Cheap Villain Killin'
The death of a villain can inspire a wide range of emotions, from happiness and gratitude, to sorrow and remorse. I love me a good villain, and some of my favourite story moments are the amazing death scenes some villains are granted. That is, of course, assuming the death is indeed amazing and not an affront to their character arc. I am so in love with the closure of a good villain death that a bad one can ruin the entire story for me.
So without further ado, here are some pet peeves of mine: cheap villain death tropes I’d love to see gone forever, and how they can maybe be flipped around.
Oftentimes a cheap villain death is the result of a deus ex machina: the hero doesn’t actually have the means to kill the villain because they’re too damn awesome, so the villain accidentally dies when they slip and fall off a cliff during the final fight. Unless the hero has actual control over how the villain dies, such as a clever plan to lure them to the edge, this is the cheapest of cheap deaths.
Accidental death can only work if the villain is immediately replaced by an even greater threat to the hero that has somehow been vaguely hinted at or foreshadowed beforehand so it doesn’t come out of nowhere. Perhaps they’re fighting on an active volcano that suddenly explodes and kills the villain. The foreshadowing is in the fact that it’s active, and the bigger threat is the indiscriminate firebombing and hot ash the hero now has to escape—bigger, because volcanoes don’t think, so the hero can’t guess what its next move might be. This will still feel a little cheap if it’s not well done, however, because as it’s your story, you can choose when the volcano blows, and choosing to kill an antagonist with a natural disaster over which the hero has no control is underwhelming. The other problem in this kind of scenario is that as soon as the hero is out of the volcano’s range, safety is within reach even if the volcano hasn’t been destroyed, compared to the hero still being in constant potential danger if the villain were still alive.
The only good kind of accidental death is when the new threat is worse than the old, it has an active agenda, and it’s not directly connected to the villain. In fact, in these situations, this big annoyance of mine can be totally turned around into something brilliant. If the new threat is something which even the old villain had no concept of, you’re not only effectively upping the ante by making the old villain look like a schoolyard bully, you’re also vastly expanding your universe. If you set up your story well, dropping hints here and there of all the possible people (or monsters) in such a way that a new threat is plausible, you can follow up the old villain with a new, terrifying and vast enemy that will make your hero feel incredibly small and will eventually make the victory that much sweeter. But in this case, the old villain isn’t the true villain of the story; they’re more of a stepping stone. And since stepping stones are not an ending but part of the journey, the old villain’s accidental death won’t feel cheap: it’ll lead to something bigger.
Death is also cheap when the villain’s intelligence is insulted. More than any, I hate this kind of death the most. If the villain is really smart, the hero’s going to have a hell of a time luring them to a cliff. Unless they have no choice, the odds that smart characters would willingly put themselves in dangerous positions are very low. There is nothing more frustrating than watching an otherwise remarkable and cerebral villain suddenly become a half-wit so that the hero can defeat them. Not to mention it makes the hero’s victory completely hollow. The most satisfying time to defeat an enemy is when their faculties are at full power, anyway. Why blunt their intellect if you’ve worked so hard to write them as smart, effectively making the reader anticipate an ending where they're finally outsmarted?
The only time this convenient stupidity can be forgiven is in comedy. This kind of thing can make for a good punchline. However, it also relies on your story being a parody. Otherwise, it’s a glaring continuity error and an unfair way of treating both your villain and hero, because following the kill, the hero will develop a reputation of only being able to defeat enemies when they mysteriously become very weak.
My final pet peeve is a classic villain trait: arrogance. It’s a frustrating reason for a villain’s death, mostly because it isn’t very original, but also because I have a personal bias toward villains that don’t think of themselves as unbeatable, since people act in more interesting ways if they think they’re being threatened. If we revisit the accidental death scenario, and consider again why it’s better for the new, bigger threat to have little to no connection to the old villain, another reason would be that if the new threat were the villain’s fault, their character becomes an archetype for hubris: “His ego made him blind,” “He thought he could control the strain.” This isn’t a terrible thing, but if man-made threats are the worst possible ones in your world, you could argue that you’re restricting yourself.
They also make for really annoying characters. The ones that yell “I’m invincible!” as they’re dying are pathetic, and I always thought they cast a shadow over the hero’s victory. Not to mention, defeating a villain whose fatal flaw is hubris tends to involve a formulaic take-down by people who ultimately come across as preachy and say things like “You can’t play God,” or “He flew too close to the sun.”
However, hubris can be a genuinely interesting character trait. And there are times when I really enjoy it. But I’ve noticed that every single one of those times, the hubris was something I discovered afterwards upon reflection; something that wasn’t told to me, but that I began to understand as I considered the story from start to finish. In other words, if you’re going to give your villain a god complex, no need to shout it from the hills. Subtlety is a pretty nice touch.
So there they are. Three massive and common villain death pet peeves of my very own. Obviously, they are tailored to my personal tastes. I’d love to hear yours.