Call me old-fashioned, I like writing most of my villains as really bad guys. There’s something to be said for moral ambiguity, although I usually prefer that in my heroes than in my villains. However, I figure other people have a corner on the shades-of-gray villains. As a certain vampire slayer once said, “I like my villains like I like my men: evil.”
This is not to be confused with the sloppy writing that comes from writing evil characters who call themselves evil. There’s a difference between a villain who knows other people call him evil and uses it ironically and a villain who truly believes he is evil and does evil gleefully for evil’s sake. I can think of a handful of self-aware evil villains who could pull it off. But most of the time, it’s lazy, like the Chosen Prophecy, as though no one can save the world unless it’s prophesied and as though no one can be evil without saying so every ten pages.
I like evil villains – I like reading them and writing them – but it’s always important for me to understand why the villain does what he does (and it’s usually a he for me, but not always). Evil people don’t think they’re evil. Evil people think other people haven’t reached their level of understanding. Evil people are narcissistic, sometimes insecure, sometimes criminally insane. (While we’re on that subject, let me add that making your character criminally insane also isn’t an excuse for lazy characterization. Insanity has an internal logic. It’s not always easy to understand. In fact, writing a criminally insane villain should be harder to write rather than easier. Otherwise it’s just insulting.)
Some of the most disturbing erotic stories I’ve written are ones in which I identify way too much with the villain. In “Wood and Bone,” the short novella that will never see the light of day because of publishing standards, I exorcised a lot of demons through the main character. In Wolf Girl, whose fate is uncertain at this point, I built the villain around a lot of issues that I deal with regarding myself. I wrote Wolf Girl in a very uncomfortable state sometimes, and not the fun kind.
I like my villains to be bad people, very bad people, but perhaps I also want to show that these bad people can be sympathetic … and maybe even you. Oooh, plot twist.
Also, a bastard is totally a blast to work with in erotica, which is probably why the bastard is a common trope in romantic and erotic fiction. I don’t mind the existence of the bastard as a fantasy outlet. It’s the reason that Snape gets as much if not more love than Harry Potter among fans. The thing about the bastard or the villain is that he usually takes what he wants – but in fantasy, that happens to be what the protagonist wants or didn’t even know he or she wanted. So the bastard works in romantic or sexual fantasy … but it’s still troubling to me to make that bastard the hero rather than the villain (a la Twilight; full disclosure, it’s a guilty pleasure for me). They’re also good as gray-area characters maybe, but as the hero, and not even the morally ambiguous, gritty anti-hero, but the shiny white knight hero? it’s disturbing for me to see the bastard fantasy taken as a true romantic ideal – he loves you so much he treats you crap, isn’t that romantic?
Give me a dark villain any day of the week. Make them evil, but remember that he doesn’t think he’s evil. He just thinks he’s better. Have fun with him, but never forget that he’s a tiger out of its cage. He’s not domesticated, and that way that he treats you? It’s not True Love (TM). He may love you in his own way, but that’s not the kind of love to hold up as the pinnacle of romance. Because that’s just kind of creepy.
Also remember that evil doesn’t always mean “destroy the world with my electro-ray.” Sometimes evil is simple and petty, and it’s usually more affecting and effective when it’s personal.