Villainous Potential

By Poison Ivy,

Sometimes there’s an attractive character in a romance who acts like a villain, but in every other sense is not. Georgette Heyer, the grand dame of Regency and Georgian romances, was so taken with her villain in The Black Moth that she wrote These Old Shades to redeem him. It was unusual at the time to have a romance end with a chapter showing the villain of the piece regretting his behavior, after the heroine was safely united with her hero. But that’s how The Black Moth ends. And although the character names in These Old Shades are different, the first chapter specifically refers back to the last one of The Black Moth. Presumably, Heyer’s editor back in the 1920s thought that a story with continuing characters would not appeal to romance readers. But also, the redeemed duke of These Old Shades is a cut above the villainous duke of The Black Moth. Skimming both books to remind myself of the details, I was almost captured back into that lovely, perfectly described historical never-never world that Georgette Heyer was unsurpassed at creating. No wonder I still keep all of her romances, when I have recycled thousands of books I’ve read since first reading hers.

Georgette Heyer revisited the idea of redeeming rogues in other novels, but her other villainous heroes never were allowed to cross the line and be outright villains as in The Black Moth. Decades later, other romance writers have centered entire stories on the redemption of a villain. But before you can redeem a villain, he must actually be one. Centuries ago, a villain was a mere henchman, a servant. But when we think of a villain today, we think of a mastermind, a grand plotter, someone who wants to bend people and events to his advantage. Whatever the villain’s vices, they must not be petty. Heroes are larger than life and so are villains. Maybe he’s a puppet master, coldly manipulating other people for his own ends, and not caring about their pain. Maybe he’s a firebrand, determined to forge the world in his own image, willing to destroy anyone who stands in his way. But he’s never just an ordinary man who makes bad choices.

A villain who is to be redeemed must start out as a good person. He can’t be a psychopath whose nastiness was apparent from childhood. Instead, something happened along the way, and today he is shut off from most feelings of compassion. Come to think of it, that’s Rigoletto in the opera of the same name. He’s physically deformed and has been scorned his whole life because of that. Suffering twists him into a person who enjoys seeing others suffer, who actively wallows in the filth of human behavior. When the one pure love in his life, his daughter, is defiled, he crosses the line and tries to have his enemy murdered. Needless to say, the opera does not end happily.

In a romance, the villain who is going to be redeemed doesn’t get so twisted that he can’t recover. It just seems that way. In fact, in the hands of an expert writer, that’s the major conflict of the story. Will the heroine inspire the hero to redeem himself, or will he pass up the opportunity that she offers? In Georgette Heyer’s These Old Shades, she was breaking new ground. The outcome wasn’t a sure thing. Later writers, notably Barbara Cartland, imitated the key situation in Heyer’s work, and now it’s basically a cliché that a heroine will reform a rake. But the one reformed in Heyer’s book was substantially colder and more villainous than a mere rake, a pleasure seeker who indulges in immoral conduct. No, a true villain has to be a man with a blacker past than mere public drunkenness, immoderate gambling, and hanging around with women of ill repute.

But how does a good man turn into a villain? Perhaps his own innocence and goodness are abused by others. He draws into himself for his own protection. And he begins to act in ways that will please him first of all, regardless of the consequences to others. Or perhaps, the good man looks around him and decides that being bad will gain him more than will being good. Stanton Peele, the eminent psychologist, has written frequently about who turns to crime and who does not. Peele points out that it isn’t just a movie cliché that two brothers in an impoverished neighborhood will make radically different choices, one becoming a priest, one becoming a criminal. It’s a well-documented fact. The environmental situation is not the determiner. Individuals choose whether to be good or bad, whether to be upstanding citizens or drug addicts.

Which also means that they can change, and that’s why redeeming a villain in a romance is believable. It can happen in real life. Villains can get tired of being bad. The initial, vengeful pleasure involved may fade to ennui and self-disgust. And just think of the unpleasant people with whom villains must associate. In the Richard Brinsley Sheridan play, “The School for Scandal,” a naive lady associates with a gossipy, backbiting group of people headed by Lady Sneerwell. Her henchman is named Snake. Their friend Mrs. Candour carries vicious tales. And so on. H is for Homicide, a Sue Grafton mystery in which her detective heroine, Kinsey Milhone, goes undercover in a Los Angeles barrio describes in minute detail how boring, annoying, and scary it is to be around vicious petty criminals day and night.

When the naïve heroine comes along, wanting to pull the villain into the light, wanting him to find his path to redemption, she’s also offering him a rescue from being around people who reinforce his villainy, but also his disgust with himself. She’s showing him that he can lead his life differently. Some of this is through her sheer innocence or goodness. Radiance, you might say. The villain yearns to bask in her glow. And some of it, depending on the heroine, is through her stubbornness and her own determination to win this one. Yes, of course the villain must himself change if he is to achieve redemption. But the love of a good woman is a classic motivator. The wonderful line, “You make me want to be a better man,” from the Jack Nicholson movie “As Good as It Gets” encapsulates the villain’s reason for trying to change. As for the heroine, well, women are known for seeing potential in men. Even in villains.

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