Past the High Point

Genuinely compelling villains, although always too few, exist in fair abundance. Much more rare is a compelling villain who charts a convincing and satisfying redemption arc. Rarest of all is a compelling villain who, at the end of his satisfying redemption arc, does not promptly die. It grows predictable and, occasionally, rather bleak. Why can’t a villain finish his redemption arc without finishing himself?

Practicality is one driving reason. A redeemed villain is an ex-villain, and where do you go from there? Once a villain gives up all the interesting plans that made him so necessary to the story – gives up world domination, or mad scientific experiments, or destroying people’s lives for his personal satisfaction – what does he do next? It would be easy to say that he becomes a hero. It would not be easy to do. Not everything that makes a good villain makes a good hero. We are entertained by the badness of villains, if it is done with elan: insouciant lies, frank selfishness, grandiose pomposity, Force-choking incompetent subordinates, etc.

But in the transition to heroism, even the most stylistic wickedness has to go. Worse, the villain’s role (so excellently played!) must be abandoned. And once all that is stripped away, what do you have left? You are in danger of changing a superior villain into a merely adequate hero. Not all creators know what to do with a smashing villain who entirely leaves off villainy. The story grows, too, harder to tell. There is high drama and even clarity in the conversion of villain to hero. Life, on the other side of redemption, sinks to something quieter and more muddled. It is easier to write a redemptive death than a redeemed life. And if the redeemed villain dies with all dispatch, his career as a hero will be too short to be disappointing.

Aside from the creative challenge of an ex-villain, certain thematic and even philosophical ideas drive the villain’s redemptive death. Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life, and people believe this almost by instinct. Truly wonderful villains do truly terrible things. To do the best thing is a powerful culmination of the villain’s journey to heroism. In the case – and it usually is the case – that the villain has innocent blood on his hands, a heroic death is a kind of atonement. Steal life, give life. It satisfies justice. There are crimes that cry out for punishment. A change of heart does not buy impunity from every horrible thing done to other people.

In his self-sacrificial death, the redeemed villain pays his debt. That is why the redemption arc is so often completed with a heroic death. It is emotionally powerful, and satisfies a sense of rightness that is more felt than articulated. It is also the safest creative choice. If you don’t really know how to continue the villain or his story past the high point of redemption, you might as well stop there – and leave them wanting more.

But whatever excellent reasons exist for some redemption arcs to end in death, there is no reason that they all should. Occasionally – if for no other reason than to keep us guessing – creators should take up the challenge of an ex-villain who lives as a hero instead of dying as one. We grow fond of our compelling villains, even in their murderous phase. We cheer them on their journey to the light. We would like, after it all, to be able to keep them around. It’s tiresome to be compelled to end all such stories feeling sad. Every once in a while, it would be good to believe in grace enough to say that the villain, too, lives happily ever after.

Honors Villainy 312

(Because, coming off the election, we could all use a laugh.)


Good morning. Or bad morning – whichever is most applicable to your day, and as you all know, I don’t care.

First order of business, your tests. Observe, class, the newly empty seats. These belong to your former classmates, who have been dropped from the class. I will never tire of saying it: In the Higher University classroomof Super-Villainy, there are no second chances. Anyone not bright enough to pass the test, not competent enough to cheat and not be caught, not cunning enough to discern the one bribe I am willing to take – anyone who fails, fails. Because they were not superior enough to give orders, your ex-classmates have gone to the Lower College of Henchmen, where they will learn to take them.

Don’t smile. Next week, it could be you.

Second order of business, the recent pleasantness. You observed the riots surrounding the Superior Court of Inquisition, although as underclassmen it was not, of course, your privilege to participate. I am happy to tell you that justice was done. Total Expulsion was carried out, complete with a Demoralizing Monologue and several Witty Taunts. The honorable inquisitors did not even consider sending the criminal to the Spurious School of Mindless Minions.

The offense that brought about such a punishment is, of course, shocking, but I am going to explain it, because this is not a safe space, and I do not care about your triggers. The criminal, while preparing a treatise to earn the rating of a Malefic Magician –

(And don’t you see, class, that that is a clear sign that something was wrong? Who studies to become a Malefic Magician? It is really a matter of kidnapping or blackmailing or killing or ensorceling, all the good works of villainy) –

The criminal forgot the Infallible Law of Power, that teaches that Might Is Right and Will Prevails – forgot, I might add, the revered Doctrine of Self-Preservation and the sacred Imperative of Self-Interest – and presented to the Higher University the following statistics:

  • In 97.8% of all stories, the villain loses; in 70.5% of stories, the villain dies; in 83% of stories where the villain survives, it is only to die at a later date; in 99% of stories, the villain has an unhappy ending; to this we add, parenthetically but with great annoyance, that in 44% of stories, the villain is reputed to cry, and not the crocodile tears or boiling tears of pure rage that are the only acceptable kinds of crying.


All this is bad enough. But what disqualified the criminal from being even a Mindless Minion was the conclusion of the treatise. This put forward the thought – and let this be a lesson that you should always think twice before you think – that the universe works against us and beats us, and that is how Clotilde Skuld came to be banished to the Outer Regions of Perpetual Back-breaking, Soul-Destroying Work, Where Your Face Will Never Be Clean Again.

Skuld’s treatise is specious on its face. How can the villain lose in 97.8% of stories and be unhappy in 99%? Clearly, if the villain won, then the villain would be happy. These numbers are self-contradictory and worthless. Furthermore, how can anyone fail to consider the issue of authorial bias? The authors of these stories are nervous creatures, afflicted with too little exercise, too little sunlight, and too much caffeine, and write out of their timid heart’s desire to escape our coming dominion.

Take heart, students! The universe is blacker than they paint it. Time is a tyrant, Death conquers all. Entropy is on our side. Nature knows no law but Power – and neither do we. We fight without the self-imposed limits of the heroes. Our will to win is absolute, our cunning knows no qualms, our ambitions are unfettered. Our fashion sense is manifestly superior. We will prevail.

That is our time. Tomorrow night is the game against the Knights, and I encourage you to cheat whenever you can get away with it and commit wanton fouls against the enemy’s star players. Remember, it’s not how you play the game; it’s whether you win or lose.

And as I have taught you, you will win. Or else.

Help Wanted

Help Wanted
Up-and-Coming Villain Seeks Competent Help

Qualifications: Applicants must be committed individuals willing to invest themselves completely in world-changing enterprise. Intelligence, drive, and real-world skills required.

All applicants will be tested for critical thinking skills. Example question: If you are pursuing an escaped hero, and you pass by trees, pillars, large boulders, unlocked closets, etc., do you think it possible he would try to hide in one of them? Discuss.

All applicants must be capable of understanding and obeying simple orders. For example, “No one is allowed to see the prisoner” means that no one – literally no one – is allowed to see the prisoner. No matter what the prisoner tells you.

All applicants will be given weapons and required to demonstrate basic competence with them. If you fire at a six-foot-tall target eight feet away and miss, the interview will immediately be terminated.

Applicants shall be void of those pangs of conscience that cause evil henchmen to leave vital jobs unfinished.

All applicants shall understand that I am, and will always be, smarter and more powerful than they are.

Benefits: Benefits include health insurance, new wardrobe provided at company expense, opportunities to plunder, and chance to be in at the ground-floor of a world empire. Also the privilege of seeing a mastermind at work.

Positions Available: Positions vary from minion to trusted lieutenant. Each will be rewarded on the basis of applicant’s merit.

If interested, send application to Interviewees will be conducted, blindfolded, to an undisclosed location.

Character Profiles: The Suave Villain

What sharp little eyes you have, my dear.

– Lord Archelaeus Burleigh, The Skin Map

Archelaeus Burleigh was an earl – rich, refined, well-dressed, every inch an aristocrat. He was a great traveler, too, and a man of books. As may be expected, he was very reasonable, in the sense that he generally gave people a chance to join his side before he killed them.

Burleigh was a Suave Villain. Suave Villains are an interesting breed. They are taken as being more intelligent than their uncouth cousins – henchmen, enforcers, hot-tempered leaders of the pack. They’re also taken as being more evil. I don’t know why. Maybe the hot blood of angry, aggressive villains is at least mammalian, but the cold-hearted cunning of the Suave Villain is definitely reptilian.

There’s an irony in such characters that lends them depth. Burleigh was educated, urbane, at the top of society; the Suave Villain is by definition a master of the conventions of civilization. He is also, by definition, lawless. His manners may be the height of etiquette, but his philosophy is the philosophy of the jungle. Outwardly, a civilized man; inwardly, tearing up the roots of civilization.

A similar contrast is found in characters such as Gaston and Jadis: beautiful on the outside, ugly on the inside. These characters illustrate the superficiality of good looks. Maybe characters like Burleigh illustrate the superficiality of what they call “good breeding” – all that smooth comportment through society, always knowing the right thing to say, the right thing to wear, the right fork to use.

Many, many people have been coated with this lacquer of civilization without it ever touching their souls. These are garden variety snobs and egotists and selfish people – and, just now and then, Suave Villains. The Suave Villain’s hands may be dirty, sometimes even bloody, but his fingernails are very clean.