The Villainous Hero

Many romances--mild, tame, spicy, hot, and steamy--include villainous heroes--these are heroes that for all intents and purposes act not too differently from the bad guy: they kidnap the heroine, occasionally threaten her, and behave ruthlessly. Oddly enough, they rarely stalk (take that, Edward!) although they aren't adverse to interfering in the heroine's life when they believe themselves justified.

Naturally, in real life, one would question the advisability of pursuing a man of this type. In fiction, however, the villainous hero can be a lot of fun.

However, even in fiction, the villainous hero can prove problematic. I've read novels where the villainous hero won my endorsement, and I've read novels where the villainous hero caused me to roll my eyes: Oh, please, how on earth is the heroine supposed to know the difference between him and the bad guy?

I think it comes down to a matter of writing. Here are characterizations that distinguish the worthwhile villainous hero from the ridiculous villainous hero:

1. The villainous hero undergoes a change.

That is, by the end of the novel, the villainous hero has recognized the inappropriateness of his earlier behavior. In Prince of Dreams (R) by Lisa Kleypas, the hero actually undergoes a Scrooge-like dream sequence which teaches him a new way of relating to others.

However, in another novel by Kleypas, Tempt Me at Twilight (R) the hero is not only the same person when the novel ends, but . . .

2. The writer acknowledges that the villainous hero should change his behavior.

. . . the writer seems to justify the villainous hero's behavior.

By the way, I do mean the writer, not the narrator. One problem with the Twilight series, as Carole points out, is that Meyers seems unaware that she created a stalky, dysfunctional hero. If she just didn't care, eh, c'est la vie (this post is aimed at approaches to writing, not politics), but she tried to justify Edward's behavior: always a mistake.

This issue of writer disconnect also arose in Buffy where Spike was treated like a villainous hero (a character capable of change and of being loved by Buffy) by the writers who then wanted to pretend they weren't doing precisely what they were doing: "Spike's a bad guy! Girls, don't you realize how bad Spike is?!"

Once the rules are established (some vampires, like Angel, can be forgiven), writers need to keep them.

3. The villainous hero is a bad boy--but not egregiously so.

That is, his faults fall into the forgivable range (I am excluding recently souled vampires). In the above mentioned Kleypas books, the villainous hero in Prince of Dreams confronts and scares off the heroine's current boyfriend. This is bad but not unforgivable. The boyfriend is a shallow Wickham-type character. Plus, the villainous hero does the confronting himself.

In the second book, the hero scares off the heroine's current boyfriend, but the boyfriend is just a waffling putz, and the hero doesn't do the confronting himself; he manipulates events into forcing the boyfriend to retreat. Setting aside the badness of a relationship built on manipulation, it's completely underhanded and not at all heroic.

Frankly, Kleypas did a better job with this particular plot device the first time.

4. The villainous hero is more interesting than the other characters.

Part of what makes the villainous hero so much fun is his sarcastic sense of humor. (In a total aside, Britishers do this better than anybody else; in the first Pirates movie, Jack Davenport as Norrington comes across as attractive and heroic ex-boyfriend rather than baffled and bumbling ex-boyfriend precisely because of his dry sarcasm and wry raised eyebrow. At one point, after he has declared that Sparrow is a terrible pirate, Sparrow gets away. A sailor exclaims, "That is the best pirate I have ever seen!" Instead of looking embarrassed or outraged, Davenport as Norrington just looks completely miffed.)

A villainous hero who can't outwit everyone else is a dead-loss. What's he the villainous hero for?

I place Mr. B of Pamela and Mr. B Speaks! (my personal tribute) into this category. As one of my characters states, "Mr. B is a very funny guy." Without Mr. B as a sparring partner, Pamela would be a good deal less interesting and interested. 

5. The reader believes at the end that the heroine is with the right person.

To refer again to Kleypas's books, the heroine in Prince of Dreams is exactly and precisely with the right person. She is strong-minded, tough, and more than a little capable of handling the hero.

However, I doubt the heroine in Kleypas's second book, who just wants a peaceful life but ends up with an alpha-needy-dominant husband, will have everlasting happiness (by the way, I feel the same way about romances where a highly opinionated, constantly challenging-the-man, pushy heroine marries a man who really just wants some peace and quiet).

6. The true villain still needs to be worse! 

Moral and ethical standards should never be entirely abandoned. A heroine who marries a villain, no matter how attractive, will lose the support of the reader. "My man right or wrong" only works as long as the man is weaving his way towards the right, and "my man must be right because I love him" only works if the reader knows the heroine is correct (by getting inside the hero's head). Otherwise, the heroine will come across as a vapid moron, the hero as a scoundrel, and nobody will be respected in the morning.

Books With Good Villainous Heroes

Pamela (and Mr. B Speaks!) by Samuel Richardson
Venetia by Georgette Heyer
Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austen (maybe)

Richardson is quite convincing regarding Pamela's ability to handle Mr. B. Not only do you get the impression that Pamela can handle a man approximately 9 years her senior, you also get the impression she would be bored out of her skull with anyone else.

Out of all Heyer's villainous heroes, Dameral of Venetia gets the prize, not for himself but for the very real friendship that develops between him and Venetia. (This is actually the direction I think Whedon's writers were taking Buffy and Spike before they shied off.) I should mention that Heyer has the under-appreciated (and under-utilized) ability to make extremely laid-back, non-villainous heroes interesting in their own right. The Quiet Gentleman and Sprig Muslin come to mind.

Regarding Austen, Darcy can be described as a villainous hero (he has the dark, glowering look), but as I argue in A Man of Few Words, Darcy's supposedly villainous behavior is more cluelessness and discomfort than outright villainy. In terms of hard-to-manage heroines, I think Knightley can manage Emma but only just and only because Emma's interferences are based on good will, not merely on a sense of entitlement.

Jane Austen should be given kudos for creating villains who seem heroic but turn out to be deadheads: Wickham, Willoughby, and (that most subtle of villains) Henry Crawford.

1 comment:

Joe said...

It also helps if you have a strong enough story and a good enough actor that you forget the hero is an ass.