Yes, I know it’s been a while. I just didn’t feel up to writing these for a few weeks. Stress, mostly.
First, just to head off any problems: this rant shows which definition of deus ex machina I’m using. They’re bad things, not good things, no matter how pretty the name. They toss a story all to hell and gone, usually just to get the narrative out of a tight corner that wouldn’t have evolved in the first place if the story had been more carefully planned. And killing a villain with one…yeah. Don’t, okay? Beyond the problems involved in any god by machine, this particular one makes it seem as though you don’t trust your protagonists to get rid of the problem by themselves.
So here are some ways—fantasy-oriented, of course—to get your villain skinned by a different knife.
1) The consequences of his actions catch up with him, and are fatal this time.
Really, this is the simplest way. The reason it can turn into a plot contrivance is that the consequences don’t seem natural, inevitable, or realistic (for a certain variety of real). Rather, they happen with Hollywood speed, usually in the nick of time, and they often rely on rules, whether of logic or magic or metaphysics, that the author hasn’t bothered to explain until this point. Or they’re the kinds of things that the villain, immortal and all-knowing as he is, should see coming a mile away, thus leading back to the problem of stupid villains.
Instead, treat your villain like one of your protagonists as far as consequences are concerned. I’m sure you can imagine a scene wherein your heroine gets served her comeuppance for making assumptions about other people, or the hero, who is obsessed with gaining enough magical power to claim a certain place in his community, unleashes a catastrophe that he didn’t mean to. Now put a villain in their places. The sole difference is that, here, the villain does not get a slap upside the head, a stern talking-to, and a second chance to prove himself because he has good intentions. He doesn’t, so the consequences eat him alive.
Now, how to make them not seem Hollywood?
- Become skilled at planting clues for those inevitable consequences in the narrative—the kinds of things that the villain could interpret as warnings if he looked at them the right way, but which he doesn’t, because of lack of knowledge or flaws in his personality.
- Also, become skilled at hiding these clues from readers, at least enough that they aren’t big flashing neon signs.
- Rely on rules that apply to other people, too. It really isn’t fair if the hero is able to do dastardly magic and get away with it just because he’s the hero, while the villain is ambushed by it.
- If the consequences hinge on physics or chemistry or some other point of the natural laws that govern in our own world, then, fergodssakes, make sure you’ve got your science right.
- Surrender the addiction to the nick of time. It can be dramatic, but it’s also very likely to tilt your story towards cheesy.
- Consider making your villain less than omniscient. He can be more human (well, for a certain value of human) and still not be able to predict everything.
2) Let the villain have a chance to back out, then compel him to keep going forward.
I suppose you could call this a subset of point 1, in that they are both cheats if you use stupid villains, but I’d consider them a bit different. The villain actually has a chance to avoid the “inevitable,” with this one. But something will convince him that the risk is achievable or the prize is too great to let escape or that nothing is going to happen, and he sticks his head in the noose.
Stupidity is out. (Yes. It is. Really, we will get along much better if everybody just accepts right now that people cannot be stupid because of their place in the plot, because that is stupid). Two other character flaws usually used to push villains forward, insanity and arrogance, are overplayed, well, insanely. So what’s left?
Everything else under the sun, of course.
Hypocrisy. Loving someone else too much. Ambition. A quick temper—one flaw that, in a villain, an author might actually be willing to let stand as a flaw, rather than representing it as a source of wit and courage. Trust in a friend or ally who turns out to be a traitor (see point 3). Commitment to an ideal, such as honor or a good name, at the expense of all else. A vow or oath. Failure to really believe that one is mortal, and will die. And there are tons more. Hell, you can probably contrive a way to kill a villain who is careless with money if you really try.
All those character flaws that can fall like whips on your heroes can fall like whips on your villains, too, and score them to death before they know they’re there. Do it right, and, while there might not be a sense of tragic inevitability to it, your audience will be satisfied that this person, in this circumstance, really couldn’t have done anything but send himself to his death.
3) Have your “hero” use “villain” tactics.
This is the ground where the heroes get dirty, too, fight poison with poison and fire with fire. It’s risky. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read a review of a book with this sentence: “The characters are unsympathetic.” And in a fantasy where the author wants you to cheer for one set of people at the expense of the other (even if the one set is using the same tactics as the other set), it’s especially risky. You don’t lead your reader to clear moral high ground by removing all the signposts.
Why should only villains get to mindfuck people, and turn the hero’s best friend into a traitor, and fake his own death? Why should only the villain employ dark magic that’s so much more powerful than its counterpart that he takes over a good portion of the world before someone stops him? *insert mini-rant about how the stopping part is almost never a cooperative effort, but the work of a single specifically-born hero who is his own kind of deus ex machina* Why should the villain be the only one to employ torture, drugs, slavery, mind control?
Because “The hero is not the kind of person who would do that.” But let’s say you remove that barrier. Your “hero”—call him protagonist, perhaps, the one who moves the plot—would do that. In fact, he does it. He can kill the villain because he’s his equal, just as determined and just as dastardly as he is.
It’s not going to work every time, for a multitude of reasons. You can wind up with a host of unsympathetic characters. The plot can turn into one big gore-fest, with nothing mattering but who invents the more sickening methods of torture. The story can get stuck on the tired old “War is hell” message without bringing anything new to it. The author can, most of the time unintentionally, create a “villain” and a “hero” who are morally indistinguishable from each other, but insist that the hero is better because, well, she says so. So I think any author who attempts this needs to know why she wants to do it, and how she’s going to do it, and dive into it with eyes wide open, and have other goals than just making the reader like her protagonist. (Making him fascinate the reader, with all that word’s negative connotations as well as the positive ones, might be a better goal).
This is in here because I like it. I will admit that. Intense pair relationships fascinate me, and I’m always interested to see what can be done with ones that are not romantic. The relationship between two people who hate each other’s guts and are both determined to survive can be especially fascinating, as long as layer after twisted layer is added to it.
4) Aftermath of a war of attrition.
What’s most important to the villain? What can’t he live without? It could be a person, a thing, a place, a magical ability. Perhaps the heroes cannot kill him directly, but what happens if they murder that person, destroy that thing, despoil that place, strip him of his magic?
He could break. He could lose the will to keep living, and commit suicide. He could try to keep fighting, but every battle after that is a hollow gesture, and so the heroes can easily take and try and execute him (see point 5). In effect, the heroes killed him when they took away what he most valued. If this sounds familiar, it should. It’s essentially what Lord of the Rings winds up doing to Sauron.
Again, this is the kind of thing that can be attempted and fail. The failures I’ve seen tend to ride on one of two main reasons.
First, the villain is, once again, stupid. He leaves the person he loves most in the world unguarded. Uh. Why? “To make it easy for the heroes” is not an answer the villain would entertain, I don’t think. Or it’s too ridiculously easy to get and destroy the one object that contains most of his power. Lord of the Rings at least imposes a cost for that destruction, a very heavy one. If all the hero has to do is snap the villain’s sword, though, and he does it without even breaking a sweat, it’s going to prove pretty anticlimactic, certainly not worthy of a thousand or three hundred pages of epic buildup.
Second, the villain is not convincingly dependent on this whatever-it-is. A villain who is cold-hearted and “Ahahahahaha!” about the whole world cannot collapse on the death of his baby daughter because, yes, he really did wuv her, and nobody ever knew. That’s deus ex machina poking its ugly head through the window again. Similarly, the hero just happening to choose the right jeweled ring to destroy out of sixty different options is a no-no. Why this one particular ring? Does the story ever explain? Most of the time, no. The author is too interested in the heroes peeking at each other while they bathe, or writing things like “charcoal eyes.” (Yes. That was real).
Lay the groundwork. Show the villain’s sick, twisted relationship with this person (sick, twisted relationships are fun!), or how he’s poured his essence into the ground that was once his home village and tied himself to it with bonds stronger than iron. Don’t make it completely obvious that this is the key to the villain’s destruction, both because an intelligent villain would try to hide that and because most of the time the heroes just need to promenade along the quest after that, facing no convincing dangers. Present red herrings and other options. Let the heroes try other things and fail. And make the villain of such a personality that, yes, he really would snap and fling himself from his tower when he feels his lover die, if that’s what you plan to have him do.
5) There’s always good old justice.
Pratchett is the only fantasy author who seems to do this with any regularity, perhaps because one of his main characters is a policeman. But really, I don’t see the point of the villain dying in a dramatic duel on a cliff if he’s been captured and subdued and had his magic taken away so that he can’t teleport himself off to be a threat in the far future. Neither is the option of burying him alive in a cave a good trick, because, guess what, he’ll revive himself again a few hundred years later. If the heroes have ideals of justice and fair play, let them actually live up to those values, find the villain guilty, and kill him with an axe on a cold frosty morning, after which everyone goes and has a drink.
Courtroom drama is a special kind of drama, though 99% of the time the reader already knows how the villain is going to meet his end. It’s a place for the heroes to demonstrate what they’re made of outside of battle—and even for the villain to do that, if he’s allowed to speak. How do they talk to someone when they know they’re in charge and have won? What is the operative ideal at this point, justice or mercy? (You could certainly make good cases for both). What does your villain say when he knows that he can’t wave his hand and get himself out of trouble this time, when he knows beyond all doubt that he is going to die? Does his execution fit the crime, or is that not even a consideration? This makes a good alternative to the final battle, where such questions usually get shelved by the sheer speed with which events move.
The only reservation I really have about executions as an end to villains is that too often they’re delayed for a stupid reason, and the villain escapes for an equally stupid reason, prompting an unnecessary sequel. But I hope that you wouldn’t allow your protagonists to be stupid any more than you would allow your villains to be.
It wasn’t the next one in the poll, but it was the next one I wanted to write. Hopefully I’ll be able to continue with this.