Apr 6 2011 9:00am

Take a Walk on the Dark Side: Villains in Romance

Neil Patrick Harris as Dr. HorribleFor me, storytelling is all about character development. Character is the essential, crucial element that captures and holds my interest in whatever I am reading. In many story lines, the villain is an irreplaceable, integral component. The desire for power will always be the controlling factor in the existence of any society: Human, animal, or supernatural, there is always the quest for dominance.

Evil is insidious, but it is never simple, or just black and white. The more layers and shades of gray it obtains, the more horrific and invasive the evil becomes. Most humans have a touch of evil. It may be just a flicker, but it’s there.

True evil seeks out that tendency for evil in others and uses it for its own dark purposes. In fiction, good fiction, at least, even the supporting players, the not- so-nice people, and especially the villains should be well-drawn and multi-layered. Minor characters, sharply etched in a few well-chosen words, add such rich flavor to a story line. I like nice characters who have an unexpected naughty streak. I love naughty characters who are nice when they least expect it themselves! I like characters who are basically defined around the edges, but still flexible enough to be surprised and revised. A “complete change of character” is not really believable, and it's also not very interesting. It's the little flaws, “uh-ohs,” and “ahs” that make for a readable character.

Love with the Perfect Scoundrel by Sophia NashOne good example of depicted villainry is in The Widows Club Series by Sophia Nash. In the third book of the series, Love With the Perfect Scoundrel, we are introduced to the villain of the piece, Rowland Manning. Driven by the hardships of his early life, Rowland is ruthless in his actions, even attempting at one point to kill his own brother.

In the fourth book, Secrets of a Scandalous Bride, Rowland is the tortured hero of his own story. We get to know the reasons for his harsh, often brutal behavior. The cruelty and deprivations he suffered in his youth made him a lean, mean, vengeance machine. To keep himself “fighting mean," he even deprives himself of the pleasures of good food, surviving on a daily regimen of rigidly bare meals. One of the ways the heroine breaks through to him is to continue to ply him with delicious food. The gingerbread, with its deep, dark spicy goodness, is a loaded weapon to man so self-deprived. When the gingerbread was served to him by a beautiful, caring woman, how could Rowland not succumb to temptation? Just like The Grinch, Rowland's heart grows three sizes that day! Here is my favorite gingerbread recipe, which, like Rowland, is unexpectedly sweet beneath the tartness:

Chocolate Gingerbread SquaresChocolate Gingerbread Squares
4 Tbsp butter (1/2 stick), melted
1/4 Cup unsweetened cocoa powder
3/4 Cup all-purpose flour
1 Tsp ground ginger
1 Tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 Tsp baking soda
1/8 Tsp ground nutmeg
1/2 Cup packed dark-brown sugar
1/4 Cup molasses
1 large egg
1/2 Cup sour cream
1 Tsp vanilla extract
1/2 Cup semisweet chocolate chips
confectioner’s sugar for dusting

Butter and lightly flour an 8-inch square baking pan. In a medium bowl, whisk together cocoa, flour, spices and baking soda. In a large bowl, whisk together butter, brown sugar, molasses, egg, and sour cream until smooth. Add flour mixture; stir just until moistened (do not overmix). Stir in vanilla extract and chocolate chips. Transfer batter to prepared pan; smooth top. Bake 30 to 35 minutes or until lightly firm to touch. When cool, sprinkle with confectioner’s sugar. Cut into 16 squares. Store in airtight container.


Many of us love the tortured, scarred, wounded heroes. Sometimes those type of heroes are very dark characters who are ultimately redeemed by love. Do you consider them villainous, or merely misunderstood? Who are your favorite villains of romantic fiction? Do you prefer an all-out, over-the-top villain who seeks to conquer the world, or are you more intrigued by an evil-doer of a smaller scale with a very personal score to settle? What about the villainess?


Virginia Campbell is a lifelong avid reader and romance lover who firmly believes in feeding body and soul with great fiction and great food.


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Heather W
1. Heather W
I like a character that is more complex then just all good or all bad. In Sherrilyn Kenyon's Darkhunter's series, Stryker is not a pleasant guy, but in his story you get his point of view and he becomes an empathetic hero and he gets his HEA. In Joey Hill's Mistress of Redemption, Jonathan was really a despicable character in an earlier book, but is able to be redeemed, becoming a better man and also getting his HEA. That act of redemption of a villainous character and making the reader care is the mark of a truly gifted writer.
Virginia Campbell
2. VirginiaCampbell
Heather, I agree with you about complex characters being more compelling to the reader. The skill of the storyteller in making us care about why the villain is a dastard, and then making him more human and appealing, is something I love to discover in my reading choices.
Donna Cummings
3. Donna Cummings
I like villains, because they are just as devoted to their goal as heroes and heroines are to theirs. LOL I don't want them to be evil necessarily, because that's a bit too frightening for me, but I do like their singlemindedness about getting what they want. I also like seeing what makes them respond a certain way, since sometimes it could so easily be twisted into something more heroic.
Virginia Campbell
4. VirginiaCampbell
Hi, Donna! Gotta love those dedicated villains : ) I think the behavorial triggers are very important in adding texture to a villain. The evildoer cutting a path through humanity will certainly capture your attention, but having insight into his actions is what makes him intriguing.
Heather W
5. Renee Vincent
Hmm...great question, Virginia. I'm usually not a villain fan, although every great romance needs some sort of antagonist. But if I had to choose, I'd suppose I prefer the villain who has a personal score to settle. Sometimes for me, the over-the-top villains aren't "believable" enough, but the ones who seek vengeance on the hero or heroine seem to pull me deeper into the story and push me to the edge of my seat. No matter what I'm reading, I usually fall in love with the H/H and, if there is a person set on destroying them or their love, then I seem to take it more personally - hence, my desire to read until the end so that I can make sure the villain is given his due!

However, I also love when the hero has a bit of villaineousness to him as well...either in self-torture or toward others. Makes him more human. The tortured hero is one of favs!

Great post, Virginia. I look forward to reading more of your posts!
Virginia Campbell
6. VirginiaCampbell
Renee, thank you so much for commenting! Congrats on the release of your first contemporary romance, "Silent Partner"!

You bring up a good point: A villain with a personal score to settle is often a more insidious evil, operating with stealth until he can no longer contain his malice. Sneaky fiends!

Those self-tortured heroes are are quite hard to resist : )

Heather W
7. Renee Vincent
You've just posted the BEST tortured hero of all time! As always, you bring such a big smile to my face! Long live the tortured hero! (And GB, of course)
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