Sunday, June 05, 2011

Something Wicked This Way Comes

Villainy is one of the most difficult characteristics to define in a person, especially in a romance novel. The temptation is to take the simple route and make the villain as evil as the hero and/or heroine is good. It’s easy, well-defined and can leave the reader in no doubt as to the villain’s purpose and intentions.

Me, I like my villains a bit more subtle. In some of my very favorite romance novels the bad guy (or girl) has kept me in doubt right up to the last page. Now this sort of character is difficult to write and can lap over into caricature OR turn out to be just plain confusing.

In life I’ve met some fairly obvious villains (had the husband of a student threaten to shoot me because I helped her get into a battered women’s shelter) and I’ve met some of the less noticeable villains. These types can come off as concerned, sweet, innocent and as deadly as a stomped on rattlesnake. Venomous? Check. Vindictive? Oh, yes! Butter wouldn’t melt in their mouths and they were “only trying to help?” You bet your sweet bippy! I went to an all girls college with some girls who would have made Machiavelli run for cover.

Like the sweet young thing with luxurious blond hair who told Mr. Handsome Military Cadet how much she admired his fiancée for the way she handled an abortion at the age of fifteen. She only mentioned it to help him see “what a wonderfully courageous girl he was marrying.” The fact he was a devout Catholic never entered her mind. See? Insidious. And Miss “I was just trying to help” with the luxurious blond hair ended up being said cadet’s next girlfriend after he dumped his shattered fiancée.

On the surface this character seems truly concerned or at the worst, socially inept. She isn’t a knife wielding serial killer, but she is just as destructive in her own way. Now that’s the sort of villain that gives me the heebie jeebies! Give me a villain you have no idea how the heroine can fight back against without appearing as evil and mean as her opponent. A villain who uses his or her words, and innuendo and half-rumor to destroy another character can be devastating. And he or she can be a real challenge to write. I have even read some authors who create villains like this only to redeem them and make them the hero or heroine of the next book in the series. Now that requires SKILL ! Make me slowly, but surely despise someone and then try to show me why they became such a horrible creature and how love can redeem them – it’s a tall order and requires skills I don’t have. Yet.

What about you? Do you prefer your villains up front where you can see what they’re up to? Or does the idea of someone who straddles the line until the last page appeal? Do those people whose every word and deed comes from a personal agenda make your skin crawl? What sort of villain is the scariest to you and what sort of villain is the hardest for you to write?

By the way, Mr. Handsome Cadet eventually saw the error of his ways, but by that time his former fiancée had moved on. She ended up married to another cadet, a devout Yankee Catholic from New York with the sense to know no person should be judged or defined by the worst thing they’ve ever done, but by the person they’ve become. And Miss “I was only trying to help?” A few weeks after she started dating Mr. Handsome Cadet she woke up duct taped to her bed with her luxurious blond head shaved. Not that I know anything about such an openly villainous act. To quote Eliza Doolittle “I’m a good girl, I am.” Most of the time.


M.V.Freeman said...

This is an awesome post! I have met people like you have described. I agree, it’s much easier to deal with the openly hostile, but the 'butter doesn't melt on their tongue' is a whole other matter.

I have to confess, I like anti-heroes. These can be villains in one book, but a hero in their own. I like them, because I find them far more three dimensional and fun to write. That's what intrigues me.

For me the scariest kind of bad-guy is the one without remorse--the socio-path (Like Bundy, and Manson). They can be interesting in a very chilling way.

Beth Trissel said...

Excellent post, Louisa. I like various kinds of villains. But the multidimensional ones are the most intriguing.

Anne Gallagher said...

I'm so glad you told what happened to the witch and the cadet. Head shaved, priceless!

I generally like my fictional villains straight up. I can't write subtle. Male or female.

Although in real life, it does take me awhile to figure out who's sincere and who's trying to stomp me from behind.

Callie James said...

Wondeful post, Louisa! This is a thought-provoking question because it's always the villain of which I'm most critical. So I'm torn. I love obvious villains, but only when they can be a "Kevin Spacey type of crazy" like his character in SEVEN. Here's a guy who does all his deadly deeds for a "reason." And God help us when that reason is God. Those are the craziest, and to me, the scariest. There's no bargaining chip with those villains. Only "the cause." And the only way to catch this guy is to have an understanding of "the cause."

I also love the subtle villains. As you said, "Only trying to help." I've known too many of them in reality, and they can leave a serious path of emotional rubble behind them. Often, I walk away from people such as this scratching my head and wondering if they're intentionally cruel or if they just don't have any common sense or social graces to know when they're hurting someone's feelings. When I've watched this type of hurt happen to someone else, instead of walking away I've asked flat out, "Are you intentionally being mean or do you not have any emotional sense in your head?"

Those people are the most difficult to write, at least for me. They're the people who leave you constantly flummoxed, the ones--such as an aunt who constantly hurts your feelings when you see her--that your parents might tell you, "Do you think she'd say those things if she thought she was hurting your feelings?"

What kind of a statement is that anyway?

So to answer your question, I like both. But a writer has to be on top of their game to make either credible and appealing to read.

Cindy said...

FAB-U-LOUS post, Louisa. Me? Well, let just say I'll take my villain with a generous dollop of wicked...twisting mustache, cackling with glee--the whole nine-evil-yards of him.


Lexi said...

The creepy psychopaths without remorse chill me. Did anyone ever see the movie THE BAD SEED? Shiver. But the self righteous ones, the ones who claims to be doing God's work and are fanatics also scare the bejeebers out of me.

Snape has to be my favorite all-time villain, because he turned out to be not a villain at all! He was brilliant.

Heather said...

In my opinion, the devil will rarely present himself brandishing a pitchfork and swishing his tail. He will smile sweetly while whispering exactly what you want to hear. If there wasn't something seductive/persuasive/charismatic about a villain, he/she would never be able to accomplish his/her evil master plans. For that reason, I love to read books where the villain charms the reader because it makes him/her even more frightening.

Carla Swafford said...

I can handle having the villain who is nice to the hero or/and heroine while plotting against them.

But I don't like to write or read a snide one as it weakens the hero and/or heroine. There's only so much politeness you can withstand. For I catch myself screaming at the book, "Tell the sucker off!" I've quit reading an author because she had a bad habit of having that type of villain.

Chris Bailey said...

Okay, I'm late to the party, but Louisa--what wicked revenge! I'm breathless at the thought! I love to hate villains that are sly and charming. Maybe because I've been writing about politics. ; )