Equipping Writers for Success
The Writing Life
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by Anne Marble
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Even if you aren't writing romantic suspense novels, your story might still need a villain. Try to imagine the "poor relation" plot without a wicked relative who forces the heroine to work for nothing. The conflict won't be as strong without someone to oppose the heroine. A domineering mother-in-law or spoiled cousin can be just as much a force of evil as a crime lord. In fact, I think most drug dealers would quail if they met the evil relatives from Alison Lane's Regencies.
Why should you work so hard on your villains? A good villain won't save a faltering story. However, a fascinating villain can make an already good story great. For example, the evil Lionel Kersey is a great addition to Mary Balogh's Dark Angel. Similarly, many romances fail to make the grade because the villains don't measure up. Alice Alfonsi's Eternal Sea might have been a keeper for me because of its charm, yet I couldn't get over the grade for me because of the over-the-top conniving villains.
There are some common mistakes many romance writers make when creating villains. If you avoid these errors, you're well on your way to creating villains your readers will love to hate.
Villains Who Take Over the Novel. Have you ever read a romance where you remember the villain more than you remember the hero and heroine? Or where you had to flip through several pages about the villain's childhood memories. Something probably went wrong with those stories. That's not to say you shouldn't create compelling well-characterized villain. However, if the villain is forceful and fascinating, the hero and heroine must be even more so.
Another thing that can detract from the main story line is the infamous "villain sex scene." Some writers use this to emphasize the villain's evil. This technique doesn't always work. Keep in mind that many readers hate villain sex scenes and will skip over them. They don't turn to romances to read about villains whipping servants or having threesomes, they are looking for a love story.
Obvious Villains. Don't you hate figuring out who did it by the end of Chapter Three? So do your readers. I once read a romantic suspense novel where the victim was killed on as island. There were only two other adults on the island at the time -- the hero and his employee. Romance readers know the hero didn't do it, so the suspense was lacking. If your story rests on a mystery, there must be more than one possible suspect. Also, the additional suspects shouldn't be obvious "plants" inserted to take attention away from the real villain.
If you're having trouble with this, read the novels of Agatha Christie and other famous mystery writers to learn how to fool the readers while playing fairly. For an even better learning experience, try reading an Agatha Christie novel after finding out the identity of the killer. You'll get great tips on how to conceal information right in front of the reader's eyes.
Clichéd Villains. The conniving other woman, the evil mother-in-law, the wicked twin sister. Some villains have been used so often that they have become recognizable character types. These characters still have a lot of life left in them, but only if you flesh them out. Make them into real people rather than one-dimensional obstacles with attitude. Many readers like Mary Spencer's Dark Wager because the "other woman" character was more than just a cliched nemesis. Anne Stuart went a step further in To Love a Dark Lord; in that novel, the "other woman" was a sympathetic character with a wonderful secondary romance of her own rather than a villainess.
Romantic suspense also has its share of tried and true villains -- the serial killer, the drug dealer, the stalker, the psychotic ex-husband. They have been used so often I'm surprised they don't form a union and start marching in protest, demanding fair treatment. If you're going to use one of these villains, make him (or her!) different. This doesn't mean that your villain should stay up nights thinking of new ways to kill people. Instead, give him a life outside the villainy. For example, why not make him a devoted family man?
Villains with Unbelievable Motivations. Nobody wants to read an entire novel only to find out that the villain was plotting against the hero the whole time because the hero stole away his prom date 20 years ago. If your villain is scheming and planning and committing crimes, he needs a good reason to go to all this trouble. A stolen prom date just doesn't cut it. In other words, like the hero and heroine, the villain must have a believable motivation.
Unlike the hero and heroine, the villain is more likely to be led by dark motivations. Revenge is a possible motive for villains, but only if the villain is going to all that trouble because he was wronged in a big way. Greed, anger, jealousy, and the lust for power make great motivations as well -- especially when combined. A greedy villain is not necessarily believable, but a greedy villain who is secretly in love with the heroine is both more believable and more interesting.
Unnecessary Villains. Just because you're writing a romance novel, that doesn't mean you need a villain. Powerful main characters can create plenty of conflict on their own. Sometimes, a villain contradicts the overall tone of the romance. For example, Simply Magic by Kathleen Kane started out as a charming paranormal romance until one of the secondary characters turned out to be a psychopath. This didn't mesh at all with a plot full of humorous incidents. If you're writing a romp or a light romance, you probably don't need a villain. You can combine suspense and comedy, but you must recognize that it's a difficult balancing act. If you do need to have a villain, avoid the impulse to make him dark and threatening. There's nothing wrong with a comic villain. In Assault with Intent, mystery writer William X. Kienzle lightened up the case with a team of inept criminals.
Even if you do decide to have a villain in your story, make sure that not everyone hates your heroine. Sure, readers will become sympathetic to a heroine who insulted by the hero's mother, given the cut direct by Lady Fussbudget, and mocked by the dandies. They will start rolling their eyes in disbelief, however, if this antipathy is found in the hero's valet, her own maid, the footmen, and Lady Fussbudget's poodle. Surely someone out there must like her besides the hero.
Utterly Evil Villains. Some villains are simply too evil. Not only does he make life miserable for the hero and heroine, he also beats and rapes the servants, kicks the dog, and on top of that, refuses to recycle. Not only is this unrealistic, it is often trite. Female villains can be over the top as well. Romance novels suffer from a surfeit of overly evil sisters, stepmothers, mothers-in-laws, and cousins. Resist the impulse to turn your romance novel into the "Dysfunctional Family Feud." The heroine's mother in Carla Kelly's With This Ring was obnoxious but believable because we've all known women who spoil one sibling while neglecting the other.
Don't be afraid to make your villain sympathetic. Persuading your readers to feel sorry for the villain won't make your main characters less important. Some writers have created villains who were so sympathetic they ended up starring in their own novels. These range from Roland Otton in Patricia Veryan's The Dedicated Villain to Reginald Davenport in Mary Jo Putney's The Rake.
Villains Who Talk Too Much. This one is a classic cliché. The villain captures your main characters, but instead of getting them out of the way, he goes into a spiel about how bright he is because he outwitted them all. This, of course, distracts him so much that the hero and heroine are able to get away. Today's readers are wise to this technique; after all, they have seen parodies of it in everything from Get Smart to the "Austin Powers" movies. If it's necessary to reveal information to the reader, weave it into the story instead of relying on this device.
Weak Villains. Imagine this scenario. You've been reading an exciting, suspenseful novel, and you're close to the end. The hero is confronting the villain. You're expecting a big payoff. But instead, the villain turns out to be a huge wimp who caves in quickly. Yawn. Will you be as likely to buy that writer's next book? Probably not. After all, would Darth Vader give up without a good fight? Neither should your villain. Villains should offer a worthwhile challenge to your hero and heroine. Readers will feel cheated if the villain gives in too easily.
Anne M. Marble has published articles in Gothic Journal and Writer's Digest and is a columnist for the At the Back Fence column at All About Romance (AAR). In her "spare time," she moderates AARlist, a busy list of romance readers sponsored by AAR. Just about everything she writes includes a romance element, even if it's a fantasy novel about a lord and a countertenor. Her day job involves editing articles for the Journal of Biological Chemistry.