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.
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!