Feb 14 2010
If the heroes are defeated but the villain lets them walk away, the manuscript is probably dead on arrival.
If the characters can lose without anything bad happening to them, nothing’s at stake. Give your villain some chance of beating the hero once and for all, or there’s no point reading the story. If the closest your villain can come to victory is releasing the heroes with a stern warning, that’s just pathetic.
If you are absolutely sure that you want to release the heroes, please at least give the villain an adequate reason not to kill them or take them prisoner/hostage. Here are some reasons that are probably NOT adequate.
- “Next time I won’t go so easy on you!” Don’t bother having a fight/confrontation unless something’s at stake. Also, you and I both know that the heroes will beat the villain next time, so this is empty bluster. When the heroes lose, make sure that there are consequences. For example, in Star Wars, Luke lost a hand, Han got captured, and Obi-Wan died after losing various fights.
- “You better join me next time, or else!” Not too bright. If the villain just defeated the heroes in combat, how useful could they possibly be to him? Also, wouldn’t you rather have lieutenants that don’t have a history of trying to kill you? Finally, if you really want to do this, please have the villain be more proactive than just letting the heroes walk away and think his offer over. For example, have him poison a hero or take one hostage so that he can blackmail the others.
- The villain’s only goal was to show off or make a meaningless statement. “Now you know my true power!” Ick. Again, make sure there is actually something at stake. If the loss has no consequences, readers won’t care.
- The villain is too nice and/or stupid to kill (or capture) the foes he has beaten in combat. If so, he’s probably not much of an obstacle. Unless you’re writing a comedy of errors, please make your villain competent. Beating a wuss isn’t very impressive!
Here are some reasons that might be sufficient.
- The villain advances a major goal by releasing the hero/heroes. For example, the Joker infects Batman with the disease that is slowly killing the Joker, to force Batman to find a cure. Or maybe the defeated hero is some kind of Trojan horse. For example, the antagonists in The Matrix inject a homing device into Neo so that he will lead them to the other protagonists.
- The hero is saved by a plan he sets in motion. It’d probably be undramatic if the hero were saved by backup bursting through the wall at just the right moment. (Guardian angels!) But you could give the hero some role in saving himself. For example, perhaps the hero knows he’s losing and has to survive until help can arrive. Perhaps the act of calling for help is difficult and the hero has to figure out where he is before the cavalry can save him. Don’t just make him (or her) a passive damsel in distress waiting around for a rescue.
- The villain has a compelling reason to take the character(s) prisoner/hostage instead of killing them. Even though imprisoning heroes (particularly superheroes) has rarely accomplished anything, it makes more sense than just letting them go. At the very least, this gives the villain a bargaining chip to deal with any remaining heroes. Or maybe one villain keeps the hero alive because it will help him in some antagonist-vs-antagonist conflict (hat-tip: Slick).
- The villain tries to interrogate the hero. Perhaps the hero knows something which would help the villain defeat the other heroes.
- The hero has previously done the villain a tremendous favor and the villain is more fair than murderous. A villain might intelligently choose to spare someone that previously spared him, for example. If the villain is known for honoring his debts, others will be more likely to offer him favors on credit. See also: the Lannisters in Game of Thrones.
- Killing the hero in the near future will be less problematic than killing him now. For example, a villain might pass on an opportunity to kill someone publicly rather than waiting for the right moment where he could get away with it. A supervillain might pass on openly killing a hero because it might create fatal problems with either the hero’s teammates… or with the hero’s villains. For example, the Joker has vowed to kill anyone that killed Batman because Batman is more fun than anyone else he’s fought against, and the mobs might kill Batman’s killer because protection money tends to go to the scariest player (i.e. anyone that killed Batman). See also: Sid the Squid in The Man Who Killed Batman… Killing Batman never works out well for anybody but Batman.