Your Hero is Only as Good as Your Villain

No, no, I don’t mean morally. I mean in craft, quality. The fact of the matter is, if your villain is terrible, your hero, by default, unavoidably, is also terrible. Let me explain:

The villain of the story is the, or one of the, biggest obstacles your hero must surmount. (Well usually; there’s an exception to every rule.) When your hero conquers an obstacle, that usually denotes either strength or growth or both or some variation thereof. The difficulty of the trial marks just how much strength or growth etc. was required, and marks the character of your hero. We all respect someone who overcomes great challenges to great ends, do we not? However, when the challenge is easy, it doesn’t mean very much when vanquished. If the heroes are faced with a fire-breathing dragon, well! We’re all very impressed as they prance about avoiding fire to stab the dragon in the heart. But when the heroes are faced with a little bunny rabbit, we’re a little less impressed when they kill the animal and move on (unless it’s the Rabbit of Caerbannog and there’s no Holy Hand Grenade). Therefore, if your villain is weak, it doesn’t mean much, if anything, when the hero overcomes the villain because anyone could do it. This is especially the case if the villain basically defeats himself, which I’ll discuss what I mean in a moment. If anyone could defeat the villain, then who cares that your hero defeated the villain? Why should I care? I have no reason to care. Your hero isn’t any better or stronger or more important for defeating the villain, and that’s a terrible missed opportunity.

 

The worst offenders of this truly are the suicide villains who defeat themselves usually because of weaknesses built into the villain from the start.

Just add water!

The most typical fault is pride but they can range from other personality defects to just owning stupid dangerous house decorations. When the villain does something that provides tools for their own defeat, I also count them as a suicide villain. Lemmie use a Disney villain we’re all sure to know as an example: at the end of The Little Mermaid, Ursula grew to giant size…for some reason…and made a whirlpool that brought up a bunch of ships from a graveyard. Or maybe it was just one. It’s been a while. Either way, it was the prow of a ship ramming into her now gigantic gut that killed her.

“Thanks for the ship, Ursula! And making yourself big enough you’re a viable target for the prow of a ship!” Just…way to go, there.

Anyone who has put a giant beast or carnivorous plant (Poison Ivy, anyone?) in their own home and later found themselves knocked into its cage or the mouth analogue of the plant? Suicide villain due to a stupid dangerous house decoration.

You know what’s funny about this whole thing, as I try to think of examples of a suicide villain? Or even just an otherwise bad villain? I can’t think of them. And I can’t think of them, not because they aren’t overly abundant, but because I don’t remember those stories. Not readily, at least. The hero was more a witness to the villain’s downfall than a cause to it, he/she didn’t mean anything to me, the story didn’t matter, it wasn’t good enough to be memorable, and therefore I’m drawing blanks on them now. I could spend more time trying to think of examples, but I don’t really want to try to remember those stories anyway.  I’m not too broken up about it, however, since I’m certain you can think of examples of your own – and if you can’t, well, you certainly know what I mean.

And thus is the inherent problem with saying, “Well, the villain’s not that important. My other characters are good.” No. Your story will not be remembered because it wasn’t good enough. But then why do writers do it so often? That’s an easy answer: it ensures the hero can kill the villain. There’s little worse than coming to the end of a story and realizing you have no idea how the hero can possibly win. So just go back. Tweak the villain a little. Dig a tiny hole, make a little weakness, problem solved! And…the story is weakened.

“What if I make the weakness very small and the hero has to work really hard to exploit it?”

That’s better, I guess…but any weakness built in to a villain is, small and hard to find or not, still a big red gem on his body (for those of you familiar with old school videogames, you know what I mean). You don’t want to put a “hit here” beacon on your villain. You don’t want your villain to be weak or your hero is weak. End of story.

How do we remedy this problem? If making the villain weak is the problem, the answer that follows is clearly do not make your villain weak. Do not build in exploitable death-causing flaws (normal personality flaws are okay). Do not build in weaknesses. Do not feel obligated to help your heroes cheat to win. Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200. When it comes time to defeat your villain, your hero must do so *gasp* by his/her own wit. My absolute favorite example of this is from Brandon Mull’s The Candy Shop War.

Go read it – it’s fifth grade reading level so if you’re an adult, you should be able to finish it in a couple hours.

What’s interesting about my using Candy Shop Wars as a counterexample is that you could argue that the kids could never hav defeated the villain without the villaing giving the kids an item they used in the villain’s defeat…but there’s a pretty big difference between the villain assuming the protagonists are going to be helpful and giving them a tool to further their ends in the middle of the book, then it doesn’t come up again until the end of the book(when the readers might well have forgotten about it altogether themselves! I hadn’t forgotten about it, but still didn’t forsee how it would be used) and the villain whipping out their end at the end of the book to immediately die or lose. The villain might have provided a key element…but the heroes still had to have the brains to know how and when to use it, without detection. It’s not like a big obvious plant sitting there for the hero to dump them into. And speaking of the villain in Candy Shop Wars – oh my goodness, the villain’s plan is infallible. Perfect. There are no holes. There is no chance of victory for the kids. And that’s why, when they DO defeat the villain anyway, just from sheer wit…excuse me while I have a fangirl moment.

And is that not the reaction you are wanting from your readers? As they even think about the plot, they devolve into squealing and bouncing (or whatever it is fanboys do when they get excited? I think it’s the same thing but I’m not sure)? One of the best ways you can do that is, of course, to have incredibly awesome deeds done by your awesome hero – and your awesome hero won’t be awesome at all if you stick in a suicide villain or even just a villain with a flaw. That’s because your villain isn’t all that awesome…and your hero is only as good as your villain.

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About Rii the Wordsmith

An aspiring author, artist, avid consumer of storytelling medium, gamer, psychologist (insomuch as one with her bachelor's is a psychologist), wife, mother, DM, Christian, a friend to many, and, most importantly, an evil overlord.
This entry was posted in Making Villains (Making Villains la-la-la!) and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Your Hero is Only as Good as Your Villain

  1. Can I ask your opinion on something? I have a villain who is defeated only when the protagonist escapes his lair (not actually a lair, but basically she was trapped there) and runs to the king to alert him of all the bad things happening in his kingdom that’s been hushed up. The king just straight up kills the guy because he turns up crazy by the end of the book and makes a lunge for the king himself. Is this a cop-out because she just ran and brought the king to save her? She was hoping the man didn’t have to die because even though he was horrible, his brother still loved him and my protag becomes good friends with the brother. Mostly what she had to overcome to “defeat” him was her inability to rely on anyone else for help (as well as a tiny plot-related magic spell, but that was mostly just will power).

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    • Hmm…It sounds like I would need a lot more context to say fairly. But honestly, I think you’re probably fine so long as her ESCAPE is not due to an oversight or anything. (My favorite dungeon escape comes from the Septimus Heap series, where the princess gets a spell charm that turns anything on which it is placed to chocolate at the beginning of the book and then uses it to turn the bars of her cell to chocolate. The charm was so small and unlikely for her to have, not being a magic user, that her captor did not find and confiscate it, but didn’t seem too much a moron for not doing so.)
      It is none too unreasonable for the hero to go to someone else to solve their problems when they can’t do it themselves, for whatever reasons. We in real life would go to a cop or some such if there was someone trying to hurt us. There’s no shame in it, and it’s not a cop out. Except for the part where we bring the cops out. Ehehe-sorry.
      My post is pretty black-and-white, too, and life is usually gray – things like not wanting to kill the guy complicate things, and the fact that there are many ways to defeat a villain without death involved. It sounds like this isn’t a black-and-white story, which is great! So as long as it required something of the hero to get to the end of the story, they couldn’t just glide through, you probably don’t have to worry.

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