This week, I have the ever-enjoyable and incomparable Lisabet Sarai joining us again to talk about one of my favorite topics and the theme of the month: Villains. So get your maniacal laugh ready and ensconce yourself within your dark fortress. This is going to be a fantastic month.
I’ve been writing all my life, and publishing for nearly fifteen years, but I’m still learning how to write effective villains. It’s all too easy to go off the deep end, to make them so loathsome that they’re boring. Pure evil is just too predictable.
When my crit partner Chris read my first attempt at a serious villain, Teodoro Raphael Remorros in my Mayan-themed paranormal Serpent’s Kiss, he commented diplomatically, “He’s a bit of a mustache-twirler, isn’t he?” And Chris was absolutely on target. In version one of the book, Remorros was a cartoon. He oozed cruelty from every pore. No one would trust him for a minute – most certainly not my somewhat cynical heroine Dr. Elena. Despite his magical powers, readers would understand immediately that Remorros didn’t stand a chance of vanquishing Jorge, the hero. And that removed a significant source of suspense and excitement.
Chris taught me that villains need to be ambiguous, with some flash of brilliance or beauty to balance their darkness. Even more important, villains need a reason to be bad. Their evil deeds must make internal sense, given their situation, goals or history. The most memorable villains believe their actions are justified.
In the most compelling stories, the villain in some way mirrors or resembles the hero (or heroine). The two characters have some fundamental traits in common. This sets up a tension, keeping the tale a bit off balance, because there’s always some possibility that the hero or heroine might slip over the line and be lost to the dark side. This dynamic is one of the driving forces in Aurelia’s novel Winter Howl. Renee is tempted not only by her raw attraction to Grant but also by the promise of power he dangles in front of her when he offers to turn her. Grant strips her bare to show her the wildness that lives inside her, a feral quality almost twin to his own.
Consider Frodo Baggins, the heroic young hobbit in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. His mirror is Gollum, once a hobbit himself, but so corrupted by magic of the one Ring that he has become a vicious and tenacious wraith eaten alive by desire to reclaim that lost talisman. At the climax of that epic, Frodo, who has journeyed and suffered in the quest to destroy the Ring, finds he cannot bring himself to discard it. In fact, the Lord of the Rings saga features multiple reflecting pairs of characters, one “evil” and one “good”.
I applied my mentor’s lesson with more success in my M/M paranormal Necessary Madness. Practically every review of that novel praised my seductive, amoral villain, Stefan Aries. Both Stefan and my hero Kyle come from families in which various paranormal abilities tend to be hereditary. Both are orphans. Kyle has inherited the ability to see into the future, but finds this a curse rather than a blessing. He suffers from prescient visions so intense, uncontrolled and disorienting that he’s hovering on the edge of insanity. Stefan, on the other hand, is the only member of his family without some sort of special ability. Bitter and envious, he practices black magic in order to steal the powers he believe are his birthright. The rituals require him to murder and mutilate the original owners; Stefan sees this as unfortunate but necessary. Meanwhile, Stefan’s sexual charisma tempts Kyle to submit, even though Kyle’s heart belongs to the gruff, closeted cop Rob Murphy.
In my most recent release, The Eyes of Bast, I introduce a female antagonist, a two hundred year old sorceress named Delphine Montserrat. She’s malicious and cruel, but has a sort of glamor that makes her difficult to resist.
My heroine Shaina Williams appears at first to be an ordinary woman, a compassionate animal lover who falls in love with the feline shape shifter Delphine created to be her familiar and her sexual plaything. As Shaina fights for her lover’s freedom, however, it becomes clear that she’s more like Delphine than she’d realized. She’s the heir to her own hereditary magic. And like the sorceress, she’s susceptible to the temptation of power and immortality.
Meanwhile, Delphine reveals her history as a victim of sexual and magical exploitation, a history that poisoned her heart and mind. My goal was to kindle some sympathy for the broken, world-weary witch, to demonstrate how evil begets evil.
Here’s a quick excerpt that I hope demonstrates some of my points.
My cell phone chirped again, interrupting my musings. I snatched up the handset and brought it to my ear.
“Hello?” The voice on the other end of the connection was pure melody, clear and sweet, with the sort of crystalline beauty that brings tears to your eyes. I’d never heard anything like it.
“Ah – yes? Can – can I help you?”
“Are you the individual who posted the notices about the lost cat?” Perfect diction. A smooth cadence. Softness and yet underneath, a flash of steel. She paused for several moments, as if waiting for my answer, before continuing in a somewhat more forceful tone. “Have you found my Melchior?”
“Um—” I struggled against the spell of that intoxicating voice. “Ah, I found a cat, yes. A big black cat. Do you think he’s yours?”
“I’m certain he is, based on the photo. Black as midnight, without a single white hair, am I correct? With eyes like orbs of polished sea glass? The most beautiful cat you’ve ever seen.”
Tom was on his feet, the hair on his back bristling and his teeth exposed in a silent snarl. Hush, I mouthed at him.
“Well, he was a fine cat, I agree.” My mind raced. I needed to find out where she was staying, without revealing our own location.
“Was? Has he been harmed?”
“He had a wounded leg when I discovered him in Central Park.” To tell a convincing lie, bolster it with truth. “But I don’t have him anymore. I brought him to the Animal Haven shelter, down on Centre Street.”
“Ah, excellent. Can you give me the exact address, please? I’ll go pick him up right away.” Despite her polite turn of phrase, it felt like an order. And part of me wanted to obey.
“I’m afraid he has already been adopted.” I glanced over at Tom. He sat up tall, his ears tilted in my direction and his unblinking eyes riveted on my face.
“What do you mean, adopted? Doesn’t the shelter try to find a stray’s owner first?”
“Given his condition – not neutered, no tags, collar or microchip – the shelter staff decided that the animal was feral, that he had no owner. On the other hand, he appeared well socialized, so they decided to make him available for immediate adoption.”
“How do you know all this, Ms. …”
“Williams. Shaina Williams.” It was out of my mouth before I could stop myself. I didn’t have time to resist. Tom released a barely audible whine, baring his teeth once more. “I sometimes volunteer at Animal Haven.”
“So you were the person who found him, Ms. Williams?”
“Yes, Ma’am, a few days ago.” Damn, why was I volunteering all this information? “I brought him to the shelter right away so they could treat his leg.”
“However, the ‘Lost Cat’ notices appeared only this morning – after he had been adopted? Why?” The voice at the other end of the connection was as musical and even as ever, but I sensed her suspicion.
“Well – um – I had the feeling, somehow, that he wasn’t really a stray. He was very friendly to me, anyway. And I thought if we could find the actual owner, we could contact the people who’d adopted the cat and get him back.”
“Ah, an excellent idea, Ms. Williams. Thank you! If you’ll give me the name and phone of those people, I’d be very grateful. I’ll get in touch with them myself and sort this whole matter out.”
I swiped my forearm against my forehead, which was damp with sweat. Think, girl! Tom crouched next to me, his limbs pulled into tight ball. His obvious tension just made me more nervous.
“I’m sorry, but I don’t have that information, and even if I did, it would be against shelter policy to disclose it to you.” I heard a sigh of exasperation coming from the other end of the conversation.
“I don’t care about policy, I just want my beloved Melchior back.” Her tone almost succeeded in kindling my sympathy, even though I knew the truth about her relationship to her “beloved Melchior”. “Please, Ms. Williams – Shaina – find out for me, won’t you?” It was perfect imitation of a bereaved pet owner.
“Well – I will see what I can do. But I’ll need your full contact details – name, address, phone, and so on. And you’ll have to come to the shelter with proof that the cat is yours.”
“I can do that. I can definitely do that. I’m Delphine Monserrat. Currently I’m living at 1 West 72nd Street, Apartment 16. 646-333-1666. How soon can I retrieve my pet?”
I scribbled the information on the back of a Chinese take-out menu. The address sounded familiar. “I’m not sure, Ms. Monserrat, but I’ll call you as soon as I have any news.”
“And I have your number of course. In case I don’t hear from you.” The woman’s voice was as pleasant as ever. Still, knowing who she was, I recognized the statement for the threat that it was.
“I’ll be in touch. 646-333-1666, right?”
“That is correct. Please, Ms. Williams. Don’t disappoint me.”
She broke off the call without waiting for my reply.
My hands were shaking as I put down my phone. Tom wailed. He hissed when I tried to pet him.
Writing a good (i.e. a convincingly bad) villain is tough, because the antagonist has two roles in the narrative: first, to move the plot forward (by threatening, harming or placing obstacles in the way of the protagonists) and second, to reveal character (by commonalities and contrasts with the hero or heroine). I believe that to do this well, an author needs to look at the story from the villain’s point of view. We need to exploit the parallelism, to remember that the villain lives in a mirror world to the hero. From the villain’s perspective, it’s the hero who represents the obstacle or problem. Stories that recognize and acknowledge this will be more believable and more satisfying.
Who are your favorite fictional villains, and why? Leave a comment that includes your email address on this post, and I’ll enter you into a drawing for your choice among the three books I’ve mentioned in this post. I’ll be away on vacation next week, so I’ll draw the winner on the 27th of July.
Lisabet Sarai became addicted to words at an early age. She began reading when she was four. She wrote her first story at five years old and her first poem at seven. Since then, she has written plays, tutorials, scholarly articles, marketing brochures, software specifications, self-help books, press releases, a five-hundred page dissertation, and lots of erotica and erotic romance – more than fifty single author titles, plus dozens of short stories in various erotic anthologies, including the Lambda winner Where the Girls Are and the IPPIE Best Erotic Book of 2011, Carnal Machines. Her gay scifi erotic romance Quarantine won a Rainbow Awards 2012 Honorable Mention.
Lisabet has more degrees than anyone would ever need, from prestigious educational institutions who would no doubt be deeply embarrassed by her chosen genre. She has traveled widely and currently lives in Southeast Asia with her indulgent husband and two exceptional felines, where she pursues an alternative career that is completely unrelated to her creative writing.
For more information about Lisabet and her writing, visit her website (http://www.lisabetsarai.com) or her blog Beyond Romance (http://lisabetsarai.blogspot.com). She also hangs out at the group blog Oh Get a Grip (http://ohgetagrip.blogspot.com), writes monthly reviews for Erotica Revealed (http://www.eroticarevealed.com) and contributes to the ERWA blog (http://erotica-readers.blogspot.com).