Welcome back writers! Monday is here, I’ve recovered from my cold, and that means it’s time to drop another installment of writing goodness on its scheduled day, rather than later in the week. This week, we’re going to be addressing a follow-up to a post from earlier this year in which we talked about giving our story a villain protagonist. In that post we talked about a number of things that change for your story if you’re writing from the prospective of a villain (not just an antagonist) but there was one thing that didn’t come up during that discussion: An ending. And yes, it won’t quite be like your typical story ending.
So today, we’re going to talk about that. But first, some quick news reminders from the weekend (which did have their own post, so if you want more detail, go here). The biggest of these is the reminder that the cover for Starforge will be revealed September 1st, 2022, which is this week. So far you’ve had a teaser of what the cover for this juggernaut of a Sci-Fi novel will look like, but starting September 1st, you’ll all get to see it. And hey, there’s a 4K background version too, ready to grace your desktop. So be here September first for your first look at the cover that’ll be in your hands come November!
Second quick reminder: 10,000 in ten years. If you missed last Friday’s news post, in the nine-and-a-half years since I published my first book (One Drink) back in 2013, I have sold almost 9,000 copies across my lexicon. With my ten year anniversary of writing coming up in February 2023, the goal is to clear the last 1,000 sales before that date, meaning “10,000 copies sold in ten years!” There’s more about the specifics in last Friday’s post, so go check that out if you’re curious, but the goal stands as the most important part. 10,000 in ten years, baby! That’s the goal!
Anyway, that’s all the news I want to tackle at this particular moment, so let’s get down to business and talk shop. Or rather, villain protagonists, and how you might handle leading their story to an end. Because as we discussed with our prior post on villains, you can’t handle a story in exactly the same manner as you would with a heroic protagonist. A villain is a villain, and that means convention goes right out the window. A villain doesn’t bring peace to the land (well, not the way a hero would), or “save the day,” at least conventionally. See, a villain protagonist ending is usually the ending most stories we tell do their best to avoid.
So hit that jump, and let’s talk about writing and ending where good doesn’t win … or at least reaches a compromise.
Okay, so let’s clear something up right away, before we get too deeply into things: Yes, I know there are villain protagonist endings where the villain saves the day, and ends up accepted by the people, or takes down an even worse villain, etc etc. You’ve seen and read these stories. Megamind, for example, is an instance like this, with a villain protagonist, but a standard “happy ending.”
Now, I’m not trying to disparage Megamind or movies like it when I bring this up. Megamind is a fantastic film. But many of you, I’m certain, when thinking about a “villain protagonist ending” immediately thought of that ending. Or perhaps the ending to Despicable Me. Or another similar ending. Everyone’s happy, the villain has been redeemed—
Oop, wait a minute. Yeah, see, there’s a common thread with those endings: The villain isn’t a villain anymore in those endings. They’ve been redeemed. They might still show shades of villainous inclination from time to time, but generally they’re more anti-hero or even outright heroic than a villain.
In fairness, I’d still count these as a sort of villain protagonist ending. They’re just the sort where our villain has had a change of heart, a change of pace, a change of perspective—something—that leads to their evolution into a different character archetype.
So yes, I do consider that a “villain protagonist ending” … of a sort. It’s the sort where they stop being a villain in the end. But it is a villain protagonist ending. And if that’s the direction you want your villain story to take, then that’s fine. It’s a perfectly viable bit of character evolution and can lead to a much-beloved story. But … it’s also an ending you’ll need to work towards from the very get go. Right from the start. That means planning or freewriting with that specific goal in mind and crafting a plot where the villain’s turn from evil to good is worked out over the course of the narrative, moving at a logical, consistent pace with their character.
But what about when we’re not doing that? The strength of a redemption ending with a villain protagonist is that we can turn our story toward the type of ending that most gravitate toward: A happy one, where evil is defeated, good triumphs, and everyone feels accomplished.
But what if we don’t do that? What if our villain stays a villain? No redemption. No change, at least not on a moral compass. What then? How can we end our story in a way that satisfies the reader?
Well, the good news is that you still can. There are plenty of stories out there following villains that leave their protagonists just as villainous and evil at the finish as they do at the start, and yet still deliver a compelling narrative and ending. So, let’s talk about a few of the methods they use that enable them to do that, to keep their villain still being, well, a villain, while delivering an interesting story that keeps readers engaged.
A common one some of you may have seen is a villain showdown, aka the “Evil VS Evil” trope, where our villain protagonist isn’t as much occupied by a heroic antagonist at all but by a battle with another villain more or less evil than they are. For example, if your villain protagonist is attempting to take over a country, their antagonist may be another villain attempting the same objective.
There’s a reason this trope is used quite often in villain protagonist stories, and that’s because it allows the audience not to feel much guilt about what the villain gets up to. The villain slaughtered a hundred people that were in their way? Well, it’s okay because those hundred people were all working for the other (often worse, morally) villain. In fact, this is a story setup that’s popular in part because it allows us to let the villain go completely full power without feeling bad about the target of that power, because it’s just another villain who (usually) is just as bad if not worse than our protagonist. As villains are usually fairly powerful. giving a villain protagonist another powerful villain to slug it out with is usually a pretty popular choice.
However, it’s not a perfect choice. Usually this type of ending, with villain fighting villain, can be thrilling, but can also be somewhat empty otherwise. Character growth in such a story is often restricted to what the other villain can bring our of our protagonist villain, and that can be … limited, to put it lightly. Not always, if you pick your opposing villain carefully (for example, if your villain protagonist is a force of nature with strength, and the opposing villain is a villain of the mind, then you’ve got an opposing powers matchup that can force one or both characters to grow), but most of the time a story with two villains throwing down with one another is often really just a case of “let’s have a less evil villain go up against a more evil villain to reduce the moral ambiguity of our protagonist.”
That said, this approach still works. Villain VS villain can be a lot of fun, and doesn’t have to be merely a straightforward punch-up. One can even use a villain VS villain story to show exactly what morals your villain protagonist does still possess, and where the line is that they won’t cross. A case of “evil has standards” shown off by putting them up against a villain with no standards. In some forms of villain protagonist storytelling, this is even used as an excuse to have the villain team up with the hero protagonist in an alliance of some kind against the greater villain. Of course, that itself is often sort of a side-stepped version of ‘redemption arc,’ so exercise care.
Okay, but what about other forms of villain protagonist endings? What if we don’t have another, greater villain for our villain to go up against? How can we end our villain’s story in a satisfying way then?
Well, just because we don’t have a villain to go up against doesn’t mean we can’t deliver our protagonist some form of opposition. It can even be heroic opposition. Of course, stories where the villain brutally wipes out all the heroes can’t work … or can they?
See, while it takes more work, we can write a villain protagonist story with an “unhappy” ending where the villain wins. It’s a daring move … but we can do it.
The trick with taking this sort of approach is that we don’t want our audience to leave in disgust. A story about good versus evil from the perspective of evil can be chilling or even pulse-pounding, but when it ends with the bad guys winning … that can be a damper for most people.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t do it in a way that isn’t a damper. For example, one way to get around this is to give the audience a bit of hope by showing hints throughout the story of what the villain’s eventual downfall might be. Maybe the villain’s own actions over the course of the story have a blind spot that the reader can see a future defeat growing from, such as a casual dismissal of an underling who takes more and more issue with the villain’s increasingly despotic choices.
Or maybe their victory isn’t complete. Maybe the villain succeeds, but only in about three-quarters of what they wanted to do, leaving a thread of resistance, good, or a sense that the villain didn’t quite dominate everyone.
Granted, all of this is better if you can work it into the villain’s character arc over the course of the story. If you villain wins, but the choices they’ve made with their character growth over the course of the story set them up for their ultimate downfall … that can actually be a very compelling read. Even as the final climax winds down, the readers will be left with the knowledge and outside perspective that the villain is actively defeating themselves with their own choices. Books with this story can be very popular (in fact, I’d argue that the classic Wuthering Heights is a form of this sort of story, if with the added effect of the audience being shown the villain’s slow descent from power to nothingness.
You can also have villain protagonist endings where the villain doesn’t win. Like other endings, this is hard to pull off, but done carefully and done well can still have enough of a resolution that the reader doesn’t feel cheated. Usually if one takes this approach, it’ll involve character growth or a twist that the reader doesn’t see coming, perhaps a revelation about the villain and their plan, such as a Xanatos gambit or a second goal that was their real aim all along.
Or perhaps even a case of the villain surprising everyone with deeper motivations that reveal more about their character. Many villain stories have taken this direction, including one Halo storyline from the expanded universe where everyone—including a villain’s own underlings—presumed they were after an important control device for the power it offered, only for the villain to destroy it once he’d acquired it, the given reasoning being that he was confident enough in his own skill and power, found the object and what it entailed repulsive, and didn’t believe anyone else should have access to it either.
It was a great way to cap off that particular villain’s arc (for the story, anyway). Not only did they win the macguffin that everyone was after, emerging victorious ahead of everyone else, but they then destroyed it as a statement of personal character and standards, something that gave them a very firm establishing character moment.
I realize we are talking about endings where the villain doesn’t win, but in that story the “victory” everyone was going for, even the villain’s own underlings, was possessing the macguffin at the story’s heart. So technically, the villain didn’t “win” by the terms of the story. Instead he rejected what the readers and the characters in the story expected victory to be in favor of his own sense of morality. Which, in turn, made for a very memorable ending I still see brought up from time to time in some circles.
Okay, so we’ve talked about villain vs villain team ups as endings, villain victories, and villain … well, let’s call them partial victories, where they don’t win but accomplish some other objective or flip the script. Each of these requires knowing the kind of story we want to tell, and using the various elements at our disposal to keep the audience invested despite the lack of a more conventional ending.
But what about, for the sake of discussion, a story with an ending where the villain loses? Can that still be compelling tale?
Yes. It can. Just as we can have stories where a hero can lose but still deliver a climax that’s exciting or revealing, we can do the same with a villain. Depending on the framework and genre of our story it can even be cathartic to the audience to see a despicable villain brought low at last from their own perspective.
Again, like the other types of ending we’ve discussed today, this is something that takes foreknowledge and planning to pull off. If we just “pull the rug” out from under our readers and make our ending little more than a “Hah! Gotcha!” they’re not going to feel very satisfied with the reversal of fortunes we present.
But if we frame and plan it from the very get go? Perhaps writing our story as a tragedy following an oppressive, evil noble who at every turn refuses to reform or makes choices that lead to a downfall that only near the end do they understand, but far too late. Such a story could be quite riveting, even though our villainous protagonist absolutely loses in the end, the audience won’t mind.
While a lot of these different approaches—which are by no means all—that we’ve discussed today have explored different methods of writing a villain protagonist to the very end of their story, I hope there’s one common thread above all else that you’ve noticed with regards to writing such a tale.
Knowing what you’re working toward.
Previously on Being a Better Writer, I’ve referred to endings as the keystone of your story, that which all the rest of the story moves toward. Something that must be planned for, even if you’re writing creatively, in some manner. You have to know what sort of ending you want so that you can frame the rest of the story accordingly, even if you don’t know what that exact ending scene might be.
In other words, you don’t have to know the exact shape and size of the keystone, but you’d better be working toward it.
Well, writing a villain protagonist makes knowing that ending you’re working toward very vital, as it is quite possible to deliver an ending that just doesn’t satisfy otherwise. Are you going to throw your villain protagonist up against a hero? Will the villain win? Will they lose? How will that ending satisfy your reader?
Will it satisfy through spectacle? There’s an audience for that, but you’ll want to understand that this is what you’re working toward so that you can pull them in with hints of what’s coming.
Yes, this may sound like familiar territory to many long-time readers of this blog. But if we’re writing a villain protagonist, elements like understanding our audience take on new meaning and new importance as we’ll need to come at things from a different direction than if we were writing about a heroic protagonist. Heroes … well, writing about them is more common, and thus more understood. But when we write about villains, we need to reexamine our more conventional approaches and make sure that we can still deliver a gripping narrative that plays by different character rules.
And being prepared for our ending? As said above, we need to work toward our keystone.
Know what you’re working toward with your villain protagonist ending. Shape the story in that direction. Know what the audience is going to take away from it.
Good luck. Now get writing.
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