(Warning: spoilers for Snowburn and season one of True Detective.)
The ultimate reveal of the villain is incredibly important in any conflict-based narrative. It’s the pay-off for the reader. They’ve followed all the clues, stuck to the right path despite the red-herrings the author has thrown in their way, and now they get the prize: to find out “who done it” and why. Pulling aside the curtain is usually the climax of a narrative and what readers will long remember if it engages and entertains them.
It’s that moment, the ultimate reveal, that I’m struggling with at present. The feedback I’ve had on Snowburn tells me the ultimate reveal of the villain, Kison Tyng, was satisfying to readers. When I pulled back the curtain, I revealed not the all-powerful monster that the protagonists had envisioned, but rather a struggling, dying man motivated by the desire to protect his family. He put the protagonists through the conflicts of the story for a reason, and his reason was sympathetic. Readers really engaged with that.
The beta and editorial feedback I’ve had on Throwing Fire tells me the opposite. The reveal is not satisfying. The why of the antagonist’s actions doesn’t click with readers. Maybe that’s because Tyng’s actions in Snowburn were motivated by love, and the villain in Throwing Fire is motivated by hate and the desire for revenge. Is love a more satisfying motive than hate or revenge? I wouldn’t have thought so, but that’s something I’m chewing over.
I’ve been re-watching True Detective (Season One, of course) over the last few weeks (because nothing is better for you when you’re in a writing funk than getting involved in an extensive narrative of dissipation, dissolution and psychosis). I think the reveal of the killer in Form and Void is incredibly effective. In the previous episodes, there have been hints at the killer’s motive, but the viewer has never seen him and never known the whole story. In episode eight, the show’s writers pull back the curtain and give us the killer’s point of view. We see what’s made him: the incest, poverty and twisted religion. It’s a surprisingly nuanced point of view. The killer is a damaged man-child seeking transcendence. He’s a monster, but one the viewer (and certainly the nihilist detective Rust Cohle) can relate to. He’s seeking, on a larger and more deranged scale, the same things we all seek: acceptance, connection (even if violent), and the ultimate reward of faith.
I’ve been contrasting this in my mind with the last two books of the Harry Potter series, which are also an exploration of a killer’s psychology. Voldemort is perhaps a less nuanced character than True Detective’s killer. Both seek an off-beat form of immortality, but Voldemort’s ultimate motivation is fear, where the True Detective killer’s is desire. Voldemort seeks power on the earthly plane to defeat death, while the True Detective killer seeks elevation above it (or below it, since he talks about the “infernal plane” rather than heaven). Coming back to what’s a more satisfying motive, love or hate, if Voldemort’s motive is hate and the True Detective killer’s is love, love is the more interesting and engaging motivation to me.
So maybe the key to rewriting the end of Throwing Fire is not the action or resolution, but the villain’s motivation. If I can find something the villain loves, and make that the reason behind the villain’s actions, that might make the moment I finally pull back the curtain satisfying for readers.