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The Villain

The Villain



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?

REVIEW: Early Georgette Heyer series

REVIEW: Early Georgette Heyer series

Dear Readers.

As part of our Georgette Heyer week here, I’ve decided to do lightning reviews of Heyer’s very early series. This series includes Heyer’s first runaway bestseller, the first Regency Romance evah, one of the most well-researched books about Waterloo evah, iconic heroes and the cross-dressing heroines who shoot them (well, not quite), duels, highwaymen, and Beau Brummel.

These Old Shades	Georgette HeyerThe series “starts” (sort of) with The Black Moth, which I’ve already reviewed here at Dear Author. This is Heyer’s first book, written when she was 19 (and doesn’t that make me feel like a slacker?). It’s set in 1751 so is a Georgian, NOT a Regency romance. It’s notable, in my opinion, mainly for the hero of the secondary romance, but also for the villain, Tracy Belmanoir, Duke of Andover. To the heroine (and, one assumes, to his author), he’s repellent and yet utterly compelling:

It was not what he said that alarmed her, but it was the way in which he said it, and the vague something in the purring, faintly sinister voice that she could not quite define, that made her heart beat unpleasantly fast, and the blood rush to her temples.

Repulsion or attraction?

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Well, four books (one each set in the 17th, 18th, and 15th centuries, and a suppressed contemporary) and five years later, in 1926, Heyer publishes These Old Shades, her first best-selling novel. She takes most of the characters from The Black Moth, gives them different names, and uses The Black Moth as the back story for These Old Shades, the hero of which is Tracy Belmanoir, now Justin Alistair, Duke of Avon. He’s nicknamed “Satanus” and lives up to it. The novel is still Georgian set, and one of the joys of the books is to read Heyer’s enraptured-historian’s descriptions of Avon’s elaborate outfits. Avon buys a fleeing boy off the boy’s brother in the slums of Paris. He does it for his own nefarious purposes — purposes he carries through with utter ruthlessness at the end of the novel. He makes the boy his page, but of course, his page is much more than he seems…

The novel is problematic: class is innate for Heyer. The blood of aristocrats will always tell, as will the blood of peasants, no matter their education or upbringing. But Avon is the ultimate in the depraved hero reluctantly saved by love and the climax of the novel in which all Avon’s machinations come together and he tells the story of Leonie’s background is riveting reading, not least because he’s wearing a gold suit.

But when I read this book at 13, the two line conversation –

“You do not love me?” she said, like a child.

“Too — well to marry you,” he said

– just about killed me. That little hitch in the middle…SO romantic.

Grade: B

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Six books (three contemporaries, an 18thC, a 16thC, and an 11thC set book) and six years later, Heyer publishes Devil’s Cub (1932), the story of Avon and Leonie’s son, Dominic, the Marquis of Vidal. He’s 25, wild, and utterly entitled. The book starts with him shooting to death a highwayman and leaving the body in the road. Although he hasn’t had time to become as totally depraved as his father, when he has to flee England after a duel (he leaves because of his father’s displeasure, not because he broke the law), he tries to take with him his latest light o’ love, the middle-class (not demi-monde) Sophy Challoner. Sophy, however, has a determined and entirely respectable sister Mary who refuses to allow her sister to lose her virtue to Vidal. So she swaps herself for Sophy, assuming Vidal would let her go after he discovers the switch. He does not, however, and drags her aboard his yacht, where she defends her honor by shooting him. The rest of the novel is a wild romp through France (as was These Old Shades), with Vidal determined to marry Mary because he’s destroyed her reputation and Mary equally determined not to be married to the man she loves for the wrong reasons.

Devil’s Cub has to be one of my favorite Heyers, because I adore Mary and her relationship with Vidal. When Vidal first insists on marrying Mary, she finds herself daydreaming:

She was so shocked to realise that for a few breathless moments she had forgotten Sophia in a brief vision of herself wedded to his lordship. ‘So that’s the truth, is it?’ said Miss Challoner severely to herself. ‘You are in love with him, and you’ve known it for weeks.’

But it was not a notorious Marquis with whom she had fallen in love; it was with the wild, sulky, unmanageable boy that she saw behind the rake. ‘I could manage him,’ she sighed. ‘Oh, but I could!’

There are no words for how much I love those lines. Stripping away the mask of the dissipated rake and making him a “wild, sulky, unmanageable boy” who needs managing is just…brilliant, in my opinion. And Vidal’s realization that he needs managing, while talking to his cousin, is perfect:

‘You were not very kind to Mary, apparently.’

‘Kind!’ ejaculated Vidal. ‘No, I was not – kind.’

Juliana ate another morsel of capon. ‘You seem to me to have behaved as though you hated her,’ she remarked.

He said nothing. Juliana peeped at him again. ‘You’re very anxious to get her in your power again, Vidal. But I don’t quite know why you should be, for you meant to marry her only because you had ruined her, and so were obliged to, didn’t you?’

She thought that he was not going to answer, but suddenly he raised his eyes from the contemplation of the dregs of his wine. ‘Because I am obliged to?’ he said. ‘I mean to marry Mary Challoner because I’m devilish sure I can’t live without her.’

The duel that enterprising Mary breaks up, the extended-family conversations we’re privy to, and the conversation between Mary and the unknown gentleman who saves her from herself in France are all absolutely priceless. But this is one book in which Heyer, most uncharacteristically, does not shy away from depicting full on romance at the end, and I adore it for that more than anything else.

Grade: A-

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Five books (four contemporary mysteries and one final Georgian historical) later, Heyer FINALLY publishes Regency Buck, the first Regency romance. I’ve reviewed this one as well. It’s not directly connected to the previous books until the next book, however. Really, everything I need to say about this book, I said in my other review, so I’ll wait here till you’re done…

Finally, An Infamous Army (1937), tells the story of Charles Audley, the brother of the hero of Regency Buck, and Lady Barbara Childe, granddaughter of Dominic and Mary from Devil’s Cub. The timeline between TOS, DC, and IA don’t quite work out, but it’s good enough. Dominic and Mary, now the Duke and Duchess of Avon, have a cameo in the book, but this book is most famous for the brilliantly researched and amazingly accurate description of the Battle of Waterloo that takes up almost its entire second half. The book is so accurate and so readable that for many years it was used as a set book at Sandhurt, the Royal Military Academy. I will admit, however, that I read it once as a teenager and never again, so I don’t actually have much I can say about it, except: the married brother of the heroine of Regency Buck is embroiled in a flirtation with the heroine of An Infamous Army. Pretty much the only thing I remember of this book besides Bab’s painted toenails and dampened skirts, is Harriet, Peregrine’s wife, lamenting that although they survived Perry’s infatuation, she’ll never fully look up to Perry anymore as her hero, that she sees his faults now in ways that she never had before. And as accurate and realistic as that might be, I found it very melancholy. I don’t feel I can really grade this book. But it needed discussing as part of the series.

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As much as we might adore her, Heyer is not an unproblematic author, as we see. But I don’t think anyone can deny the impact she had on the romance genre as we know it today. This series of five books is a mini-catalogue of Heyer’s career in historical romance. She finally settled down into writing Regencies almost exclusively in the 1940s, but these five books show how she got there, not only through her dedication to research, but also in her ability to create amazingly appealing characters.