When Not to Kill Off Your Villain
Updated: Aug 1, 2019
Most readers want some kind of closure at the end of a story. Some like the happy ending. Some like the we-aren’t-doing-great-right-now-but-the-future-looks-bright ending. Others, like myself, want a more realistic ending. Many readers were angry at the end of Allegiant. I was okay with it because it made sense.
When it comes to fantasy, science fiction, or even a “cop genre” story, it’s perfectly okay if something horrible happens to your antagonist at the end. The protagonist kills them because they have no choice. The protagonist kills them because they want them dead (Hello, antihero!) Another character kills the protagonist. The villain does something stupid and accidentally kills himself. These are all perfectly acceptable if done well.
Here’s where it gets iffy: contemporary fiction. Honestly, this applies to a lot of fiction genres but for this argument’s sake, I’ll concentrate on this genre.
If your villain is a dad who won’t pay child support, kidnaps the kid, and the protagonist is chasing the guy down, a happy ending is not likely to see the villain dead. This is also unrealistic if your villain is a high school bully. Or a stalker. Or basically anyone in a contemporary fiction story that isn’t a felon constantly being chased by cops.
I have read far too many books where the antagonist of the story is killed off at the end so the author can provide that happy wrap-it-up ending for the reader. Well, I’m not buying it. A freak car accident at just the right moment is possible but not plausible unless there is alcohol involved or there is an actual car chase scene. The villain attacking the hero in their home (When they have never shown such levels of violence before!) and being shot dead. The protagonist, who has never shown signs of depression or regret for their actions, committing suicide. Stabbed to death in a mugging. I could go on.
Sure, these things could happen. I could also be hit by a plane walking in my front yard. It could happen, but it is hardly believable, and when there is no lead-up to a villain’s sudden demise, it certainly isn’t.
To me, this is lazy writing. The author is trying to provide some kind of out for the hero of the story. Reality check: life is rarely that simple. The couple fighting about custody of a child will most likely still have to share their time with a child by the end of a book. The landlord who is going to evict the single mom isn’t going to magically stroke out at the right moment. The woman who has been poisoning the protagonist’s dog isn’t going to fall off a pier one day. It is hardly contemporary fiction if it doesn’t reflect real life. And let me tell you, real life sucks sometimes. Problems don’t magically disappear, so why should characters who are troublesome? Sometimes villains need to hang around.
If you do need a villain out of the picture, there are other alternatives that aren’t so final. They go to jail. They get deported. They move away because of a new job opportunity. Their parents get divorced and they go live with one of them. Their elderly parent is dying and they go live with them. You know, real life stuff. Not “Oh, the guy who was stalking her for fifteen chapters needs to get hit by a car right in front of her because, closure.”
No. Just no.