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The Villain

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There are four types of romances as it pertains to villains:

  1. Romances with no villains.
  2. The redeemable villain
  3. The domestic villain
  4. The international villain

The straight contemporary and the straight historical rarely have villains. The story is propelled primarily by the main characters and their romance.

Paranormals, Science Fiction romance, and urban fantasy books almost all have villains and usually another worldly creature who has lost touch with humanity. Humanity being usually being loosely defined as caring for someone other than oneself. In Patricia Briggs’s series, the villains are often power mad fae or vampires that have become too drunk on the acquisition of power.

Romantic suspense books feature either a sociopathic domestic villain or a sociopathic international villain.  In Laura Griffin’s series, the villains range from rogue police officers to politicians to random sickos.

How we define villains are important because a villain has to be rendered sufficiently amoral in order to justify the vigilante fantasy, particularly if the book has a #3 or #4 villain.

Justification here is a) just wrong in the head or b) too greedy for power and without remorse for the lives of humankind.  This latter line of thinking is often used to define villains.

If the villain is too dastardly, then it can’t be number 2. Drug dealers or those who traffic the sex trade are two types that seem to fall into number 3 or 4. (See e.g., Pamela Clare’s Breaking Point).  Many people clamoured for a book featuring Louis Renard, the villain in All The Queen’s Men.  I believe that the only reason that readers were drawn toward Renard was because all of his bad deeds were done in an effort to save his daughter.  In Catherine Mann’s Cover Me, the villain claimed to be doing his evil deeds for the love of his wife.  When the wife found out, she called BS on that arguing that she would never have wanted him to engage in his activities for the betterment of her life.

The international villain is popular for many authors who write about paramilitary organizations.  Authors like Cindy Gerard mix it up between horrible drug lords in South America to dirty American politicians.  (Note: politicians are another favorite villain)  Lisa Marie Rice’s villains are almost uniformly of some other country, often radical Islamic people.  I encountered another book recently that featured North Koreans as the villains.  Very plausible, but concerning.  If the sum total of Middle Eastern or Asian representation in romances are the villains, then the tendency toward homogenized characters becomes even more disturbing.

There was an author that wrote that racial balance can’t be obtained without it looking like a major Mary Sue Maneuver, particularly in historicals.  I find this disturbing because if you can create a villain in historicals that is a particular racial caste then I’m not sure why it is so challenging to create a non villain in the same time period of the same racial caste.

Alas, I don’t want this post to be all about race and villains (although that is an important topic).  What I’m really getting at is what makes an effective villain for readers.  Villains, more so than any character, are often flat and uninspired, relying on stereotypes and shorthand to get the message across that this character really needs killing, as Hardy says in Blue Eyed Devil.

I think the problem with the nuanced villain is that the killing of that villain isn’t as righteous and the readers don’t really get to experience the satisfaction of a wrong corrected.  Take for example, Jeannie Lin’s The Dragon and The Pearl.  I felt deflated at the end when three people who had done wrong to the main protagonists walked away with nothing more than a stern talking to.
Jeannie Lin responded to this (not just my feelings but others) with a really thoughtful commentary on Western v. Eastern philosophies:

I’d like to concentrate my thoughts on two themes and one trope prevalent in the resolution of The Dragon and the Pearl. The themes are the preservation of harmony, or more specifically in this case social order, and the importance of family to promote harmony. Though these themes are not unique to Asian stories, I believe they are prevalent ones. The one trope is the unexpected master/mentor. The murderous villain with a heart.

There are different themes and values at play here. There is no good. There is no evil. There is harmony and disorder. I think this is easiest to see in the resolution of HERO. Jet Li, the hero, has spent the entire movie with the singular purpose of killing one man: a tyrannical warlord who has consumed kingdoms and cultures in bloodthirsty and ruthless wars before declaring himself emperor. But at the end, Jet Li realizes this man’s vision was to unite the empire and create an ideal of “Our Land” where there was none before. It would be a greater wrong to throw the empire into chaos and so Jet Li stands down and sacrifices himself.
Warlord Li Tao in The Dragon and the Pearl has similar values. His honor system is built around the preservation of order.

If the villain shows more, ah humane, tendencies such as undertaking the course of action to further the good of a child or someone less advantaged or perhaps upholding a certain way of life for the greater good, then the killing of that character is disturbing to the reader.  However, one of the things that romances often lack is poignancy and nuance. In Kaylea Cross’ Deadly Descent, one of the characters is a Muslim intent on killing the hero.  The motivation for this character’s actions is that he believes the hero killed his brother.  Swept up in the anti-American talk, the character joins a local militia to move against the US soldiers.  Yet, nothing that this character does is villainous. He is fighting for what he believes in against the foreign occupiers.  He is avenging the loss of his brother.  These are the traits and motivations that you often find in heroes in romances.  I wasn’t sure if Cross intended a sympathetic portrayal but I read it as one and I was grateful.

Military heroes are often presented as believing themselves too villainous to love.   The redemption story line is built around the concept that someone who did something bad in the past can be heroic today.  In Tori St. Claire’s January 3d release, Stripped, the heroine is a CIA agent actually engaging in truly villainous activities for a greater cause.  She sends girls into the sex trade, posing as a Russian mobster’s girlfriend.  The goal is to find all the players in this sex trade to close it down.  Engaging in these activities and regularly sleeping with the mobster (none of which is seen but rather alluded to at the beginning of the book), the heroine becomes so numb to feeling and so disgusted with herself she believes herself to be irredeemable.  The author tries to convince the reader that she can and is redeemed, or at least worthy of redemption.  She pulled it off for me but I know that the acts of the heroine in the first part of the book may render the character irredeemable for many others.

Ultimately it comes down to a reader’s point of view, but my argument is that a more nuanced villain can create emotional tension in a story that can leave a reader thoughtful but still satisfied.   But perhaps the more nuanced villain is too close to the redeemed hero?  What’s your thoughts?

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

47 Comments

  1. Ros
    Dec 13, 2011 @ 04:28:40

    In my experience, the more nuanced villain = sequel bait.

  2. RBrose
    Dec 13, 2011 @ 05:34:00

    Think back to a few years ago where EVERY book, movie and TV Show had uniformly evil Soviets with no redeeming qualities. Nobody ever got upset about that, though there was very good reason to. We’re all too PC these days, and quite frankly I am absolutely sick and tired of the “twist” in the story being that the villain is the blue-eyed blonde! It’s not a “twist” when it happens in EVERY SINGLE BOOK!!

    Before we get all crazy accusing authors of being racist when creating villains, I’ve got to say I have NEVER read an Islamic extremist villain in romantic suspense (and I’ve read heaps of it). Authors are stuck now because the second anyone or anything is not painted as rosy – and the only Islamic people I’ve read about have been the most unrealistically kind, helpful characters in the whole bloody story – EVERY TIME!! – there’s outrage. It’s a very different situation to the treatment Soviets got twenty years ago!
    Think about TV show 24, which was about Islamic extremists, and yet there were massive protests when not every Muslim in the show was one of the good guys.
    And yeah, in that show too, the villain turned out to be the blue-eyed blonde woman who was engaged to the Islamic guy!

  3. Maili
    Dec 13, 2011 @ 05:46:32

    What Ros said.

    Also, I do think there are villains in straight historical and contemporary romances. Usually in form of former mistresses, ex-boyfriends, ex-spouses, parents/step-parents, and siblings/step-siblings.

    I generally avoid military romances and romantic suspense (by certain authors) because it seemed that every military romance I read featured non-white and non-American* villains.

    *Irish and Scottish villains are excepted. They have noble causes, see? Like IRA terrorist heroes! I’m looking at you, Anne Stuart, and your sympathy for Irish paramilitary guys. English villains are a-okay. Welsh villains? No such thing because according to Romancelandia’s geography, Wales doesn’t exist.

    Basically, I was tired of military romances and romantic suspense portraying the Middle East as the land of Evil People. I was also tired of them demonising people of South America, Mexico, India, North Africa and West Africa. The last two I read focused on events relating to Afghanistan. Both features US-raised villains with no personality or any like it. Just that they were dangerous, evil and utterly impossible to reason with.

    Authors didn’t bother to reveal whether they had families, friends and any personal thoughts. Apparently, it was all “Americans must die!” in their heads, even though themselves were Americans. I always find this odd. I’d like a glimpse to see why they didn’t see themselves as American. Don’t they remember their school friends? Neighbours? People they worked with? Their own families who lead ordinary lives? Authors didn’t show any of that to us yet they detailed hero and heroine’s families, friends and colleagues.

    I’ve read those authors’ books before and the villains in those were portrayed as wealthy white family men with a lust for money. I stopped reading their books for this difference alone. There’s no way I could support authors who dehumanised brown characters and didn’t with white characters.

    I also noticed that American domestic villains tend to be either extremely wealthy or extremely poor (usually former convicts and illiterate), and both sides tend to lust for heroines.

    My least favourite is one author who portrays Asian American people as villains – and women’s cases, money-grabbing seductive sluts- in all her books, however major or minor their roles. When an Asian American in her story shows up, you can bet that he or she’ll turn out to be a villain in some way. Their actual ethnicity doesn’t matter. Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese… they all are Asian and Evil. I can’t remember her name now. She wrote a lot of SIMs and Silhouette/Harlequin Romantic Suspense. I think she did go on to write romantic suspense single titles. I’m not sure. I don’t even want to know.

    I know I’ve been writing a bit about racial issues, but that’s what crops up the most in romantic fiction. It’s almost impossible to avoid. It’s absolutely fine to portray a brown character as a villain, providing there will be a balance. This balance is rarely made, though.

  4. Maili
    Dec 13, 2011 @ 05:47:22

    @RBrose: Wow. It’s the opposite for me. We must trade book titles some day. :D

  5. Jane
    Dec 13, 2011 @ 07:15:48

    @Maili

    Also, I do think there are villains in straight historical and contemporary romances. Usually in form of former mistresses, ex-boyfriends, ex-spouses, parents/step-parents, and siblings/step-siblings.

    Are those people antagonists or villains? I define them differently.

  6. Mari
    Dec 13, 2011 @ 07:17:19

    @Maili:
    Welsh villains? No such thing because according to Romancelandia’s geography, Wales doesn’t exist.

    This reminded me of Jo Bourne’s The Spymaster’s Lady, in which Annique remarks that a certain character can’t be Welsh because nobody is really Welsh; “it is an utterly stupid thing to be”. So there you have it; one romance author, at least, is aware that Wales exists :)

    I don’t necessarily need romance novel villains to be nuanced – not all real life villains are truly complicated, fascinating people. I do expect them to be believable, however, and not mawahahaha, let’s take over the world, Dr Evil like villains.

  7. cecilia
    Dec 13, 2011 @ 07:28:40

    It’s been a little while since I’ve read a Lisa Marie Rice book, and I’m just starting my coffee (so not firing on all cylinders yet), but the impression I have of her books is that the villains are less likely to be radical Islamists than to be white Americans who would sell weapons to radical Islamists (and anyone else with the cash) just because they’re that amoral.

  8. Junne
    Dec 13, 2011 @ 07:30:52

    @Maili: her husband probably cheated on her with an Asian-American woman.
    As for me, I never noticed any racial issues, however, I’ve been icked recently when I reread Julie Garwood’s Honor’s Splendour where the villain is gay. In the book the h says at one point that it is disgusting and somehow I felt that his sexual orientation was linked to his evil deeds. It really bugged me.

  9. Jan
    Dec 13, 2011 @ 07:35:07

    Good villains are hard to write. I don’t really care if they are redeemable or wacko or international evil people, as long as they are nuanced. Even crazy can be nuanced, but way too often a villain is too cardboard. It’s one of the main reasons I don’t like romantic suspense, because so few authors write good villains.

    And then there’s the sequel trap. I hate it when an author writes a good villain, only to have him/her make a heel face turn and be the hero/heroine of the next book. Remember St. Vincent from the Wallflower series by Lisa Kleypas? I’m still not sure he was even the same character in all 3 books (gave up on the series thanks to this, so no idea how he is in the fourth).

    Nuance is even more important when the villain is political or religiously motivated. I don’t think RBrose have any books in common (but again, I don’t really read suspense), because with the few books with religiously motivated villains the nuance wasn’t there at all, nor were they very PC.

    The last book in this vein that infuriated me was Darkness at Dawn by Elizabeth Jennings. I read it thanks to Jane’s positive review here, mostly because she said it was a bit fantastical (which was true). But then the fantasy got ruined by a very unnuanced insertion of Al Quaida, a crazy Muslim faction and an even eviler Pakistani faction. To quote from my review:

    “I don’t care for religion or politics when they are handled in such a careless, stereotyped, pejorative, indiscriminate way.

    I also think it’s dangerous to do this, because polarization in either politics or religion is never a good thing. Remember how everything bad was always the communists for 30 years? Don’t let a few radical groups decide on the image of an entire people/religion in popular culture. It’s just not right. “

    I don’t care much for PC-ness, and I agree with BRose that it’s often overdone, but PC or not, nuance is everything. And books, romance or not, as a medium are partly responsible for the image we have of ‘the other’, and thus unnuanced depictions of that other are very wrong in my book.

  10. Maili
    Dec 13, 2011 @ 07:36:45

    @Jane: There are many types (ranging from sexual predators to blackmailers), but in general, I don’t see the difference between villains and antagonists. This is – if we were to strip all nuances and complexity – based on an idea that the antagonist is the opposite of the protagonist, and the villain is the opposite of the hero/ine. What is the difference in your opinion?

    @Junne: That’s true. Robin Schone’s historical erotic romances certainly have this ‘Gay Villain’ trope.

  11. Keishon
    Dec 13, 2011 @ 07:39:16

    Ultimately it comes down to a reader’s point of view, but my argument is that a more nuanced villain can create emotional tension in a story that can leave a reader thoughtful but still satisfied. But perhaps the more nuanced villain is too close to the redeemed hero? What’s your thoughts?

    In romance I don’t think there is an incentive to make the villain more nuanced. The villain is there to serve one purpose and that is to create mortal fear. I’m gonna just stray off a bit and say that in mystery you will find a more nuanced villain that can often make for a complicated, tense filled read but not everybody is gifted with making a nuanced villain to me.

    In mystery, I sort of expect it but in romance – no. A smart villain is a good villain is my motto and in romance – I tend to agree with Maili. I find them stereotypical and predictable. There isn’t a motive beyond the fact that they are just plain evil. Sometimes you have such people in life but don’t they usually kill themselves? I guess I just watch too many crime shows. Sorry for the tangent.

    But like another commentator stated above, if you have too nuanced of a villain then yeah, it’s hero bait but that isn’t necessarily true if you take Linda Howard’s villain from ALL THE QUEENS MEN who was an arms dealer whose moral compass wasn’t turned all the way in the wrong direction. To write a convincing villain takes work and it isn’t easy to do.

    In romance, I don’t need the villain to be all that nuanced considering that the focal point of the romance is the relationship as they battle the external elements that push them together (or try to pull them apart). In Stephanie Tyler’s r/s novel, forget the title sorry but I thought the romance was weak but she had a interesting antagonist. Granted he was a mercenary but she had a well drawn out villain that was convincing to me and stood out more than the protagonist. To sum up: it would be nice to have a nuanced villain in romance but I don’t require it or expect it. Update: To expand: I don’t require a complicated villain because in romantic suspense it is so rarely done well that I have given up and have adjusted my expectations.

  12. Jane
    Dec 13, 2011 @ 07:51:01

    @cecilia: Not to villify LMR because it’s well known I love her cracktastic work but

    Into the Crossfire: Islam terrorist
    Hotter than Wildfire: A former American soldier, I believe, involved with selling arms and drugs overseas.
    Darkness at Dawn (written as EJ): Islam terrorist
    Dangerous Passion: Russian arms dealer
    Dangerous Secrets: Russian (the villain was fairly nuanced in this book)

  13. Jane
    Dec 13, 2011 @ 07:54:12

    @Maili: Villains in romance books must have some component of evil, I guess, else how do you justify all the revenge and vengeance killings?

    Antagonists are people who provide roadblocks or barriers to a couple’s inevitable HEA. Perhaps villains are a subset of antagonists but the overly sexed other woman who tries to lie her way into the arms of the clueless hero, is she really a villain?

    In the Brand New Me by Meg Benjamin, a character starts out as an antagonist and turns into a villain. Up to the point where he starts trying to kill the heroine, I really thought the portrayal of the antagonist was interesting.

    It was a former boyfriend who thought a lot of himself. Heroine’s father wants her to come home. He sends the boyfriend after her. The boyfriend goes after her and then a series of events kind of spiral out of control. Initially, the former boyfriend’s intent was fairly harmless. Get in good with the dad, win the feckless girl over and return home the hero. When things don’t go his way, then his mindset changes to wanting to do actual harm to the heroine.

  14. Moriah Jovan
    Dec 13, 2011 @ 07:54:55

    Well, here’s how it happens for me (clearly, I’m not speaking for all authors): The minute I start out with a character I know as The Villain and start asking him/her “WTF did you do THAT?” and start delving into logical reasons The Villain is villainous, I start being sympathetic to the character’s reasoning. This is assuming, of course, that I’ve written a reasonably intelligent villain because there is no point to having a stupid one. Considering I have the luxury of spending word count on these reasons and developing this character more fully, this is a hard place to be.

    Like Mari says above: “Not all real life villains are truly complicated, fascinating people.” This is absolutely true. I can think of several people I know in real life (a couple of relatives, a doctor or two, a lawyer, and my last bishop) who are what I would consider villainous, but not evil and completely uninteresting. All they want is to control everything around them because that’s all they want, and they’ll do just about anything to get that. It’s not a grand goal of controlling the world. It’s just a grand goal of micromanaging everyone that comes within their sphere of influence. They’re not even interesting about it.

    The only people I really don’t understand, but feel are (or can be) truly evil, are your everyday garden-variety sociopaths. They aren’t interesting, they have no motive for their actions except for lack of conscience, and their actions are unbelievable because they have no motive. I’ve known quite a few people like this in my life and they are absolutely crazy-making. See The Sociopath Next Door. The people I know who are like this have no depth whatsoever, but they are villainous and sometimes evil.

    You start exploring that in any depth and, well…yawn. Most of the time the reasons for people’s villainy is just mundane and, thus, unbelievable. When you start trying to make a villain’s reasons believable and motivated, you start running into that pesky nuance thing.

  15. Tina
    Dec 13, 2011 @ 08:20:04

    A writer named Jim Kreuger wrote what, to me, is the best definition of what makes for a good villain in reading

    “When you write an antagonist, you always write him, in his mind, as the protagonist. That means, every villain of a story, to be a good villain, must believe himself to be the hero. Not the villain at all.”

    I’ve always taken this to mean the the best villains feel that what he/she is doing isn’t bad, but rather just and right regardless of the methods or the collateral damage. This is why I find villains who are just evil for evil’s sake to be incredibly boring. Almost to the point of where i get utterly frustrated with the book because of them. I’ve not finished books/series because I hated how badly or cartoony the villain was written. There are exceptions, obviously, but on the whole I find romance novel villains often to be poorly conceived and flat.

    SFF tends to be a lot better about creating nuanced villains. Guy Gavriel Kay’s book Tigana features one of the most effective and humanized villains I can think of. Brandin was scary and,well, villainous. And even though I actually liked him, At no point was I rooting for him to be redeemed or for him not to get his just desserts. But man, he was magnificent to read about.

    Jennifer Fallon wrote this excellent trilogy called the Warlord trilogy where the main protagonist and the villain are both women who play a deadly game of cat and mouse with each other for 20+ years. The protagonist is the sister of the current king. The villain wants to usurp them. Her motives are actually quite understandable because the current king really is an awful ruler and she believes she would do a better job for the people . But her methods are horrible and she doesn’t care who gets hurt.

  16. Lil
    Dec 13, 2011 @ 08:24:24

    May I suggest an interesting pair of villains in historicals? Thaddeus Morley and Caroline Alston in Julie Anne Long’s three sisters trilogy. Murder and treason certainly qualify as villainous actions, but knowing the motives makes for more interest.

    I prefer my villainy to be private and personal. If A is going to kill, or try to kill, B, I want a reason for A’s choice other than generic hatred or insanity. This is probably why I don’t much care for Romantic Suspense these days. I preferred that subgenre when it was more like May Stewart.

  17. DM
    Dec 13, 2011 @ 08:38:26

    A good villain is the hero of his own story. There’s no reason we can’t have nuanced villains in romance–other than the time and effort it takes to create them. Quite simply, they are harder to write. You can’t just throw them against the hero and heroine time and time again–you have to figure out exactly why they are doing what they are doing–and why they continue to do it. What is their goal? The hero and heroine must stand in the villain’s way. If they don’t, then why is the villain hunting them across the country or hatching ever more elaborate plots to kill them? The problem with Snidely Whiplash villains is that the reader knows on a deep and instinctive level that the danger they pose is not real.

  18. Sirius
    Dec 13, 2011 @ 09:31:12

    @Tina: I completely agree about Brandin in Tigana, but I have read many reviews and talked to several readers online who actually *liked* Brandin, so it appears that for many Brandin actually morphed into somebody other than villain. Not for me, dont get me wrong, for me he was a nuanced and likeable villain, but without any doubt villain. What I am trying to say is that I am not sure how effectively Kay managed to actually convince readers that Brandin was a villain. On the other hand, I hated the leader of the good guys just as much if not more.

  19. Maili
    Dec 13, 2011 @ 10:56:03

    @Jane:

    Villains in romance books must have some component of evil, I guess, else how do you justify all the revenge and vengeance killings? Antagonists are people who provide roadblocks or barriers to a couple’s inevitable HEA. Perhaps villains are a subset of antagonists [...]

    The definition of ‘evil’ varies from a culture to another and from a class to another, from a legal system to another, and so forth, doesn’t it? I think you’ve already highlighted this in your post, but I want to take it further:

    If one associates killing with evil, how does one classify those who harm people without going as far as to kill them? Domestic violence, sexual abuse, power abuse, psychological abuse, power and economic abuse* and so on? How about people who never hurt people but severely abuse animals?

    How about titled heroes who squander money on gambling and women when the money should go back into their estates and their peoples who need it to survive, particularly during brutal winters?

    At which point should one consider that a moral code is violated well enough for evil to enter the picture?

    How about those who suffer from serious mental health issues, such as sociopathic killers? Is one truly evil when it’s obvious that he or she suffers from a mental health issue? A certain female character from Johanna Lindsey’s Velvet series clearly suffers from a mental illness. What is she? A villain, antagonist, or a victim of her illness?

    And of course, how about heroes and heroines who kill out of justice, mercy, vengeance or defence?

    Are their actions just because of what they are? If they could do that, why are villains evil and antagonists malicious? Acts of vigilance and acts of intolerance – what’s the difference?

    How about IRA terrorists? From Britain’s POV, active Irish terrorists and bombers were ‘evil’ for kidnapping, maiming, torturing and killing people in NI and England for 40+ years, but – based on romance novels I read so far – from the US’s POV, Irish paramilitary guys were freedom fighters and heroes. Who’s right on defining evil or heroic in that respect?

    Perhaps, deciding who are heroes, villains and antagonists depends on where we come from and what we believe in?

    As for the difference between villain and antagonist, I suppose I associate ‘evil’ with a person’s willingness to make a living being suffer. Of course, a degree of ‘evil’ depend on a degree of suffering the person may cause.

    So if antagonist’s main objective is to get in the way of h/h’s HEA to cause them to suffer, then I’m likely to label said antagonist a villain if we were to go with your definition. I think that’s why I don’t see the difference between antagonist and villain most times. From telling a malicious lie to make a person suffer needlessly for years to torturing and killing a person for an hour? No difference, really. I do realise I’m a bit extreme in this aspect, though.

    And sorry for going off the track way too far.

    [...] but the overly sexed other woman who tries to lie her way into the arms of the clueless hero, is she really a villain?

    Judging by the general name-calling and contempt some display towards the likes of Angelina Jolie, there seems a strong view that “home wreckers” don’t recognise the line between right and wrong. and that they are destroyers of happiness, marriages and homes.

    So yes, I’m guessing there are some who really do view these women, in real life and fiction, as villains. Why else do they react as if these women torture kittens for fun? :D

    @Tina: I really like that quotation. I agree with the rest of what you say.

  20. Ducky
    Dec 13, 2011 @ 11:00:15

    @Ros:

    Yes, like Sebastian St Vincent who became the hero – and from what it seems to me – one of Kleypas’ most popular heroes in Devil In Winter.

  21. Jane
    Dec 13, 2011 @ 11:02:51

    @Maili: I guess I was referring to my own classification. I can’t speak for everyone else which is why I mentioned the Kaylea Cross book and the antagonist in the story. That character wasn’t really villainous to me but played the antagonist role.

  22. Jan
    Dec 13, 2011 @ 11:10:49

    @Maili: Great comment, and very true.

    Maybe the most rational way to define a villain is someone who has an opposite moral code of the hero/ine of the story. However, it’s always possible that as a reader your moral code aligns more with the morality of the villain than that of the hero/ine, so the villain would seem less or not evil in those cases.

  23. Christine
    Dec 13, 2011 @ 11:25:38

    One villain trope I hate is the lawyer/law student as villain. As soon as I see a character mentioned as being a laywer or law student nine times out of ten they will be the villain or the boyfriend the heroine dumps for the “down to earth” hero. I just read a Robyn Carr book and of course the justification for the heroine lying to the boyfriend (who wants to marry her) she has been dating for a year in order to spend time with an old boyfriend ( and living with him after an injury) is that he is of course not a nice enough person. Being a LAW STUDENT he is only concerned with image, family and of course all his family’s money. In most romance novels it’s assumed that every lawyer is a money grubber who makes a ridiculous 6 figure or higher salary and is only interested in status and is a snob. Julie James is one of the few authors I’ve found who writes a realistic and sympathetic lawyer character (who isn’t poor and working solely for charity etc.)

  24. Isobel Carr
    Dec 13, 2011 @ 11:40:21

    Clearly a lot of readers A) have a thing for redeemed villains (and I’m one of them, depending on what form said villainy took), and B) share Ros’s expectation that villains of this sort are sequel bait. I have such a villain in my most recent book and I have received tons of email asking when his book will be out (not even asking if there will be one, just when, LOL!). Can’t say I have ever had any intention of writing a book for him though, I just didn’t want to have the same kind of villain and outcome in every book. Plus I try to remember that every villain is the hero of his/her own story (as others have already pointed out in the discussion). If they’re not, then they’re just cardboard.

  25. JL
    Dec 13, 2011 @ 12:54:49

    I know this is a bit of a tangent, but I just wanted to say that it’s these kinds of opinion pieces and subsequent discussions that make Dear Author one of my favourite sites. In fact the comments are usually the best part. I really love getting to peer into all of your brilliant minds, and it has really elevated the quality of my reading experience. I always shied away from English classes in university, but I feel like I’m getting a nice snippet of that learning without all the pressure :)

  26. Jane
    Dec 13, 2011 @ 12:57:44

    @JL: The comments are, without question, the best part of DA.

    Thank you to all the commenters!

  27. Angelia Sparrow
    Dec 13, 2011 @ 13:38:22

    I am not a fan of redeemed villains. It feels like cheating, really.

    I’ve done pirates and homophobic Marines, covetous CEOs, evil geniuses and wicked giants. But my heroes are no better, being opportunists, minor criminals, closet cases, pirates themselves and other such rotters.

    I like a good villain, the problem is keeping him from running away with the story.

    Christine @23, may I suggest “Eight Days Ablaze?” Our heroine is a junior partner in a firm.

  28. Emily
    Dec 13, 2011 @ 13:43:15

    I know Inspirational romance is not for everyone but I was reading Irene Hannon’s Hero of Quanticos series and really enjoying it. One of the things I liked best about her series is that the villians are complex characters who have definite reasons for what they do. The first book (Against All Odds) dealt with the war in Afghanistan. The plot did take some leaps to be completely convincing, but I liked how the different “villians” had different motivations, from money to glory to revenge for the loss of loved ones, etc. I really liked that it was nuanced and not just generic stuff. (I liked the second one too (An Eye for an Eye) where the villian turned out to be very complex and the third one is TBR.)
    I found BR Rose’s comments slightly offensive but it was a gut reaction and I am not sure why. I do think that part of the PC consciousness is not just because of sensitivity. I think there is far more hatred towards Muslims than ever were towards Russians. Actually I think Americans felt sorry for people stuck living under communist rule. Also a documentary came out in 2005 called” Reel Bad Arabs” and it highlighted that American film makers were unfair to anyone connected Middle East or Islam, even before the year 2000. I don’t remember enough about it, but you can look for it.

  29. Amber
    Dec 13, 2011 @ 14:02:09

    I love reformed villains. To me it’s not cheating, as one person said. In fact, a guy who always does good feels more like cheating, because it’s more fantasy, less realistic. Particularly when you see a good guy hero who’s somehow overcome insane odds and earned tons of money, etc, etc, somehow never hurting anyone or ever being unfair? Color me skeptical, especially in historicals where upward mobility was much harder to achieve than in modern times. The perfect heroes fulfill a certain craving, I suppose, like birthday cake, but it’s not for all the time. Sometimes, often, I want a hero more complicated, more interesting and ultimately more satisfying. All this hinges on it being written well, but doesn’t it always?

  30. Darlynne
    Dec 13, 2011 @ 14:58:13

    In romance, my usually-unfilled wish is for nuanced villains, not Snidely Whiplash, who represent some effort and thought on the part of the author. Most genres don’t do villains well, with the exception of hard-boiled noir fiction where all the characters are criminals, or at least morally bankrupt, and still the author makes the reader care what happens to them. Don Winslow comes to mind, Ken Bruen’s Inspector Brant, George Pelecanos.

    OT: As someone who grew up in the ’50s and ’60s, I remember well the disaster drills in grade school, huddling in the hallways or under our desks, waiting for the all-clear. We knew the enemy–the Russians, of course–but none of us understood that Russian kids were hiding under their desks at the same time, hoping we weren’t going to blow them to pieces. We were the edge of their map, just as they were of ours, the one that warned of monsters and untold evil. How bizarre that anyone could think of us as the villain.

    That’s the problem with blanketing any group with the mantel of “evil.” Doing so allows us to ignore their humanity, to discount their loss or suffering, to rain down on them all manner of righteousness without guilt.

  31. Ducky
    Dec 13, 2011 @ 15:24:22

    I like a good villain or antagonist, they can be more dynamic and therefore more proactive and interesting than the hero.

    I often also prefer the antihero to a hero.

  32. Isobel Carr
    Dec 13, 2011 @ 15:51:29

    @Amber: There’s never any acknowledgement in historicals that almost every noble family was likely to have enriched themselves via the slave trade as well. Do any research at all into the sources of wealth in the Georgian era (when owning great tracts of land wasn’t enough any more) and you’ll likely uncover some aspect of the triangle trade (or the East India Company, which wasn’t any better).

  33. JMM
    Dec 13, 2011 @ 15:53:38

    I don’t like reformed villains. I like my villains to face some kind of Karma.

    I do like it when antagonists get their own HEA. Personally, I like it when you have characters who just don’t LIKE the hero/ine (without making said character Evil); I wish there were more of them.

  34. Jennifer Leeland
    Dec 13, 2011 @ 16:33:12

    I love the redeemed villain. And I disagree with the concept that Real Life villains aren’t usually complex. For me, I don’t want to read a cardboard two dimensional villain who has no depth. Most people, even sociopaths, have some layers that reveal surprises.
    My absolute favorite villain redeemed by an author has to be Jonathan Powell from Joey W. Hill’s “Mistress of Redemption”. I hesitated to read this book, hating Jonathan for his villainous actions in “Natural Law”. But Hill is a brilliant writer who, IMHO, pulled off the most satisfying redemption story EVAH.
    The best villains are the ones who have depth, have issues, have a human story even if the end result is a sociopath.
    I think about the episode of “Fringe” where parallel universes have two men–both have all the earmarks of a sociopath, a killer But one has an experience, a person in their lives who “saves” him from the darkness. The other is doomed to kill and kill again.
    I like the idea that the line between hero and villain is thin, but clearly marked. I may understand why a villain does evil, but it’s not acceptable. I prefer my heroes, my heroines and my villains to be human, with flaws, with hope.
    A redeemable hero means there’s hope for all human beings to change. A reformed rake, a “hard nosed” man who falls in love, a “bitter” woman who finds tenderness with another….there isn’t enough of this in Real Life.
    Maybe that’s why I love the redeemed villain.

  35. Moriah Jovan
    Dec 13, 2011 @ 16:45:49

    @Jennifer Leeland:

    Most people, even sociopaths, have some layers that reveal surprises.

    I grew up with one who liked to mess with people’s heads for her own amusement, to effect some disastrous result (and the more disastrous the better), to get things she wanted without paying for them, to drive wedges between people when she felt she had a claim on one particular person. And she was brilliant about it.

    No other motive. No deep, dark secrets. No past trauma. No motive beyond her own narcissism and lack of conscience. It was her entertainment. So, yeah, they do exist, and once you understand how it works, the more easily you can spot it when you see it again. And some people are really good at hiding it for a while.

  36. Janet W
    Dec 13, 2011 @ 16:49:41

    Both Joan Wolf and Mary Balogh have written books where the villains are “allowed” to slide away across the Atlantic. Come to think of it, so does Jo Beverley. While I can accept it would be a ghastly mess — trials and children testifying and so on and so forth — I still feel a slight pang when these aristocratic families sweep the Trying To Murders relatives across the Atlantic or English channel.

    I certainly like a redeemed villain but it’s easier said than done.

  37. Lazaraspaste
    Dec 13, 2011 @ 17:08:44

    I tend to sympathize with villains when well written. Too many fairy tales as a child have inclined me to think of myself as a villain. After all, I’m the eldest and eldest siblings, especially sisters, tend to be the villains in fairy stories.

    One of the problems I often have with the “good” characters, especially in UF, PNR, and SFF, are that their goodness is based on a black and white moral outlook. They often end up being so self-righteous about their right to kill or to slay. I recently re-watched Buffy and was surprised that despite having relationships with vampires and the number of good demons, that she and the rest of the Scooby Gang, rarely if ever question whether killing is ethical at all. Or what gives her the right to kill? Who, precisely, chose her and why? The entire solution to the problem of evil (sorry, that’s a theological term. You see the Milton scholar in me resurfacing here) is solved in a very simplistic way: evil gets killed. Contrast that to something like the Lord of the Rings where, yes, you get the nameless Orcs and Sauron, but they are distant. The real villains are the Ring and its ability to corrupt and Golem. By the end, you have sympathy for Golem and nobody who encounters the ring goes unaffected by its evil. Its whole history is the ability to corrupt good and honorable people into trying to use its power for the greater good. The question there becomes is it possible to have that kind of power and still be good?

    I prefer complex and nuanced villains because I think 1) it is more interesting and 2) when you have flat characters even the good guys can come off as morally reprehensible BECAUSE they aren’t very nuanced and don’t think about whether or not they are justified in their actions. That to me is just as villainous as the supposed baddies.

    I think bad villains and bad characters generally get written when the author doesn’t want to deal with the ethical questions that would arise in such a conflict. They want to have the fantasy of a world in which evil is out there and can be removed from society without making the people doing the removing complicit. But you can’t really have that story. You just end up with a bunch of jerks.

    I like Jane’s differentiation between villains and antagonists because I think you that an antagonist sometimes lets the story off the hook vis a vis larger ethical questions in a way that a villain doesn’t.

  38. Ducky
    Dec 13, 2011 @ 19:50:05

    For me it depends on how bad the villain is – there are certain things a character can come back from and some other things where you just go, “death now please!” A good writer can make me accept the redemption and humanity of characters that seem at first glance irredeemable. A good example would be Jaime Lannister from ASOIAF by George R R Martin. I don’t want to spoil people not familiar with those books but lets just say that anybody reading the first book in that series would not believe that by the time book 4 ends Jaime Lannister has gone from much hated to much loved. Martin does not so much “redeem” Jaime as he slowly reveals his humanity and his motives.

  39. Lilian Darcy
    Dec 13, 2011 @ 20:33:37

    I love that Jim Kreuger quote about creating antagonists, Tina. That’s what I always wonder about people who seem to be sociopaths or “difficult.” How do they see themselves? And I think Kreuger is right – everyone views themself as the protagonist in the story.

    Very interesting topic!

  40. JMM
    Dec 13, 2011 @ 20:43:13

    “Both Joan Wolf and Mary Balogh have written books where the villains are “allowed” to slide away across the Atlantic. Come to think of it, so does Jo Beverley. While I can accept it would be a ghastly mess — trials and children testifying and so on and so forth — I still feel a slight pang when these aristocratic families sweep the Trying To Murders relatives across the Atlantic or English channel.”

    I hate that! “Not in MY backyard! Who cares how many lives they lay waste to, as long as *I* don’t have to see it!”

    I want to see a hero/ine who admits, “Some people gotta die.” :)

  41. SAO
    Dec 14, 2011 @ 07:51:06

    I find black/white, hero/evil dichotomies to be boring. Whether it’s rule the world or save a basket of kittens from a burning building, I roll my eyes.

    For what it’s worth, old Soviet movies are just like the American ones of the same era, except the blond, blue-eyed, broad-shouldered, square-jawed, noble hero is a Soviet saving the fair maiden from the evil, greasy, scheming Capitalist.

  42. Tina
    Dec 14, 2011 @ 10:25:00

    @Ducky: Great idea bringing up Jaime Lannister. Jaime is a great example of how a person is perceived versus how they perceive themselves. The first book, Jaime does not have a POV. He is only viewed through the eyes of the Starks. How they see and perceive Jaime is communicated to the reader and at that point, the Starks are very clearly the protagonists and are incredibly sympaethic. By the time the third book rolls around, Jaime has gotten agency. He gets a POV, we get to revisit events from the 1st book from his perspective and they take on a very different hue without the Starks acting as interpreters. In that sense, Martin didn’t so much as redeem Jaime, but allow more about him to be revealed. Good narrative tactic, imo.

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