Jilly: Can A Villain Ever Make A Great Hero?

Hero and Villain?

Hero and Villain?

Have you ever read or written a book with the bad guy (or girl) from a previous book as the hero or heroine? Did it work?

This week, I’ve been reading the historical Captive Hearts trilogy by new-to-me romance author Grace Burrowes. I really like her voice, and I’ll definitely read more of her books, but I’ve been thinking a lot about The Traitor, the second book in the series. The hero, Sebastian, is not just a bad guy, but was the torturer of Christian, the hero of The Captive, the first book. Given that The Captive is about the terrible physical and psychological damage done to Christian during his captivity and his battle to resume a normal life, making a hero of Sebastian is an ambitious undertaking.

Do I think Ms. Burrowes succeeded? Not for me, though I think she gave it a very good go. Sebastian is half-English, half-French and is unlucky enough to find himself stranded on the wrong side of the Channel when war is declared. He joins the French army rather than suffer internment, and finds himself responsible for interrogating men who would in normal circumstances have been his friends and neighbors. I think Grace Burrowes made Sebastian a surprisingly sympathetic character, though she had to employ some pretty nifty footwork to justify his actions (and I knew before I read The Captive that Sebastian’s story came next, so I was already watching out for hints and clues that he might be redeemable). I couldn’t identify with a man who was capable of the things Sebastian did, and he did them with flair, not under duress. I struggled to believe that Christian, who had suffered so badly at Sebastian’s hands, could come to terms with him, no matter what new information he became privy to. I bet there is evidence of such things happening in real life. I don’t care. I couldn’t swallow it.

It was interesting to read the reviews on Amazon. At the time of writing, there are 46 5-star reviews accepting and applauding Sebastian’s happy ending, and 2 one-stars pointing out that he is absolutely not forgivable.

I’ve been trying to find other examples of villains-turned-heroes, because eventually I want to write a book starring Sasha, the super-bitch who’s big trouble in my current WIP. Spoiler alert – she loses 🙂 – which makes her even more trouble in the next story. I love Sasha. I know what her problem is, I know loads about her story already, and I’m really excited to write it, so if there are lessons to be learned, now would be a good time.

Sherrilyn Kenyon wrote a Dark-Hunter book about Stryker, a ruthless Daimon who’s the leader of the Damned and deadly enemy of Acheron, the hero of the series. Stryker’s the bad guy to end all bad guys, but in One Silent Night he meets his match in his ex-wife. On Sherrilyn Kenyon’s web-site she says of Stryker: “From the very beginning, I’ve had a very tender spot in my heart for him. The one thing I love most, is that he has a moral code, even though he kills. He was an innocent caught up in a curse given to him by his own father. After Acheron’s book, I wanted to tell Stryker’s story.”

Did One Silent Night work for me? I read it a long time ago, and I can’t really remember, though I don’t think I was put off by Stryker’s previous bad behaviour. I think a supernatural baddie whose job description is Leader of the Damned should be expected to do really bad stuff, so his misdeeds could be justified in a way that would never work for a mere mortal – and it helps that Sherrilyn Kenyon gave him a moral compass of sorts right from the beginning. My problem was that Stryker’s book came directly after Acheron’s, and for me, that book ended the series. I was really invested in Acheron, and once his story was told, I read a couple more books but the juice wasn’t there for me any more. I see One Silent Night has more than 17,000 ratings and 500 reviews on Goodreads, though, so it clearly did the business for plenty of readers.

I think the most helpful example for me comes (as usual) from Georgette Heyer. The Duke of Avon, hero of These Old Shades and father of my beloved Vidal, of Devil’s Cub, is clearly the bad guy from her first book, The Black Moth, though he gets a name change. I absolutely love Avon. I think it works because although in The Black Moth he uses force to take what he wants, he is defeated before he can do anything terrible, is truly in love with the heroine, and is changed by his defeat. At the end of the book, he’s a sadder and wiser Duke, though he tries to mask it under his usual cloak of world-weary cynicism; his best friend says “… she would not take you, but she has, I think, made you.” Exactly.

My super-bitch, Sasha, goes after what she wants and will take out anything and anyone that gets in her way. It’s not personal, she just doesn’t care about collateral damage. She has to win without a shadow of a doubt every time, so she goes straight for the knockout blow using whatever weapons come to hand. I’m thinking that will be okay in the end so long as
– She has some kind of moral code – there are some lines she wouldn’t cross (have to think carefully about what they are);
– She doesn’t do anything truly unforgivable, though she might sail quite close;
– She’s defeated when it really matters, and she’s changed by that defeat – this definitely happens, though it will make her worse before it makes her better.

So … can a villain make a great hero? What do you think?

22 thoughts on “Jilly: Can A Villain Ever Make A Great Hero?

  1. Interesting. The only things I would add your list are: 1. Motivation – it’s helpful, though not absolutely necessary, if it turns out the baddie turned goodie had good motivation for being a baddie (but not the kind where it turns out they did it all for an aged relative or something sickly like that. Those kind always make me feel that the author didn’t have the courage of his/her convictions.). 2. It helps if they are rather dashing (Vidal falls into this category). 3. The worse they were in the first story, the more they have to be brought to their knees in this one. It’s no good if they have already done all their learning off the page between the books.

    At the end of the day, you just have to make it so the reader can identify with them/put themselves in their shoes and believe that, given the circumstances, what they did was not so far beyond the pale that it alienates them.

    How did you get on with your last scene? is it fixed. I thought the feedback you got (not mine, the others) was absolutely brilliant, so really hope it worked for you.

    • I agree with all of this, Rachel! I really don’t like the late reveal of save my relative/pay for life- saving operation from a character we’ve been led to believe is a thoroughgoing rotter. I love to see them brought to their knees and (to borrow Kay’s word) redeemed – provided we agree they are capable of redemption. That was my problem with Sebastian – he was beyond the pale for me. I’d have preferred to learn that he was working for Wellington all along – that maybe would have tipped the scales for me but I know it would never have been allowed as that would have made Wellington complicit in the torture of his own officers.

    • Re last week’s question – I agree, the feedback was brilliant. I’m so glad I put that post up 🙂 . It worked really well for me, but not quite in the way I expected. When I went back to the drawing board and really dug into each character and their motivation I realised I was rushing it; I needed a couple of new scenes leading up to the crowd scene and I needed to up the ante in a couple more. Probably borrowing from Michaeline’s observations on the build up to the big scene in A Civil Campaign.

      So I have a pretty good placeholder for the crowd scene but some really good stuff on the ones leading up to it, and I’m very happy with that.

      • I’m so glad that you’ve worked it out Jilly 🙂

        The other vital ingredient I forgot it an incredibly strong hero(ine) – ie the love interest. If one out of the H/H is a bit of a s**t (to be blunt about it – often, but not always, it’s the man. – again, think Vidal), then you have to think, oh yes, they will meet their match here and be rubbing your hands with glee about the fireworks that are to follow.

        • That’s an excellent point – a redeemable bad guy is going to be a serious challenge, and since his (her) antagonist must be stronger and smarter, that’s a recipe for powerful conflict and lots of fun for the reader. A hero with a strong streak of bad isn’t likely to be redeemed by a heroine of shining goodness, but a strong woman who will take no nonsense. Exactly my catnip!

        • OH! My catnip is role reversal. So I would love to see The Good Man redeeming the absolute bitch. (-: Do you think the hero is going to have to shoot her at some point? Mary shoots Vidal (very nice recap at tor. com http://www.tor.com/blogs/2012/10/refining-the-rake-as-hero-devils-cub-by-georgette-heyer). And Lord of Scoundrels by Loretta Chase also has a lady heroine shooting the hero.

          (But thinking about it, I think it’s very difficult in this day and age for the hero to reform the heroine. It smacks of patriarchy, not cool role-reversal. I think Sasha is going to have to cut herself off at the knees, and the hero can catch her when she falls. And not be smug about it. Which doesn’t really sound like “romance” to me, but rather, woman’s journey. Which is good stuff, too.)

        • We are definitely in role reversal territory here, Michaeline. You’re right, the bitch is going to have to redeem herself, but the catalyst is a very good, strong man who knows her really, really well and loves her anyway. And who doesn’t give a damn about her money. Sigh. 🙂

  2. Jeanne’s doing that right now with Belial and Dara!

    It seems to me to be all about redemption. If the author can sell the idea that the villain’s been redeemed, then…sure. I tend not to read series much, so I’m not really familiar with character transformations of that magnitude from book to book. However, stories of redemption are all over, although I’m struggling to think of a few.:-) Dead Man Walking is a movie that comes to mind.

    • Redemption – exactly, Kay. The thing that was on my mind was that the redemption is so much harder to achieve if the unforgivable behavior was directed against the hero of a previous book, because that makes it so much more personal for the reader.

  3. Two villains turned heroes that I adore leap to mind. Sinjin, who starts out in H.P. Mallory’s Jolie Wilkins series but now has his own series, and Roly from Patricia Veryan’s Golden Chronicles. (Note: I haven’t read the Golden Chronicles in literally decades, so I’m going from dim memories on that one. Roly made quite the impression, though.)

    Like you, Jilly, I won’t buy a hero I have seen do unforgivable deeds in the past. Neither Sinjin nor Roly torture men, hit women, kill animals, or are cruel to children. I think there are certain lines that can’t be crossed, but those lines are different for everyone. As an author you have to decide how many readers you’re willing to lose and draw your line accordingly.Obviously, Ms. Burrow’s readers have no problem with torture. Interesting insight into modern society there.

    I think I buy into Sinjin and Roly’s conversions because they happen over several books. In the beginning neither of them are actively sadistic, but they have no moral compass. They both learn about morals and love first by observing it in others (we get to see them take this in and internalize it). Then they experience real love for themselves for the first time (and lose). By the time they get to be the heroes of their own stories they have integrated a heroic moral code and capacity for love into their characters.

    • I don’t know either of these stories, Jennifer, but I like the sound of them. That’s exactly the kind of transformation that I could buy and really enjoy. More titles for the TBR list!

  4. In Save the Cat, Blake Snyder talks about redeeming your protagonist with a moment, somewhere early in the narrative, where he displays some redeeming quality (i.e. “saves the cat.”). In Susan Elizabeth Phillips’ Ain’t She Sweet, Sugar Beth starts out pretty awful. She’s angry and bitter; she’s even mean (verbally) to her dog. As a spoiled teenager, she publicly humilated her half-sister and then lied and destroyed a teacher who dared to call her on her behavior. But there’s a moment, near the beginning of the book, when that former teacher has her at his mercy and he actually does the stuff she accused him of (kissing and groping her). And she stands there and takes it, thinking, “I had this coming.” And, even though she’s a pretty unpleasant specimen, that moment she displays a sense of justice and fairness that redeems her (at least for me). Ain’t She Sweet is probably my favorite SEP for that reason. (Even though I don’t love the secret-baby ending.)

    I’ve tried to do the same thing with Belial. When I (ever) have a draft completed, my beta readers will need to tell me whether it works.

    • What a great example Jeanne – Ain’t She Sweet is my favourite SEP book, exactly for the reason that neither H or H are saints and that gives the whole thing a brilliant edge. Now I think of it, the fourth book in Lauren Willig’s Pink Carnation series (which is about Napoleonic spies) has a complete b**ch at the main character and, again, it’s my favourite book in the series – starting to wonder what this says about me. Forgot to say book is called The Seduction of the Crimson Rose, if anyone interested.

      • Ain’t She Sweet is my favorite SEP too, though like Jeanne I’m not a fan of the surprise baby ending. My caveat in terms of this discussion is that Sugar Beth’s bad behavior was far in the past so the reader wasn’t part of it, and though she reaps the consequences by coming home, she is older and wiser and tries to make amends in her own way. Sugar Beth has already learned her lessons, though the locals don’t know it, which puts the reader on Sugar Beth’s side as everyone in town is mean to her.

        I wonder – here’s a what if? What if there had been two books – the first one set much earlier starring Colin as hero and Winnie as the heroine. Colin almost lost his home, his job and his true love as a result of Sugar Beth’s spiteful actions before she was outed as a liar, and Winnie’s life was made a misery by Sugar Beth’s rich girl clique. The second book is Sugar Beth and her childhood sweetheart, Ryan. If we as readers had already owned Colin and Winnie’s love story and hated and despised Sugar Beth for her lying, selfish, spiteful ways, would we have found it harder or impossible to care about her when she came home, broke and sorry, years later?

        • That’s a good point Jilly (re horrible actions being off the page and in the past). Hmm, does Sasha do things that have a certain elan/a certain style to them that the reader might almost unwillingly admire, even whilst disliking her? By the way, do you still have Sasha POV in current story (what’s it called now – has Rent and Cornflakes definitely bitten the dust?) – if so, does this help or hinder later redemption?

        • I think Sasha has a certain élan (guilty secret – I really like her) but I am re-thinking the way I use her. I had a really good conversation with an editor in San Antonio, and she said my current draft was giving too much of Sasha away too quickly. It was making her too sympathetic too soon and she was getting in the way of Ian and Rose’s story (rather like Kay’s Helga and Flo’s secondary character who was trying to hijack her story). The editor said she would not give Sasha a POV in the current book and that it should still be possible to make her a three-dimensional character through Ian’s and Rose’s POV (true). I thought about it afterwards and decided she was right. For now I have taken Sasha’s POV out of my current WIP, though I will definitely re-use some of the scenes, probably in Sasha’s own book. I think I would like to give her an arc more like the one Jennifer describes re Sinjin and Roly in her post above – things change for her over the next three books (at least) and then she gets her own story. I already have lots of notes for it – stuff I got from Jennifer and a great snippet I found on a website a few weeks ago.

          Title – I’m not sure. In emails I’ve been calling it NRNC (Not Rent & Cornflakes) but I might still change my mind. I entered a snippet of it in a contest last week and called it Dealing With McKenzie (not sure about that either). I also scribbled McKenzie’s Deal, McKenzie’s Rose and Rose of Kinross in another page of brainstorming attempts to find something that sounded Scottish and romantic. Gah. As you can see, my wheels are still spinning 🙂 .

        • Oh, yes, she has a lot of elan. I think she’s got a very, very good reason to be angry, and maybe incorporating some of that backstory into Book 2 will be enough. New readers will realize there’s backstory, and sequential readers will suddenly see, “Oh! Now I see! I have to go back and read Book 1 because that puts Sasha into a whole new light!”

          Perhaps just keeping her consistent, but revealing info about her so that it’s a real revelation for the loyal reader? It’s kind of a special Easter egg just for the loyal reader. (While of course, being perfectly good information to reward the new reader.)

  5. (-: I’m going to comment before reading. But I think you hit the nail on the head — you must set up the villain as redeemable in Book One. And then you redeem her in Book Two, and the arc should be stunning.

    Have you seen Despicable Me? I watched the second movie before the first, and new the good guy had a past. In these two stories, the bad guy IS the good guy; the first story is about his arc to becoming a hero, and the second story is about . . . . Not sure. Getting his reward for staying on the straight and narrow? Anyway, they are cute movies, and the second qualifies as a romance. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1323594/

    • The bad guy IS the good guy – exactly what I’m after, Michaeline! I do more reading than watching, but I’m going to order Despicable Me 1&2 right now. They look fun!

  6. Pingback: Jilly: Good Book Squee – Historical Romance | Eight Ladies Writing

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