April 24, 2006 - Issue #222

From the Desk of Laurie Likes Books: Villains & Meanies

A few years ago Hoobastank's terrific The Reason aired on all the music video channels over and over. It was so good that even its over-playing didn't annoy me. As VH1 describes it: "In The Reason, the bandmembers stage a diversion so they can carry out the elaborate theft of a ruby gem from a pawnshop, but those facts are only clear after enough of the action unfolds, because nothing is as it seems — a girl gets hit by a car and then turns out to be an accessory to the crime, for instance. Although a later Hoobastank video turned the tables on the theft of the ruby, what appealed to me at the time was this: it seemed as though they stole the ruby simply for the money.

Whenever I read a romance novel with a suspense subplot - or a romantic suspense novel - wherein the villains are simply after the money, the book earns points. Because all too often, suspense plots or subplots are not about the money; they are about things that take them out of the realm of real life. In real life thieves steal every moment of every day, and they do it for the money. Why must so many villains have a different motive for their thievery?

All of which is a roundabout way for me to talk about villains. Even without a suspense or mystery subplot, nearly every romance novel features a villain. Sometimes they are memorable, at other times over-the-top, mustachioed Snidely Whiplash types. They can be male or female, known or unknown to the book's leads or readers, and their motivation varies...from jealousy to power to madness to in-born e-e-e-vil. And occasionally they even go on to star in their own novels.

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The villain from Lisa Kleypas' It Happened One Autumn, for instance, who won as Best Villain in our 2006 reader poll, is such a villain. Sebastian, the Viscount St. Vincent, kidnapped the heroine from IHOA, only to go on and be one of the best heroes I've read in some time in The Devil in Winter. I've not yet read the earlier book, so his earlier behavior and motivations remain somewhat unclear, but like Reggie Davenport and Mary Jo Putney before him, Kleypas not only created a memorable villain, she transformed him into a magnificent hero. Years ago I asked Putney about writing a successful transformation:

"I think the key to transforming a villain into a hero is - pain. If the villainous character shows signs of having suffered greatly, he becomes intriguing. What made him this way? What might he become if not driven by misery? How can he be healed? These questions feed very directly into a lot of female fantasies - the ability to take a wounded alpha wolf and turn him into our alpha wolf in a much improved model. (It also helps, of course, if the villain is sexy and good-looking!)

"Another real plus is if the villain has shown flashes of humor and/or unexpected decency - enough to hint that there is more to him than bad behavior. When I invented Reggie Davenport in The Diabolical Baron, I intended him to be a simple cardboard jerk, not evil but with no redeeming qualities. Then, in the last scene of the book, he showed surprising humor and philosophical resignation, and he became three dimensional in my mind. When several friends said they were intrigued by him, I started to play with the idea of giving him his own book, and it dawned on me that his rotten behavior came when he'd been drinking, which was almost all the time. Since I had a powerful interest in addiction and recovery, the rest is history - and The Rake.

"I think it's very hard to redeem a villain who is guilty of petty, mean-spirited behavior, because a hero needs to have, obviously, a heroic dimension. Pettiness makes him look like a man with a small soul. Even in this case, though, it's sometimes possible to give explanations later that make despicable behavior more understandable. Not easy, though.

"The best transformation for a character who was truly bad is to subject him to a terrible ordeal that becomes a kind of symbolic punishment for his past, as well as making it believable that he can become a better, more admirable man. Patricia Veryan did this very well in one of her series when a villainous character who appeared regularly was shown here and there to have better qualities, such as loving his horse. In The Dedicated Villain, he becomes the hero, and has to endure a whole lot. At the end, if I recall correctly, he is at the altar with the heroine, wearing a dashing eye patch as a result of all he has suffered and sacrificed during the book. It works!"

In The Devil in Winter, Kleypas provides enough information about Sebastian's past hurts and suffering that we can understand the demons that drove him to kidnap Evie's sister Wallflower in IHOA. And she gives us plenty of insight into why not only Evie falls in love with this devil, she also gives the reader a bird's eye view into the goodness locked within him, and the struggle the two go through to help it surface, be recognized, and nurtured.

Not all authors successfully transition villains into heroes. After the notorious Lord Graelam de Moreton raped the heroine's maid in Catherine Coulter's medieval, Chandra, so as to scare Chandra into submission, he became the hero in Fire Song. It was after reading attempting to read these two books that I gave up on Coulter's medievals, although when I interviewed the author a decade ago, she made no excuses for Graelam, and heroes like him:

"They are arrogant, they are jerks, they're asses. I think a woman needs something to get her teeth into. By the end of the book (when the hero, presumably, is reformed), the guy is probably a total bore.

"I made him into the bad guy in Chandra, but I couldn't get him out of my mind. In fact, that book is a very bad book because the hero is totally eclipsed by him. So I brought him back and have slowly redeemed him. He started his redemption ... in Fire Song. He's been in five books. I like that kind of man. At the end of Fire Song, he wasn't like this 'Oh, I'll love you forever' (said in a mocking tone) kind of guy. And so I couldn't just let him go

"Chandra was written in 1982. Let's not have any revisionist history. This is what you read 14 years ago. Back in that time they were like, rape on every continent. Like a box of chocolates - they were wonderful. But everything changes. Everything evolves and the readers and writers have evolved."

Given that I don't care for a great deal of romantic suspense, it's not a surprise that my favorite type of villain occurs outside any suspense sub-plot. And while I really dislike suspense-type villains who are power-crazed...or just plain crazed, power issues and emotional instability have led to the creation of some of my favorite villains.

Take Gloria DeLauter, for instance, and her unforgettable appearances in Nora Roberts' Chesapeake Bay series. She is my all-time favorite villain of romance. When the quartet begins, playboy boat-racer Cam Quinn, who'd been one of three teens adopted (and saved) by Ray and Stella Quinn, learns that Ray was injured in a car wreck. His father's dying words implore him to care for Seth, a ten-year-old boy Ray was in the process of adopting. The adoption is put on hold with Ray's death, and then an insurance investigator questions whether Ray's death may have been a suicide. Was he being blackmailed by Seth's worthless mother because the saintly Ray wasn't really so saintly after all? Might Seth be the result of an affair between Ray and Seth's mother...might the large sum of money paid by Ray to Seth's mom have been blackmail to keep things hush-hush and preserve Ray's reputation?

Eventually the true relationship between Gloria, Ray, and Seth is revealed. Seth is not Ray's illegitimate son; he is his grandson, and Gloria his drug-addicted daughter, born of a relationship prior to his marriage to Stella. She came back into Ray's life to sell her son for that large sum of money. But that's not the end of it. Throughout the series she keeps coming back, demanding money and making threats, culminating in Chesapeake Blue, which is the story of Seth as a man, and his return to the Quinn family fold after years in France honing his art. Unbeknownst to his "brothers," Gloria has blackmailed Seth for years, and because he wanted to keep her away from his beloved family, he moved across an ocean to protect them. As I wrote in my DIK review of the book:

"Seth's history has so altered his mind set that he cannot fathom the good his mere existence has been for the people in his life and does his best to compartmentalize Gloria and her blackmailing schemes from those he loves. When she becomes more and more blatant, he doesn't believe he can reach out to his loved ones and does what romance novel heroes tend to do - he retreats. While this may seem a plot-driven action, I see it as character-driven. A scene between Seth and Cam near the end of the book is all the more poignant because it's like the proverbial light bulb going off over Seth's head...well, maybe a cudgel."

Once Seth comes clean with his family, they work together as a unit and, once and for all, take care of Gloria. It's a fitting culmination to a terrific series, and the evil that Gloria committed against the Quinns has stayed in my mind for years.

The mind games Gloria played against her son and his "brothers" are not the only kinds of mind games that resonate with me as a reader. As somebody who grew up feeling like an outsider in her own home, I almost always enjoy heroines (or heroes) whose self-worth has been beaten down by family members. In a long-ago interview with Stella Cameron, I wrote about Bride, a book I'd enjoyed partly because of a secondary villain, the grandmother who brought up the heroine to believe no man could ever want her because she is lame.

In romances without a suspense sub-plot, there is generally (at least) a major meanie, and in Bride, there is both a true and murderous villain, and also this secondary villain who systematically destroyed the heroine's self-esteem. In a great moment, the hero tells the old witch off. As I wrote when I interviewed the author, "We have all fantasized about being heroines - haven't we felt (or fantasized) that our parents' negative perceptions of us are faulty, that we really are unfairly persecuted? And, we have all fantasized about having heroes - haven't we wished someone would validate the good in us, especially our husband/lover?"

Some classic villains of the "meanie" variety include Maeve Concannon, the bitter mother of Maggie and Brianna Concannon from the Born in trilogy, and Lord Merrick, father of Jennifer Merrick in Judith McNaught's wonderful A Kingdom of Dreams. And yet, as much as I adore this Renaissance romance, the behavior of another "meanie" McNaught father caused me to trade in Paradise, which read to me more like bad Danielle Steel than McNaught at her best. I know that's sacrilege, but hear me out: in this McNaught contemporary, Meredith's father disapproves of Matt and their marriage. When Matt is out of the country on business, the pregnant Meredith suffers a painful miscarriage. Daddy dearest sends Matt a telegram telling him that Meredith had an abortion and wants a divorce, and when Matt returns to confront his wife, daddy dearest bars him from the hospital, ensuring a Big Mis of major proportions.

In Danielle Steel's The Promise, the hero's mommy dearest disapproves of the heroine. Just before the wedding the heroine is involved in a horrific accident that leaves her disfigured. Nancy can't fathom Michael loving her like this, and accepts Michael's mother's offer of plastic surgery under one condition: Nancy can never contact Michael again. As for the groom-to-be, mommy dearest tells him Nancy died in the accident.

Although both McNaught daddies lie to their daughters about their sons-in-law, I just didn't buy it in the latter book. Possibly the introduction to the story, with an over-weight Meredith as a bird in a gilded cage, started things off on a bad foot, because it read like an historical rather than a contemporary. But I can only take the machinations of a "meanie" for so long before reaching critical mass. At some point it all becomes soap opera to me.

Another type of villain is the "other woman," who's been screwing things up for heroines (and heroes) since Cinderella. Whether based in fact or fantasy, these women (or men) believe they are "the one" - and go to extreme lengths to make it so, including kidnap and attempted murder. While plots featuring such extremes rarely appeal to me, garden variety jealousy and its accompanying pettiness and hurtfulness do, mostly because they are something we've all either experienced or can identify with in one way or another. Traditional Regency Romance in particular is littered with heroines whose lives in the ton are made difficult by jealous women. They may spread false rumors or arrange to be compromised. This petty jealousy and meanness isn't always connected to romantic jealousy. Witness the behavior of the heroine's mother in Tracy MacNish's Veiled Promises. Though veiled in religious piety, her dastardly deeds really grow out of jealousy. I had a tough time even finishing the book and had I not been required to read it, would have stopped after mommy dearest arranged for her daughter's rape (as if the common beatings weren't enough). A less vicious relative was meanie cousin Laetitia in Anne Gracie's superb Tallie's Knight. Laetitia wasn't jealous of Tallie because she had the hots for Magnus, she simply couldn't handle her poor-as-a-churchmouse cousin being happy.

Although Tallie's Knight was quite the Cinderella story all around, the every-day pettiness and its effect on the heroine's self-esteem grounded it, and is one of many reasons I loved the book. Laetitia didn't wield an ax to murder people, nor did she froth at the mouth. I like my villains to bear some semblance to reality, thank you very much. Some favorites have been evil in the extreme, but they've also exhibited human qualities so that they don't appear as cardboard cut-outs. It is a different kettle of fish where romantic suspense is concerned, but even there, what I most abhor are those villains who must have planned their actions over a decade while managing to consider all contingencies and coincidences, require the IQ of a Stephen Hawking, and are also sadistic and criminally insane. And who apparently can't keep their mouths shut...how often has one of these baddies spent so much time (and enthusiasm) recounting their crime to the victim that they are caught before doing the dastardly deed?

In Meryl Sawyer's Better Off Dead, for instance, the author spends a great deal of time telling us - and showing us - how e-e-evil the villain is. It wasn't enough that he worked for a nefarious organization dedicated to stealing military secrets, his every pore oozed "bad." Oddly enough, the villains in Anne Stuart's marvelous Black Ice also oozed "bad" - and the author spent quite a bit of time telling and showing us how bad they were - but they weren't maniacal about it, which made the difference to me. Cold-blooded killers are one thing. Cold-blooded killers with "issues" are another. After all, even Tony Soprano has a family...he doesn't sit in a room and laugh maniacally like Dr. Evil, who came to life, after all, in a parody.

There are additional villainous types I'll mention before signing off:

  1. Religious villains - While the villain from Veiled Promises very nearly made the book impossible to finish, I thought Julie Garwood was quite effective with the bishop villain in Saving Grace.
  2. Homosexual villains - I've found the use of homosexual villains to be cliche since the second time I read one.
  3. A priori villains - The a priori villain did their worst before the book begins. They are usually dead and leave a bad legacy in their wake.
  4. The villain whose motivations don't make a lot of sense. I just finished reading the upcoming release from Sue-Ellen Welfonder. The book begins when the mistress of the man betrothed to the heroine arranges for the heroine to walk in on the two of them in flagrante delicto. Then the mistress throws a knife into his crotch, and as he bleeds to death, she disappears, leaving the heroine holding the bag - or knife, as it were. I'm still scratching my head with the logic on that one. Apparently she's so jealous of the heroine's station in life that she kills her lover so that the heroine will be charged with his murder...huh?

Ultimately villains are among the most important secondary characters in any romance, and their behavior and motivations can affect how well a book is received. They are often a helpful illustration on the author's style and manner of story-telling. When a villain is over the top, generally the book is as well. But a well-rounded villain is a sign that the author has a good grasp on characterization, which as any romance reader knows, is critical to a romance novel.

Rather than asking specific questions on the At the Back Fence Message Board, I'd like to leave things more open-ended. I've mentioned quite a few villain types, provided examples of both good and bad in many instances, and would love to hear from you your views on villains and meanies.

 

TTFN, as Tigger said to Winnie the Pooh,
Laurie Likes Books

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