What happens when authors get ideas in their heads about redeeming their villains…and then go about it wrongly.
1) Love is overrated as a means of redemption.
This is for a number of reasons, but the three strongest are that too often ‘pure love’ is invoked, rather than a relationship; that it is handled too easily and quickly; and that love by itself can coexist with evil actions.
I can only think of one fantasy series off the top of my head where there is an actual relationship between a villain and a protagonist: Glen Cook’s Black Company series, where the narrator Croaker often fantasizes about the Lady, the main villain. That goes through some strange twists and changes, but it does become an actual way of relating, no matter how abnormal it might seem in the context of traditional romantic love. That convinced me that the changes in the Lady were changes that could actually happen. A hero directing ‘pure love’ at a villain and somehow triumphing has no relationship with the person he’s defeating. Besides that, it’s not as though it often makes sense. Few fantasy villains are presented as incarnations of pure hatred or pure despair, which would be metaphysically explicable. Instead, they’re just Evil, and love is just Good, and I want the heroes to die.
Because of that ease, defeating a villain with love can also make it seem as though the hero hasn’t earned the victory (a common problem with fantasies, and so easy to perpetrate). So, the hero has learned to love. So do other people. Why are none of them capable of standing up to the Dark Lord? Once again, authors who use this route don’t plow the necessary soil. The hero isn’t presented as unique in the passion or purity of his love, or the author simply insists that he is, without providing proof. Love isn’t what gives him the right to be there at the climax, even if it’s the trick he uses to make the villain repent. It’s bloodline, or destiny, or magical powers, or something else. If you want to use love as a means of redemption, you have to make it woven in as part of the story, not added on at the end as a cliché.
And, finally, love by itself doesn’t guarantee the absence of evil. People are perfectly capable of loving others and still committing horrible acts; we see it in our world all the time, where criminals usually have families, friends, spouses, or lovers. People also commit horrible acts in the name of love. Claiming that anyone who does that doesn’t “really” love someone is, once again, too easy. Villains who love are rare, but I wouldn’t think that just because the Dark Lord loves his mother, that makes him want to stop taking over the world.
2) Purity and innocence are also overrated as means of redemption.
This is sometimes tied to Innocence as Plot Device, where the “innocent” person is the only one who can handle a certain magical weapon or magical power needed to defeat the Dark Lord. (Hello, David Eddings). The protagonist smiles dazzlingly at the villain, and suddenly he thinks differently.
This one is even worse than love, I think, because the author usually makes some attempt to define what love is and why the villain doesn’t have it; it just doesn’t go deep enough. But innocence isn’t defined. Is it lack of experience? Then why is the protagonist a teenager, instead of a child? Is it lack of criminal acts? Many other people in the fantasy world usually fit this criterion. Is it lack of sexuality? Again, plenty of virgins running around; no word on what makes the protagonist so damn special. Is it purity of motives? Why would that by itself be enough to redeem a Dark Lord who’s spent centuries torturing his enemies for amusement? (If nothing else, he’s probably seen it all before; see point 3).
Innocence, purity, and naiveté are vague things, words that sound good but usually escape definition. Make sure that you know what you mean by them and exactly how they’re going to work before you use them. They’re sledgehammers in the hands of innocent authors.
3) If you have an immortal Dark Lord, then he’s probably seen it all before.
I have driven myself crazy before trying to figure out why a fantasy protagonist who is specifically said to be “exactly like” his famous ancestor who defeated the Dark Lord is going to succeed this time around. Any non-stupid villains should have learned the first time. When this sword-swinging or magic-wielding clone comes stomping up to his fortress, he should trample him flat.
That’s the problem with the whole idea of redeeming immortals, really. They’ve seen more years go past than the protagonist will ever see; they’ve forgotten more than he’ll ever know. They’ve had centuries to sink further into whatever evil they practice. They’ve met all kinds of people—many who probably tried to stop them—and defeated them or ignored them. Why should we take it for granted that this innocent singing young maiden with the magical wolf companion is unique in their experience, and that her words about innocence and purity and love are ones they’ve never heard before? Given how many people in fantasy talk like Care Bears or your friendly neighborhood therapist, I think the Dark Lord probably has heard it before. Why does he nod along this time instead of yawning, saying, “Oh, thatsong and dance again,” and killing her?
Probably the easiest answer is to have a prior change working in the Dark Lord, one that will make him easier to redeem. That will almost certainly mean writing part of the book from his point of view, since it’s a difficult thing to convey reliably in second-hand narration. A good handling of it (though the protagonist isn’t a normal fantasy Dark Lord) is in the first five books of Roger Zelazny’s Amber series. The protagonist, Corwin, who really comes from the world that stands at the center of reality, has spent centuries exiled on Earth, with amnesia. When he comes back to try and claim the throne of Amber, he at first acts as one might expect an arrogant immortal who believes that only his world is real to act. He gradually changes, though, and does things like starting to value other people’s lives. Everyone remarks on it, and traces it to his years spent on Earth. If your villain goes through a sea-change like that, it could conceivably shake him up enough to listen to the protagonist.
If you have a more traditional Dark Lord, I would say that you pretty much have to provide a convincing explanation about his redeemer being unique in his experience. Not that Tolkien went the redemption route, but part of the reason that the Ring hid so successfully among the hobbits was that Sauron had never heard of them. They were too small to attract his notice. So he really hadn’t dealt with them before, and it’s not such a surprise that he didn’t predict how they would act. If you make your heroine of faery blood and she’s supposed to redeem the Dark Lord, then you might want to make sure he’s never faced a faery before.
4) Give him a good reason to change his motives.
This is another problem with Dark Lords who want to take over the world just because it’s there. How are you going to redeem them? You can’t give them the world, and if they’ve been trying for centuries, it seems unlikely they’d give up after a psychobabble session.
Make his motives more complicated. Perhaps the whole thing was a mistake. Perhaps he’s seeking revenge for an insult. Perhaps he wants to rule the world because otherwise a rival would, and he sees himself as acting defensively. Perhaps he’s concentrating his attack on a certain nation because they’re the descendants of the people who defeated him the first time—although in that case I want to know why he was trying to take over the world the first time, too. Perhaps he wants to possess a certain source of magic, weapon, mineral, or anything else valuable. You have to know his motives, and the way he thinks about them, before you can come up with the reason as to why he might change.
Say you’ve got a revenge-obsessed villain. Can the heroes convince him that his revenge isn’t a good idea? Maybe. Please, though, for the love of all that’s in existence, don’t give that old spiel about revenge leaving him dead and empty. It’s tired, and it doesn’t work that way for everybody. In fact, it might work better if they could point to concrete ways that his revenge would hurt him, too, instead of predicting a psychological state that may or may not come to pass.
When you’ve come up with a villain who has his own motives, then you’ll probably find it a lot easier to redeem him. I wouldn’t suggest trying it the other way, though: settling on the means of redemption and then making up a villain to fit it. It’s too easy to not put enough clues in the story to convince the reader, or to make the ending feel contrived.
5) Consider compromise as well as outright redemption.
The Dark is powerful. The Dark is majestic. The Dark has more armies than the good guys do. The Dark might well rise again after your hero has sent it running.
Why not compromise?
Some fantasy authors—not all, alas—seem to be more fond of elegant, urbane, intelligent villains now, instead of slavering insane ones. If he’s that intelligent, he might be amenable to reason. If the Dark conquers up to a certain point, and the people under his rule are treated well enough, then why start a suicidal war? If there’s something else he wants instead, and giving him that thing wouldn’t destroy the world, then why not give it up to him? It’s possible that negotiation could even tip him across the line into redemption, if he’s also gone through the kind of change that I described in Point 3, or gone after his goal full speed ahead and gotten burned for it. He could see that his enemies are reasonable, or have his prejudices torn down.
The completeness of fantasy victories rarely makes sense. If the Dark Lord is destroyed, it never seems to occur to the winners that some people might be dissatisfied with that, and become outlaws or other kinds of troublemakers. If the Dark Lord is redeemed, he often agrees to give up everything he was doing before and say sorry, which magically heals everything.
A compromise, one that bound the villain to deal with the consequences of his actions, would be better all around, and a more realistic means of achieving balance. Besides, give the Dark Lord what he wants, and he might realize that he doesn’t want it after all. He might have enough armies to conquer certain lands; does he enough to hold them? Does he really want the magical power that would drain half his life-force away in return? Probably not.
And if he’s as intelligent as all that, he’s probably not a Dark Lord after all, and needs “redemption” less than he needs a change of perspective.
A villain redemption can be done realistically, I think. It’s just one of those things fantasy authors tend to follow in each other’s footsteps on and not give enough thought to.