Do Villains Have an Expiration Date?
I didn’t think so in the past—but now I’m starting to suspect it. Not in all cases—there are a few villains that just seem to ferment and develop a richer flavor, but others… not so much. They get kind of rancid—smell a bit off, no longer fresh—or they get weak, soggy.
I’ve tried things to freshen up my villains—had them do something even more villainous. It didn’t work.
Note—things get spoiler heavy for my books from here on:
Let me give you an example. My book (working title: Waxing Dark) started out bigger—too big. I hadn’t realized that the page count of a single-spaced Microsoft Word doc doesn’t equate to that of a paperback. Since the villains were the protagonist’s new boarding school roommates, I stretched their villainy out across those pages and then had a series of death scenes in the last third of the book. But then I discovered the page count issue. I had at least two books worth of text, and simple chop at mid-point wouldn’t fix it—I’d need to write a new ending and a new beginning, and again, I’d be way over target page count. Three books then. I chopped and added and re-worked. Now I had the villains dying at the end of book 3. But the most consistent beta reader feedback I received was that after book one they were boring. They lived too long. Can’t you kill them earlier? The scene where the protagonist confronts them at the end of Book 1—just kill them then.
Boring? I Tried Injecting Violence
It wasn’t enough. So I made it as heinous and objectionable as I could—there were kittens. It was bad. The villains were still seen as past their expiration date—although the readers admitted that the scenes with the kittens were horrifying.
There were other problems I knew I was not yet accomplished enough to fix—so I trunked the books for several years. Meanwhile, I wrote a new book (working title: Elemental Things). In the climax, I just couldn’t make the villain feel threatening enough. Again, boredom. Villain gone soggy. What the heck? A problem with the stakes maybe? Or character shields dulling the suspense? So I went for violence again—lopped off someone’s leg. That helped a bit—but not enough. Okay, how about more limbs? But, aghast, I discovered that rather than injecting horror I was injecting humor (which I’ll have to remember as a useful trick for other scenes). At the very least, both readers and writer were now checked out. Drown them like rats? I set the water rushing in on my dismembered characters. No pathos. I took a step back—but refused to trunk it this time. I’d been writing, re-writing, extending and chopping this scene and the few before it for months now.
Sometimes Writers Block is a Symptom of a Plot Issue
I couldn’t fix it because I’d gone beyond the point of no return. The point where the plot went sour. So I flipped back several scenes—to the last one where things had been going at a good break-neck pace—and then took a page from Stephen King and blew up the world.
I’d been planning on blowing things up later. But the shock had more impact when even I hadn’t been expecting it, when I hadn’t been writing towards it happening right there.
Now, when we next confront the villainess, there is no question that she’s a threat, or that she’s willing to hurt people—or that there are any sort of character shields in place. Characters are dead—lots of them, with no setup. Things got real.
Waiting on the Apocalypse had been a Mistake
So, back to the trunked novels. While they’d been trunked I’d been invited out to tea by a lovely man, who I promptly lured home and kept. He was very good at English, particularly the grammarly snares it uses to trip up unwary writers. Once I enticed him sufficiently he became my editmancer for the new book. Then, one day, he made the mistake of expressing a desire to read the trunked horrors. I tried to dissuade him—this made him more curious yet. I let him start reading—he ripped through the first book in a couple of days… said he couldn’t see the problems. They’re coming, I assured him—and I wasn’t wrong. He hit book two and the brakes engaged, his reading slowed to a crawl, and I got those remarks again. I’m bored with the villains—can’t we kill them off at the end of book 1?
With an Apocalypse Under My Belt I Felt I Could Tackle This Now
So the easiest way to handle it would be to kill the villains at the end of book 1—just adjusting the current scene a bit. Then come up with new names, appearances and quirks and introduce the revamped villains in book 2. I spent one day in a frenzy of activity doing this—working from 4am to 8pm. Then I slept on it.
It Wasn’t Working
I knew it wasn’t working—I didn’t even have to run it past a beta.
The easy option was out—time to excise the death scenes from book 3 and find a way to work them back into book 1. This would leave me with books 2 and 3—already weaker—now gutted. But it had to be done. Book 1 was suddenly even stronger—and even longer, sadly. But the villains died at their appointed time and in their full glory—finally. As for books 2 and 3, they will require massive rewrites and plot changes at this point—but that’s probably a good thing. They’ll be stronger for it too.
My Villains Did Have an Expiration Date
At least the ones in these books did. However, in the future I’d like to write some of those classic villains you can just keep coming back to. So it’s back to the books for me, back to studying, back to reading, back to writing. The secrets must be out there. When I unearth them, I’ll share.
Although I suspect juggling axes might help—what do you think?