Villains come in many shades from "blush gray," to "buried alive black."
A character doesn't have to be a serial killer with a fine collection of little fingers to be a villain. Often the troublemaker in a story is someone who is thought of as nothing more than a gossip or a meddler, but his/her actions have dangerous implications. This character is a villain.
A list of just a few villainous types:
The malcontent. This one is jealous and has the capacity to go after what someone else has. As the stakes get higher--because of the actions he/she takes--the character becomes both more daring and more ominous. Watch out when there's a risk of discovery. The malcontent may well start to lose courage and try to back away, covering his tracks as he goes. Sometimes a person gets in the way and almost anything can happen.
The mischief-maker. As a child, this character was probably a practical joker--but it seems he/she has moved on to making bigger mischief, all in the guise of "good fun" of course. The very childlike qualities that may make this type endearing on occasion, can turn nasty and bring about a petulance followed by bizarre attempts to force others to acknowledge that the mischief-maker is charming and funny. In this direction lies a prescription for the so-called prank that turns into tragedy. The mischief-maker may also be a good old-fashioned, meddler who keeps one ear on alert to pick up any vulnerable spot in another. Once a juicy bit comes along, the villain uses it to cause havoc.
He who can be led. A weak personality with little self-confidence. Also a pleaser in many instances, one who wants to be accepted by someone, or a group, even though he/she is usually exploited, laughed at, and treated with no respect. Here we have a very disturbing creature because he/she may commit horrible crimes in the quest for the approval of folks who are bad news.
The almost innocent joy rider. Going along for the ride. A thrill seeker (thrill seekers can put others in terrible jeopardy). Again, these people are often used by others with definite and dreadful agendas. It's the writer's job never to excuse a joy rider's damaging actions even if this person didn't set out to harm anyone.
He or she who has no conscience. Anything goes. Part of what makes us human is missing here. The character feels no remorse, no guilt, no responsibility. So others get hurt as this person pursues what they want? Big deal. Actually, no deal at all and others should understand that whatever was done is over now, in the past. Forget it. Move on to the next race for the gold. A person who has no conscience cannot be reasoned with, or pleaded with. They may be capable of great cruelty.
The maniac. We all know we walk on swampland when we decide on the insanity plea. Characters who are mad (I realize there's an element of madness in every vicious crime, but this doesn't mean the criminal will or can plead insanity) can be branded as a writer's copout. Every rotten, bizarre, destructive act springs from an unstable personality, or true madness. Insanity explains everything.
There's a tendency to spend a lot of time analyzing why this usually intelligent character has channeled so much that could be good into so much that is bad. This is great if the writer happens to be working on a Hannibal Lecter type who is the most important character in the novel. It's not all right to study the antagonist closely if he/she is part of the conflict that threatens the protagonists. Complex insanity is fascinating enough to take over any story. Tread carefully with this one.
The mastermind. At last we have a truly criminal person who plans every move carefully. Each event is calculated. There are often others who work for the mastermind--a criminal who aspires to taking over the cat seat for example, or a lower form of criminal who may not have the IQ of his/her boss but who is skilled in carrying out orders. The mastermind can pull the strings of an entire conflict and it's fine to make this character interesting, but, again, have a care that he/she doesn't become more fascinating than the protagonists.
The killer, serial or otherwise. One more scenario that will lead to concentration on insanity if the writer isn't vigilant. Terror keeps company with the protagonists in such stories. These killers are not always insane. They may have psychotic patterns that drive them to kill for a specific reason. Often there is a sexual motive such as a case where a killer can only become aroused by personal danger and the terror of his victims.
Back to the reason for the title of this article. Generally, romance does not set out to make readers sympathetic toward villains. Surely they are people, too, but we rarely have a reason to delve into their lives prior to the story because we are primarily interested on how their actions affect our protagonists.
In GLASS HOUSES I have a villain who falls into his part almost by accident. He isn't a man who is weak, or a follower, or without conscience. We come to like him a lot and to admire his love for those closest to him. But that love leads him badly astray and he actually seeks out the assistance of true criminals to help carry out his crime. It happens that the structure of the story pulls in this character's background, the reason for his actions (I do not allow this person to take over the book), but the people he uses to reach his ends are bad apples. They always were, and always will be. And we don't spend time analyzing what caused them to be what they are because it's more important to keep the pace and action up by staying with the "now."
Think about other characters who surround the hero and heroine in a tale with romance at its center. Any of them may turn out to be villains to some degree. Mom and Dad are interesting examples. Perhaps they were crummy parents and their behavior has wounded one of the heroic characters. Fine, this needs to be brought into the story because we all want to know the protagonists inside and out. But do we really want to explore the reasons for the parents actions? No, I don't think so. By the time we get back as far as the hero's great-grandfather's sins, we may be certain we've lost more than a few readers.
Nevertheless we mustn't forget that our villains are sometimes related to the hero or heroine. Tricky balance here because we are all aware of hereditary factors in human beings. The danger can be that doubt is built about the hero or heroine's ability to be heroic when they have such "bad" blood flowing in their veins. The writer's job is to convince the reader that all is well with the people they're pulling for- -and that these story people are worth caring about. In real life, people triumph over undesirable backgrounds all the time, and there may be just as many who are determined not to repeat the sins of their fathers as there are who do follow in twisted footsteps.
An element that sets the related villain apart from all other villains is that the related villain is both an internal and an external conflict for the protagonist whereas most antagonists are purely external conflict although they do play evil games with the minds of the innocent.
Villains need strong, well conceived plots designed to allow their full, horrible potential to flower (sometimes the full potential is pretty ugly, but it should always be presented without ribbons or bows). Every story needs a strong plot or no character shines. But, and I can't repeat this too often, balance is everything. The villain is far more a composite of traits needed to pull off a required result, whereas the protagonists should grow and become ever more real and worthwhile. I'm not telling you that I think heroes and heroines should be written without flaws, never, but they are people with many strong, heroic traits just waiting to be nourished and expanded.
I'd like to draw comparisons between three sets of villains I've used recently. The GLASS HOUSES (June 2000) brigade of assorted nasties; the subversive worm in TELL ME WHY (September, 2000); and the more complex villains in 7B (March 2000). Taking apart the way in which different elements of the same gruesome paradigms melt together is an invaluable lesson for each one of us.
I have already mentioned that the head villain in GLASS HOUSES is a good man gone bad in the name of protecting someone he loves (a mastermind), and that he gathers a group of accomplices about him. Because the plot was essentially serious, I wanted to portray this group as more than two dimensional. An element they have in common, and there are five of them, is that they're light on conscience. Another is that they take themselves seriously. They can be led, they are mischief-makers and malcontents, and they are killers. But they are very different from one another in their peculiarities and I used these differences to add humor to the story. With a set of bad people, each of whom is very serious about him or herself, the opportunities to pull out a touch of the ridiculous is irresistible. Winston Moody and Rupert Fish, light-fingered London antique dealers and partners, hate each other. Because of that hate, even as they are locked in a battle to get rid of Aiden Flynn and Olivia FitzDurham--the hero and heroine--each plots to off the other. They argue constantly. They're bad eggs, but they are engaging bad eggs and they help make certain the tone of the book doesn't become relentlessly dark. Fats Lemon, a policeman gone bad, is almost ingenuous. The story is a chase and his companion for much of the way is Kitty Fish, Rupert the antique dealer's estranged wife. Again, since they must work together, comedy is inevitable.
Switch tone completely and enter the world of TELL ME WHY in which the heroine knows the foe intimately from the first page, and is involved in a personal battle with him. He intends to bring her down. He wants revenge. Soon the hero also knows this man and the protagonists work together to outwit his destructive schemes.
Once again, this villain, although his actions are deliberate from the outset rather than an accidental offshoot of a sad situation, has a sidekick or two. But although there are humorous moments with this group, I found my laughs elsewhere because the central conflict doesn't allow for any softening of a villain who is clever and largely without conscience.
In 7B, and although this is a historical story, the rules are the same. There is an assorted cast of villains and in this tale, it is the hero who draws hazard into the plot. He is a danger to people in high places and there are those who would like to see him dead. The hero's trouble becomes the heroine's trouble and they both stand to die at the hands of unscrupulous conspirators. A maniac, several malcontents, and a mastermind pull the strings. They have facets in common with the villains in the two previous titles I mention, but again, there are factors that set them apart. Each crook has a different agenda. These agendas pit them not only against the hero and heroine, but against each other.
There are wholly bad people in the world. I believe this. It isn't always possible to soften the edges and I make a personal call as to whether I will try. If the despicable character I've created is without redeeming qualities right now, so be it. I'll write to my strengths, as each of us should, and make sure I don't cheat my readers out of "the whole story." As with much drama, the point of telling heroic stories is to entertain, to sweep readers away from their own lives, to give a reason to want, more than anything, for some characters to triumph, and other characters to, at the very least, get the justice they deserve.
Parting comments: As someone of note once said, you can't please all of the people all of the time. We can, however, please different happy bands who relish a particular voice, a particular type of story, and our responsibility is to be true to those who love what we write.
At the center of my stories is a strong romance. My promise to my readers is that villains and other assorted hangers-on will never overshadow that romance, but neither will the supporting cast be boring or unnecessary. Passion is the name of our game and it must be on every page.
A disclaimer: The statements made on villainous personalities are my own opinions. These opinions have been formed through reading and discussion, and practical experience in the world.
Stella Cameron Bestselling and award-winning author of 60+ novels and novellas.