Villains with a Death Wish

In light of my failing mental health, I thought I might address villains with a death wish.

There’s an important distinction to make between someone who has a death wish and someone who is suicidal. Both have a desire to perish, but “death wish” is often more subtle most of the time – there are other motivations at hand. The death wish might not come out until the villain is in the fray of things and then their reckless behavior could get them killed, and they don’t care – they have a death wish. But they might not go out of their way to get killed either, and if they don’t die, ah, well, maybe next time. Someone who is outright suicidal is going to try to die/be killed and will be sorely disappointed when it doesn’t happen. Their objective is to kill themselves, and their plan is to go and do just that.

You could argue these points but the whole point was to define what I mean so- although, perhaps it might be better to say that a death wish is the spectrum of suicidal drive. So determine how strong the death wish is. However, I do want to make a distinction between a villain with a death wish and a villain who commits suicide for reasons such as avoiding a worse fate, who sacrifices themselves for something like a summoning ritual, or who has a “take you all down with me” mindset.

A death wish is a bit interesting because it can count as a motivation, but as mentioned above, it’s usually not the primary motivation. In a way, death wish is insanity; the basic human instincts urge us to survive at all costs, and insanity is not a motive, so working with a death wish can be a bit tricky. As I’ve defined it, death wish as a motivation isn’t going to involve long-term plans, or perhaps any plans. It’ll be an in-the-moment dictator of behavior.

Why might a villain have a death wish? It might be a vestige of guilt – of the desire to be stopped. It might be a suicidal tendency that’s been pushed aside and ignored but not properly addressed nor healed – with a root in depression, hatred of the world, etc. It might be for the adrenaline rush; danger is fun, but it’s not nearly as fun if there’s not an actual and serious risk of death. Might be pure insanity. Maybe it’s like guilt, but instead the villain thinks he might find redemption in death. Maybe he’s friggun immortal and would do anything to stop being friggun immortal. It’s not that great. And sometimes, it’s really not that great.

Especially if you are in love with Death and also regeneration isn’t perfect or painless.

There are a lot of reasons – make sure you know why your villain has a death wish.

Execution of the death wish (haha) is going to be related to the reason behind it and of course its strength. Also, it’ll make the difference whether or not the death wish is as strong as a full-on suicidal drive, in which the entire goal of what the villain does, ultimately, is to die, or if it’s just a footnote – may die doing this thing and that would be okay.

However, the part where it gets tricky is when we remember suicide and the suicidal are delicate subjects; mixing that with a villain makes everything sticky. What’s the difference between a hero who kills a villain, a villain who is suicidal and kills themselves, a villain who is killed accidentally, and an ending where the villain doesn’t die? No, seriously, that wasn’t rhetorical: what’s the difference? Think about your answer because that’s going to be important as to how you yourself choose to handle a character with a death wish. If you believe suicide is objectively bad, that has to be true for your villain, too, as even when we’re not trying to express a moral with our stories, even when the point is to just tell a cool tale, we are always expressing morals in our stories. If you have a guy who beats on women and things turn out okay for him, it doesn’t matter if your story was about that or not, if that was just a minor detail, you just expressed the moral that abuse can be okay. So if you think that a villain who is suicidal who kills himself is a matter of convenience that saves the hero trouble, you are expressing the moral that suicide can be acceptable and even convenient.

And here’s where my failing mental health comes into play. People who know me would say that sure, I’m an evil overlord – but I’m no villain. I’m, in fact, a devoted friend who would bend over backwards for just about anyone, even people I just met. But in the throes of depression, I can’t see it. I just see myself as this incredibly needy person who won’t shut up and bothers everyone – who is but a burden on everyone. Everyone would be better off if I wasn’t in their lives.

Couldn’t a definition of a villain be a person that everyone else around them would be better off if they, the villain, wasn’t around?

Do you see the problem, now, with endorsing a villain’s suicide? You can’t give that moral because the people who see themselves as villains, regardless of the truth of the matter, believe they are being selfless, convenient, doing the right thing finally, by suicide.

So I urge you, if you write a villain with a death wish, to still handle the issue delicately.

(Don’t worry. I’m going to be okay.)

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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.
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2 Responses to Villains with a Death Wish

  1. I’d like to pose the enigma of the opposing side: the hero with a death wish. The villain tends to have blind followers despite his clear recklessness; the hero tends to lose his. The hero with the death wish often winds up alone, eliminating the people in his life he may hurt or draw into harm’s way. If the hero dies, he becomes a martyr for the greater good. If he takes his own life to prevent the suffering of others, he again becomes a martyr. It still sends a similar message, and perhaps one even more dangerous–suicide becomes the brave choice, even the morally correct choice. It’s one thing if you’re a Horcrux. It’s another if you try to sustain yourself on your own power. Teammates, partners, are there for a reason.

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    • If you’re a Horcrux, you have the opposite problem of a death wish =P

      A villain with a death wish usually works alone, if not because he started off that way, then because his followers realized he was crazy – if he wasn’t working alone, there’s a high chance his minions die or almost die and turn-face-heel away from that crazy nonsense.

      Contrariwise, a hero may lose his friends, but if a hero has good friends, he’ll find them sticky and hard to lose as they realize he has a problem and tries to support him. He might be able to get rid of them or lose them, but it could be incredibly hard.

      A dead hero isn’t always a martyr…sometimes he’s just a tragedy or a moron. But if a suicide hero is a martyr, I agree that’s -the worst possible- message you can send. The only possible exception is, for the right culture, a seppuku, which is specifically either death for a specific, usually political cause, or an honor killing, and that’s not supposed to be the same thing as suicide. But in American culture it could easily be perceived as such. Course it only really counts as seppuku if you drag a blade vertically along your organs dramatically.

      Anyway your contrast is valid but there are a lot of possible variations, too.

      Like

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