What to do with a villain
I just finished going through the galleys for Vienna Waltz. Reading the final chapters in which the villains are unmasked, I was reminded of a conundrum I face writing historical suspense. What to do with the villains after try are caught. One problem I find with historical settings or perhaps with the kind of plots I write is that prosecuting the villain often entails revealing secrets that would cause scandal and ruin numerous lives. Which can be a dilemma for a hero/heroine who wants to see justice done but doesn’t want innocent lives destroyed. Also in many of my stories the villains prove to be closely connected to the central characters, which means ending with an arrest and the prospect of a trial leaves a great many dangling ends that I don’t necessary want to be the focus of my next book. In Secrets of a Lady Edgar and Jack both die in the dénouement, leaving Meg to go to prison (I’d still like to deal with Meg more in a subsequent book). In Beneath a Silent Moon, Evie also dies, killed by Tommy who escapes (definitely to be dealt with a in a future book). I’m not quite sure what the other characters would have done with Evie if she hadn’t died in the dénouement. It’s rather interesting to contemplate.
But the murderer can’t always conveniently die just as he or she is unmasked. In an as yet unpublished book, I have the murderer get away with the crime. In Vienna Waltz, because the events of the book are very much intertwined with real historical events and people, it was particular difficult to find a solution that worked with the historical record. Reading over the galleys, I’m pretty happy with the solution I found. If you read the book, you'll have to let me know what you think.
When I blogged about this topic on my own website, several readers pointed that there are different types of villains. Sarah said, "I think it depends if the ‘villain’ is a plot device, to be written out with the end of the novel, or an antagonist, who may reappear in sequels (I’m thinking of Chauvelin in the Scarlet Pimpernel books). I can’t think of any books I’ve read recently with an out and out ‘villain’, apart from detective/murder mysteries, where the goal is to catch the killer." As JMM pointed out, "Often the only difference between a hero and antagonist is the side he/she is on."
Since my books are suspense with murder mysteries, when I used the term villain I was really thinking of the murderer. Susan said, "I would think that a good suspense/mystery would need pretty loose definitions of villains, antagonists, and other misc bad guys. If someone is clearly a villain, committing obvious crimes, the story would be pretty predictable, and there wouldn’t be much debate about what should happen to the bad guy. Things get more interesting when good people are put in desperate situations. When there is not really an obvious choice on what they should do."
I totally agree with this. I think “villain” relates to a character’s position in a story rather than necessarily to something intrinsic about that person. In fact, part of what I think is interesting and part of setting up a mystery that’s tricky to solve is that the murderer is someone who seems like a sympathetic person. In a book that’s more suspense than mystery, you can have an evil mastermind behind a nefarious plot, with the emphasis on how the plot will be stopped. But if there’s a mystery and multiple suspects, I think it’s more interesting if the reader than imagine any of them possibly being driven to commit the crime. In creating the character of the murderer, I need to figure out what drives that person and what would push them over the edge. And then, at the end of the book, how to resolve their story.
How do you feel about how plot lines are resolved for villains? What are some of your favorite resolutions? Writers, do you struggle over what to do with your villains?