way out. You still need to make it difficult--in fact, almost impossible--for hero to kill villain.

Naturally, countless more ways remain to kill villains. What are some of your favorites? Can you think of other examples? Happy writing!


  1. I love this! In my fantasy, the villain can't really like past the climax. But I don't want my MC to kill her because my MC doesn't want to have to kill anyone and I don't want to make my MC a murderer. I had already decided how my villain was going to die, (Sidekick's spell backfires) But I still really like this post!
    ~Sarah F.

    1. Yeah, it's so tough trying to decide what is the best, fitting, and proper way for the villain to die. After all, each story--each hero--each villain is different, and their "just reward" differs by situation too.

      And, ooh, sounds like a great death for your villain! More original than most. Let me know when you've written it :)

  2. I am actually trying to decide which method I want to use. My mind see-saws between killed by hero or plans backfire.

    1. It's so tough to choose, I completely agree! I think if you can somehow make it work, the villain's plans backfiring is often the more fitting end. But sometimes you need a good death in the hands of the hero.

      Have you ever noticed that, like in movies, when the villain transforms into something like a dragon or some other creature, it becomes instantly okay for the hero to kill it? Maybe it's because the hero kills in self-defense...but I also think de-humanizing the villain might have something to do with it.

      Anyway, *stops rambling* I hope you can decide on the best death for your villain! And enjoy writing :)

  3. Interesting. I will have to look into this when I get ready to kill my villain off. Right now, he's waiting in the background.

    1. I hope your writing goes well & your villain acquires much villainous energy! After all, some say that the strength of a story is proportional to the strength of the villain that the hero faces. Thanks for the comment!

    2. Great examination of how to deal with villains, especially appreciated the pros and cons. In my earlier writings I normally simply killed them off, these days prefer to use a variety, eg imprison - plans backfire? - even change sides, such as Megamind in the awesome Megamind movie.

    3. Thanks, Peter! I know for my own thinking I find pros and cons to be incredibly helpful. Yes, variety is essential! Never kill two villains with one stone ;) .

      Oh, Megamind--I'm so glad you brought that up! If you're going to write a cliche villain story, you'd better make it as good as Megamind was! I completely loved the character development there. Great point!

  4. In the only WIP I've finished so far, I had the villain get arrested and let the state decide what to do with him.

    Killing off villains can be tricky. Like morally, how bad is it to kill someone who will likely break out of prison and kill again if they get out? If it's to keep innocents safe and the guy is a lunatic with no chance of redemption, is it okay?

    I like the villain's plans backfiring, though. Like how in HP, how Harry *warned* Voldemort about the Elder wand and even told Riddle he could heal his soul with remorse, but Riddle chose not to, so Voldemort defeated himself.

    1. Exactly! Brilliant example there, Allison. I think that is the best kind of story--where the hero sacrificially offers the villain a chance at redemption, but the villain scorns it and ends up destroying him/herself inadvertently. If only it was as easy to write as JK Rowling makes it seem! :)

      I definitely agree that, morally, killing villains is highly...difficult. Which, of course, is why I wrote this post :D .

      Thanks so much for the comment!!


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