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.