I love villains. Really, really love them. While I have grown out of the bad habit of adoring them in real life, in the pages of a book, they still thrill me. A good villain can make a book for me, even if the hero and heroine aren’t very impressive, and no amount of heroic perfection will make up for a less-than-truly-evil antihero. I’m not fussed about “balance” between good and evil. Just let me fall in love with the villains, then make me root for the heroes and heroines to kill them.
Building the perfect villain is an art and science all its own, and while I would hesitate to call myself an expert, it is certainly one area of fiction writing where I have complete faith in my own abilities. So what goes into an (im)perfect villain?
- Ulterior motives that stem from their own experiences. Villains can’t be bad just for the sake of it; something made them that way (besides the author). They were abused as children or sacrificed everything or live every day with unfulfilled dreams. Sure, there is some “hard-wiring” involved—Malbourne in Royal Regard was born a sadist and his mistress, Michelle, a masochist—but without indulging his tendencies as a child, losing his entire extended family to Madame la Guillotine, and cultivating a sense of entitlement as a teenaged royal duke, he might not have entirely lost his empathy. In the same vein, a villain’s motivation for attacking the hero or heroine also has to be realistic. “I don’t like her” isn’t enough.
- Good and faithful hench(wo)men.
If someone loves the villain, to me, there is something just a bit creepier, and it speaks volumes to see how that person is treated in return. Malbourne is a perfect beast to Michelle, but after almost fifty years under his thumb, his domination makes her feel safe. Underneath the visible torment, he consciously chooses to provide her that emotional safety. In exchange, she will do anything for him.
Hamish LaRue, the Earl of Birchbright’s henchman in La Déesse Noire: The Black Goddess, has been doing his employer’s dirty work for twenty years, so managing the man’s political spies comes naturally, as does the intimidation required to achieve the desired result. Were he to rebel, or allow anyone else to do the same, he might lose his own lucrative position and sees no reason to take that risk.
- Overt self-regard, covert vulnerability.
The villain has to believe him or herself entirely in the right and deserving of the prize, whatever it might be. Otherwise, why imperil everything and do anything to win?
For several of my characters, like Malbourne in Royal Regard and Birchbright in La Déesse Noire, this stems from proximity to nobility, but for others, like Hamish LaRue and Nigel Pate, out of self-preservation.
On the flip side, the villain also has to face some threat to his or her security. That might be emotional coercion, like Jeremy Smithson in my upcoming novellas, Shipmate and ‘Tis Her Season, whose father has raised him as a thief and professional card sharp. Or it could be an external threat, such as a lack of funds in Malbourne’s case, or losing his status, as in Birchbright’s case.
- Hidden decency.
No one is all bad, and a villain without redeeming qualities reads false. Malbourne loves Michelle and does the best he can by her, within his self-imposed personal limitations. Michelle tried unsuccessfully to save Malbourne’s sister from La Grande Terreur. Birchbright adored Kali’s mother and took excellent care of her before being forced into an unhappy marriage.
That said, the villain’s decency may only exist in backstory, not shown in the book. Hamish LaRue embezzles from his employer, in part to support the London orphanage where he was raised. Nigel Pate built his theatre by sheer force of will to create stability for his acting troupe. Jeremy Smithson is the only person concerned about the health and old age of his villainous father.
There is delicacy to creating villains. “Innately decent” is a state with which most people automatically identify. To create an inherently evil antihero who brings out emotion in a reader requires more depth. A good “good guy” isn’t so much of a stretch. A good “bad guy” is a much taller order.
LDN Title: La Déesse Noire: The Black Goddess
LDN Date Published: June 10, 2015 (available for pre-order)
LDN Word Count: 60,000
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Sired by a British peer, born of a paramour to Indian royalty, Kali Matai has been destined from birth to enthrall England’s most powerful noblemen—though she hadn’t counted on becoming their pawn. Finding herself under the control of ruthless men, who will not be moved by her legendary allure, she has no choice but to use her beauty toward their malicious and clandestine ends.
When those she holds most dear are placed in peril by backroom political dealings, she enlists some of the most formidable lords in England to thwart her enemies. But even with the help of the prominent gentlemen she has captivated, securing Kali’s freedom, her family, and the man she loves, will require her protectors stop at nothing to fulfill her desires.
Mariana Gabrielle is a pseudonym of Mari Christie, a professional writer, editor, and designer with almost twenty-five years’ experience. Published in dozens of nonfiction and poetry periodicals since 1989, she began writing mainstream historical fiction in 2009 and Regency romance in 2012. In all genres, she creates deeply scarred characters in uncommon circumstances who overcome self-imposed barriers to reach their full potential. She is a member of the Bluestocking Belles and the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers. Her first Regency romance, Royal Regard, was released in November 2014.