In Gifts of Rith, my current editing work in progress, I have a villain. This villain lives up to every expectation of a villain— he fights against the main character, is hugely powerful, and wants to destroy lots of people the main character cares about. He makes mischief for much of the book, blocking the main character at every turn and fulfilling expectations as to villainous behavior. Then, at the end, (spoiler alert) he dies. As villains do.
Unfortunately, his death hit the wrong chord. Instead of feeling powerful and satisfying, this villain’s death felt… jarring. Several eyebrows were lowered in confusion, including my own. Instead of satisfaction, the readers felt slight disgust at how cruel the main character was for killing this guy. The scene as a whole felt— dare I say it?— unnecessary.
You don’t need me to tell you that that reaction was exactly the opposite of what I planned. I wanted a dramatic fanfare, a slow-motion shot of the hero straightening up, victorious over the body of his nemesis. I wanted a good villain death— is that too much to ask?
If the villain’s death didn’t mean anything to the main character… well, yes. It is too much to ask. What was the problem? I needed to make things personal.
Every death has to mean something, no matter which character bites the dust. Some characters die to spur others into motion (Agent Coulson, The Avengers). Others die because they’re going to kill a lot of other people if they don’t (Sauron, Darth Sidious, just about every big bad villain in every big bad movie). Others die because the author wants to make a point about the cost of war (the 22 extra deaths in The Hunger Games). But no matter who dies, or how, the death has to do something for the story. Otherwise, it’s just something morbid that raises the rating from G to PG.
One way to look at it, this comes down to establishing syntax. Early on, establish what the character symbolizes, then when the character dies, so does whatever they symbolize. Sauron symbolizes pure evil— when he dies, everything is hunky-dory, and we’re led to believe that no one is ever evil ever again (except Saruman, who also symbolizes evil and thus must die as well).
You can also establish the syntax once the character has already died, as in the case with Coulson. No one knew what he symbolized until Fury told everyone point-blank that they needed to get together and fight for something. And as with The Hunger Games, sometimes you don’t need to establish it at all, with many of the deaths— but with the important ones, like Rue’s, it definitely has to be understood.
So, how to make things personal when facing an antagonist who eventually must die? I had a couple ideas— the villain could kill someone the main character loves, so that he’s got a mission of revenge to keep him going until he kills the evil dude. He could also be humiliated or something, so that his pride is at stake.
Or— and here’s a revolutionary thought— we could turn the villain into the antagonist.
I’m sure you know the difference. The villain is the bad guy everyone’s supposed to hate, like the Marshmallow Monster or the Duke of Weselton in Frozen. The antagonist is the one person who directly opposes the protagonist, or main character— in Frozen‘s case, the antagonist is Elsa. A similar breakdown for the first Hobbit movie: the villain, of course, was Azog the Pale Orc. The antagonist was Gandalf, because everywhere Bilbo wanted to turn back, Gandalf was there to prod him forward. There’s a difference between villain and antagonist.
Occasionally, they aren’t the same person. Most of the time, however, they are the same. In my case, I had to make my villain the antagonist.
Which was a funny thing, because I didn’t have an antagonist in the first place— which only happened because my main character didn’t really want anything.
That’s right. For some reason, I forgot to give my protagonist a goal. He did plenty of things, and he worked, for the most part, but as for a real goal he was driving toward, he had nothing. That being so, he had no one to stand in the way of achieving the goal. There was no antagonist.
“Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.” ~Kurt Vonnegut
I never realized how true this was until I tried to kill a guy who never needed to die.
Making my character want something— even if it was as simple as a sandwich— would mean he had a goal, a promise to fulfill. It would mean he had an antagonist to defeat, and when that antagonist was defeated, a sense of satisfaction that the reader would share. It would mean I would have a better story.
Sometimes you’ll have to do more than this. Sometimes you’ll have to make things personal in other ways, by establishing a certain type of syntax or creating a character just to kill him off in chapter seven. But first, look at your main character. Do you have a goal there? (It turns out to be really helpful.) Look at the character you’re trying to kill. Does he really need to die, or could the same purpose be served by sending him hundreds of miles away, or kidnapping him? If the death means nothing, you’re doing it wrong. And if your main character openly defies Kurt Vonnegut… yeah.
Listen to the wisdom of the ancients.