Deadly but likable hero

Here–ta da!–is the reveal of the cover for Writer to Writer, from Think to Ink:

And here’s the new cover for Writing Magic:

On March 23, 2014, Kenzi Anne wrote, So I have a predicament… The villain in my story needs to lose, and I was initially going to have him die. Unfortunately, I need the heroine of my story to be the one to defeat the villain, but I’m not sure how to do that without having my heroine outright kill the villain herself. I feel like she wouldn’t be much of a hero since killing really isn’t moral or likable for a heroic character…any thoughts?

Elisa opined, Well, actually, some people have to be killed to preserve peace. And plus, if there isn’t a penalty for despicableness, what keeps everyone from being despicable? But, if you absolutely don’t want her to kill him, why don’t you have her do it indirectly? Like, have her rig up the chandelier to fall to cause a distraction, only the villain steps under it at the precise moment it falls, and is demolished! (That is, of course, just a basic example. You can go much more complex than that.)

And Eliza said, Sometimes it’s more satisfying to watch the villain live with defeat than just get killed. Maybe your hero destroys the one thing that meant the world to the villain and they have to stand there and watch all their hard work crumble before their eyes.

The only time I’ve had my heroine kill a villain is in The Two Princesses of Bamarre, when Addie stabs (if I remember right) to death the dragon Vollys–to the dismay of some readers, because Vollys is lovable. But she’s evil, and I felt she had to go. I don’t think Addie is any less admirable for doing away with her.

But Vollys isn’t human. So far, I’ve shied away from having people kill people, though it may be unavoidable in the book I’m working on now, during summer break from poetry school. Squeamishness, rather than morality, has stopped me in the past; I don’t think it’s immoral for an author to have a fictional character kill another fictional character, whether it’s a villain murdering a secondary character or an MC polishing off a villain. I hasten to assure you all: in real life, I’m mild-mannered.

Certainly in books, movies, and TV, heroes often off villains, and the reader or the audience cheers and goes on loving them. Think of James Bond, for instance.

We’re wandering a little away from my area of expertise, because I’m not a blood-and-guts writer, but I suspect that the method the hero uses is important. For example, it’s probably a rare heroine who poisons her villain. We’re likely to squirm if an author makes our beloved heroine Martha stir arsenic into the villain’s tea or shoot him in the back using a telescopic rifle sight (correct lingo?) from an office building across the street from his hotel.

Often in a thriller, we see the two locked in mortal combat. One of them is going to die, and we want it to be the villain. I’ve peeked between my fingers countless times in a movie while a hero and villain struggle on a window ledge. The villain goes over, although maybe the hero really wanted to haul him in to jail. But nobody is miserable about the way it went down and he fell down.

Speaking of jail and moving in Eliza’s direction, bringing a villain to justice can be a satisfying way of avoiding death. He can no longer hurt anyone else, and if we set it up right, we can make sure his life in the clinker will be horrible. And justice doesn’t have to mean a maximum-security prison in some country we all know; it can be a dungeon in the castle cellar or exile to a convict planet in the next galaxy.

I love the way Hook meets his end in Peter Pan. Peter defeats the pirate in a duel, a terrible humiliation. But the crocodile, whose clock has finally stopped ticking, eats him. If we can engineer this kind of send-off for our villain, hooray for us.

One way to get there is to think about what would make our villain most miserable. Might be loss of power or wealth or being deprived of the company of his pet boa constrictor. If our heroine can bring this about, the reader will be satisfied. And a nice aspect of these less-than-final final solutions is that they’re reversible, so we can bring our villain back in the next book, if we want to.

A painful example of using what a character fears most occurs in George Orwell’s 1984 (high school and up). *Spoiler alert!* If you haven’t read this chilling masterpiece and plan to, skip this paragraph. Since the novel is a tragedy, it’s the heroes who suffer defeat, but the method can be applied to villains, too. The government, which is the villain here, knows what everyone fears most–heights or spiders or confinement–and subjects dissenters to whatever that is for them. In this conception, everyone snaps; no one can withstand his greatest fear. The dissenters are broken and no longer a threat to the state. As soon as I read the end of the book, I knew what could be used against me. No bones would be broken, not even a scratch, but I’d be finished. Horrifying. And we can do something like this to our villain.

We have to set it up early in our story. Probably we have to show how hard it will be for our MC to discover our villain’s secret and bring it about. She may not know what she’s looking for or even that there is an Achilles’ heel in our seemingly invincible villain.

Kenzi Anne also asks about the morality or likability of a heroine who kills a villain. We can debate forever the morality of a character (or a person) who kills, even to save other lives. But I think our heroine can be likable whether or not she kills anyone. I’m not sure her likability is at stake unless she kills in a way the reader can’t identify with, or that disgusts the reader. Suppose Martha draws a bead on the villain when he’s about to smother her best friend who’s innocently asleep. We want her to get the villain and save her friend, and let’s assume that killing him is the only option. We’re entirely on her side. We’ll still want her to succeed, but we may feel less fond of her if her accompanying thoughts or actions don’t please us. We may get turned off if she’s hoping, as she pulls the trigger, that he doesn’t die quickly, or, alternatively, if she’s debating what she’s going to eat for lunch as soon as he’s dead. Or if she kills him and then kicks his cat or raids his fridge.

Gee, villains are always so much fun! Here are three prompts:

• Put Martha and the villainous, heavily armed, and very large Mr. MacTavish on the roof of a twenty-five-story office building. One of them is going to fall off. Write the fight scene, and kill whoever has to die.

• Put them back on the roof, and have Martha figure out what Mr. MacTavish fears most. Have her vanquish him without killing him–if you can, without touching him. Write the scene.

• In the traditional fairy tale, Snow White’s evil stepmother dances to death in red hot slippers. Devise a better punishment for her and make Snow White bring it about.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. Are our men in uniform ('Murica!) less heroic because they have had to kill? Killing, if necessary, does not make a character less heroic. If my character goes back in time, knowing the events of the Holocaust, and kills Hitler before he rises to power, is she a murderer or a hero? I would say hero.
    Of course the question is how do you keep your character likable and I think that has to do with the attitude of a character and whether they feel conflicted.
    As an example. I am a big fan of the recent Man of Steel (SPOILER ALERT!!!)
    A lot of fans where upset when Superman kills Zod near the end of the movie, but Superman remained likable in his action, because it's clear he wasn't looking to kill Zod directly. He attempts to convince Zod to stop, to not kill the innocent people in the room with them, but in the end killing him is the only solution to save lives.
    Part of what makes him still likable is the fact that he is clearly horrified after the fact. He screams and is in terrible mental anguish because he had to kill. The other part is that he kills Zod to stop the imminent death of a family with children, that puts a face on the victim and gives the reader (or viewer) something to weigh against the death. Was Zod living worth the death of a mother and father and two small children? It gives the reader a moral "out" so they can side with the hero.

    As opposed to my current character who is the hero of the story (somehow) but she's a serial killer. She kills because it's fun to her and because she's good at it and she's learned she can get rid of people she doesn't like. She is fun to write as a character, but she's not meant to be particularly likable. She'll save the day, but only because it suits her to do so.

  2. The first cover is so cute! It took me a while to figure out the second one had a dragon on it, I love that. When is Writer to Writer supposed to be out again?

  3. Love the covers!

    Also, after years of searching, I finally found a copy of the out-of-print Japanese version of Ella Enchanted. I was so happy when I got my hands on it!

    • Me too. The title is a little bit of a spoiler though: "Goodbye, 'Good Girl' Magic" [or "Spell"]. That means you'd start reading the book with the assumption that she'd eventually break the curse. I liked having to worry that she might not!

      I haven't had a chance to read it yet (having two toddlers makes it difficult), but the first few pages that I skimmed looked promising. The language is more formal, but that's typical of Japanese.

  4. Maybe I'm the only one…but I loved the old cover for Writing Magic. It was so mysterious and enchanting. <3 The new ones are pretty cool, too, though. 🙂

  5. I have a similar dilemma in my current WIP. I'm retelling the 12 Dancing Princesses fairy tale, and I've discovered that I've created a heirarchy of villains. The character I created originally as the villain has someone who's kinda using him, and there's a villain who is greater than both of those. And all these villains kinda need to die or be brought to justice, or stopped somehow so they can't cause any more trouble. My first thought was to have Gabriella (one of the princesses, and my MC) kill at least one of them. But she's not really a killer, and it would take something REALLY drastic for her to kill someone. So i'm not sure…
    I've got it set up so that at least one of the villains will be killed by the other villains, but that still leaves me with two. 😛 If I could think of creative ways to engineer their deaths so that Gabriella can't blame herself, that'd be great. So far, though, I haven't had any bright ideas. Hopefully this post will get me thinking. 😀

  6. Hi! Congrats on your new book, Mrs Levine, it looks great and I can't wait to read it! I was pleasantly surprised to see it pop up on my facebook. 🙂 The new covers are pretty spiffy too (though I do have a soft spot for the original Writing Magic cover…it embodies all the magic that I feel your books contain).

    Re: Villains, I agree with your post. I don't think a character killing (or refusing to kill) is what affects their likeability as much as how they react to it. A villain cowardly in death might deserve it as opposed to someone who thinks it a welcome change.

    —F (it's been ages since I lasted commented. Like. Years. I found your blog when I was starting university and now I just graduated! So it's kinda nostalgic to return!)

    • !!!!! I'd been hoping you'd see my comment, but I did not expect to see this as a reply! That's pretty cool. 🙂 And thank you! I'm really hoping to stay caught up with your blog this time around and actually make use of the prompts!

  7. SO excited for Writer to Writer!!
    In other news someone said said I looked like the girl on the cover of Ella Enchanted the other day.
    I guess she meant the one where Ella has blonde/red hair.

  8. I have a problem involving backstory.
    One of my main characters has tried to keep her past from the other main character for as long as possible, because she’s done a lot of bad things and has been through some terrible stuff. She’s incredibly independent, and worries that if others know her past they could control her. The second MC has just been completely betrayed by someone who he thought was his friend, someone that the first MC didn’t trust because of something in her past. MC number 1 ended up telling MC 2 that his friend was a traitor before MC 2 actually knew it. When he learns that she’s right, he becomes incredibly suspicious and wonders if he can trust her.
    It’s gotten to the point where MC 1’s backstory is vital to the progress of the book. Not much else can happen without her completely spilling. Unfortunately, I’m not very good at backstory, and MC 1 has a lot of it. MC 2 has figured out a few things about her for himself, but he wants an explanation for almost all of it. How do I explain what needs to be told without totally interrupting the story? The betrayal was rather intense, and I don’t really want the action to die all the way down. I really don’t want to include ten or more pages of dialogue explaining MC 1’s life. Any tips? I could really use some help with this. Thanks!

  9. Maybe the intensity of the betrayal can help. It sounds like both MCs are emotionally keyed up. #2 doesn't trust #1, and #1 presumably doesn't want to lose his friendship, so she might blurt things out whether she wants to or not. Especially if #2 responds to her hesitation with something like "You know what? I don't CARE what your reason is. I can't trust you. Get out of my life."

  10. Hi! I'm hoping this is a good place to ask this question — How do you actually start writing? I wrote a lot when I was in jr. high, but that was ten years ago. I really haven't written anything outside of academic papers in that time, but creative writing is something I've always wanted to do. I'm finally ready to get back into it, and I want to tackle camp nanowrimo in July (though I'm definitely not going to do the full 50,000 words). The problem is, I have no idea how to start! I love this blog, clearly, but most of the posts address problems that come after you've already started. This might be a super vague question, but if anyone at all has any advice on how to jump into the magical world of writing, I would love to hear it. 🙂

    • Shay: for me, I just think of an idea for a story to get started. (something that happens waaaay too often for me – it's a constant bother to get sidetracked all the time on different stories.) It might just be an interesting idea, a phrase to branch off of, or a cool title that gets me pondering. Then, after I think of some plot that really hooks me, I must write some of it. Even if you're jumping into the middle of the story to get to the super epic scene, that's okay if it's a part you relish writing. You may change the entire thing later.
      Anyway, this is just what works for me, and I hope this helps you as well!!

  11. This was made clear to me the other night. I watched Assault on Wall Street and they did a good job of making the hero sympathetic. There were a few people I wanted to see knocked off. Instead he opened fire on all the workers who were merely doing their job and never did oft one of the people I swore he would. He did kill a couple of the guys I wanted to see him kill and the ending was good but totally unrealistic for too many reasons to count. I went from wanting to see this guy get his revenge to not really caring one way or the other.

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