History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

21 September 2008

To prove a villain

Happy Monday! I'm subbing today at the last minute, so I thought I would carry over a blog I just put up on my own website. It's on villains, so in an odd way I think it's a good follow up to Pam's fabulous post on vampires last Friday. In literature, vampires began as villains, morphed into seductive villains, and now are often heroes, albeit usually dark heroes.

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?

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Blogger Unknown said...

While working on my WIP, I've been trying to keep in mind that all villains are the hero of their own story. I think this is an important truth to keep in mind if you’re trying to write a villain that is something more than a caricature (and yes, Tracy, your “villains” tend to show me that this “rule” is an ultimate truth, something I’m very impressed by).

I get bored with the lunatic villains who can be dismissed as simply evil. The flawed person who takes things too far (and their own internal justifications for doing so) are just more interesting. They also make for better stories, IMO.

I do like a villain redeemed, so long as what they’ve done is forgivable (which often isn’t the case in Romancelandia).

8:36 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Kalen, villains being the hero of their own story is a very good point to keep in mind (thanks for the nice words about my villains, btw :-). I too get bored with lunatic villains, because there's more complexity, more to unravel (not just the who of the villain but the why). So as you say the stories are more complex.

8:51 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The one bad guy that stick in my head and creeps me out is the one from The Flame And The Flower. He followed the heroine across an ocean and then disguised himself to get close to her to get his revenge...shivers.

Kalen, I agree that redeemed villains are cool as long as what they did is forgivable. The example I think of is St. Vincent from Lisa Kleypas' Wallflower books. I thought she did such a good job reforming him that I was inspired to try redeeming the villain in my book. It's a challenge!

9:38 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

What a stimulating topic, Tracy.

I'm fascinated by people who do bad things because they themselves have been put in impossible situations, like the Duchesse in my Bookseller's Daughter, fascist fashionista avant la lettre, daughter of a wealthy bourgeoise family, forced into an awful marriage with a most unpleasant penniless aristocrat (a most common scenario in the years before the French revolution).

I like to make my bad characters intelligent, energetic, alert to opportunities to advance themselves (and most especially their wounded egos). And I like my good characters to afford some grudging respect toward their antagonists.

10:01 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Maya, I agree with you and Kalen in liking redeemed villains, as long as they are believably redeem-able. I think turning a villain into a hero is a wonderful challenge for a writer. What do you find most challenging about the former villain you're writing about now?

10:52 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Pam, I too like bad characters to be intelligent and energetic. They need to be good foils for the heroes. (Which then puts the writer in the position of having to write a chess game between two brilliant people or two sets of brilliant people :-). A certain grudging respect between heroes and villains definitely adds to the story, I think.

And I like characters who do bad things because of impossible situations (I haven't read "The Bookseller's Daughter" yet, but the Duchesse sounds fascinating). One of the characters in "Beneath a Silent Moon" definitely falls into that category (although, as Mélanie points out, that character does make choices). Interestingly, when I think about my own books, some of the most unpleasant people are not necessarily the ones who commit the most unpleasant acts.

11:01 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Very interesting topic, Tracy! I'm thinking about "villains" in some of the books I've written and realize, well ... there don't seem to be any! Much of my historical fiction is driven by actual personages and events and some antagonists (like Napoleon) to my hero (Nelson) remain offscreen because it's not the focus of my story. Or, in the case of THE MEMOIRS OF HELEN OF TROY, I see Agamemmon as a big-time antagonist, but of course, as you say, he's the hero of his own story and believes his actions to be justified. That, I, think needs to be the key to all characters we create.

As an actress I've played some pretty irredeemable women (always more fun than the good girls) and yet, it's my job to get inside their heads and under their skin and therefore, from my vantage as that character, I am in the right and those other people are thwarting me!

Shakespeare, as you mentioned, is the undeniable master of making his villains' POV's justifiable. After all, Iago says that he's pretty sure Othello slept with Emilia, his wife; and therefore intends to destroy him.

BTW, I saw the MISDUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM at Oregon Shakes this spring -- and have to admit it was pretty awful!! Very uneven casting and a directorial concept that was not fully supported by the text.

11:29 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

To answer your question, Tracy...It was a trial to my imagination.

Redeeming Phillip, my villain/hero, was hard because I made him SO awful in the first book, and I only decided to make him a hero after that book was in print (so I couldn't go back and change things). So I had to really put my imagination to work, not only on explaining another side to known events, but also doing more work to develop what drove him emotionally, and what would change him.

For example, Phillip is known to have ruined four girls. How could that have happened without him having forced himself on the girls? (Because that would be irredeemable.) So, yeah, that was a good creative challenge...

11:42 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

I so agree, Amanda--as my writer friend Penny Williamson says, very few people see themselves as deliberately doing evil things. Getting inside the heads of characters who do things we may find unconscionable is one of the fascinating challenges of writing (I had a difficult time getting into the head of one of the kidnappers in "Secrets of Lady"; I had a lot of talks with my dad, a psychologist, about how to motivate her).

I saw the same "Midsummer" in the spring. I actually liked a lot of it, but I had major problems with what they did with Puck's speech at the end. I wish you could have seen the "Otello"--I think you'd have liked it a lot better. Much less concept-driven and Dan Donohue was a fabulous Iago. That and "Coriolanus" were my two favorite Shakespeare productions as OSF this season.

11:53 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

That sounds like a fascinating challenge, Maya! I love revisiting events of previous books from the pov of a different character. It's particularly interesting when that character is seen as a villain.

As to his having ruined four girls--since appearances could ruin a girl as much as reality, I can actually think of a lot of ways around that one.

Though I love redeemed villains as heroes, I haven't actually written one myself, I realize. I actually sort of see Raoul as a hero, but I never really saw him as a villain.

12:01 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Raoul is certainly an antagonist and a major plotter, but he's not a bad man. He's the epitome of the "villain" who is the hero of his own story. I’m dying for Raoul’s book. Gimmie, gimmie, gimmie!!!

12:53 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

I found Raoul sexy and darkly compelling -- the sort of tortured hero who circumstances force over to the dark side for a while. Also, as I'm no ingenue myself, I'm drawn to the somewhat older male characters with experience and mileage.

As I write, I always try to get inside the head of each of my characters, even when a novel is told in the first person POV. Everyone has objectives; everyone has motivations; everyone has flaws. One of the things I utterly adore about the plays of George Bernard Shaw (Major Barbara is a case in point) is that each of the principals has their own defensible POV (and set of principles). I have been known to agree with different characters of his at different stages of my life. I've played Vivie, the daughter, in Mrs. Warren's Profession and when I was Vivie's age, I completely saw where she was coming from and thought her mother's POV was appalling. Now that I am older, I can see Mrs. Warren's side of things just as clearly.

1:02 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

The book I'm starting to write is Raoul's book, Kalen--or at least, it's a book in which he plays a major role and possibly gets to be something approaching a romantic hero. Raoul actually became a more sympathetic character as I was writing "Secrets/Daughter," Kalen. And I think that makes for a more interesting book and more layers of conflict between the central characters. Do you see him as a villain in "Secrets"? I don't, really, though there's no doubt he's a complicating factor.

1:05 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

I love the way Shaw's characters argue so many different point of view convincingly, Amanda. Stoppard's characters do much the same thing (I once read an interview with Stoppard where he said he liked to personally be in the middle of the opposing views of his characters, so he can see and argue from both sides).

I'm so glad you liked Raoul too! I found him more darkly compelling than I expected as I wrote him. I actually find it quite easy to write from his viewpoint, I think because he's quite clear-sighted about his own actions. He doesn't apologize for himself, but nor does he deny the sometimes brutal choices he's made. I don't think in his case he sees himself as the hero of his own story--he sees his own flaws too well. Which is what I think makes for a good tortured hero :-). Being no ingenue either, I also like characters with mileage.

1:16 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

No, he's not a villain, he's a masterful antagonist who’ll do what it takes to get the job done. I love him and can’t wait to see the world a little more from his POV!

3:54 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

That's how I see him, Kalen--and in "Secrets/Daughter" he isn't even precisely an antagonist, in that in the present at least his goals are much the same as the hero and heroine's. I've actually never written a scene from his POV--it will be fun to do so in the new book. I have written letters from viewpoint in the Fraser Correspondence on my website. I like doing his voice.

4:15 PM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

Very thought provoking, Tracy. I love a good villian, but I have to understand his motivation and be sympathetic to his plight.

A good villian makes me really think about him. An outstanding villian makes me remember him long after the book has ended!

4:18 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

So agree about an outstanding villain being one one remembers long after the books ends, Kathrynn! A well-drawn villain tends to be particularly thought-provoking, because there's so much to ponder in how they got to be the way they are, the choices they make, perhaps what might have been different. Iago is a fabulous villain because he's at once larger than life and chillingly real and believable.

And not only is it a challenge to write a fascinating, compelling villain, it's a challenge not to have the villain overwhelm the hero/es. But a fun challenge :-).

12:05 AM  

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