It happened again. I got halfway into writing my new middle grade fantasy and started asking myself, How is this kid ever going to defeat the villain? In my last book, Meg turned her ineptitude at spells to her advantage, casting an all-too-ordinary spell on a more talented magic user. But now I need a new strategy, and it has to make sense in the face of impossible odds...
I know I'm not the only one who deals with this dilemma. Children's/YA fantasy writers regularly pit Everygirl or Everyboy against a foe with superior magical abilities, political power, and wealth, not to mention a slew of minions and assorted henchpersons dressed in unrelenting black. So the question is, how can this young hero or heroine beat such a foe—in a believable way?
I discussed the undefeatable villain issue with several of the Inkies, and here are some of their thoughts:
I've struggled with this myself and it's so often a copout in fantasy, like the every boy or girl suddenly sprouts hidden magical powers or something.
My own hero cops out, too, but it's not random, it's a choice he makes to become 'other' in order to defeat the villain, chosen at the expense of a normal life, to save the girl and time he loves.
If done well, it's sometimes most believable that everygirl or everyboy could topple a seemingly undefeatable villain/ness with something very simple that others (adults/superpowered heroes) overlooked. One small stone, removed from the villain's foundations, can topple all that grandiosity.
Theodosia finds herself in this situation a LOT. I usually just have her ability to defeat the villain involve her braininess and her doggedness. In the first book, her knowledge of Egyptian magic served her very well and allowed her to make use of the tools at hand and unleash the Egyptian magic on the bad guys. The second part of her success involves never backing down or running away, she just keeps doggedly trying to go forward and do what needs to be done.
Another thing that happens (in Book 2 and 3) is that something she has set in motion earlier in the book comes to fruition right at the climax—a relationship, a bridge of trust, an unexpected ally—and that seed she planted earlier gives her an unexpected edge over the villain, at least for a moment, , long enough to remove that "small stone in his foundation." (GREAT way to put that, Lia!).
Lia says her hero's victory comes "at the expense of a normal life," and I think that reminds us that there should be a price paid for great power/great victories. The villain's defeat should cost our hero something. Victory shouldn't come too cheap. Thought #2 is that a young hero can win a battle with a great villain by other means than sheer strength and power. Great villains may have equally great weaknesses. Meg triumphs over IT because IT doesn't understand love. The all-powerful villain often thinks that others must also care most about power, but perhaps the villain miscalculates.
My Maya triumphs over a villain who miscalculates in this way—a villain who has gotten very comfortable in his corrupt corner of Paris and forgets that even rather powerless people may sometimes make a surprising move.
I agree that powerful villains are often conquerable because their position and point of view makes them miscalculate. I think the way you see this most often is the more powerful a person becomes, they more confident they get. Very powerful villains are often over-confident, which leads to them either over-extending themselves (and opening up weaknesses that the hero/ine can target) or not treating the hero/ine seriously while they're putting together a plan (and so giving the hero/ine enough time to find and attack a weakness). And that's a totally realistic way of approaching it, too, I think—consider how many great "villains" in history ended up falling because they got over-confident and reached too far!
Often, absolute power has blinded a villain to basic truths, and the hero—wittingly or unwittingly—takes advantage of that. The best example is Sauron in The Lord of the Rings, whose whole strategy was based on the assumption that anyone who found the Ring would want to use it for power rather than destroy it. It never occurred to him that someone as insignificant as Frodo would risk everything to destroy it.
Another example, of course, is the Harry Potter books—and the "love" theme's at play there, too. Voldemort simply does not understand the power of love or that someone might sacrifice him/herself for the love of either an individual or humanity. That's the key to his downfall.
I agree with what's been said so far, it's more of the combination of the villain's overconfidence and inability to see the value in "good" combined with the hero's perseverance that usually saves the day. It's that inner strength, stemming from love or some other characteristic that gives the hero the last push, against all odds, that allows him/her to succeed. Seemingly insurmountable villains are tough to bring down, but they sure do make for great conflict. Ah, the horrible things we do to our characters to see what they're made of.
Examples? I think Ellen's examples are great. Maybe I'd add Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. She ends up defeating the witch because her only thought is of her friend. And what's the witch's famous line? "Who would have thought a good little girl like you could destroy all my beautiful wickedness?"
—Lisa Gail Green
What about you? As a writer, what's your take on it? As a reader, how have you seen this problem solved in fantasy literature? (Or not solved, as the case may be?)
Thought-provoking stuff! I find myself pondering the Greek tragedies and hubris, Napoleon, and the tortoise and the hare. And yes, I'm back to working out how my newest heroine will defeat her arch nemesis, no doubt using the homely everyday tools that somehow come together to construct humanity's greatness: determination, imagination, and friendship.