Friday, September 12, 2014

Where have all the villains gone?

I don't mean "damaged" characters. We have those in abundance. Antiheroes, too. I mean the bona fide bitches and bastards, users and abusers, manipulators and liars and cheats. Where are they in romance fiction? Have they been scared away by our desire for happy escapes? Or by our need to psychoanalyze them? Have we romance readers and writers become so determined to validate our genre that we insist on stories free of all characters that smell even faintly of stereotypes? Has moral turpitude become so subjective that we must now be able to sympathize with each and every "misguided" soul?

I say no to all of it. To rejection of unpleasant people in romance. To fussy, PC dissections of bad guys' mental states. To the snobby assertion that they're all stereotypes. Let's face it, people who are alarmingly devoid of conscience exist in real life. I bet we all know/have known some. Bad apples appear in both genders and all orientations, and their self-absorption can be damned odious as well as destructive.

Frankly, I miss villains (sorry for the simplistic term, but I think you know the kinds of characters I mean). That's why I often include unlikable and conniving people in my books. I believe we need such players -- depending on the nature of the story, of course -- in romance. Antagonists add conflict, dramatic tension, gravitas. They can serve as foils for the good guys, can challenge and test and teach them. In fact, they can propel entire plotlines. And they've done so throughout the history of literature.

Hell, they've done so throughout the history of humanity.

I've had a variety of nasty characters in my books, and I've loved imagining all of them. Some have terrifying supernatural abilities: Joseph Beaudry, the bokor (Voodoo priest) in To Be Where You Are; the sorcerer Bezod in Carny's Magic; several of the strange beings in the Utopia-X series. Most, however, are entirely human. They just happen to be self-serving shitheads: C. Everett Hammer III in Jude in Chains; father and son sociopaths, Karl and Kenneth, in Bastards and Pretty Boys; the stage illusionist known as the Turk, and the shady sugar-daddy Edgar Jonns in Mobry's Dick; businessman Alphonse Hunzinger in Mongrel; the two pedophiles in Xylophone (although I can't say I enjoyed imagining them; it was difficult and distasteful). I have another one coming up in Ben Raphael's All-Star Virgins, releasing September 25.

Occasionally, if I think it's relevant, I'll delve into a villain's background or dig into his mind. Usually, though, I don't. Not too far, anyway. Why? Because villains are rarely primary characters. Biographical and psycho-emotional  detail should be reserved for the MCs. When writers try too hard to "three-dimensionalize" their bad guys, who are almost always secondary characters, it blurs a story's focus. Conveying a sense of what drives them (psychopathy, greed, ego, bigotry, religious fervor, sexual obsession, etc.) is enough. This doesn't mean antagonists have to be shorn of personality or believability, just that their internal landscapes shouldn't overshadow the MCs'.

So, do you say "yea" or "nay" to villains in romance fic? Do you accept them in fantasies and paranormals but not in contemporaries? If so, why? Do you insist on a thorough examination of their lives and motives? And here's a sticky issue: must m/m romance writers, in particular, avoid casting women in a bad light? Why, if all females aren't moral exemplars? (And, heaven knows, we sure aren't!)


3 comments:

Reviewer Larissa said...

Weeeeell, have you read books by K.A. merikan? Villains in abundance, and there are villains aplenty. My problem would be that they are usually so stereotypically evil that they are laughable.

Jeff Erno said...

I think a very vocal minority of readers and reviewers have effectively scared many authors away from villains. I've seen so many reviews where the nemesis character is derisively described as "mustache twirling" or "exaggerated." But personally, I enjoy having a character that I love to hate. And the nemesis character is a classic literary archetype.

Maybe part of the reason these extremely evil characters have faded a bit in literature is because overall people are less likely to see things in such black and white terms. In real life, we encounter a lot of people we disagree with or whom we observe doing really bad things, but we don't actually think of them as being pure evil. Probably an effective villain in contemporary literature should be more layered, complex in the sense that they do possess some redeeming qualities but function in an adversarial role within the story.

K. Z. Snow said...

I agree with just about everything you said, Jeff. However, constructing a multilayered bad guy in genre fiction comes with a big risk: if fully developed, he or she could begin to overshadow the MC. When readers find the villain more interesting, appealing, or worthy of sympathy than the hero, the story has failed.