When it came to outlining my book one of the biggest things I had to consider was how the story was going to end, what would the climax be? This was by far the longest part of the whole outlining process for me and arguably the most difficult. Since the age of 16 I’ve wrote YA, young adult fiction was what I read the most and by default was what I wrote the most of. This age range was fantastic because the reader was older enough to understand heavier topics and as a result there was a whole host of possible endings for you book. However, after studying children’s fiction at university I found myself wanting to write a children’s book and this presented me with a few unexpected challenges.
When you write for a different age group to the one that you’re in you have to do far more research. At university I got used to writing for adults, the age of those around me. My work became more mature and I had no issues with touching on hard hitting issues like abuse or murder. But as I stated outlining Mirrors and Magic (working title) I quickly realised this had to change. I was now writing for those under the age of ten and I was not going anywhere near those topics in the way I had done in the past.
In a lot of the short stories I’d drafted that followed the tradition hero’s journey (just like Mirrors and Magic will), I killed off the antagonist at the end and usually at the hands of the hero. But when it came to the ending of Mirrors and Magic, I wasn’t jumping at the idea of having my hero killing off the villain. I’m writing a children’s book with a protagonist who is under ten years old. I can’t say I feel comfortable with a child becoming a killer.
I appreciate that what I’m writing is fiction, so it doesn’t have to play into real world values, but as a writer of children’s fiction I wanted to explore other options and consider there being another ending. As well as it feeling slightly morally wrong, I felt that jumping straight for the hero kills the villain was a bit lazy, it was the easiest option (by the way, there’s nothing wrong with this ending I’m not criticising people who kill off the antagonist of their book. I just felt that I would only be choosing it because it required the less amount of thought for my book). So, I began to explore alternative endings where the villain didn’t have to die, and this lead me down a bit of a rabbit hole I want to share with you all today.
Why do we kill off the villain?
First things first fiction is not reality, you do not have to have the same views about ‘bad’ people being killed in book and in real life. You’re allowed to be against people being killed in real life (the use of the death penalty being an example) but still enjoy a fictional book where the hero kills the villain. Fiction is a form of escapism that we go to, you don’t have to bring your political or moral views along for the ride. In real life I don’t think anyone has the right to take a life, but in books I’m not mad if the villain’s spaceship blows up with the villain on board. Just want to get that out the way first.
There’s nothing wrong with killing off the villain in books either, especially in adult fiction in a dystopian society where the antagonist is a truly evil person and the only way to ensure society’s safety is for them to die. Sometimes it just makes for a well-rounded plot for the villain to be killed. If an author has spent an entire book saying how horrid this person is, how evil they are and then after the climax of this epic battle the hero throws them in prison, people will be a tad disappointed.
From my research on the topic, when it comes to fiction people tend to feel that the plot feels far more rounded and complete when the villain dies. We seem to like the good old-fashioned story’s where the hero is victorious, and the people are safe. This can all be boiled down to justice, people want justice. Now if your book is set in a dystopian world where the government does a half hearted job, the prisons are mediocre and true justice isn’t something that exists and you’ve already established this in the narrative, your readers may be let down if the evil villain is sent to a prison they know they will escape.
Sometimes it’s perfectly fine to kill off your villain, but it’s not the only ending available.
The hero’s journey never said we had to kill the villain.
There is also a common misconception that with the hero’s journey (a common pathway writers use in their book) the villain must die for the plot to be complete. In reality the hero’s journey doesn’t mention the death of the villain. There’s challenges and temptations, abyss, death and rebirth (of the hero) and then transformation, anointment and return. Where does it mention killing off your protagonist? If your story is following the hero’s journey, please don’t feel like its law that you kill your villain.
So, what if you want to villain to die but not at the hands of your protagonist?
If you don’t like the thought of your hero getting their hands dirty or get a bit uncomfortable having a child kill the evil witch, you can have them killed off by other environmental factors.
- Their sidekick can turn on them and kill them.
- Their weapon of mass destruction malfunctions and blows up in their face.
- How about the building collapses on them?
- The monster or robot they set loose on the town can’t distinguish between its maker and those it’s supposed to attack? What if that monster attacks the villain?
There are plenty of ways for this character to die without the hero being responsible. This is a great way of getting that justice the readers want without your hero being morally compromised.
You don’t want to kill off your villain, how do you then end your book?
There’s a fair few different endings you can go with.
You can have the villain brought to justice by the government and courts, they’re sent to prison. They could be exiled, stripped off their power and supporters and cast away. If the plot is appropriate you antagonist could repent and see the light.
Then there are your deeper endings. What if the hero discovers that he’s working for the true villains of the story and the antagonist they’ve been fighting this whole time is just like the hero and is closer to an ally? Is it possible that the villain was just a front and the hero find the true villain within themselves and has a journey of self-discovery?
If you’re feeling risky you could leave it on a cliff hanger, but you have to make sure your readers will be invested enough in your plot to want to pick up the next book. There are many other endings where the villain doesn’t die.
Setting things up for the sequel
There’s a lot of debate over bringing the villain back for the sequel. Some people think it’s over done, and other people love the idea of the hero’s nemesis coming back for round two. Personally, I’m somewhere in the middle. If it’s done well then awesome but if I feel like the author only did it because they were too lazy to think of an imaginative plot, then it’s a no from me.
It’s not impossible to bring back a dead person in fiction, but it can harm the readers view on the hero’s power. It can make them doubt the hero’s capability if the villain comes back from the dead and it takes away some of the excitement of the novel because you’ve seen the hero defeat them once so you know they can do it again. So, if you did kill your villain in the first book, you can bring them back in the sequel, but there may be consequences on your reader’s opinions on the hero’s capabilities.
However, if the villain wasn’t killed in the first book (maybe the villain had to flee wounded, a bit like Voldemort in the first Harry Potter book) then you can bring them back again. If Harry had killed Voldemort in the first book, then what would be the point of the next shelf full of books? Sometimes is best to kill your villain alive to use them later.
There’s no right or wrong way to end your book, it’s your book at the end of the day and you can write what ever you want. But never feel like you have to kill off the antagonist of your book, there are always plenty of other options for you to leave your reader feeling stratified with the ending of your book.
Have you got a favourite ending to a book? Do you like to see the antagonist have a change of heart and turn to the good side or do you like the hero to come out on top and beat the villain the old-fashioned way?