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Are there good examples of the hero's journey that don't include any physical deaths within them?

My hero has crisis and 'death' of self/ideals/psyche; hero prevails in the end, all good. But, I just can't seem to bring myself to killing anybody. The best I have been able to do is to make the villain terminally sick, so when the hero vanquishes the villain, we learn that it is just a matter of time before he will die of natural causes.

I'm a pacifist and can't seem to condone myself writing about one person killing another person. Luke didn't kill Vader, and Vader killed the emperor, so that was two work - arounds. But I don't have any deaths in my story, and I'm wondering if this needs to change.

Does someone need to physically die? Is it best if it is at the hand of one of the good guys?

Edit: I think I might be able to kill him effectively by having the protagonist(s) 'show him' the horrors he has perpetrated. Sort of a 'endure your victims' sufferings' sort of device, after which - it's too much and he kills himself. I know this has been done but can't remember offhand where.

(I think this sort of self-reflection on the part of the villain can also highlight some other character traits among the ensemble.)

Second edit: I picked an answer but found all of the answers useful. Most of the answers were equally valuable. The conversation really moved my thinking. Thank you to everyone for your thoughts.

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    The story Eragon does that to kill the villain mastermind. They made him feel all the pain the induced into his people to which he decides to explode himself. – CShark Oct 25 '17 at 19:45
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    As an interesting counterexample would be Journey to the West. If you focus on the Monkey King's story, its a "man vs. himself" story wrapped up in a hero's journey. In fact, at the start of the story, the Monkey King would kill without a second thought, and a major aspect of his storyline was learning not to kill. – Cort Ammon Oct 26 '17 at 1:07
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    The Marvel comic book character Daredevil and DC's Batman, in the majority of their iterations, both manage to fight evil without killing anyone along the way. It's usually an integral part of their character arcs, and they will more often than not end up getting the villain sent to prison after struggling with the same question you're asking. – Mike.C.Ford Oct 26 '17 at 9:48
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    In Avatar: The Last Airbender, the titular Avatar, Aang (a ten year old boy), goes through a spiritual crisis over having to kill the villain (Firelord Ozai). In the end, in a SORT OF Deus Ex Machina, he learns to 'spiritbend' and bends Ozai's spirit to remove his firebending powers. Still a hero's journey, however he continues to try and find a way to avoid killing, and instead renders the villain completely harmless. The 'story climax' is virtually identical to if he simply killed Ozai, however the 'thematic climax' is very different. – CGriffin Oct 26 '17 at 12:48
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    "Explain this ... story where no one dies" - George R R Martin, reading this thread, probably – corsiKa Oct 26 '17 at 14:31

10 Answers 10

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Short answer: No, you do not need to kill the villain.

Long answer:

The hero's journey is an archetypal path that many stories use to show the growth and progress of their main character. This page provides several different descriptions of what exactly the journey entails. If you read through all of them, you'll notice that something is missing - no villain is ever mentioned. The closest you get is the "Ordeal", the final most dangerous trial that the hero must face before receiving their rewards. But that trial is not necessarily a person who needs to be defeated. It doesn't even need to be a physical thing. Odysseus' Ordeal was a trip to the Underworld, and the only thing he kills is a couple of goats.

The villain is not a necessary part of the Hero's Journey. They can be a part of it, shaping the various stages that make up the Journey. Confronting a villain makes for an excellent Ordeal. But they are not necessary, and their death is doubly unnecessary. The Hero's Journey is about the hero, and all else is secondary and thus malleable.

Examples of Hero's Journeys where the villain doesn't die:
The Odyssey (There isn't really a villain, unless you count Poseiden, although a bunch of suitors do get murdered at the end)
A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K LeGuin (again, no real villain)
The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett (villain is an Elf Queen, and escaping is considered a victory)
Labyrinth (David Bowie turns into an owl and flies away)
Lord of the Rings almost counts, but I believe that Sauron does die when The Ring is destroyed. But he could have easily been turned into a Gollum-like creature instead and it wouldn't have affected the story any.
The Dark Knight is another partial example. Harvey Dent is killed. But the Joker is not. And the Joker has been trying to goad Batman into violating his "no kills" rule (especially in the scene withe the bike and the truck), so killing him would become a failure for Batman, rather than a triumph.

Actually, a great many Batman/Joker interactions fall under the trope of "Strike Me Down With All of Your Hatred" (so named for the Return of the Jedi scene), in which the villain has managed to reframe their death as their own triumph rather than a defeat. Usually this is because forcing the hero to kill is a corruption of the hero's ideals, but it can also have external plot consequences if the villain set themself up to be a martyr.

On the other hand, Batman also explores the consequences of leaving the Joker alive. Any decision, even the right decision, has consequences.

Finally, I'll leave you with a quote from Bitter Angels by C.L. Anderson:

"You'll let them live," I whispered hoarsely. "They've slaughtered and tortured and enslaved us, and you'll just let them live."

"No," she answered quietly. "I'll make them live."

"And what's the difference?" I sneered.

"Terms and conditions," she answered. "I told you I was tortured? The man who ordered that is still alive, and he's going to stay that way. In fact, he's immortal now. He's living in a comfortable pair of rooms in the middle of his home city, and he'll live there forever, nice and cozy. He can't go outside. He can't talk with another human being face-to-face. He can't even go comfortably insane. He's alive and stable, and we're going to keep him that way. He never gets away from what he's done, never gets to have a better life or another life. He never meets his Maker or sees his Heaven. He gets to watch while the king dome he built fades from the historical record and the city he ruined is rebuilt by his enemies and opend up wide, because all the people he tried to lead to his brutal salvation like his enemy's way better.

He's ours. He's mine, in his two-room cell, forever and ever."

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    And in fact the true villain in my story is not a person but an entrenched 'wrongness' in the society, which is best exemplified by a person. Solving that societal wrongness will take a long time, and is conceptually the trilogy arc.Your comments are very helpful, Thank you! – DPT Oct 26 '17 at 2:11
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    I've added some more details, mostly regarding Batman and the trope "Strike Me Down With All of Your Hatred", which seems to be up the alley of the struggle you are planning. – Arcanist Lupus Oct 26 '17 at 6:00
  • Yes, that's a good point to consider. – DPT Oct 26 '17 at 14:57
  • I'm picking this answer because even though they're all great, this one gave the longest list of examples. – DPT Oct 26 '17 at 20:30
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    it could be argued that Sauron does not die but reduced to a shadow of his former self, forever unable to rise again, as he put too much of his power in the Ring (related scifi.stackexchange.com/a/7936/25132) – falsedot Oct 29 '17 at 15:08
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You don't always need someone to die. Remember that the Hero's Journey is a universal archetype. It does not just apply to quest stories where the hero literally goes on a journey. It is (it is proposed as) the archetype of all stories. Thus it is proposed as the archetype of Pride and Prejudice just as much as Lord of the Rings, of Terms of Endearment as much as Star Wars.

But that does not mean that the choice are arbitrary. A story is a moral artifact. It has a moral structure and to be satisfying it must follow a fairly strict moral economy. In some stories, moral economy demands that the antagonist must die. This is not so much a matter of the enormity of the antagonists sin demanding the price of death, as it is the economy of the protagonists virtue demanding that the antagonist must be faced and defeated.

For an interesting study in the moral economy of a story, consider the ending of the Glory season of BTVS. Buffy has defeated Glory, who has turned back into Ben. Buffy then refuses to kill the helpless Ben, even though she knows Glory could one day return. But while Buffy's back is turned, Giles suffocates the helpless Ben, explaining that Buffy cannot kill him because she is a hero, but that he has to die, nonetheless, because otherwise one day Glory would return and make Buffy pay for her mercy.

This raises all sort of interesting questions about Buffy's hero arc, and also about Giles' hero arc. Essentially is raises questions about what heroism is, and what it demands. I Buffy, or Giles, entitled to make the cold moral calculus that says that the death of the innocent Ben is justified by the prevention of the numerous deaths that the returning Glory would cause? Or is the hero bound to a moral code that says they are to avoid harm in the present and not justify violence now against the potential of violence to come.

The point is, there is a moral logic to your hero's arc that determines whether your antagonist is to die or not. Of course, you are in charge of that moral logic, but the appeal of your story will very much depend on the choice you make. Those who find your moral logic satisfying will like your story and those who do not will not. But whatever the moral logic you decide upon, you must follow it through. If you violate the moral logic you have established (or that is established by the tradition in which you are writing) then few will find your story satisfactory.

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    My current thinking, as a result of the good feedback here, is to have a secondary character involved in the death of the villain - your BTVS example is a good one. I think this approach preserves my hero's core values, and also allows the villain a little more depth (through self reflection.) He is a truly horrid person, and needs to come face to face with that! – DPT Oct 25 '17 at 19:17
  • Star Wars was my exact first thought. – RonJohn Oct 26 '17 at 4:29
  • @RonJohn Yes, and I like that star wars has the theme of redemption. – DPT Oct 26 '17 at 14:53
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In Russell Hoban's timeless fable "Mouse and His Child," which follows a classic Hero's Journey path, there are multiple deaths, but the big villain himself does not die. In point of fact, his survival represents the ultimate triumph of the hero's basic goodness and innocence as a stronger force than the villain's evil and cynicism. Had the villain died, his worldview would have actually won. He loses more decisively through reforming.

Conversely in "The Juror," the villain's death at the hands of the protagonist represents his triumph in successfully corrupting her, so he wins even though he dies.

William Goldman actually has it both ways in The Princess Bride. The loathsome Count Rogin gets a much longed-for dispatch by Inigo Montoya, but primary hero Westley arguably achieves a satisfying and appropriate victory through "choosing" to leave primary antagonist Prince Humperdinck alive.

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    That's it exactly - I don't want my hero corrupted. He is fighting corruption throughout the story. Thanks. – DPT Oct 25 '17 at 19:50
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No one needs to do anything. It is your story. There are plenty of stories without death. One option that could also allow you to go on with a series is to have it so the Antagonist is "Driven out of town". As the old westerns would say "This town is only big enough for one of us." You may not kill him, but you can have him run out of town. His operation thwarted, no goons left to help him. Then he comes back with more help and repeats the cycle if you wish.

Or as you said, he can just die from other means. Or maybe the villian truly turns good again like Vader. There are a lot of ways to create a "happy ending". Personally, I like my violence and meaningful tragic deaths (you can thank Anime for that one).

In the end a story is as interesting as you make it. A story about a guy stranded on an island who talks to a beach ball for years sounds absolutely horrid. In actuality, probably one of the better movies in the last couple decades. Not everything needs death, just a sprinkle of the right touch.

EDIT: Was going to write this as a comment on my post but realized it was heading for a longer than expected explanation.

I have never been a fan of overly done violence myself. The movies where they completely blow it out of proportion are just not my thing either. I don't mind mild violence though like LoTR. I have a hard time even dealing with realistic violence, but at least it is realistic. However, I like fighting. Not because I love seeing someone have their head cut off, but because I love the art of war.

How can war be artistic? There is a beauty in a well executed strategy, out witting your opponent. There is a beauty in fighting in itself. Martial "Arts". Technique, training, skill, dedication. The Samurai code of conduct also known as the Bushido code. Like many say there is a lost art in being a gentlemen, there too is a lost art to being a warrior. That is why I personally love and am writing a story with war and fighting.

Will some hate me for it? You might. But that's okay. This is my story, and something I am passionate about. I hope that you don't let the masses turn you away from what you are passionate about. Hold close your ideas, Socrates was killed for his beliefs, but ends up being a cornerstone in modern philosophy. Do what you think is right!

I am nothing but a samurai in a rice field, at peace but always waiting and always watching.

  • I get the feeling that most people like their violence.... – DPT Oct 25 '17 at 16:15
  • @DPT Violence adds intrigue, it adds conflict, it forces people to pick a side. Pick a loyalty. Human elements that have been done since the stone age. In the end, it depends on what your goals are. If the principles of holding onto a pacifist story is what is important to you then do it! If you want to appease the masses, then do it! Just understand the consequences for each choice and be willing to deal with it should that happen. I think your story could be very interesting! Not everything needs death. Batman has violence, but no one dies. – ggiaquin16 Oct 25 '17 at 16:20
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    +1 @DPT You should never deform your story and instincts to what you think "most people" want. You'll just end up selling out your values for something that won't fool anyone. // Personally I have less and less of a stomach for violence as I get older. Nothing with gratuitous or graphic violence is going on my list. – Chris Sunami Oct 25 '17 at 17:49
  • @ChrisSunami so true. I was going to write a response to you but it ended up being longer than a comment and made it as an edit XD – ggiaquin16 Oct 25 '17 at 18:20
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    @ChrisSunami Thanks - But also, perhaps venturing into that area of discomfort is creatively useful. ggiaquin's example of cast away is a good one of a journey with no killing. (ggiaquin: I admit I've always thought the klingon's honor was well placed in their warrior society.) – DPT Oct 25 '17 at 18:24
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Does someone need to physically die?

No. This is going to depend on how you choose to write the story.

Most villains are written in a way that their death is the only way to prevent them from doing any more harm to innocents. When that is true, we readers expect the hero to not be a coward, and kill the villain, because it has been made clear to us that doing anything else means letting this predator murder again, or rape again, or enslave again, or a perpetuation of whatever harm the villain is doing.

Although personal moral calculus may vary, most people subscribe to the notion that your first time is always the most trepidatious, but the more you do something the easier it gets to do it. That doesn't just apply to having sex, but to murder, rape, doing drugs, stealing, armed robbery, beating, picking a fight, ordering a pointless war, acts of terrorism and just about anything else you are going to have your villain do. Practice makes for callousness, and most of us living in the real world know some of these acts are a one way street; once a character has killed somebody in anger, or in greed, or for the fun of it, we don't believe such characters are redeemable or will ever be safe to leave in society.

If you write such an irredeemable villain, it means if your hero is acting in service to a greater good, they save the future victims of this monster by killing it. Failing to do so is unsatisfying to the reader, because your hero is chickening out, and refusing to make the self-sacrifice necessary to permanently end the threat: The self-sacrifice of shouldering the burden of having ended a life.

I suppose an alternative to killing might be a permanent crippling; leaving them a paraplegic, or some sort of guaranteed permanent incarceration.

The other way out is to just not write such an irredeemable villain. This is possible, I have seen movies where the villain is a just a greedy corporate pig, and doesn't die but ends up behind bars.

But I don't have any deaths in my story, and I'm wondering if this needs to change.

No. You need to check if you have written your villain in such a way that leaving them alive will, inevitably, result in more harm being done to more people.

Otherwise, a good result is "They Get What They Gave". That applies to killing a killer, but could also mean poverty for a robber, abuse for an abuser, slavery for a slaver, etc.

If the villain's actions do not result in death, then death may not be a fair punishment for them. Find a fair punishment that doesn't kill them, a prison, or stranding them on a deserted planet. Disfigurement or blinding (perhaps by accident, which may even have been caused by the villain trying to kill the hero, or unintentionally by the hero in trying to defend themselves from such an attack).

Or have the villain kill themselves: The hero valiantly warns them if they try to escape the Bilbonix will blow, the villain doesn't believe them and tries to escape anyway, the Bilbonix blows up and kills the villain.

  • The equation of 'they got what they gave' is very useful, and I'm slowly solidifying a path forward. Thanks! We'll see if this one sticks. – DPT Oct 26 '17 at 15:01
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My personal favourite is when the villain lives, but repents. In real life, violence is an ending for an argument where one (or both) sides have given up on trying to get the other to see things their way, and the easiest way to 'win' is to make them simply go away and win by default.

In stories I've always found that rather unsatisfying. It's not only making your hero do something which might go against their own moral code, but it's also not a validation of their worldview or cause - that it's not inherently 'right' enough to change the mind of the person who opposes it; so we'll just make that person disappear so we don't need to worry about it anymore.

Getting your enemy to see what they did was wrong, to regret it and suffer from their guilt is far more satisfying (see the fate of the operative in Serenity, for example).

The tricky part is doing it believably. The villain can't simply escape their just deserts through saying 'Oh, I'm sorry; I shouldn't have killed all those people'; they need to go through a journey as well, and that journey needs to be caused by your hero - the inverse mirror of your Hero's journey, as it were.

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Avatar: The Last Airbender. It was a central conflict of a few episodes, and they make some pretty strong cases as to why the titular hero should kill the villain. The Avatar hails from a pacifist society and at one point, a member of that society says while their society is still a pacifistic one, it's something that Avatars specifically cannot hope to achieve.

  • Did Ang kill the villain? My kids want me to watch this but it is so long.... – DPT Oct 25 '17 at 18:32
  • @DPT Spoiler alert: Aang refuses to kill the villain but instead removes his bending ability, preventing him from ever being a threat again in the future. – F1Krazy Oct 26 '17 at 15:26
  • @DPT: Because it's such an important part of the show and it's conclusion, I'm hesitant to tell you. They will keep you in suspense around the question up to the last minute. I can say the kids are not wasting your time. In 61 episodes, only one is totally worthless to the narrative. – hszmv Oct 26 '17 at 15:26
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Rurouni Kenshin would be a good example. The titular character isn't quite a pacifist - the story revolves around him fighting - but he has sworn never to kill again. In the climactic showdown with the final villain, his will to follow through with that vow is tested, but the villain dies due to other circumstances.

  • This looks good. I'll ask my daughter if she has read this one yet. Thanks! – DPT Oct 26 '17 at 15:02
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One simple example of 'The Ordeal' from the Lord of the Rings happens when Frodo offers the ring to Galladriel. She has to face the greatest challenge of her life in mere seconds, torn in half between the desire to be the one to care for the ultimate power of the universe and the wisdom to know that it will indeed eventually corrupt her into something just as evil and destructive as Sauron. Her choice is made, she refuses and then comments something to the effect of, "I have succeeded. I may now pass on to join my ancestors." It happened so quick and without any recognizable build up or aftermath that it's an easy one to miss but to her personal character story, that was the pinnacle of her righteousness. And to the point of the OP, nobody had to die.

I think one of the marks of a master storyteller is the interweaving of many hero journeys into the fabric of the story, some at the beginning, some at the same point as our protagonists, and others like Galadriel, right at her moment of ordeal.

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"Cinderella" is a story with a heroine and villains, but the villains don't die in the story.

That's because while the villains are "bad," they aren't so to the point of killing someone (unlike the witch in the "Wizard of Oz" or the queen in "Snow White.")

Therefore, the step- mother and sisters don't suffer the death penalty, only the loss of a "race" to marry the prince.

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