In novel writing classes, after we’ve discussed character arcs, pacing, prose-craft, world-building, voice, and a zillion other angels dancing on the head of a pin, somebody gets around to raising the topic of the antagonist.
The antagonist need not be a bad person, or even a human. The antagonist can be an immutable law of the novel world (treason must be punished–The Traitor), logistics (an ocean between our obligations/not enough money in the world–Elias in Love, The Highland Holidays novellas), values (she cannot tolerate violence, honor compels him to seek justice–The Captive), or a misunderstanding/secret (many novellas, The Laird), but to the reader, the antagonist, to quote Joanna Bourne, must be “real, interesting, and substantial.”
I have rarely written a truly heinous villain, in part because I don’t want to dwell on evil. In the Windham Bride series, I’m coming close, though. (Sorta spoiler alerts…) Hamish and Megan face a man who’d force an unwilling woman into the intimacy of marriage for the sake of his creature comforts. That’s awful–and he’s so cheerful about it.
Colin and Anwen face people who are cavalier about starving children, and unbothered by again, using coercion of innocents, even the threat of death, to get what the villains want. In A Rogue of Her Own, the hero, Sherbourne, is an outsider, meaning he both sees the titled villain more clearly, and also risks much more than scandal if he tries to hold his lordship accountable. (Can you tell I like that book?)
Those stories are in contrast to a tale like Worth: Lord of Reckoning. No bad guy, no bad gal. Just the competing demands of honor, a secret or two, stubborn pride, but it all works out in the end.
Then I come across this quote form CS Lewis (sorry I don’t know how to make it larger), about “scoundrelism,” and how it often germinates from the very human desire to be part of an Inner Ring. Our craving for intimacy and acceptance lead us away from decency. As he says, “Of all the passions, the passion for the Inner Ring is most skillful in making a man who is not yet a very bad man do very bad things.”
That quote is scary. I don’t want to write that book, with an antagonist who seduces decent people away from the light, promising special status, acceptance, and perks. I’m not sure I could write that book, especially not as a romance, but the other rubric I hear in writers’ classes is that the protagonists are only as compelling as the forces they overcome. What force is more compelling than the creeping allure of intimate evil?
Where do you come down on antagonists? Have I written one that worked especially well for you, one that fell flat? Is a book like Worth, which leans toward comedic techniques, a more convincing romance than The Captive? What “real, substantial, interesting” problem have you seen most effectively keep a romance hero and heroine from waltzing away with an easy HEA?
To one commenter, I’ll send a signed Advance Reader Copy for A Rogue of Her Own (found another one since last week).
I adore your novels partly because you don’t tend to resort to having a bad person (motives unclear) who you manipulate to make the stories work.
In my view, there are very few people who consider themselves bad people – nobody thinks of themselves as the villain in their own story, we’re all heroes. It’s just that a clash of values makes us view others as evil – e.g. you may value personal freedom to not pay tax, whilst I value social responsibility to fund healthcare.
An aside, I’ve never understood American friends claiming the American system is better than the British one because of a friend of a friend who hate to wait MONTHS with an uncomfortable condition before being treated by a doctor on a Tuesday afternoon. In our system, criteria for how fast you get seen is based on how ill you are/how effective treatment will be. The NHS is excellent at triage. In your system, criteria for how fast you get seen is based on your ability to pay. And, hey, if you’ve got the money to pay here, you still have the option to be treated privately at your convenience.
We could probably go way, way down the healthcare rabbit hole, because one thing most Americans seem to agree on, our system doesn’t work as well as it should, based on being the most expensive health care system in the developed world. Our maternal death rates are a disgrace, our child mortality rates a worse disgrace, the profitability of our system is the worst disgrace of all, given the patient outcomes.
But the corporations and insurance companies involved are hugely profitable, which means effective change will take a big, coordinated effort, and it might get worse before it gets better.
You raise a great example, though, of why a values conflict is such terrific fodder from a romance. Nobody’s wrong, but we just can’t see eye to eye… (Tremaine and Nita are waving.) Strong community is important, but so is individual freedom.
One of my favourite books from one of my favourite authors is The Dukes Disaster,this book took me through various emotions and it had a very nasty character in it.If you have not read it I recommend it because for me the balance and build up in the storyline was great.Having an antagonist in the mix this time made for a climatic and exciting end.There was also some very funny situations that Her Grace found herself in at the beginning.So for me it’s down to a good and clever author to get it right.Thanks Grace.
Thank you, Brenda. Noah and Thea turned into a reader favorite, and yes, there was a real jerk involved, and another jerk enabling him. That always leaves with me that conundrum of how to punish the jerks. Sometimes, I can figure out a way to make the bad guys or gals suffer the fate they had in mind for the protagonists, such as social ruin or penury, but I’m seldom comfortable with the either letting the villain at all off the hook, or exactly violent vengeance on them.
I don’t have a favorite antagonist. I realize that they are essential to the story and I guess I do shy away from truly villainous antagonists. I know that there are truly evil people in this world, but I don’t care for meeting up with them in my favorite form of escapism.
What matters most to me, is how well the characters, especially the hero and heroine, are drawn. Are they sensitive, sensible, decent people that I can care about? You write characters so well. I’m a romance junkie. What matters most to me is the love story.
Me toooo! But you’d be surprised, Mary, how few of the writers’ workshops even mention the need for a romance arc in a romance novel. They go on and on about the character arcs–as if romance is mostly a tragedy with a happy ending–or the dramatic arcs, as if romance is a thriller or a mystery with some cha-chan–but the defining characteristic of the book is the romance, and it’s seldom taught as a structural element.
If I had not read “The Heir” and “The Soldier” first before I read “Andrew”, I would have wished for Douglas a swift and fast unhappy ending. But, having read the two books first, I kept telling myself as I read “Andrew”, I know Douglas is a good man, I know Grace won’t change his demeanor too fast. There has to be a reason why he treats Astrid the way he does. And guess what? Grace came through with the reasons for Douglas’ actions, and they were believable. Douglas was the man that Gwen needed, and together their hearts healed. And the fact that Douglas stands up to Moreland is a bonus. Gareth, Andrew, Douglas, David, they are my favorite characters. And their ladies too!!
Thanks for those encouraging words about my foundation quartet. Those are the first four stories I completed in draft, and as I wrote them, it never occurred to me that an editor might start somewhere else in the queue when looking for a manuscript to publish.
I liked Douglas a lot, and I think he got one of my strongest opening scenes ever in terms of creating a guy we can root for, even though he was short on charm–a lot short on charm.
The one who surprised me was Percival. He was a meddling old besom, until about half way through The Heir. I figured if Esther loved him that steadfastly, maybe he wasn’t such a bad guy.
Happy Sunday! The villain or the seemingly indefeatable force that stands in your way. I love your books and read them to pieces. Perhaps the villain that was the worst in my eyes was Trenton, Darius and Leah’s father. How can you singlemindedly focus on killing your son and destroying your other children. I loved Darius when I first read the book and how he became entangled with his Vivie. There was something about him in Virtuoso and he was great in Trenton. I loved how he cried about his father after he was finally caught in his villainy. Also Suzanna and Willowgrove’s villain was pretty despicable too! Someone like Michael Vick. And then poor Daniel – how do you fight someone like that. As for the Captive, what Marcus did was beyond horrible. Your writing is subtle and nuanced, because by the end of that trilogy, the villains and heroes are clarified in an amazing way. The villain in Virtuoso was pretty bad too. I was not too crazy about Maggie’s mother either. Perhaps the frightening element is often the fact that your actual villain may be disguised as your best friend like Lucas’ cousin who tried to damage his horse or Douglas’s brother Henry who seemed like a true sociopath. I love your books. Please keep writing. Have a blessed day!
An interesting round-up, some of whom I’d all but forgotten. One scene that made ME cry was when Maggie and Her Grace are in the garden (Maggie’s book), and Maggie says, “That woman is not my mother.” Could be that for me, when a parent betrays a child, there is no more heinous villainy. Probably goes with the child welfare lawyer gig.
I love every one of your novels that I have picked up. Everything seems to come together and just work. I enjoy reading a variety of protagonists, sometimes they are overcome completely and it truly is a happier ever after, and sometimes (when a good series/saga is in progress) a book ends with a win for now or temporary rise above. You know there is more battle to be fought, but for now life is good and joyful. (This might make more sense if I typed after coffee, but kids and distraction this morning ).
Hello, Heidi, and thanks for chiming in EVEN before the coffee is done. You’d be surprised how much writing a manuscript is a discovery process for me. Sometimes, I inch along, scene by scene, hoping something shows in the morning that I can write.
Other times, I get lucky. I got lucky with The Duke’s Disaster. I’m overdue for another lucky book. Maybe I should start drinking coffee?
It may sound crazy but the villains don’t stick in my memory. Sure, I understand their motives (eventually) but as people they are not remarkable to me. The Hero and Heroine, overcoming adversity are the ones I hold close after I finish reading.
You often tend to write toward the *they are their own worst enemy* school of thought which I find more compelling than having a person be the brunt of awful in a story.
Aren’t we all, occasionally, our own worst enemy? Don’t we all sometimes do stupid things we regret or think others recall and hold against us? There are no clear cut answers to getting to the HEA and find I am more interested in those kinds of stories than ones with a villain or a clear cut antagonist.
I find your work more realistic (could have happened back in the day)than others and enjoy the occasional clever, comedic slant and yes, I LOVE Worth!
Worth has become a reader favorite, and is one of my few, precious RITA nominees, and yet, his book is as you say: Him getting in his own way, Jacaranda getting her own way. They certainly need to have a big talk, but the happy-go-lucky rake at the beginning of the book and the fussy housekeeper weren’t people capable of soul-searching discussion.
This must be part of the charm of Jane Austen. No great villain keeps Jane and Darcy apart, in fact, Wickham more or less brings them together. But Darcy’s first proposal falls flat because he’s not HEA material yet, and neither is Lizzie.
Those are not easy books to sell to the current traditional publishing market, but readers seem to thoroughly enjoy them.
I do not have a favorite antagonist although I know that adds more to the story and can keep me reading to make sure there is a “happily ever after” or resolution to the story. I have not thought of values being an antagonist or laws of the novel world but I can see that now. Is lack of self-worth an antagonist? I recently read a story where both the leading male and female in the story had very low self-worth that held them back from loving one another even though the attraction and chemistry were there. It went on through the whole story to the point of being overdone and irritating to me but in the end they overcame their issues. There are times when reading a story I have no problem with an antagonist and there are others when I just want one like Worth: Lord of Reckoning with no bad guy and no bad gal. I have actually stopped reading books that start out with a bad or mean antagonist because I am just not in the mood to be sad or mad if that makes sense. Thank you for the chance to discuss an interesting topic. 🙂
Linda, I think it’s Susan Elizabeth Phillips who says, ‘Life is too short to read sad books.’ I agree with her!
I think in Young Adult, or what is called New Adult, the whole business of having to step up, or grow up, to earn your happily ever after is more common than in romance. The romance novel as a coming of age novel doesn’t seem to appeal strongly to the current readership.
But for every rule of thumb, there’s somebody coming along and breaking it in great style. Joanna Bourne’s “The Black Hawk,” has both protagonists coming of age, reconciling themselves to bitter truths and hard realities, but still grabbing that HEA brass ring by the end of the book (and foiling the bad guys). Love that book.
All your books are PHENOMENAL!!! Everything I love when I read your books they’re a form of escape for me and I’m extremely happy I’ve found your books! Thank you for the opportunity to win an ARC
Thanks, Maria! I usually give something away every week–an audio book, a signed ARC, something–and I love how readers chime in on these blogs. Feels like I get to sit down with my book buddies and just hang out.
My favorite villain is the one you redeemed! The Captive and The Traitor are two of my favorite books–the characters draw you into the story, there is romance, character conflict and war. I was determined to dislike St. Clair but you crafted a story full of love, redemption and forgiveness for St Clair and Millie. The Captive Hearts series is fabulous as it provides both sides of the battle and the importance of understanding that sometimes good men make bad choices in difficult times.
Douglas was not one of my favorite characters, either. I lumped him into the same bucket as his selfish brothers. Am glad I read Gareth, Andrew (great hero) and Douglas in order. As Douglas gained the respect of the the other lonely lords, his true character and nature became apparent. He was a good guy trying to deal with a huge financial mess the best way he knew how. His younger brother was a subtle villain…. Well done.
I do enjoy a good villain…but prefer one who makes bad choices and later owns his actions.
Not every book needs a villain as character conflict works as well.
Have a great week and keep plotting…don’t forget Matthew and Axel’s sons. I am hoping there’s a mystery suspense type series for them!
If I’m asked which books I’m most proud of, it’s the Captive Hearts. Those are not light, fluffy books, but I feel as if nobody else could have written them. The Laird in particular pushed boundaries, but the Traitor wasn’t a slouch effort either. Then too, I met Hamish in The Traitor, and what a delightful fellow he turned out to be.
To me, an effective villian doesn’t have to be evil. He or she needs to be believable and relatable. Perhaps just someone who is selfish or has motives that conflict with the protagonist’s motives.
(love your books!!!)
You raise a point that is often left to our editors to raise: The villain can too easily be a strutting, mustache-twirling plot muppet. He wants to rule the world because, well, because he DOES. He’s determined to ruin the heroine because he’s a Really Nasty Guy, that’s why…
Making an antagonist who’s believable (yeah, I had a boss like that, believable), whom you almost, almost root for a little bit, is a subtle skill. If ever I’m wishing I had more time to revise a book, it’s usually because I’m not entirely comfortable with the antagonist’s arc, or because I don’t know what fate should befall a failed antagonist.
I’ve added A Rogue of Her Own to my “Must Have” spreadsheet!
There’s the TBR pile now we’ve graduated to the Must Have Spreadsheet. Sherbourne will be insufferable, but then, Charlotte likes him that way.
I think I liked the Traitor best in this manner. We are all complicated and have complicated motives and backstory, add to that an unwinnable situation and we can all identify with some part of the tough choices. I think tying the Captive and the Traitor together with enough emotional space to maneuver allowed sympathies to reside on both men without reader conflict even though there is a need to allow someone to simultaneously be a villain and a hero.
I don’t like to use my “escape” time on good vs evil battles so avoid whole subgenres of romance, but I like a good overcoming of obstacles. So I guess a classic straight evil villain doesn’t interest me that much.
Sarah, I have strong preferences in this regard too. I’m not satisfied with sub-genres were hero/heroine and villain are all solving their problems with violence, and the object of the drama is essentially to kill the opponent. I know romance springs up in unlikely places, but that’s not a place that works for me. Fortunately, romance is a broad, deep river of stories, and we can all have what works for us.
The reason your books are so compelling is that the relationships are so real. Along with good dialogue and lots of humor. I am not a violent person, but Baron Collins in Ethan’s story needed killing.
I’ve evolved as an author in terms of what should have happen to the Bad People.
SPOILERS FOR THE VIRTUOSO FOLLOW:
For a while, sending them to Baltimore was about as mean as I could be, but in The Virtuoso, where the villain had sabotaged a succession out of greed, and was tyrannizing an innocent woman… I let him get away with leaving town after a Val dropped him with a single punch. Readers objected, told me to toughen up, and think of justice back in the day when Regency London had no police force, and being seen as a pansy was tantamount to putting a target on your own back.
So we got scenes like Darius beating the living peedywaddles out of his opponent, and finally, a few villains getting offed. The Baron had it coming, forty ways to Sunday, but I couldn’t put that Ethan. Time for Plan H.
I’m going on memory here, but I think in your book, Beckman, Tremaine was an anticipatory antagonist. You really did not meet him until closer to the end of the book. However, Sara and her sister lived in constant fear of his arrival and the possibility of taking away the precious, talented child. Until Tremaine makes his appearance I truly felt he was the evil and really bad uncle who would follow in his brother’s footsteps. All of that changes once he arrives on the scene and sets things straight.
How about Maggie’s mother as another example? Truth be told, there was no redeeming quality in that woman.
Tremaine was a surprise to me, but then you’re right: He arrived, not all that unreasonable, and I suspected he and Polly… no wait. Polly had her eye on that other guy. You lose, Tremaine.
Though he was such an interesting man–half French, half Scottish. I started to wonder what he’d sound like, and then there was Nita, looking all peaked and wan… Another lucky book, another RITA nomination. Nick says he knew they were right for each other all along.
As usual, you ask me to pick a favorite antagonist and I can’t. In this genre, it’s the protagonists that stand out for me. If they’re real, believable people you feel you can support and really want to see happy together. I feel like we need stories with both “exterior physical antagonist” and “internal/real world obstacles” just to have variety. Both types of story have their value. They work in different ways. Neither is inherently superior or inferior to the other. You use what works for the narrative you want to tell at the time. To draw parallels to movies, this is why I can equally enjoy “Star Wars” with its clearly defined Galactic Empire, but also “My Neighbor Totoro”, a film Hayao Miyazaki deliberately set up to not have a definitive and physically present antagonist. Both are wonderful and compelling stories, for entirely different reasons. So I will enjoy both types of story as long as they are well-written and do what they need to do. 🙂
“My Neighbor Totoro” is considered one of the top fifty movies of all time, and I hadn’t heard mention of it for years. Thanks for the reminder.
As for Star Wars… I’ve tried to enjoy those movies, but the difference between the good guys and the bad guys is never clearly enough defined for me. The special effects were wonderful (when they first came out) but Star Trek had already laid the groundwork for the cultural agenda.
I’m just not as keen about movies as books. Hmmm.
I think that it isn’t necessary to have a heinous villain. Sometimes people, who are generally pretty good people, are their own worst enemy. They create issues for themselves and others through stubbornness, misinformation, and good intentions. It’s tough to stay non villainous yourself if revenge is too high on the hero’s agenda.
One writing coach puts it like this: The villain is who the hero could turn into, but for the influence of the heroine, the team, Sensei… Similarly, the villain could often be the hero (or heroine), but for bad luck, bad timing, bad laws… But the hero and the villain sprout from the same soil.
Sounds so good, love the cover.
Thanks, Penney. All the heroines in this series are red-haired in blue-eyes, in honor of my late mother. Makes for a lovely covers!
I actually prefer stories without a major “villain”, such as Lady Sophie’s Christmas Wish. I like how in that and The Heir, the duke started out seeming to be a bad guy (at least in the hero’s POV) but turned out to be quite a sympathetic character.
Percival grew on me, or rather, he and Esther grew on me. I’m from a large family, and there was always a sense among the seven children that the center of the familial universe was a place known only to Mom and Dad, where they were husband and wife, rather than Mom and Dad. Percival and Esther had the same quality, and I figured she wouldn’t fall for a cad.
I had the advantage of meeting Percival in Douglas’s book before I started writing The Heir, and of seeing how devoted His Grace was to his duchess. People meeting Percival in The Heir got a slightly different take on him, but I hope–by the end of The Virtuoso–Percival was redeeming himself with almost everybody.
I found the brother of Morgan and Anna to be pretty much pondscum. Selling his sisters to a lecher for money and forcing them to be on the run for years doesn’t say loving brother to me. And then there is that betrothed of Avis Portmaine, he has preyed on people going back to school days and no one can do anything about him, because he has a title. These villains might be why I like Worth best. I can pick up Worth and know there is no nasty character to fight against. Occasionally, you need a break from villains.
I’m going to remember that comment, Rita: Occasionally, you need a break from villains.
Maybe as a writer I need a break from them too, and next up, I’ll be working on a story for Valerian Dorning. Maybe it will be villain-free.
I think the best villains don’t see themselves as villains. They think they’re in the right, either because they don’t care about other people for whatever reason or they see themselves as improving the world, not realizing how narrow their own view is. And in a romance, you don’t really need a human villain all the time. Sometimes the villain can be a rotten situation or strict class divides and things like that.
You are spot on here, Janette. The writing coaches say, “The villain is the hero of his own story.” He’s entirely justified (in his own mind) in what he’s doing, what he’s wanting, and what he’s planning. Has no choice, really…
Which means a skillful author can present the hero/heroine in a light which is just a smidge villainous, viewed from a particular, odd angle. THAT is challenge.
I do enjoy when you redeem a villian from a book in later book, Grace. One of my favorites was The Traitor. I expect I’ll appreciate Sherbourne’s redemption as well.
Two of the most vile villains you have written are ones who span multiple books: Collins and Lindsey. For me Gerald Lindsey is the worst of villains since many of his evil acts are committed against his children.
I like when I redeem a villain too, and I am very fortunate to have readers who will let me do that. Sherbourne was just too scrumptious a guy to leave wandering the Welsh countryside all on his lonesome.
I have just finished rereading a few of your books — always a comfort to find a world so full of warmth and caring when life may be full of rain — and find that you CAN, on occasion, write about an evil antagonist. The evil perpetrated by Lord Wilton permeates the lives of Darius, Leah and Trenton quite convincingly. The damage wrought by such an evil, cruel parent has an impact on the connection between hero and heroine, because the adult carries the baggage of a painful upbringing. And when that evil continues into adulthood, the challenge can be both physical and mental.
Battling a personal weakness is often as daunting as a flesh-and-blood villain, because there’s no enemy to confront except oneself.
I enjoy either type of antagonist, although internal challenges appeal more, because of the emotional growth, rather than physical strength, required to overcome them.
Looking forward to your upcoming titles! Here’s hoping you are feeling profilic!
Thanks, Elaine. I’m feeling hungry to write book-length stories. I’ve been pre-occupied with novellas for the past few months. Those are fun, and they yield a nice sense of productivity, but then boom–done, and the characters go on about their lives without me.
So the Rogues to Riches series is coming at a good time.
The past five years I’ve noticed a shift in my romance reading to stories where the protagonists figure out how to cope with what life has dealt them and move forward with a partner. You, Mary Balogh and Carolyn Jewel excel at these stories. Sometimes there’s an antagonist, mostly it’s how hero/ine figures out coping, not giving, asking for help.
Interesting observation, because in My One and Only Duke, part of the hero’s challenge will be to learn to ask for help, or at least accept it when offered and needed. He’s all Joe Cool all the time, and it gets him in Big Trouble with the heroine.
But even that’s a form of learning to cope. He’s reached a point in life where being the lone wolf hasn’t borne the results he’d hoped for.
As someone said previously, I enjoy books without the evil villain who lingers in the background rubbing his hands together, cackling manically, dreaming of ways to screw over the hero, heroine, or both. I know I have read several books where the bad guy is physically abusive, mentally unstable, or just the poster child for evil. However, I think good people can make bad decisions or do terrible things based on their beliefs or perceptions or the way they were raised. For me, the horror of a bad guy is increased when it is a decent person making terrible decisions from a place of ignorance or fear. Similarly, I love stories where the conflict is either internal (i.e. being your own worst enemy) or external (societal perception or loss of reputation) but it is not one of physical harm but of emotional damage – missing out on a wonderful relationship because of fear or doubt or worry. It is easy for me to ache for those characters who make one bad choice after another not out of anger or malice but lack of confidence or being unable to trust. As a reader, you can see the train wreck coming but can’t stop it. I love reading about how couples overcoming the emotional hardship more than I love the epic sword fight with the evil duke (not that they aren’t fun too).
And…because I love him. Valentine – all day, every day, I love Valentine. I love every mention of him and he will always be my favorite of your heroes. Valentine Forever!
I’m so glad to hear from a member of Team Valentine, because Team St. Just and Team Westhaven speak up often enough. I’d met Val in The Heir, and figured he was good loyal minion material, trying to warn Westhaven about Trouble A’Coming…
But in Valentine’s book, I took away from my hero the one thing that defined him, the one bright spot for him in a sea of louder, manlier, smarter, more charming brothers. Oh, that was awful of me.
So Val had to get something even better at the end of the book, and I thought that worked out nicely for all concerned, especially in the sense that Valentine got an outright reconciliation with His Grace.
Yes, I do like that book, maybe just a little.
Hmm… I guess what I like about a romance novel is that you can be deceived by the author who is a villain and who is a good person. Elizabeth Bennett believes Mr. Wickham to be a good man and Mr. Darcey to be a bad man. I was most upset by the book Matthew, in which a dog is poisoned. I guess in a romance novel there is always hope that a character can find love and be redeemed. I am currently reading about Stalin. How does one become a monster? How does one stay in power? A little scary.
I’ll tell you what scares me: The list of professions were sociopaths are most likely to be found. Reads like a list of repositories for public trust: Cop, CEO, clergy, journalist, civil servants, surgeon, lawyer… the one I can’t figure out is chef. Why are chef’s prone to be sociopaths? I get salesman, but a chef?
Men as well as rivers grow crooked by following the path of least resistance. Thomas Jefferson
Love that. Thanks!
I like when the antagonist is believable. Villainous, but not the mustache-twirling bad guy. The orphanage “patrons” who didn’t care are believable and completely rage inducing, but not a far cry from today’s own political climate. Historical romance shouldn’t (generally) require me to suspend my disbelief to imagine and get through.
Thanks for that observation regarding Too Scot to Handle.
I never know where the Regency truly, truly parallels the present day closely, or whether I simply see the parallels because I need to. It was an odd time in England, with twenty years of war wrapping but, but peace on English soil the whole time. Women’s right contracting, democracy rising, a female monarch heading for the throne, the monarchy becoming a cultural rather than political institution… and technology rocketing forward.
Lots there for a writer to grab on to, and thank heaves, many of the people who loved then were terrifically prolific diarists and correspondents.
Tragedy and romance are the two genres that most depend on character; neither need a villain because the combination of circumstances and character (both its virtues and flaws) produce both the climax of complication and the final resolution. The normal Regency romance plots (fall in love then struggle to marry and marry then struggle to fall in love) are only compelling when we care about the characters and their union. Grace’s novels are exceptional in their varied characters and detailed portrayals to the point that even the many love scenes in her books are all unique because they follow paths set by the personalities of the couples.
True villains in a historical situation seem to demand killing, but coming at villains with guns blazing is too facile a solution to a problem and would not work in a modern romance. The equivalent in a legal romance seems to be disbarring the villain, which has the virtue of requiring the heroes to plan a comeuppance. The plot can be compelling when the ‘villain’ is merely someone working at cross purposes, perhaps with a bit of misunderstanding thrown in. Such a villain can then become a future hero; I look forward to the further adventures of Max Maitland. Despite multiple villains in Elias in Love (one of them getting disbarred), the real challenge is that the unhappy couple themselves are living lives at cross purposes but each can appreciate the other’s position since their circumstances are so similar. It seems the conclusion must be a failure as a couple, one to give up everything they hold dear or a recreation of The Gift of the Magi, but a creative resolution produces not just a happy couple, but happy villains….
What a Lady Needs for Christmas did have a slimy villain. Like any seducer (whether to lust or gaming hells) he followed the pattern of The Inner Ring, moving from the reasonable to the disastrous. While we can recognize his acts as wrong, we feel the villainy due to the effects of his actions on the heroine. The issues with the villain are resolved in the end, but the real victory comes from the leads being able to be honest with each other. I think that this novel has some flaws, but it is one of my favourites because I enjoyed Joan and her preoccupations with impractical fashion so much — a different sort of triumph of character.
Joan’s first appearance gave little idea what her story would be. We’ve probably met all the characters in Scotland to the Max; it is enough to feel we know them and predict how the couple will get together, but not the why. This provides anticipation, but not burning desire. By contrast, the leads of A Rogue of Her Own have already had scenes together. We can want them to get together and see the many problems they will have to overcome. The surprise is that they will get the ‘marry and then struggle to fall in love’ plot! Clearly circumstances (and the foreshadowed villain) are going to wrest control from the natural progression that we might have expected, but surely it is character that will make them complete.
The relevant text from The Inner Ring:
And the prophecy I make is this. To nine out of ten of you the choice which could lead to scoundrelism will come, when it does come, in no very dramatic colours. Obviously bad men, obviously threatening or bribing, will almost certainly not appear. Over a drink, or a cup of coffee, disguised as triviality and sandwiched between two jokes, from the lips of a man, or woman, whom you have recently been getting to know rather better and whom you hope to know better still—just at the moment when you are most anxious not to appear crude, or naïf or a prig—the hint will come. It will be the hint of something which the public, the ignorant, romantic public, would never understand: something which even the outsiders in your own profession are apt to make a fuss about: but something, says your new friend, which “we”—and at the word “we” you try not to blush for mere pleasure—something “we always do.”
And you will be drawn in, if you are drawn in, not by desire for gain or ease, but simply because at that moment, when the cup was so near your lips, you cannot bear to be thrust back again into the cold outer world. It would be so terrible to see the other man’s face—that genial, confidential, delightfully sophisticated face—turn suddenly cold and contemptuous, to know that you had been tried for the Inner Ring and rejected. And then, if you are drawn in, next week it will be something a little further from the rules, and next year something further still, but all in the jolliest, friendliest spirit. It may end in a crash, a scandal, and penal servitude; it may end in millions, a peerage and giving the prizes at your old school. But you will be a scoundrel.
That is my first reason. Of all the passions, the passion for the Inner Ring is most skillful in making a man who is not yet a very bad man do very bad things.
Michael, thanks for the quote in a font size human eyeballs can comprehend. CS Lewis knew a lot about evil, and The Screwtape Letters (read it as a kid) was one of my first re-reads.
Odd that you should mention Dante and Joan’s story, because that’s another personal favorite of mine. He’s not the typical duke, and they did have to “struggle to fall in love.” I like that whole series, in fact, and hope to write stories for Tiberius’s other two sisters. (Note to self: Find plots for two more Scottish Victorians…)
This is a very interesting question. A comment above refers to Anna and Morgan’s brother as “pond scum”, which he pretty much was. And yet Stull was even worse in terms of what he DID, both with women/children and with the brother. Did Helmsley fall farther? Did he have more support in his life – he did have grandparents and an education and rank – which might have curbed his addiction to money? Dunno. A sad life.
I’m trying hard to come up with a villain for St. Just (he who pops up in so many books – yay!). He had the most exposure to war and probably saw the most evil of any of your characters; it took him years and lots of torment to make his life whole again. Could Napoleon be considered an antagonist given that he affected this whole world for the worse?
Napoleon… that guy. He was sort of like WWII fixing what went wrong with WWI, in that he rose as an antidote to the power vacuum left by the Revolution and Reign of Terror…
One of the results of his compulsive warmongering was that women in France enjoyed commercial rights significantly sooner than they did elsewhere in Europe and certainly in England. Napoleon had so badly depleted France of able-bodied men (and horses, food, lumber, saleable goods, arable land… pretty much everything), that women stepped into the resulting vacuum, which–I think–resulted in a culture that remains more inclusive to this day. (Ducks into dead cat bunker.)
But yeah, Napoleon was a jerk. Claiming to end tyranny and then crowning himself emperor. Claiming to deplore nepotism but handing out positions of power to friends and family left and right–and ditching Josephine in order to found a dynasty.
In fairness to What a Lady Needs for Christmas’ Edward (and Grace’s nuanced writing), we see Edward’s fall from plot spark to villainhood as a series of increasingly bad actions in response to circumstances and temptation. No one lures him; it is just his lack of good character. Being much worse than he set out to be yet aware of his villainy makes for an interesting antagonist, but the nature of his actions keep us from feeling sympathy.
Edward strikes me as cut from the same cloth as Fletcher (Too Scot to Handle), but I think Fletcher is the more effective character. Geneva likes her older brother “Fletchie,” and we can see Fletcher’s world closing in on him. But no, he’s not going to get a book, or a novella. He was bad and he needs to stand in the corner.
I was up late last night, finishing The Traitor. I know it’s going to be a favorite. There was something heartwarming about it. Villains are often one-dimensional. They have a specific role to play and further characterization would be extraneous. But I’ve always enjoyed stories about people who are cold and hard, even cutthroat, to the rest of the world but would move mountains for the people they care about. Conflicted antagonists are always more interesting. It takes patience and empathy to try to understand what motivates them, so the people who love them regardless of what they’ve done are interesting as well. I dislike when problems are manufactured purely to stir up drama: poorly developed amnesia, silly misunderstandings that could’ve been resolved by a bit of honest conversation, secrets or enemies that turn out not to be a big deal after all. I prefer when the problem itself is interesting.
Grace I wanted to thank you for your novels, for women of strength and charm and capability and the idea of men and a male ‘hero’ who doesn’t seek to dominate but to partner. I love the descriptions of the everyday interactions, the courtship and the consideration that your characters display. I don’t think a villain is necessary to a story. Most people’s lives don’t, have them, they have the challenges of earning a living, solving their family dilemmas and cards that life deals them. It may not be as dramatic but I enjoy the parts of your books where the antagonist is life rather than an evil person and your descriptions of how your characters solve those problems together.