This rant brought to you by Magic Bites, an urban fantasy novel that I read recently and liked well enough—with the exception of one major irritant. I bet you can guess right now what it is.
1) A traitor can tell you as much information as the villain and with better motivation.
What bothers me the most about the villain confessing all his plans to the hero or heroine is that usually, he has no reason to do so. Indeed, it’s far better for him and for the plot if he keeps silent. Suspense and suspension of disbelief are not always cousins, but they are here.
If you absolutely must have someone in the know explain all the villain’s Byzantine plots to the protagonist, why not choose a traitor? Surely there has to be someone in the villain’s organization, army, or commune dissatisfied with the way he or she’s been treated. Or it could be because of something the heroes have done. Someone who’s watched her comrades go down to defeat after defeat can easily conclude that she’d like to be on the winning side just as much.
Now, the traitor might have only partial knowledge, depending on how important she was to the villain’s side. But so what? The partial knowledge means a longer tease, leading up to the all-important revelation scene when the protagonist stands awed by the gloomy glory of the villain’s plan. (See point 2).
There’s no reason to rely on dusty dramatic conventions for that all-important monologue when good old-fashioned self-interest will do.
2) Want a mystery element to your plot? Let the protagonist figure out what the villain wants.
Quite a lot of stories have an element of the protagonist being puzzled by the villain’s actions. That is fine. Quite a few of these stories then go on to have the villain explain his actions to the protagonist. Not fine.
Seriously, why would you do this? If you’re going to introduce a mystery connected to the villain into the plot, presumably it’s there for a greater purpose than to be punctured like a balloon at the climax. Not to mention that someone who conceals her motives has a reason to conceal them, and that reason is never mentioned or simply negated if she eats the Exposition Mushrooms.
There may be a limit to how well your protagonist can play detective, but that’s where cleverness (of both writing and characterization) comes into it. Let her work with other people; that will build up the secondary characters more and save your heroine from leaping to “intuitive” conclusions about things she can’t actually know and becoming an Author’s Darling. Let her have a minor revelation that is reasonable and within limits that she can then use to connect the evidence that baffled her before. Let her consciously try out several different explanations, have them fail, and then pick the one that fits best.
All of these will make for a better plot and stronger growth on the protagonist’s part than forcing her to sit down and have the villain pour her ears full of poison.
3) Why would she believe this anyway?
I’m trying to remember if I ever read a villain monologue in which the protagonist doubts what s/he’s hearing. I can remember a few novels in which the protagonist asked questions of the “But that doesn’t make sense! What about X?” variety, but none in which the monologue ended and s/he did anything but gape at the villain and accept that every part of the dastardly plan had happened exactly as the villain said it had.
No, seriously. Here you have someone who has tried to start a war/has committed murder/has committed rape/turned people into zombies/has tried to take over the world/has tried to destroy the whole of time and space/has done all of these things at once, and you believe him?
If you think about it, the villain has every motive to lie, because when the protagonist tries to stop him, s/he will be trying to stop the wrong damn plan. I’m sure some of the sadistic villains that certain authors favor would get an extra laugh out of that.
Inserting a disbelieving protagonist into the scene would be a great way to avoid the usual pitfalls of the monologue, if for some reason you think you have a villain who would give such a monologue. But the time and place for such things is limited.
Which is why you take advantage of the ones that do exist.
4) Plant the protagonist in a place where she has reason to overhear the plan.
This could mean infiltration; perhaps the villain is gathering an army and the protagonist sneaks in as a recruit, precisely to hear the inspiring speech that the villain gives to his troops. It could mean impersonation; the protagonist takes the place of someone close to the villain, if she is a good enough spy or actor. (Of course, there would have to be a good reason that the protagonist knew that the trusted adviser, or whoever else she’s playing, didn’t already know about the plan and could believably ask for information on it). It could mean magical eavesdropping from a distance, perhaps by astral travel, perhaps through the eyes of an insect or bird. It could mean suborning or seducing someone close to the villain.
Any and all of those would work better than the monologue. The villain must, on occasion, discuss his plan with other people. Even if he’s the paranoid sort who would never tell the whole of his scheme to anyone else, he has to give orders to his minions, and the protagonist, if she listened or sneaked around enough, could conceivably put the plan together from the separate sets of those orders.
5) Reconsider the reason for keeping the plan a secret at all.
Most fantasy villains have to keep their plans secret because otherwise someone would try to stop them. The problem is, people try to stop them anyway based on whatever cover they come up with. If you’re a villain, and you’re really secretly trying to steal a country’s most precious art treasures to use them in a dastardly dark magic ritual, invading the country on the pretext of a war instead might hide your purpose but will not hinder the natives’ determination to kick your teeth in.
If the villain is powerful enough to start a war, is he in a position of enough power that he doesn’t have to hide his motives? He might well be. The excessive concern for what the public might think is largely a relic of a) times when mass communication is available, thus transmitting information more quickly than happens in your typical fantasy world, and b) times when the public is seen as having power, which would be less likely in a monarchical government. (Of course, if both of those things are true in your fantasy world, then you could have a lot of fun with a villain who has to offer soothing lies to the press). The villain is more likely to have to lie to the people immediately in power around him rather than everyone in the entire world.
This could actually work to your protagonist’s advantage, as well as for the betterment of your plot by obviating the necessity for a villain monologue. Say your protagonist is part of a group traditionally considered unimportant by her society. If the villain doesn’t bother to hide his power or his plan from that group, that might make her all the more determined to stop him.
Villain monologues irritate me for the same reason that idiot plots do: there’s no reason for them to exist, not when you have so many interesting tricks to avoid them.