How to Kill the Villian in Your YA Fantasy Series (with Style)

shutterstock_96012164The time has come, now that I’m wrapping up my YA/Middle Grade fantasy series, The Conjurors, to say goodbye to my favorite character – the villain. I hope it’s not a spoiler to say that he’s going to get the axe. Unfortunately, his actions have been so unforgivable that I can’t risk leaving him alive in a jail cell somewhere. He’d always be at the back of my mind, and I’d worry that he’d get loose and hurt the characters in my story who have earned their happily-ever-afters.

So what should be my weapon of choice? A simple thrust through the heart, perhaps? Or something more complicated, like when Voldemort’s own killing curse is reflected back on him and he technically dies by his own hand? If you sense that I’m morbidly excited to off him, you’d be absolutely right.

As I plot my own villain’s demise, here are some tips I’ve gleaned from all-star YA fantasy authors who have axed their villains with flair.

Make it personal.
Dark Triumph, His Fair Assassin Trilogy by Robin LaFevers
In order for readers to truly relish the demise of a villain, the protagonist needs to have a profound connection with her nemesis. In many cases she has spent years or even decades battling this foe, with a string of defeats behind her. That’s why it’s so sweet when the villain is slain at last – it makes the world better, yes, but it also fundamentally changes the protagonist for the better. When the heroine in Dark Triumph, Sybella, kills the truly horrible villain of the first two books, d’Albret, it isn’t abstract or at a distance. Raised as his daughter and tormented by him her entire life, the demise of d’Albret can be at no hand but her own for the reader to find it satisfying. And LaFevers doesn’t disappoint. Sybella personally plunges her dagger into his belly and damages as many organs as she can. Both the personal connection Sybella has with the villain and the personal nature of how she destroys him makes his demise gory but intensely satisfying.

Let your hero win the day but share the glory.
The Last Olympian, Percy Jackson & the Olympians, Rick Riordan
There is a cathartic enjoyment watching a protagonist ride into the sunset in a blaze of glory and recognition, but there is a deeper, more profound satisfaction from watching him give the credit away, giving up the fame and being the quiet, unsung hero. Riordan does a great job of executing this in the final battle of the Percy Jackson series. Percy is fighting a friend, Luke, who betrayed him and is now possessed by the villain of the series, Kronos. For a moment Luke manages to regain control of himself, and Percy gives him a knife and Luke kills himself, delivering the final blow to Kronos at the same time. Luke’s sacrifice makes him the hero. But Percy is a hero too, choosing to trust Luke to make the right choice and not to insist that he be the one to deliver the killing blow. As a reader, I never liked Percy more than at that powerful moment.

Have your protagonist tap into new strength/power/mental toughness.
Clockwork Princess, The Infernal Devices Trilogy by Cassandra Clare
If you’re writing a series and are finally coming to a point where it’s time to kill the villain of the series, your protagonist has likely had some successes. She has tapped into new powers, learned new skills, and grown as a human in every book. But now you have to top yourself one last time, and let her tap into something truly amazing within herself in order to finally emerge victorious. In Clockwork Princess, Tessa does just that. She has the power to change her form and become anyone, as long as she has an object that belongs to them. In the climax of the series, she turns into an angel who is trapped within a necklace, and destroys the villain, Mortmain, in a blaze of power. He dies scorched in her grip. I also like that Cassandra Clare makes Tessa pay a price for tapping in to so much power, and she nearly dies. Destroying your arch nemesis shouldn’t be easy.

Give your protagonist a positive motivator to destroy the villain (rather than being driven by hate).
Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion
It can sound counterintuitive to say that your protagonist shouldn’t be fueled by hate for the villain, but I’ve found again and again that the best protagonists grow to be motivated by a positive emotion, like love, rather than a negative one, like revenge or hatred. Warm Bodies is an unusual example of this, but bear with me. In this story, the true villain is a plague that turns people into zombies. That plague is really apathy and giving up on life, and the hero of the book, R, fights back, even though he has succumbed to the plague. When R chooses life and love, risking everything for his soul mate, Julie, he defeats this enemy by coming back from the dead, returning to life.

 

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How to Create a Great Setting for Your Fantasy Novel

shutterstock_189557657Creating a believable, compelling setting is a key ingredient in helping readers to immerse themselves in your novel, regardless of the genre. But I believe that in fantasy novels, setting is even more critical. The rules of the world you create must make sense, and often the setting can be a compelling incentive to pick up your story in the first place.

Below are some tips from popular series that have nailed the task of creating a unique, fascinating setting.

Ensure that your setting reinforces the key concepts of your story.
Example: Divergent by Veronica Roth
In Roth’s world, people are split into five factions by personality types. The setting builds upon this concept and enables readers to understand the world better. For example, the people of the Abnegation faction, who value self-sacrifice, live in austere, simple buildings that don’t even have mirrors. The Dauntless, who value courage, live in an underground pit with paths along the sides that have no railings. Anyone could easily plunge to their death with one wrong move. The impact of Roth’s use of setting makes the world instantly feel more believable.

Reveal your setting slowly, letting readers absorb the nuances.
Example: Silo series by Hugh Howey
Howey is a master at leading readers expertly through his imaginative world. When readers are first introduced to the setting in the Silo series, which is an immense, self-sustaining underground building, it isn’t clear exactly how this world functions, or how it came to be. But through the point of view of different characters, the layers are slowly revealed. Readers see how the silo sustains itself, and how the very nature of the different levels of the silo creates divisions between people, and a class system emerges based on how close to the top of the silo people live. It is amazing how quickly the world makes sense, and as additional details are revealed, the setting continues to fascinate.

Hook readers with a mystery about the setting.
Example: The Maze Runner by James Dashner
The setting in The Maze Runner is very simple and contained, but even the characters within the story don’t understand it. The entire world is a small homestead surrounded by a giant maze that the characters can’t escape from. The only way into this world is from an elevator that only goes one way – up. Solving the mystery of who created this world and how to escape is at the crux of the story.

Create a setting that is a fantastic twist on on the real world.
Example: Wicked Lovely by Melissa Marr
I could point to a number of popular fantasy series for this example, because it’s a device that works well. A favorite of mine is Wicked Lovely, because Marr seamlessly weaves the world of fairies into the world as we know it, and the setting is a key component of making this work. Everyday places deserve a second look for the protagonist, Aislinn, because she is aware that an almost invisible world is overlaid on her own.

Indulge your imagination and don’t be afraid to take risks with your setting.
Example: Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling
I’m finishing with Harry Potter because Rowling created the most compelling world that I’ve ever encountered in YA fantasy literature. Staircases that move, secret passages, and pictures that talk all make the world feel incredibly fantastical, like imagination come to life. Fantasy-lovers are looking to be immersed in a world that is new and different, so let your imagination run a little wild.

Which fantasy novels do you think have done the best job with setting?

 

Let the plotting begin…

A course more promising / Than a wild dedication of yourselves / To unpathed waters, undreamed shores ~William Shakespeare Winter’s Tale, Act IV, Scene 4

Life is never more interesting for me than when I’m plotting out a novel. Suddenly, everything I encounter feels like inspiration. Watching my husband beat a video game, a news article on an exciting archeological dig in Egypt, or a friend’s work horror story all fill my mind like puzzle pieces begging to be put together to show me a bigger picture.

The characters come first – a name, a face, a mannerism. Soon I’m wondering what advice they’d give me about a coworker who is trying to sabotage me, or thinking about how they would react if they woke up in a completely new world. Would they panic? Or would they relish the adventure?

Next, I sense connections between the characters, how their personalities fit together. Romance and rivalries start to emerge, and I find myself empathizing with one character above the others. I’m rooting for that person to win and be happy, logically aware I’m rooting for a figment of my own imagination, but emotionally invested anyway.

Last comes the action. This is my favorite part. On the outside, I’m living my life as usual, driving to work, sitting in meetings, cooking dinner. But as my body goes through the motions, I’m really watching a movie unfold in my mind. The movie stops and starts, rewinds and zips to the end, only to wind up back where I left off. I start to feel like I’m living two lives, one in the real world and one in my head, but I know one thing for sure. Life is thrilling and full of possibilities.

When you are writing a new story, how does your creative process begin?