Things were easier for the old novelists who saw people all of a piece. Speaking generally, their heroes were good through and through, their villains wholly bad.
W. Somerset Maugham
One of my favourite Lost episodes is Confidence Man. It may start out in the usual way, with the roles neatly assigned. But then the two nobly obvious contenders for the role of ‘hero’ and ‘leader’ behave in a way that is anything but heroic. Meantime, the bad-ass, who they beat, torture and stab, comes out smelling of roses, looking for the first time vaguely like hero material. Not only that, but the viewer finally sees, not just why the bad-ass is a bad-ass. They see why their motivation is to be hated, although this is a motivation, not being self aware, the bad ass might not fully understand. Sympathy, or pity from the heroine, who they have a far better understanding of than the hero, either. It’s a neat turn round of what is a hero, what is a villain. The writing is all out smart
Things were much easier in the old days. The villains didn’t have a lot to do, apart from gallopa-galloping about the countryside, going…Me villain. You, maiden to be ravished.
Take Alec D’Urberville (thank-you, no.) Squire Jack Reddin and try asking them the simple question….. Yes, but why are you a villain? Why is that maiden to be ravished?…. on your friendly local, Let’s All Talk to the Characters Chat Show, and you can lay odds on the answer. Because it says so in the story. Period. Just imagine the riot.
Angel Clare now, or Edward Marston, your audience would be fertilising the daisies by the time these two reached the end of their inner struggles.
The big trouble with writing villains is the Dastardly caricature. Orbiting the same circuit. Always the same cut out. But villains are people too. Take Hannibal Lecter. Would any of these books be so fascinating with a baddie who was simply a caricature?
No. In fact Hannibal’s feelings at crossing the Atlantic economy-class are things we can empathize with. Who wouldn’t want to eat the face off the brat sitting next to them….? Well…okay….maybe a bit extreme.
Of course, the Hannibal novels don’t fall into the romance category and the problem with romance category books is, the thou shalt not constraints of the genre. Thou shalt not, for example, allow the villain to drive the plot. Thou shalt not let him, or her, take over. Or have them on every page. The focus must always be on hero, heroine and the developing relationship. Contrary to Maugham’s great quote, it is easier to fashion them from cardboard. I mean, why waste time on them at all, when they are secondary to the story, part of the sub-plot, at best?
It’s not necessary to have a villain. Maybe the story itself stands without one. In my present WIP, I’m taking the risk of having the hero be both, in that he sets out to wreak revenge on the heroine, because she has ruined his life. As the story progresses, she meantime, is perfectly capable of being the architect of her own fall. Given her deepest fears, she doesn’t need any help from a jealous secondary character, thank you very much. Although it would be far easier to make this character the villainess.
But I like my villains, male or female, when I do have them, to have thoughts and feelings too. Why should they simply like the hero or heroine? Do we like everybody in life? My heroine Fury’s mother-in-law detests her because she knows she’s a fraud, who committed the cardinal sin of living with her son, for whom she wanted the best. And it’s a detestation that burns, although constraints are observed. They are observed because that is part of Lady Margaret’s character, to suffer, if not always in silence. It is part of her upbringing to maintain a front. If she could only say why she hates Fury, now. But she can’t.
If you do decide to have a villain and you really care about your story, then there is a school of thought that believes the villain should be as carefully thought out as the hero. They should be as real. A product of their times, upbringing and various shaping forces. The same as…well you and me really. The same faults, the same flaws. With goals, aspirations and motivations that make them believable, and most importantly, the same lack of self-awareness that means they might not see their behaviour for what it is.
She’s go-un a milkun.. Him now….