Q&A

When Is It Acceptable for a Hero to Kill?

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Any advice on when it’s okay for a basically good hero (not anti-hero or neutral) to kill the villain? I don’t mean the villain falls off a cliff or drinks the untested potion or releases the monster they’ve been tormenting for weeks, the hero tries to save them (really tries and not just a show of trying), fails, and the villain dies due to no fault of the hero. I don’t mean legitimate self-defense. I mean straight-up kill.

I’m mostly thinking superhero, but really this applies to any action story.

Thanks,
-Dave L

Hey Dave, great to hear from you again!

There are two broad scenarios in which a hero might kill a villain: in a fight and in cold blood. Killing a villain in a fight isn’t usually too big a deal. Audiences understand that violent fights are dangerous, and sometimes the most efficient way to win a fight is through lethal force. This doesn’t even have to be in self-defense, so long as the villain is a clear and present threat to someone.

If the villain is about to blow up a city, for example, and the hero has to fight them to stop that, killing the villain is usually acceptable. This precludes the story from being super light and fluffy, but doesn’t make it particularly dark.

The only time this is likely to be a serious problem is in genres with conventions against killing. Superhero stories are one example, as are stories meant primarily for kids like Avatar or Dragon Prince. Even though these stories can get pretty dark, their conventions mean audiences expect heroes not to kill, so even the most logical use of lethal force may seem excessive. If you want a hero to kill their enemy in that kind of story, you’ll need to lay a lot of groundwork showing why there was no other option.

The other scenario is for a hero to kill the villain in cold blood. This is a lot harder to justify, especially if you want your hero to still be viewed as a good guy. One option is set up a scenario where not killing the bad guy will result in even more damage later. If there’s no jail strong enough to hold the villain, or you’re in a masquerade world that doesn’t have a magic criminal justice system, that would technically qualify. Logically speaking, the villain’s just going to break out and kill more innocent people.

However, this kind of super gritty take has its own problems. When you use your setting to justify executing a villain in cold blood, it’s likely that the audience will start questioning why the world is like that in the first place. Why hasn’t someone built a prison that can hold supers? How can humans not know about magic when there’s a magic villain killing them all the time?

There’s a good chance your setting won’t be able to withstand these types of questions, and even if it can, a story where the hero executes the villain in cold blood may simply be too dark for some audiences. So I would avoid this scenario unless it’s vital to the story you want to tell. In most cases, the best way for the villain to die is in a fight with your hero.

Hope that answers your question!

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Comments

  1. Dvärghundspossen

    Superman once killed an alternate-universe version of Zod and his two goons. Basically, kryptonians from this alternate universe had even greater powers than Superman from the regular world, and they were intent on conquering the universe. Superman basically managed to set a trap and kill them with kryptonite, really in cold blood, and had tons of angst about it afterwards. Still, you can see why he came to that conclusion.

    There was also this time Wonder Woman killed a telepath who had managed to gain control over Superman, and gave him hallucinations and had him go on a rampage. Afterwards, Superman and Batman argued that there should have been some different way to solve the situation, but most readers at the time sided with WW and thought she was pretty obviously justified since the situation was so dire. I should add that in more modern Superman comics, there’s usually NOT a shitload of kryptonite all over the place that anyone can grab and use against Supes.
    I guess this story falls somewhere in between “killing in cold blood” and “killing in a fight”, because WW was in a physical fight with Superman (who’s stronger than her, btw). She managed to temporarily daze him by, among other things, relying on his weakness against magic and the fact that her armour is made of magic metal. While he was still in a daze, she found and killed the telepath, who couldn’t hurt her directly.

  2. Cay Reet

    I agree that ‘in a fight’ is the best solution in the case described. In fights, death can happen, and the hero is just as much in danger of dying, so it’s justified to use lethal force.

    If you have other hero types, such as the anti-hero, you can get away with the hero saying ‘this is the only way to keep the world safe’ and cold-bloodedly killing a villain who has been bested and is no current threat. With a generally good hero, though, that just won’t sit well with audiences.

    Another option might be to have the villain kill themselves in a ‘I’d rather die than be captured’ move. And, of course, there’s the whole ‘accidental kill’ thing which does help enormously to keep the hero’s hands free from blood while killing off the villain all the same. (Anti-heros might use a halbert at their discretion to keep a dangerous entity from rising ever again, but then, they’re ANTI-heroes.)

  3. Innocent Bystander

    For my two cents, I feel that killing the villain depends on the villain’s actions and the hero’s morality.

    Generally, when a villain crosses a line and does something irredeemably bad, the audience will be on board with killing them; you’ll find very few people who would object to killing Hitler.

    On the other hand, the hero’s moral code could make that objectionable. For instance, while the Joker has merrily danced over the moral event horizon multiple times, Batman will never kill him because 1) he wants to reform the justice system in Gotham, not become the law, and 2) killing even the Joker would be crossing a line that he’d never come back from in his mind. There would have to be a lot of buildup to this moment to make it believable. To use something similar, the Injustice games had Superman kill the Joker after he blew up Metropolis and killed a pregnant Lois Lane. It was easy to see why Superman would do something against his code after suffering such a devastating loss and this decision had far-reaching consequences.

    • Rose Embolism

      Batman also faces the problem that this is a comic universe, and so actually killing Joker may put him out of action for less time than putting him in Arkham.

      Not that in the second appearance of the Joker, he had a death scene. So from early on killing him doesn’t seem to be a great solution.

    • Innes

      I agree it has a lot to do with the villain’s actions. In The Children of Blood and Bone two major antagonists have many opportunities to change their thoughts an actions – one even does change for a while – but in the end both actively commit to cruelty, so when they die it doesn’t at all reflect badly on the protagonist.

  4. Jenn H

    The power difference between the hero and the villain matters here too. Superman is powerful enough that he can safely capture most bad guys. But weaker superheroes may have to resort to lethal force in order to stop a villain, otherwise they risk harm to themselves and others. The closer the two are in power level, the more justified killing is.

  5. Dan JW

    I would say that rather than have an answer ready, this question should be at the heart of your story. A story that explores a question is instantly compelling (and makes for a great blurb) and “when is it OK for a hero to kill?” is exciting right off the cuff. I want to read that story!

    As an example the Columbo episode ‘It’s All In the Game’ asks the question “when is it ok to let someone get away with murder?”.

    When using your story to explore a question I recommend two things:
    1. Let the characters make up their own minds
    2. Let the readers make up their own minds.

    In other words, don’t force the author’s conclusion on either.

    Have fun!

  6. Carolina

    Using your own example of “villain is about to blow up a city”, this could justify a murder without a fight. People tend to accept snipers that shoot to save other people still as good guys.

    • Dinwar

      This goes back to the hero’s moral code. In war, it’s perfectly acceptable to kill enemy combatants via sniping–but killing an enemy politician is generally considered unacceptable. Everyone knows the rules, and as long as you play by them you can kill without consequence (at least in theory, and in a story that accepts snipers as part of war).

      This can develop a lot of internal and external drama, exploring the limits and edge cases of such morality. Do you attack a hospital? What about an ammo depot near a hospital? Do you snipe low-level grunt soldiers, or do you assassinate their leader and accept the social stigma that goes with it? Horatio Hornblower touched on this when he planted fake documents to instigate a battle that England was almost certain to win–by Hornblower’s code this was a violation of everything he held dear. The scene where he debates this issue is every bit as exciting as any battle scene in the series!

  7. Dave L

    Thank you for these answers. They helped clarify my thinking

    And some great comments, too

  8. Dinwar

    Any action story with supernatural elements allows for killing. Take Dracula–the heroes kill him in cold blood. This is acceptable because the power difference was otherwise insurmountable, and Dracula’s mere existence was considered an abomination. Their moral code allowed for any and all means to be used to destroy the beast.

    Similarly, in survival stories (post-apocalypse and the like) the hero may be put into a situation where it’s kill or die. This can be used to create tension and character growth. Do you kill the person and steal their water? Or do you die of thirst? How a hero answers the question at the start of the novel may be very different from how the hero answers it at the end of the novel.

    • Cay Reet

      Technically, the heroes kill Dracula in a fight – even though it’s a fight over his coffin. But, yes, in his case killing him in a fair battle would never happen, unless you pin him against another vampire (had Dracula been written today, they might have made it a fight between him and the almost-vampire Mina, but not when Stoker wrote the story).

  9. Hermaeus Mora

    Depends. If the hero is seen as an outlaw and hunted down by the law, he should try to avoid killing them because they are just doing their job, and killing them would prove that the hero is really a criminal. If the hero going against say a gang or group of bad guys, then why not kill them all there. It will prevent them from hurting anyone else.

    • Bunny

      I don’t think the “kill them all there” answer would fly with a lot of readers if the hero in that case is supposed to be likable. Murdering others outright simply because it’s convenient, even if those others are villains or villainous, would probably raise a lot of eyebrows. The tone of the writing there would also be a contributing factor, though. I feel that scenario might be best suited to, say, antiheroes, since they generally do morally ambiguous things.

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