To prove a villain
If I tried to write a book with a vampire character, I have no doubt I would end up humanizing the character (talk about an oxymoron--a humanized vampire :-). I tend to humanize all my characters. I want to figure out what drives them, what forces made them the way they are, and in the process, I then frequently want to figure out a way to redeem them.
I’ve been working on character profiles for the book I'm starting, which means, among other things, I’ve been thinking about the villain. Or perhaps I should say antagonist. Because this process got me to ponder the whole concept of villains and which characters can properly be called villains.
My Oxford Dictionary defines a villain as Person guilty or capable of great wickedness, scoundrel; character in play, novel, etc., whose evil motives or actions are an important element of the plot; (colloq., playful) rascal, scamp.
When I think of villains, the key bit is an important element of the plot. When I think of characters who can be called “the villain” of a story, they’re the driving force behind much of the plot. I saw a fabulous Othello at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival last month. Iago is my definition of a villain, in that he’s at the center of the story and his scheming drives the plot (in fact, he drives the plot much more than Othello does).
So in a mystery or suspense story (which is what I write), defining a villain can be tricky. There tend to be multiple characters after the “McGuffin,” multiple people with motives to murder, multiple strands of intrigue and conspiracy. And of course in most mysteries the murderer’s actions are shrouded in secrecy until the denouement, so even if he or she is driving the plot, one likely doesn’t see it, except perhaps on a re-read. In thinking about the villain/antagonist in my new book, thought back to the previous books in the series. I realized I wasn’t at all sure whom I’d call the villain (or villains) in Secrets of a Lady/Daughter of the Game. The character who, in mystery terms, is the murderer, is reacting to the unfolding plot much of the time.
The character who is the mastermind behind the abduction of the hero and heroine's son remains largely off camera and isn't involved in the denouement. The two people carrying out his orders play a much more important role in the book. They could be called villains, but I'd be more inclined to class them as desperate people who commit villainous acts. And none of these characters is the driving force behind one of the key arcs in the book, the conflict between Charles and Mélanie, the married couple who are the hero and heroine. In that arc, I suppose, Raoul O'Roarke, a character closely linked to both Charles and Mélanie, might be called the villain. He is certainly, at least in the past, the driving force behind much of what happened between Charles and Mel. But ultimately, as I think Charles and Mel would agree, their choices are their own as is the resultant conflict. And while Raoul's actions are distinctly ambiguous, I wouldn't call either his actions or his motivations villainous. Mileage definitely may vary (I know from some reader comments that they see him very differently).
When it comes to Beneath a Silent Moon, I find it even more difficult to tease out whom I would call the villain. And I'm not at all sure that whom I would call the villain correlates with the person who is unmasked as the murder. I’ve always had a difficult time with villains in general. Since I tend to paint my characters in a lot of shades of gray, it’s often hard to tease out who the villains are or to draw a line between villains and heroes. The characters are often driven not by grand schemes but by personal follies and foibles or perhaps the desire to protect those they love. My books are filled with spies, but often the scheming masterminds turn out not to be the murderers. I have written at least one character, though, whom I would unequivocally call a villain. Daniel de Ribard, whose machinations are a driving force in two of my historical romances, Shadows of the Heart and Rightfully His. Daniel is scheming, brilliant, ruthless, and quite unscrupulous. He is, hopefully, fairly complex, and there may even be one or two moments where one feels a twinge of sympathy for him. But he is undeniably a villain, both in his behavior and in the way he drives the action of both books. Interestingly, I think both Raoul O'Roarke and Kenneth Fraser (Charles father, an important character in Beneath a Silent Moon), in different ways, owe a bit to Daniel.
Do you have favorite literary villains? How would you define what makes a character a villain in a story? Do you prefer scheming masterminds or characters who blunder into villainous actions through circumstances or wrong choices? Do you like to see villains redeemed? Writers, how do you approach the villains in your books?