Romance, Historical, Contemporary, Paranormal, Young Adult, Book reviews, industry news, and commentary from a reader's point of view

The Revenge Trope

lolbunny - I iz planning revenge!
more animals

The revenge trope    is a prevalent one in romance. Admittedly, it’s prevalent everywhere.   Revenge is what powered the Count of Monte Cristo. It’s easy, you see, because it provides insta-conflict in romance. Take one hero bent on revenge, one innocent bystander, mix and stir. It’s easy to arouse emotional response to the revenge trope. There is the reason for revenge that gains the avenger a sympathetic mien. There’s the conflict between whether the avenger gives up revenge and saves the heroine or succumbs to the need for revenge.

There seems to be three main types of revenge themes:

a)   Wants to wreak as much damage as possible without regard to who is really responsible.

The Avenger in this case usually believes that the value of his harmed loved one is worth more than any number of others.   Liz Fielding wrote an early series called the Beaumont Brides.   The first book in the series is about Luke Devlin’s sister fell in love with Edward Beaumont.   She pined for him and when she died, Luke vowed revenge on Beaumont. His plan was to ruin him financially, take his life away from him piece by pieces: his money, his reputation, his one daughter’s career on the stage, and the other daughter, Luke would make her fall in love with him, break her heart and then treat her as he believed Edward had treated the sister.   

The actions of the hero are horrible, really horrible.   Luke decides, unilaterally, that the destruction of at least two women of their lives, goals, dreams is a worthwhile endeavor to achieve his revenge against the women’s father.   He decides that his sister is worth more than any one else.   His justification is based on the belief that everyone but his own family members is worthless.

Similar is the setup in Scandal by Jayne Ann Krentz.   Simon, Earl of Blade contemplates the destruction of an entire family.   The way that it is presented to the reader it’s almost as if a pinpoint revenge is only undertaken by the weak of heart.   

A decent English gentleman of noble birth would never have dreamed of using an innocent young woman in his quest for vengeance. But Simon found he had no problem with the notion. None at all. In any event, if the rumors were true, the lady was not all that innocent.

b)   Doesn’t think about collateral damage.

There are avengers who act without thinking about collateral damage.   The Avenger has no intention of directly targeting family members. They are merely collateral damage.    In one of my favorite Krentz books, a category called Lady’s Choice.   (Please Harlequin, re-release this classic).   Travis Sawyer was a business consultant for the Grant family.   He was promised a part of the Grant resort as well as the Grant daughter in marriage.   Only the Grant daughter married someone else and squeezed Sawyer out of his consultant fee.   Sawyer comes back to put the Grant family out of business and in the meantime falls for Juliana.   It wasn’t Travis intent to bring Juliana into the scheme, but she is hurt by his actions, both financially and personally.  

c)   With precision targets the wrongdoers

Although I question whether anyone’s death or destruction is without collateral damage,   The Serpent Prince is about the best example of the focused precision targeted revenge.   Simon Iddesleigh has set a path before him to kill all four of the men involved in the death of his brother.   He is challenging each one to a duel.   When the story opens, he has killed two of the four.    Simon’s quest for revenge is one he undertakes with some reluctance.   

I enjoy the revenge trope because it usually signals a darker, more weighty read (although that’s not always true given that Scandal and Lady’s Choice are really fun books despite the revenge trope.) But in thinking about the trope, I realized I had some questions.   

Why is it that the avengers are almost always male? My supposition is that because we female readers are much more lenient in how amoral a male character is versus a female character. Whether it is because we identify with the heroine more or that we are more interested in the male journey, the fact is that men get away with a lot more stuff than women in our romances and this is one of them. Another reason may be because women, particularly in historicals, lack power and being an avenger almost always comes from a position of power and wealth.

Are you disappointed when revenge is not achieved? If you can bear more generalizations, I think romance readers are a bit of a bloodthirsty lot. Part of the fun of the fantasy is getting your cake and eating it too. Meaning that we often like to see our revenge carried out yet suffer no adverse consequences. The characters have to sell us on the idea that revenge is not worth it. Krentz does a great job of this in Scandal.     In Scandal, the hero gives up his course of revenge after the heroine starts telling the subjects of his revenge that they are off the hook. In one scene, the hero tries to get the heroine to understand that revenge is necessary and she says to him that he needs to stop living in the past and concentrate on making their future together.   He begins to realize that his relationship with the heroine is simply more important than getting even.

How much does the Avenger have to reform to be heroic?     Of the above examples, it is Simon in  The Serpent Prince  who is most affected by his quest for revenge. He realizes that with each step in his plan, he loses more of himself. He faces the moral question of whether he is worse off for enacting the revenge than in allowing the grave insult to go unmet.   Yet, Simon’s revenge is based on a very deep and serious insult.   Further, it is not based on a misunderstanding (as some revenge plots are like Fielding’s Wild Justice).   Ironically, Simon has the shortest path to redemption in my opinion.   His aversion to his task, his precision like tecniques make him more the heroic ideal than say Simon and Luke who want to destroy the entire family for a perceived or actual wrong.

There’s not one revenge trope that is better than the other for me, but each of them require a different level of redemption.   How successful an author is at selling me a revenge theme depends largely upon the reason why the revenge is undertaken (i.e., perceived v. actual wrongs); how the revenge is carried out; and whether the characters actually think about the consequences of their revenge.   One of the reasons that Lady’s Choice is a favorite Krentz novel of mine is that Travis  has to actively work to undo his revenge which imperils the business of the woman that he loves. He didn’t realize that she was invested in the company that he intended to destroy and once he did discover it, it was too late to change course. The conflict became not the revenge but the fear the hero had that if he didn’t fix the problem, she would choose her family over him.

What’s your thought readers regarding the Revenge Trope?   Love it? Hate It?   Concerned?   What are your favorite books in the revenge trope and why?   How about your least favorites?   Do you also want Lady’s Choice to be digitized???

Jane Litte is the founder of Dear Author, a lawyer, and a lover of pencil skirts. She spends her downtime reading romances and writing about them. Her TBR pile is much larger than the one shown in the picture and not as pretty. You can reach Jane by email at jane @ dearauthor dot com

33 Comments

  1. Joan/SarahF
    Jan 27, 2009 @ 05:39:22

    Oh, God, I adore Lady’s Choice! That image of her standing on his car at the end of the book is just classic and I love the way the book starts (with sex) too. I also like that she’s (almost?) taller than him. Fabulous book!

  2. Jayne
    Jan 27, 2009 @ 06:49:30

    Haven’t we seen that poor widdle wabbit before?

  3. (Jān)
    Jan 27, 2009 @ 07:13:31

    To me, a hero who does A and B is not very hero-like. I prefer books like Krentz’ where the hero gives it all up for the heroine.

    C is still a bit murky but I fall on the bloodthirsty side of that one. Roarke is the best example of that for me. His defining first act that hear of at least for a long time is complete and terrible revenge on those who killed Sumerset’s daughter. He continues to be ruthless with his enemies, but never hurts innocents. There’s a sense of savagery tempered by honor, and the combination is potent. ;D

  4. vanessa jaye
    Jan 27, 2009 @ 07:14:42

    Here’s da thing… when you lay it out like this it’s a horrible, horrible trope.

    Any yet, I loves me some revenge trope like Nicole Kidman loves her botox.

    I do believe that if the bad guy is justifiably ‘bad’, then s/he should be served some cold come uppance porridge with gritty grains of sand mixed in. But only him/her.

    And the hero must be healed or on his way to being healed (usually, this would be the part where he realizes he can’t make the heroine, or continue to make the heroine, part of his revenge plot.)

    Which calls to mind… I can’t remember reading a female avenger book, or maybe those don’t stick with me. .

  5. Lucinda Betts
    Jan 27, 2009 @ 07:49:22

    If you like revenge trope a la female, then don’t forget Barbara Taylor Bradford’s “A Woman of Substance.” Seduced, impregnated and dumped, the heroine makes it her job in life to destroy the man’s family. It takes 60 years to see this through.

  6. Jennifer Estep
    Jan 27, 2009 @ 07:56:13

    I like the revenge trope. I like reading it, and I like writing it. Like you said, it’s such a powerful motivator, especially if the character who wants revenge is justified in seeking it. I think the revenge trope ties in with the general idea of happily ever afters and all the wrongs being righted by the end of the book.

    Often, when my SO and I talk about books, we’ll describe the plot like “Oh, it’s a revengeance book” (revenge + vengeance). My next UF series is about a female assassin, and she’s all about getting her revengeance.

    But the revenge trope usually works better for me in fantasy or other kinds of books rather than historical romance (which seems to be your focus here). One revengeance book that I like is “Avenger” by Frederick Forsyth.

  7. RStewie
    Jan 27, 2009 @ 08:23:50

    I like the revenge trope, but I like it best when the internal workings of the characters are uncovered, and the story isn’t just:
    A. Bad stuff happens.
    B. Hero must get REVENGE.
    C. Hero starts getting REVENGE.
    D. Enter Heroine.
    E. Hero falls in love.
    F. REVENGE is abandoned.

    I loved The Leopard Prince, because both the hero and the heroine dealt with the revenge, worked through it and their internal struggle was the story. I’ve read other revenge stories, although I haven’t had enough coffee to remember them specifically, but that particular book dealt with the trope better, to me.

  8. Keishon
    Jan 27, 2009 @ 08:24:04

    I’ve enjoyed my share of revenge tropes and there’s a really good one in Meagan McKinney’s LIONS AND LACE, where the Irish hero is nouveaux rich and decides to throw his sister a coming out ball and society shuns her (bad). The hero is hell bent on ruining everybody financially who was invited and didn’t show up. The heroine of course was invited but I think she was forced not to attend (memory is bad but it’s been awhile since I read this book). I need to reread this book.

    I always expect the revenge plot to fail because somewhere along their path they are changed or transformed by love. They are able to see their destructive nature through the eyes of someone else. Besides, it makes great conflict! Depending upon what they did to him/her – secretly, I’m hoping that they carry it out if in someway by doing so they are made whole again.

    Another revenge trope would be the ugly duckling to swan stories. Love those where the heroine gets snubbed probably in high school and grows into a beauty. I couldn’t cite you any examples but I wouldn’t mind reading those, too.

  9. joanne
    Jan 27, 2009 @ 08:24:31

    Why is it that the avengers are almost always male? My supposition is that because we female readers are much more lenient in how amoral a male character is versus a female character.

    Hanging my head: I think we accept male character revenge plots because we know, as romance readers, that the heroine will save the hero from himself. sigh. It’s true, we do. They do.

    My copy of Scandal is yellowed, dog-eared & stained and is included in the ‘grab it if the house is on fire’ list. Because it’s Krentz/Quick the heroine ends up being the hero and the humor throughout works beautifully.

    With all that if the cover blurb mentions revenge I generally pass on to something else. For me, revenge seems to be so juvenile and I want to say ‘move along with your life’ to the character.

    Roarke was/is a character I don’t see as a revenge seeker. I may be giving him too much slack (’cause he’s Roarke) but I felt he sought justice, a life for a life, with no convoluted plot involving long term plans and with no ‘gain’ for himself. He went out and did what he felt he had to do and then….. moved along with his life, but as you say Jane, none of that came without collateral damage.

  10. Jane O
    Jan 27, 2009 @ 09:01:05

    Hey, if it was good enough for Hamlet, it’s good enough for me.

    I have always liked the revenge trope, serious or light. If I recall, there are several Krentz/Quick books where it is the heroine who is seeking revenge. I have a bit of trouble with the titles -’ one is, I think, “Seduced”, in which the heroine has an ugly ring given to her sister by the villain who seduced her, another has the heroine convinced that her friend who presumably committed suicide was actually murdered by her husband. and there is a Krentz book that involves shares in a company inherited by the heroine from the friend with whom she was in foster care.

    The big difference between men and women seeking revenge is that women can’t challenge the villains to a duel and have to be sneakier about it -’ or, as I prefer to think, more clever and intelligent.

  11. Moth
    Jan 27, 2009 @ 09:33:17

    Count me in on the bloodthirsty side of things. I remember in the Velvet Series by Jude Deveraux I was really pissed when the guy who brutally raped (and thereby drove to suicide) the Montgomery sister not only never got killed, he also got his own HEA. Dude, Jude, wtf?

  12. Alisha Rai
    Jan 27, 2009 @ 09:37:24

    I was racking my brain to think of a female driven revenge plot, and almost had it with Linda Howard’s After the Night. But, alas, even though the heroine was HORRIBLY wronged by this guy as a child, she doesn’t come back to seek revenge, but to solve a mystery. Now that I think about it, WHY isn’t she seeking revenge? Can you imagine what the grown up hero would have done if the same thing had happened to him? So even when it makes sense, heroines can’t exract their pound of flesh? Not fair. And why do I love this book so much? I don’t know.

  13. Claudia Dain
    Jan 27, 2009 @ 09:37:54

    Now I’m nervous! In my current series, The Courtesan Chronicles, the central heroine is definitely seeking revenge. I never gave it a thought that readers would have a problem with that. And *really* never considered that they would have any sort of problem with a revenge motivation in a woman.

    Going even further out on a limb, I don’t want her to reform, feel guilty, or give it up for love! I want her to get her revenge. She deserves a little revenge for all that she endured. Her method of revenge is very precise, very targeted, so maybe that helps.

    What this says about me I don’t want to contemplate.

  14. Lizzy
    Jan 27, 2009 @ 09:41:30

    @Moth: Yeah, that was kind of odd. I can’t remember what went on there. Wasn’t there some kind of big explainer about that in Velvet Angel?

    Kill Bill was a graphic novel, although not a romance, and the Bride got plenty of revenge. And I know Medea’s certainly not a heroine, but she’s thought of in heroic terms — and there was no revenge greater than hers. And one of my favorite villains, Madame Defarge, propelled the entire trajectory of A Tale of Two Cities based on her wanting revenge for the rape and death of her sister. I don’t look unfavorably on women and revenge at all.

  15. Moth
    Jan 27, 2009 @ 09:50:23

    Yeah, that was kind of odd. I can't remember what went on there. Wasn't there some kind of big explainer about that in Velvet Angel.

    @ Lizzy: In Velvet Song, Roger McRapist’s brother (who was in love with the sister) fooled Roger into dueling with and killing him. So Roger killed his own brother and I think that was supposed to be the big comeuppance to redeem the rapist, but, to me, it wasn’t enough. Roger needed to DIE. His victim killed herself because of what he did to her. She never got to have a happily ever after, so why should he? Others might disagree, but like I said: Me=Bloodthirsty.

    And I, personally would have no problem (I don’t think) with a revenge plot for a heroine.

  16. Jane
    Jan 27, 2009 @ 10:01:13

    I hope I didn’t make it seem like I didn’t like the revenge trope. I do. I read and enjoyed all of the novels I used in my example. I was just trying to explore the revenge trope and what I liked about it and how it worked for me or didn’t work for me.

  17. MoJo
    Jan 27, 2009 @ 10:11:55

    Loved Kill Bill (movie, not graphic novel) and another movie with a female revenge-seeker was The Quick and the Dead. Hmmm…movies are getting the women-are-bloodthirsty bit (albeit via homage and wannabe parody), but can’t think of a romance novel with the female carrying it all the way out to the end without getting sidetracked. A couple of Old Skool historical titles are tickling the back of my mind, but not coming into focus.

  18. MS Jones
    Jan 27, 2009 @ 10:19:59

    Re vengeful women: I think Leigh, the heroine in Laura Kinsale’s Prince of Midnight, is after revenge, but she’s also motivated by a desire for justice and an end to evil.

    Whatever the motive, I too want to see the villains get their just deserts. Reading about

    the guy who brutally raped (and thereby drove to suicide) the Montgomery sister not only never got killed, he also got his own HEA

    - that just makes me feel all stabby. I’ll take care to avoid that series.

  19. Jeanette
    Jan 27, 2009 @ 10:48:54

    A different revenge “Sweet Revenge” Nora Roberts. Female revenge working with Hero, not against. My favorite kind of romance is when hero and heroine fight against others not against each other. You’re really satisfied because you get the triumph of revenge in this one!

  20. Toddson
    Jan 27, 2009 @ 11:29:56

    Not a book, but there was a Masterpiece Theater piece called “The Politician’s Wife” which is a lovely example of a woman getting her revenge. The star – Juliet Stevenson – plays the wife of a British politician. She’s from a political family and has been raised to be the perfect wife for a politician. So, when he’s caught having an affair with a young woman who works in Parliament, she stands by her man. But then more information comes out … and she ruins him and has her revenge. The version broadcast in the U.S. leaves out a crucial scene at the end, where she lets him know that she’s the one behind his ruin.

  21. MoJo
    Jan 27, 2009 @ 11:31:40

    Oh! Thought of one. Butterfly, by Kathryn Harvey. Excellent revenge novel (though not romance, exactly).

  22. kirsten saell
    Jan 27, 2009 @ 12:11:28

    Now I'm nervous! In my current series, The Courtesan Chronicles, the central heroine is definitely seeking revenge. I never gave it a thought that readers would have a problem with that. And *really* never considered that they would have any sort of problem with a revenge motivation in a woman.

    Going even further out on a limb, I don't want her to reform, feel guilty, or give it up for love! I want her to get her revenge. She deserves a little revenge for all that she endured. Her method of revenge is very precise, very targeted, so maybe that helps.

    What this says about me I don't want to contemplate.

    Heh, I got no problems with women and revenge. Two of mine feature an H/h who are both hired swords, but it’s the heroine who has the bloodthirst. She’s definitely not afraid to do what needs to be done, despite the fact that the revenge cuts her deeply. And she definitely doesn’t shy away from being messy about it, either.

    It’s more revenge without that simmering rage, though, that you find with heroes. It feels cooler but at the same time more necessary–and maybe more costly to the avenger.

    She never got to have a happily ever after, so why should he? Others might disagree, but like I said: Me=Bloodthirsty.

    Damn straight. And IMO, it would only be more perfect if the avenger was a woman.

    Loved Quick and the Dead. Kill Bill, too. I just like me some cold, revenging women who know how to take care of business.

  23. MaryK
    Jan 27, 2009 @ 12:41:37

    we female readers are much more lenient in how amoral a male character is versus a female character.

    But if the hero isn’t amoral, how can the heroine redeem him? ;)

    I like well written revenge plots. “Well written” sounds like a given, but if it’s not well, well done, I’ll toss it. Mary Jo Putney’s Silk and Shadows is a good revenge book.

    Interestingly, I don’t have a preference as to whether or not the revenge is abandoned. It totally depends on the book and author.

  24. MaryK
    Jan 27, 2009 @ 13:15:21

    @Claudia Dain: I think the reason I don’t usually care for heroine revenge plots is because they’re usually so inept and girly about it and a hero has to clean up the mess for the precious little thing. I’d be interested in reading a good heroine revenge plot to see if I feel any different about them.

    Whether or not I perceive it as justice or revenge plays a part in whether or not I like some revenge plots. Of course, sometimes I don’t care. It’s kind of a story by story decision. :)

  25. SonomaLass
    Jan 27, 2009 @ 18:18:48

    What’s the difference between revenge and justice? If you allow for vigilante justice (Roarke), then how is revenge different? Is it revenge when the character goes after people other than the original perpetrator? Or when the cost exacted is punitive rather than just compensation? I’m not sure there’s a clear line, or that the line is the same (or even matters) for everyone. For me, the whole redeeming the Avenger thing doesn’t always work.

  26. Jayne
    Jan 27, 2009 @ 18:35:04

    Toddson, I loved that Masterpiece Theater piece too. But then I adore Juliet Stevenson in just about anything. She set the whole thing up so brilliantly that the asshole never even saw it coming til she yanked the rug out from under him.

  27. Mrs Giggles
    Jan 27, 2009 @ 18:48:10

    Heroine seeking revenge is the central theme in Anne Stuart’s fabulous A Rose At Midnight and is the catalyst for the heroine’s story in Gayle Feyrer’s remarkably heroine-centric The Thief’s Mistress.

  28. willaful
    Jan 27, 2009 @ 18:59:27

    Although not strictly a romance, Patricia McKillip’s fantasy The Forgotten Beasts of Eld is a terrific woman-seeking-revenge story.

  29. GrowlyCub
    Jan 27, 2009 @ 19:28:29

    I’m sure I’ve read revenge books and loved them, although I can’t think of any right now, but I have to say, overall, I really dislike stories where the h/h are antagonists.

    re the Deveraux book… I haven’t re-read them in years and years and I have zero recollection of a rapist causing a suicide having a happy ending after killing his own brother?!… wow. I remember I loved those Velvet books. Go figure.

  30. Lorraine
    Jan 27, 2009 @ 23:28:39

    Claudia Dain
    Now I'm nervous! In my current series, The Courtesan Chronicles, the central heroine is definitely seeking revenge. I never gave it a thought that readers would have a problem with that. And *really* never considered that they would have any sort of problem with a revenge motivation in a woman.

    Go for it Claudia. I love women revenge stories…hell hath no fury and all that other good stuff. Plus I love your books…To Burn is one of my favorites.

    A good example of the woman revenge story is Fern Michaels’ Sea Siren. A Spanish senorita and her sister are raped on a galleon by evil pirates…sister is killed by pirate who has a hook for a hand…senorita spends the rest of the book as a woman pirate seeking revenge on the evildoer. I believe it’s a trilogy.

  31. Moth
    Jan 28, 2009 @ 11:24:31

    re the Deveraux book… I haven't re-read them in years and years and I have zero recollection of a rapist causing a suicide having a happy ending after killing his own brother?!… wow. I remember I loved those Velvet books. Go figure.

    @ Growlycub:

    Highland Velvet: Roger the Rapist is in love with heroine of that book. Roger kidnaps heroine and heroine’s sister-in-law. Heroine evades Roger’s attempts at the loving. Roger’s younger bro, Brian, meanwhile, falls for the sister-in-law. Roger’s plans are going all to ruin so he gets drunk one night and decides the sister-in-law is a big ol’ whore and the cause of all his problems. He rapes her then passes out. Sister-in-law throws herself out the window right after.

    Velvet Song: Roger hates hero of this book. Brian steals hero’s armor and challenges Roger to a duel. Roger kills Brian and only realizes it once they take the helmet off.

    Velvet Angel: Roger’s younger sister is heroine. At the end of the book Roger, heroine and hero all have to work together to do…something (only read this once years ago) on the way they rescue a damsel-in-distress. Roger falls for her and in the epilogue we find out they got married and had a daughter together.

    Again I say, wtf? If you’re going to set up someone to do something that evil and awful then you had better by goodness kill him at the end. Horribly.

  32. Selene
    Jan 30, 2009 @ 01:03:19

    What I’d like to know is why the heroine always has to be so darn innocent and “perfect”? Why can’t the hero have been wronged by the heroine and actually have some legitime cause to want to get back at her?

    Selene

  33. Monika
    May 29, 2009 @ 04:59:26

    I have to admit that Scandal by Jayne Ann Krentz is one of my favorite revenge stories (and in my opinion one of her best books). It strikes the perfect balance between poignancy and humor so that each time I read it I alternately cry and laugh…
    But to me the mother of all revenge stories (romance) has to be Georgette Heyer’s These Old Shades. Justin Alastair, the chillingly ruthless Duke of Avon has waited many years to get revenge on the Comte de St Vire when the heroine, Leonie falls into his clutches. Although he sets out to get revenge on St Vire for a wrong done to him by the Comte in his youth he finally takes revenge not for what was done to him but for what Leonie has suffered at the hands of the evil Comte… (here it is the heroine who is especially bloodthirsty).
    I think one book where the hero gets back at the heroine for what she has done to him is Lindsey’s Prisoner of my Desire; even though the reader realizes the heroine was forced to act as she did (her mother was tortured before her eyes), at least from the heroes viewpoint his actions seem justified, though he is deeply remorseful when he realizes that the heroine was just as much a victim as he…

%d bloggers like this: