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?