Traditionally, fictional heroes win out over villains. Imagine how traumatised children would be if the wicked witch succeeded with her evil spells or the dragon dined on the knight in armour.
As we grow older, becoming ambivalent about life and what is right and wrong, we look for stories with a double edge. It’s truer to life if the hero is flawed and the baddie isn’t all bad: with protagonist and antagonist showing their humanity there’s more at stake in the outcome of their struggle.
Nonetheless, having the bad guy win, or at least seem to win, is one hell of a shock for the reader—especially, if they’re expecting a happy ending in the latest of a series of novels. But then, the villain of a story usually doesn’t consider himself to be a bad person and believes that he’s justified in doing what he does, even if it’s against the laws of the land or normal social rules. He is his own hero. He has supporters or at least fans who are interested in his fate. It’s criminals who are remembered through the ages, not the law officers who captured or killed them.
If anything, the antagonist justifies their actions more eloquently than the hidebound protagonist, who’s essentially trying to maintain the status quo. Think of the rousing speeches of Gordon Gekko in Wall Street, with his “Greed is good“, Colonel Nathan Jessup in A Few Good Men declaring “You can’t handle the truth”, and Harry Lime’s ‘Cuckoo clocks’ dismissal of the Swiss in The Third Man.
Perhaps the best speech given by the villain of a story is the dying lament of Roy Batty, the replicant who shows his humanity in Blade Runner.
It’s worth remembering a couple of things about storytelling when deciding the role of your villain:
Story as such can only have one merit: that of making the audience want to know what happens next. And conversely, it can only have one fault: that of making the audience not want to know what happens next.
E. M. Forster
No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.
The baddie drives the story, providing the surprises. There’s no progress without friction—a slippery road leads to wheelspin and loss of control—bad guys are the rock salt that thrusts the action forward, gripping the reader.
Antiheroes are a convenient way of combining the good and the bad. Dirty Harry springs to mind, as do Hannibal Lecter, Dexter and Walter White.
Pure villains sometimes win….Dutch author Tim Krabbé wrote a novella called The Golden Egg, in which the hero obsesses over the mysterious disappearance of his lover years before, after she was abducted. He traces the kidnapper, and willingly pays the ultimate sacrifice to discover her fate, by being sedated then buried alive. That such an evil criminal gets away with his crimes is breathtaking. The story was turned into a brilliant French-Dutch film called The Vanishing, and a dire American remake, despite having the same director!
Cormac McCarthy’s novel No Country for Old Men was turned into a successful film, and once again the main antagonist, a psychopath assassin called Anthony Chigurh, survives after killing multiple times.
Jason Webster has his detective hero Max Camara seemingly killed off by a corrupt colleague in Fatal Sunset…on the very last page! It made me eager to read the next story in the series. Moriarty apparently killed Sherlock Holmes in The Final Problem, but public outcry forced Conan Doyle to bring him back to life nine years later for The Hound Of The Baskervilles. Dennis Lehane has shock deaths at the end of his three Coughlin series novels which made me quite angry when I finished the first one, and I read the two sequels with an eye on which of the good guys was going to get the bullet.
While planning my last Cornish Detective novel, The Dead Need Nobody, I came across a quote by Robert Louis Stevenson, that influenced the plotting:
If you’re going to have a book end badly, it must end badly from the beginning.
Accordingly, I’ve written several foreshadowing incidents, hinting at my protagonist’s doom, which an alert reader might notice, though, he’s blissfully unaware of how malefic they are.
Having the baddie succeed, and remain alive and uncaptured, means they live on in readers’ memories. Think of The Wicker Man, Rosemary’s Baby and Gone Girl that all received critical and public acclaim and which continue to haunt us.
In my own Cornish Detective novels, the baddies are usually arrested, but in The Perfect Murderer, which had two killers operating independently, both escaped justice. One committed suicide after leaving a full confession, the other disappeared into a sinkhole—eaten up by the earth in what felt like divine retribution—I may resurrect him.
The Dead Need Nobody features four petty criminals and one homicidal mastermind. Two of the minor villains get arrested, while two evade detection, and the main baddie almost kills my protagonist detective, who violently defends himself. Both lie at death’s door in the final chapter, which feels like a hollow victory for the police.
Have you ever written a story where the baddie wins…even if it’s only temporarily, perhaps as part of a series? It could be some temptress stealing a friend’s husband away, or one colleague betraying another to grab promotion at work.
Do you have any favourite fictional villains, who always win?
Which baddies stalked your dreams as a child…and give you the creeps as an adult?
I recall a vivid nightmare involving the Daleks, who were killing everyone they’d locked inside a cathedral.
I was trying to hide among the dead, terrified of being exterminated—which was something I’d read about survivors of Nazi concentration camps doing—in history books that were far too gruesome for youngster me to be reading. These days, my nightmare monsters tend to be anonymous, sometimes having clouded faces, but they still represent right-wing oppression.