HOW VILLAINOUS IS A VILLAIN?

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Most novels have a villain or two—those characters who oppose the hero and/or heroine, standing between them and happiness. Often they behave dishonestly and dishonorably. Sometimes they attempt to do real harm. They can be simply misguided and a little sad. They can be unkind, even vicious. They can be downright evil. They can, in fact, run the gamut of human misbehavior from simple antagonism to outright villainy. They can be redeemable—or not.

I have created my fair share of nasty villains, though I do try not to use what I think of as “silly” villains—those who are evil for the sake of being evil and slink around, cackling maniacally and enjoying their wickedness. Such characters generally fall into the cartoon villain category. I like to consider the whole complexities of the human condition when I create characters, whether they be heroes and heroines or minor characters or villains. And with a few possible exceptions (I am not going to touch upon any of those here) no one is purely evil. People may do evil without being evil. There are reasons for what people do, whether good or bad. Most of us, I think, can justify the wrong things we do even when we probably know deep down that they are wrong. If I am hungry and I steal, I can justify the theft even though I know it is not right. If I tell a deliberate lie, I can excuse it by calling it a “white” lie. Most of us are a bewildering mix of good and bad. Can any of us honestly say we have never lied or said or done shameful, even sometimes illegal things? Is there any driver who has never driven faster than the speed limit? There are few if any saints among us. We are human! At least I am even if you aren’t!

I like to create characters who are as human as they can possibly be considering the fact that they exist only in my imagination. Having said that, there are a few villains in my books that I regret. One of them is in HEARTLESS, a nasty character I did not develop into a believable human, though in my defense I will say that I decided this only years after writing the book. I left him as he is, however, when the book was republished a few years ago as I always think it is a bigger mistake to change aspects of an older book when one is coming at it from a wholly different place in one’s life.

I have a number of other rather nasty villains who are unredeemed at the end of their book and have never been redeemed since, though readers have sometimes asked that I make it happen. Some of you may remember Lionel, villain in both DARK ANGEL and LORD CAREW’S BRIDE. I have never redeemed him, though I think I could. He is very human, but he has allowed self absorption and a good bit of sadism to dominate his character and dictate his behavior. The fact that he looks like an angel does not help him. It gives him a sense of entitlement. Having created him and been inside his head, I can see that such a man is very unlikely to change unless he has to face some really cataclysmic event in his life.  The same applies to a number of other villains in my books. They must be allowed to live the life they have chosen—or rather the life I have chosen for them (funnily enough, it seems most of the time that my characters do the choosing, not me). Lady Hodges, the narcissistic, ruthlessly selfish mother of Wren in SOMEONE TO WED rides happily off into the sunset, so to speak, after she continues her villainy in the upcoming SOMEONE TO TRUST. But she is not redeemed.

Sometimes the villain cannot be redeemed at the end of one of my books because he is dead. Such is the case with the Earl of Eastham in ONLY BELOVED. He is not an inherently evil man despite the fact that he tries to push Dora off a cliff to her death. He is a deeply unhappy man, embittered by circumstances—no excuse for villainy, of course, but a twisted sort of reason nonetheless. One can perhaps pity him though one cannot excuse him.

And then there are the villains I have redeemed in books of their own, books in which they are transformed from villain to hero. Sometimes, as we know from real life, unwise or downright wrong choices can sink people into a place of deep darkness. It is often easier to remain in it, especially if there are addictions involved, than to climb out. Sometimes people, speaking and acting from such a place, do deliberately nasty things to cause other people to suffer too. To emerge from the darkness; to make some right choices and keep on making them; to build a will of iron to take one upward a step at a time without being discouraged by how many more steps need to be taken—all this is obviously incredibly difficult. All of us have probably known such people, some of whom have succeeded, some who sadly have not. But if they can do it—oh my goodness, what a triumph!

Freddie Sullivan was pretty nasty in COURTING JULIA, even going as far as to kidnap Julia so that she would have to marry him and solve his money woes. Even at the start of his own book, DANCING WITH CLARA, he is plotting marriage to a plain, crippled woman who is also rich, cynically using his looks and his charm to snare her. But when Clara accepts his offer, she does so because he is beautiful and there has been little beauty in her life. She is not deceived for one moment by his pretended ardor. Freddie has to suffer severe torment through much of the book before he can emerge at the end as a hero worthy of Clara. Even then, of course, nothing is guaranteed, for Freddie has an addiction—though the third book in the series, TEMPTING HARRIET, shows that he has continued to master it. I LOVE redeeming villains and bringing them from a dark place in their lives to the light of love. I love trying to convince readers that the transformation is believable. For it is. It does happen in real life as well as in romantic fiction.

To one person who leaves a comment below by Monday, November 5, I will send a copy of either HEARTLESS or ONLY BELOVED or the two-in-one DARK ANGEL/LORD CAREW’S BRIDE—winner’s choice.

 

[The winner is Cass. I do not know her last name yet!]

 

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Showing 57 comments
  • Angie Sansone
    Reply

    I do like the villain that does have redeeming qualities. Makes it better sometimes I think if the villain him/herself doesn’t realize they are redeeming until it starts to happen

  • Barbara Ostarch
    Reply

    Tangled was the first of you books I read. It continues to break my heart every tome I read it. The villain in this book is semi-redeemed by his final act…but is he really? We’ll never know.

  • Dianna R
    Reply

    I like the redeemable villains too, and if for whatever reason you can’t redeem them in your books I redeem them in my imagination! LOL

  • Lesley Fenton
    Reply

    An interesting blog. Hardly anyone is irredeemable I think! I really love your books and your take on the human condition is one of the reasons!

  • Tracy Deline
    Reply

    I like a villain who has the capacity to be redeemed, who can find someone who sees through their villainy to the wounded and imperfect person beneath. This fits well within the genre of romantic fiction. But the world doesn’t always offer redemption or understanding to everyone. Sometimes a person (character) just has to find peace anyway and move forward in an unfair and imperfect world. I really love complex characters who can still figure out ways to love and to live well.

  • Kerry Vosswinkel
    Reply

    Characters who do evil deeds without being evil in themselves are often the most pitiable characters, because *why* they did the deed is sometimes critical. It still doesn’t mean they can be forgiven for the deed, but it makes you hurt for them sometimes as much as you do for the person who was hurt by them.

  • Annette N
    Reply

    I believe that human beings are capable of becoming better people. I know that there are villains who are pond scum, but in fiction, I love to see villains who eventually realize the error of their ways and become better people. In life I would like to see that too, but that is not always what happens.

  • Janice
    Reply

    I don’t think a villain is a true villain if he can be redeemed. The redeemable ones (few though I think they be in real life) are capable of remorse and change, which means to me that they are basically not bad people. In story terms they are more like antagonists (opponents), not villains (evil).

    I think you have done two brilliant true villains: Win Bowen in Secrets of the Heart and the Earl of Rushford in Lord Carew’s Bride. Both psychopaths, neither able to change or even able to want to change. These books are the stronger because the hero is matched against a villain of power. I think they are your best books.

  • Madeline Pereira
    Reply

    A villain is define as a cruelly malicious person who is involved in or devoted to wickedness or crime; scoundrel; or a character in a play, novel, or the like, who constitutes an important evil agency in the plot. I believe that people can change and that they are redeemable, but in a the plot of a story, I prefer those that continue to be a villain, the best ones are the villains that you hate, but they have things that you just have to love.

  • Yvonne Jones
    Reply

    Some times it’s good to have a villain to give a story extra excitement to grab you but villains or not no one can
    write a great exciting story like you. Love them all.

  • Laura Sorensen
    Reply

    My favorite villain is Mrs. Scorrier in Georgette Heyer’s novel “Venetia.” She is just the most terrible woman! But if she hadn’t barged onto the scene, who knows if Venetia would have found the courage to leave her comfort zone 🙂

  • Nijole
    Reply

    I dislike blackmail in romance books.

  • Cathy Stout
    Reply

    Funny you mention Heartless. The villain was indeed bad, but really slightly mad. I thought the true villain to be Henrietta …
    I think my favorite redeemed villain was Helena. Although her villainy was only alluded to in A Precious Jewel. Her vulnerability was apparent at the onset and I rooted for her redemption. Freddie was lovable as well.

  • Lynn Olsson
    Reply

    I prefer my villains to be fully developed characters. If they are just one dimensional… pure evil… I can’t get involved emotionally with them. And my enjoyment of the book diminished.

  • Rina
    Reply

    I love a redeemable villain the best because it shows that good does overcome evil.

  • Mary T
    Reply

    You have such a good understanding of human nature. Like your heroes and heroines, your villains also seem like fully developed human beings rather than cardboard figures. And yes, the ones that you redeemed, you did well. However, not all villains can be redeemed – I’m thinking sociopaths and psychopaths, and some that just don’t want to be.

  • Barbara heinrich
    Reply

    True. I hate when the villain is purely evil but I love when they are merely a complex character caught in a web. One of the reason I love your books.

  • MELANIE BERRY
    Reply

    I have really enjoyed seeing villains redeemed in other books – especially because it makes them more human and gives added depth to not only their redemption story but the original story also. But Lionel is twice the villain – as you said, some people are not redeemable because of deep character flaws. It would take a seismic event to change his core character – if you could.

  • Larisa
    Reply

    The deeply wounded, embittered villain is more believable, a better balance to your nuanced hero/Ines.

    Thank you for so many hours of reading, of hope we’ll all figure it out and belong.

  • Kass
    Reply

    Lovely blog posts, Ms. Balogh. It’s been a pleasure to read them.

    Re: villains. I love a well constructed, complex character—either redeemable or not. From the ones you have recently written (I confess I’m still to read some of your earlier works), Earl of Eastham was the one that grabbed me the most. Exactly because of what you say: a deeply wounded/bitter man that cannot get way from what he has lost. In a way, I feared him as an individual who could hurt my beloved Dora and George—but I didn’t despise him. On the other hand, I very much despised Wren’s mother and was extremely uncomfortable (in a weirdly good readers way) when she appeared in “Someone to Wed”.

  • Christine
    Reply

    A good written villain or antagonist is the spice in every story otherwise they are at risk to ‘taste’ flat.

  • Agnes
    Reply

    This is a very thought provoking post, as I have already thinking about some of your “villains”. I agree with the approach that some people who really, deeply hurt others aren’t necessarily out and out villains (I’m thinking of Anne Jewel’s parents as an example, and Sophia Fry’s uncle in The Arrangement). I also agree with the approach that the wronged heroine (or sometimes, hero) is able to reconcile and forgive the people who hurt them since clinging to anger will ultimately hurt the person who doesn’t let go of it. I still think though, that those villains who don’t see their fault can’t really be redeemed. I very much enjoy redeemed villain stories, and in fact, I can forgive almost anything to a flawed protagonist, so long as they acknowledge their fault and are genuinely sorry. But people like Sophia’s cousin Sebastian can’t really be forgiven (he is somewhat like the extremely narcissistic mother of Wren, only to a lesser degree – so I think him a really unlikeable, unredeemable one). Also, it is fine for Anne Jewel and Sophia to reconcile after they find their own happiness and a sense of self worth, of being appreciated/loved, but without it, would it have been possible?
    Another villain whom I can’t view through a lense of “imperfect, flawed humanity” is the bigamous Earl of Riverdale. He destroyed the lives of several people around him, just to avoid facing the consequences of his actions. One can’t just do it and expect to be forgiven…

  • Molly
    Reply

    I believe the villains in novels appeal to readers because we cannot control them and not everyone loves us. They allow the heroine or hero the opportunity to step up and show their feelings. Especially the regency time frame, the female characters are usually quiet, modest and generally don’t create much excitement. I do love your villains,!

  • Rachel Benton
    Reply

    I believe in second chances, sometimes a villain can’t be redeemed. But I love it when stories redeem villains.

  • Emma Saldivar
    Reply

    I guess it depends on the villian and the actions that they do. Some villains can be redeemable by actions they chose to do or not do and sometimes there are others that no matter what, they cannot be redeemable.

  • Anna
    Reply

    I read Dancing with Clara without reading Courting Julia. Since I loved Freddie so much, I’m afraid to read Courting Julia because I don’t want him to be the villain.

  • Cheryl Ferguson Cross
    Reply

    I think we love to hate certain characters because we recognize certain of our our own traits/characteristics/perversions which we (hopefully) been able to overcome. A part of us understands and sympathizes even as we are appalled.

  • Sara Boynton
    Reply

    I like a villain who gets their comeuppance.

  • Kate Payne
    Reply

    I like when the heroine discovers that she doesn’t have to be the victim to the villain.

  • Sandra Deitz
    Reply

    I would love to have any one of theses books.
    Thank you
    Good luck everybody.

  • Janet Hetrick
    Reply

    I dislike a completely horrid villain. I hate it when bad things happen to our heroes or heroines. Many stories require a villain so the H/H can come together and then fall in love. 🙂

  • Lynn Olssin
    Reply

    I ok with villains in a romance book…as long as they get their just rewards before the end. Oherwise, I want them to be misunderstood, or at least redeemed by the end. Even when I’m reading a series, I hate a cliffhanger at the end. Don’t leave me hanging, dear author!

  • Kat Tolle Wiley
    Reply

    I do believe that villains should be reformed and turn to the good. Those are some of my favorite stories. It make them seem more human and not so perfect. We all have our flaws and yes we can overlook a lot of them!! Thanks Mary!!

  • Art Spear
    Reply

    If the Regency is lighthearted then I like my villains to be of the lighter variety. Murderers do not seem to fit these books. In the darker ones all manner of villains work. As a whole I prefer the lighter fare.

  • Irina Wolpers
    Reply

    I need the villain to have at least the ability to redeem. himself because I love to spin the stories in my head and I need to know that they have the chance to become nice and get me a very hea for all those characters. On the other hand, if he is not redeemable, he has to be really, really evil for me to be okay with him suffering the consequences of his actions.
    I love villains who just did not realize that they don’t have to fight each and everyone all the time and can start have a nice life themselves.

  • Donna Danchuk
    Reply

    Villains certainly have a place in any story and it’s nice to sometimes see the lesser of the evil ones redeemed.

  • Kariane Phillips
    Reply

    I don’t care for when the villain stays bad. I enjoy when the villain is someone you actually want to like but you know you shouldnt but then they redeem themselves so you were right all along that they were a good person (character). Good character delvelopment like this makes for a great read.

  • Ana Ruiz
    Reply

    I agree with your vision about villains. I like when I read a book that the characters, either hero/heroine or villains, are humans, with weakness and strong points in their personalities.

  • Sandra Williams
    Reply

    I’m sorry to have to admit this, I have never read one of your books, my apologies. I will however, head to the library and see if they have DARK ANGEL/LORD CAREW’S BRIDE. That one seems to be talking/calling me. I’m excited to see where this adventure takes me.

    Thank you talking your time and writing these books, and by giving some of us adventures we would have never gone on.

    S. Williams

  • Marilyn Kavanaugh
    Reply

    Sadly some villains cannot be reformed by a beautiful woman in a blue dress carrying a lacy parasol. More the losers they.

  • Betty Strohecker
    Reply

    I loved the Notorious Rake. Your redemption of him was very believable. The reason I enjoy your books so much is because you write about flawed people and take them on a journey. Would love an autographed book!

  • Cynthia Rinear Bethune
    Reply

    The villain in Heartless was one that did seem stereotypical to me, but I knew that was because we just didn’t know much of his backstory. Wouldn’t have changed the way he ended up, that’s for sure. Justin in Slightly Dangerous is a real villain to me, insidious and manipulative all while pretending to be (or even believing himself) to be Christine’s friend. I loved it when Wulfric picked him up by his shirt and then kicked him in the behind on his way out of the library!

  • Dorothy MacDougall
    Reply

    I believe a true villain is not one who sneaks up behind you and steals your purse, but the one who faces a loved head on and uses their feelings and trust against them, causing the victim to believe that they are to blame.

  • Susan Gorman
    Reply

    I like a villain in plain sight. Someone you least expect. A surprise….revealed at the end of the novel..

  • Cindy Perra
    Reply

    I really enjoy your books and would be honored to win.

  • Teresa Carroll
    Reply

    A villain is redeemable when he meets and falls in love with the right woman. He may not feel deserving, but love has the power to change things.

  • Julie Kennedy
    Reply

    Actually villains are effective when we know that they have bad intentions. Some may even be evil in what they plan to do. But our good guys and gals triumph in the end. Wish real life was like that.

  • Irene Gillmeier
    Reply

    A villian insinuates themselves – hides their evil behind a mask.

  • June Hart
    Reply

    I am rereading Huxtable series, in At Last Comes Marriage, Turner is an true villian.
    Female villians. –Mrs. March and her treatment of Sophie in The Arrangement and Joshua Moore’s aunt in Slightly Scandalous.
    Thanks, Mary for the offer.

  • Claudia P
    Reply

    Like most of your readers I like the redeemable villains, those who have their twisted reasons to do evil. For me the villain often makes the difference between a great read and an “herbal tea” romance.
    The worst villains? The stupid and amoral ones, those who egoistically tramp over other people’s lives without caring for consequences, sometimes for just minor personal gain.

  • Meaghan Miller
    Reply

    I love a good villain redemption, which you have done so well many times! Sometimes a character is too evil to ever be seen as redeemed, but there’s something wonderful about seeing someone change their ways and ultimately be rewarded for it.

  • Jayme Arrington
    Reply

    While there are a variety of types of villains, my favorite ones are the villains that fit that role due to an undeserved sense of arrogance or entitlement. While they may have redeeming qualities or be able to blame their upbringing on how poorly they treat others, I enjoy these villains because it allows me to enjoy the hero or heroine’s triumph over them. A villain who can subsequently be put in their place always helps me feel like a book is tied up at the end.

  • Silvia M. G.
    Reply

    I love your characters because they’re so complex and full of humanity. The first time that I learned of Freyja Bedwyn I could not stand her (a summer to remember), but then through her own book and her actions on others, I understand her and really love the force within her. Happy endings to everyone!!!

  • Erica C
    Reply

    You need a little bit a villion so that it will draw out the stenght of the hero’s and horoens. They also make the stories that more exciting

  • Kim Everett
    Reply

    There are certain villians that can’t be redeemed but it depends on how what they do some can and some just don’t want to be redeemed

  • Kathleen Smith
    Reply

    Mary, The main reason I read your books is each character to me seems as if he or she could be someone I know or would meet in my everyday life, that includes the villains.

  • Agnes
    Reply

    Just one more comment (even if after the deadline): now that I have read the Earl o Eastham’s story, I don’t think I can excuse him as a deeply unhappy and embittered man with twisted reasons for doing as he did. he does exhibit the sort of self-absorption extending to cruelty towards others that makes a real villain. Not at the point when he tries to murder Dora, but before. Passionate love and ther hopelessness of having her torn from him doesn’t entitle him to 1. interfere in the woman’s marriage, 2. continue to commit adultery, 3. especially not to ruin his natural son’s life and drive him to death by telling him the truth of his parentage. Not to mention, blaming his brother-in-law for everything that was his own fault and seeking revenge after a decade. An honorable man always had the choice to stay away (Colonel Brandon in Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility goes to India when his love was forced to marry another)

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