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.
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.)