I just read a book that was billed as a companion to another book I’d read, but which turned out to be sort of a prequel. That is, it includes the origin of the villain who’s villainizing around in Book I’d Already Read.
(Just for the sake of simplicity, let’s go ahead and call the first book I read “Graceling by Kristin Cashore” and the prequel “Fire“. Purely random. But, you know, through pure random chance, there may be some major spoilers of those two books ahead. You know, it’s possible.)
So, in Graceling, we have Leck, an adult villain of misty origins. I was very interested to see that Fire included, as one of several antagonists, a character who became more and more clearly the child Leck. I was curious about his background, and also about how the book would handle the fact that Leck, despite being a terrible, murdery-type person, could not be killed off or otherwise permanently dealt with as one generally expects villains to be.
This made me think a lot about the potential and the limitations of prequels. I haven’t read a lot of them. My impression is that direct prequels, sharing many characters or important characters and plotlines, are fairly uncommon. That makes a lot of sense, given that the author would have written the original book with the intention of having its setup stand alone. Besides, as I mentioned above, a prequel means the challenge of writing a book with a satisfying conclusion that still leaves things open for the events of the following story.
Since I was thinking about this while reading this book we’re calling Fire, I thought I’d lay out a few things I noticed that seemed to make the whole prequel situation work pretty well in this instance.
- Graceling included a villain whose background was unexplained. This left a clear and significant way for the stories to be tied together. Bonus points for the fact that Leck in Graceling is missing an eye – a useful trait in a world where dangerous Gracelings like himself are identified by their mismatched eye colors – and that makes the reader of Fire keen to discover the story behind the injury.
- The books take place in different countries. The author didn’t have to worry about what a lot of the other characters in Graceling should be up to in Fire, because they didn’t appear.
- Leck is just one of several antagonists in Fire. Indeed, I think that the real villain of the story might be war. Because of this, it seems more important that Leck be rendered no longer a threat than that we get the satisfaction of a really personal, permanent comeuppance for him. It also might help that, creepy and horrible as he is, Leck is a kid in Fire, and many readers likely do not expect a child to be explicitly killed off, even if he is a villain.
Fire does a great job establishing how awful Leck is. He murders Fire’s best childhood friend – a major character whose death I didn’t see coming – and, oh yeah, also his own doting father. At the same time, as I said, Leck isn’t the Big Bad of Fire. His defeat is the almost-slightly-groanworthy classic non-death of falling into a chasm, which is basically the same as toppling over a cliff, and everyone knows that the cliffs of fictional landscapes are bizarrely non-deadly. Vis-a-vis cliff death, and maybe death in general, the informed reader’s mantra is, “Body, or it didn’t happen.” But in Fire, this is acceptable, because the defeat of Leck isn’t the point. In Graceling, killing Leck means they’ve won. (Though there’s a lot more plot to wrap up, what with romance and such.) In Fire, getting rid of Leck just means Fire is free to rejoin her friends and help bolster their forces against the coming war for their kingdom.
The takeaway here is, the less evil or the less important a villain is, the less is expected – required – to happen to him. (Remember Voldemort being completely destroyed while Draco doesn’t even get locked up?)
Reaching a satisfying conclusion in a prequel does involve special challenges when that prequel includes the same villain as the next (previous?) book. To look at some possible routes authors can take, we return to Listland, because I love it there.
- Show the villain just starting out in the prequel, and don’t make her bad enough or central enough to require that she get comeuppance in that book in order for readers to be satisfied. You could do this by not making her villainous at all – picture Harvey Dent appearing in Batman Begins, if that were a prequel to The Dark Knight rather than being made first. Or you can be hardcore like Fire and make the villain really bad, but not the Big Bad.
- End with the villain locked up, exiled, etc. This is a great way out if your baddie is not yet bad enough to clearly merit being offed by a hero. Prisons can always be escaped, and incarceration can be an interesting element in your baddie’s backstory.
- Do the fake death, like Fire does. I would not recommend this if your villain actually is the Big Bad of the prequel. You should know up front that many readers are not going to believe in the death unless they see it. Even if they do believe it, they may resent that the story’s villain didn’t get a worthy, dramatic death scene – which is going to be hard to pull off if the character isn’t really dead.
There are plenty of other options. If your original book allows it, I think it would be very cool to end a prequel with a minor villain who seems reformed but who, as is seen in the following book, was actually just biding her time and scheming, waiting to become a major villain.
What prequels have you read, and how do they tie into the stories they precede?
And, in unrelated linksys, I like Pixar’s rules of storytelling, especially number nine, which I hadn’t thought of before.