Villainy

On IMDB, I read that screen testers who watched an early cut of Fatal Attraction hated the ending because the Glenn Close character didn’t die badly enough. They wanted her set on fire, drawn, quartered, and, if I remember the quote correctly, “blown away.” So in the version that was released to theatres, Close’s character’s ending was rewritten, because, as the trivia page for the movie says, “preview audiences felt that [Close’s character] was not brought to justice.” Her come-uppance had to match and even out as much as possible her crimes. The ending had to serve as some restitution for the damages she caused, if only in the viewer’s mind.

That rewritten ending came to mind when I was discussing villains in contemporary romances and romantic suspense novels with some of the members of the Washington Romance Writers this past weekend.

 

The WRW is a huge chapter – over 200 members – and after the meeting, some members of the Board went out for coffee and then dinner, and like any gathering of romance fans and writers in the genre, finding topics to chat about was way easy. At one point the discussion turned to villains and books the scared the crap out of us. I mentioned Blue Smoke, which to this day I can’t reread unless I know the doors and windows are locked and the dog is awake—and since my dog has cataracts and is about 9000 years old in human years, keeping the old man awake is mostly for my own comfort so I have something to hold onto while I scare the crap out of myself.

When I mentioned Blue Smoke, one of the women said that she didn’t like the book because she didn’t think the villain got served enough of the can of restitution whoop-ass in the end. His crimes were so evil and so awful that there was no making up for them, even in the end when the evil is vanquished and everyone else lives happily ever after. While she was explaining why the villain went too far down the road of no return, it made me wonder if there’s a Too Evil To Bear scale for villains, like there’s a Too Stupid to Live scale for heroines. Heroines who are Too Stupid Too Live, depending on the reader and where the heroine falls on the scale, aren’t likeable, and aren’t characters who keep us reading—I’ve definitely put down books because the heroine was a foolish twatnugget. And I’ve had problems with books where the hero’s actions were irredeemable to the point where I didn’t think he could make amends sufficiently enough to justify his happy ending. We debated that a few years ago in the thread on rape in romance with the hero from Whitney My Love, and it was one of the major reasons I didn’t like Claiming the Courtesan – I didn’t think the hero could redeem himself enough in my eyes for me to believe the happy ending. There were many other people who thought differently, for whom the hero’s actions in the end made up for the beginning.

With the number of serial killers in romantic suspense novels rivaling the number of dukes in historicals, there’s no shortage of vile crime. Have there been villains whose actions are so vile, so completely irredeemable that no matter what happened to the Baddy McBadston, it wasn’t enough to cleanse the palate sufficiently and make room for the fully-developed happy ending?

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General Bitching...

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  1. 1
    Heather says:

    I can’t think of a baddy who was so bad that s/he couldn’t be punished enough.

    But this does remind me of the Princess Bride:

    Boy: Who gets Humperdink?
    Grandfather: I don’t understand.
    Boy: Who kills Prince Humperdink? At the end, somebody’s got to do it. Is it Inigo? Who?
    Grandfather: Nobody. Nobody kills him. He lives.
    Boy: You mean he wins? Jesus, Grandpa! What did you read me this thing for?

    Because, honestly, Humperdink should have died …

  2. 2
    Carrie Lofty says:

    I picked up Blue Smoke at the library because of your mention in BHB and had to skim the last 100 pages. I’m SO not cut out for rom susp. Iz wuss.

  3. 3
    Randi says:

    Heather: Good one!!!! LOL.

  4. 4
    Reacher Fan says:

    I have not read Claiming the Courtesan, but I did read Whitney My Love many years ago and the ending just made me mad as hell.  Clayton should have been castrated.  Slowly.  He was utterly despicable and frankly beyond forgiveness much less his victims love.  For someone that started out as a character of strength, Whitney turned into victim of abuse who excused her abuser.  How often is that cycle repeated in real life with tragic results?  How could someone – anyone – see love in this?  His cold calculation in his acts of degradation, physical and emotional abuse were beyond redemption.  Sorry, that was one Duke that well and truly deserved a life of hell on earth, not HEA. 

    There are characters for whom no suitable end can be found to balance the horror they have inflicted.  In real life and in books, monsters exist and sane people cannot inflict a punishment that equals their crimes.

  5. 5
    Kalen Hughes says:

    Hmmmmmmmm, I can’t think of one . . . oh great, now all I can think of is the old biddy in Waking Ned Divine who gets hit by the bus while attempting to rat out the village. Everyone in my theatre cheered. It was surreal.

  6. 6
    Julie M says:

    This isn’t quite the same but I have to mention Sanctuary by Nora Roberts. Of course Nora is an amazing writer but the set up for the story was a heinious crime by the father of the hero perpetrated on the mother of the heroine twenty years before the book takes place. I won’t say more about the story but I hate hate hate that book. The story couldn’t happen without the step up but I so hate that the hero’s father got away with his crime and was only found out after his death. Even though I realize logically that this is a well plotted book with a happy ending I closed the book sick that the (fictional!) father got way with his crime. On one hand Ms. Roberts did an amazing job of depicting the characters and plotting the book (SOP for her imo),  but I couldn’t get past the fact that a fictional character got way with such a heinous crime. I’m not sure I’m rational about this to this day. Man Nora can write and I love her books but that one…. left me unable to appreciate the happy ending… yet there would have been no book if the set-up had not happened….. see I’m not rational…

  7. 7
    Keira says:

    That should be a SAT question:

    Serial Killer : Romantic Suspense as ____ : ____

    A) Kick-Ass Heroines : Paranormal Romance
    B) Dukes : Historical Romance
    C) Warriors : Highlander Romance
    D) Virgin Mistresses : Category Romance
    E) All of the above.

  8. 8
    Elizabeth Wadsworth says:

    The only one I can think off offhand is in a movie:  John Houston’s character in Chinatown.  Of course, the ending wouldn’t have been so effectively noirish and creepy if he’d gotten his comeuppance.

  9. 9
    Willa says:

    There’s a couple of entries about this sort of thing on TVTROPES.ORG. Such as, this:

    http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/CompleteMonster

    Sometimes a villain is not more fun to watch than the heroes. Sometimes a villain isn’t entertaining at all. These are villains whose horrific actions earn our disgust, anger and hatred. These evil characters very frequently believe life is all about them, don’t understand the nature of morality, and even more frequently simply don’t care.

    In fact, they are so horrible, that the only logical reaction from the audience is to want to see them destroyed. These monsters seem to predominantly appear in darker and edgier works. As a result, when writers create these sorts of villains, they sometimes win, to show just what a horrible world we live in. But they also show up in revenge stories, where the act that first defines the character in question as a monster is often the one that sets the hero on his Roaring Rampage Of Revenge, and can even appear in stories aimed at children (especially fantasy works) — they’re just more likely to get what’s coming to them. These villains almost NEVER appear in comedic works unless they are dark comedies of the nastiest sort.

    Note that the audience’s desire to see the villain destroyed has to do with their monstrosity rather than the quality of the writing. A Complete Monster is deliberately created to be despised.

    Then there’s this link:

    http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/MoralEventHorizon?from=Main.RapeTheDog

    when a TV or movie villain commits an act so despicable that he or she cannot be redeemed, and if this villain was once charismatic or sexily evil, he is now only evil, and must be destroyed. Etc.

    There’s also “Evil Has Standards:”
    http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/EvenEvilHasStandards

    and so forth. Man I love that site!

  10. 10
    Sarah W says:

    Heather—-

    I always thought that Westly’s “To the Pain” speech in hte movie outlined a fitting punishment for Humperdink.

    Although I suppose surviving (so to speak) to win back Humperdink’s bridepawn and leaving him as if he was less than nothing was probably a pretty good punishment in and of itself.

    This is all for the movie, though.  He definitely should have died in the book.

    At least Inigo got his father’s murderer—-that scene, that final line: I want my father back, you son of a bitch,  always gives me a frisson of pure righteous justice.  And a couple of tears, too . . .

  11. 11
    Becca says:

    There’s another of Nora’s that the ending really bothered me on.. can’t be bothered to run upstairs to go look for it, but it’s the one with the Satanist coven, where it’s implied that the Real Villain gets off scott-free to re-form the coven somewhere else. I hate that book so badly that I can never remember the title. (but I love Blue Smoke, and think it’s one of Nora’s best.)

  12. 12
    Jenica says:

    Becca, I think that’s Divine Evil…I agree, very disconcerting.  However, I usually forgive heroes who don’t deserve it – maybe it’s a super-suspension of belief.  One that stands out for me is Johanna Lindsey’s So Speaks the Heart.  He’s a complete asshat, but at the end when he’s walking away, defeated, and I think she’s going to let him go, I actually choke up!

  13. 13
    Bev Stephans says:

    The book that comes to my mind is “The Bad Seed”.  In the movie, Rhoda gets her comeuppance at the end, but the book has a completely different ending.  Talk about the villain(ess) getting away with murder.

  14. 14
    Sarah says:

    Severin from Rosehaven by Catherine Coulter didn’t deserve a happy ending. It was my first rape romance. A few chapters in I (literally) threw it against the wall. I kept picking it up and chucking it around until I finished it. At first I was waiting for the REAL hero to come into the story, and then for her to beat his head in. Sadly, this did not happen and he lived happily ever after when SHE apologized for making life difficult for him. It was my first Coulter book and I don’t think I can bring myself to read another one.

  15. 15
    Melissandre says:

    I get annoyed with villains who are too stupid to live.  You know… the ones with paper-thin motives for their villany (“The inheritance should be mine!!”  “Your woman should be mine!!”  “Etcetera!!”).  This is usually when the author feels compelled to stick a sinister subplot into the book; sometimes it works, but is often just an annoying distraction from the nookie.

    By the by, one villain that I think did not get a full comeuppance was my namesake, Melissandre Sharizai from Kushiel’s Dart and Kushiel’s Chosen.  She plots two potential coups, and betrays her country to a horde of violent barbarians.  What’s her punishment?  Life in a convent.  Not right…

  16. 16
    Leslie H says:

    I can’t read Janet E’s Plum series because of the bad guy in the first book. I think there is a sort of agreement between reader and author and since I was expecting PG-13 and suddenly got NC-17 my trust in the author felt betrayed. I don’t care how clever the characters are if I can’t trust the author and her “Brand”.

    If I am reading Hammet, I know it’s going to get very ugly and bitter. If I am reading JD Robb, I know upfront that there is a boatload more violence than in her Nora Roberts work.

    Then again I know lots of folks who weren’t as bothered by ONE FOR THE MONEY. Taste figures in prominently and our own emotional hot keys.

    On Villains:  Dungeons and Dragons has a book called THE EXEMPLARS OF EVIL which says that a Bad Guy has to have a clearly defined Motive, Objective, and Plan of Action. I think a lot of fiction villains are a little shaky on more than one of these.

    Security word result42 it makes my geek heart happy!

  17. 17
    Jojo says:

    I can’t read Janet E’s Plum series because of the bad guy in the first book. I think there is a sort of agreement between reader and author and since I was expecting PG-13 and suddenly got NC-17 my trust in the author felt betrayed.

    I’m so glad to hear someone else say this!  I am a social worker working with foster kids, so I see a lot dark, evil things in my everyday life.  I read romance as a means of escape knowing that there will be a HEA for the good people and the bad guys will pay for their crimes—something that I see far too seldom in my life.  When I started One for the Money I assumed it would be a funny, carefree read but instead ended up having nightmares.  I’ve been told that the later books in the series aren’t as dark but I have zero interest in reading them now as I have no trust in the author.

  18. 18

    Life is now full. I have learned of the twatnugget.
    Anyway, I agree that some villians need a serious killing in a bad way. What I’ve discovered though, in my journey of reading things I don’t normally read this year in Iraq, however, is that romance tends to want to pull back. This guy can’t be tortured b/c they can’t see themselves doing just that b/c a sensible woman should forgive.
    I’m all about vengence in my characters. In fact, if someone is allowed to live and it’s completely out of character for the wronged party, it feels like a betrayal of my expectations as a reader.
    I just finished Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett and it’s not a romance, HOWEVER, I never wanted a character to die a horrible death as badly as I wanted William Hamleigh to die.
    SPOILER: he got the worst of it, though I would have liked to see him get it when he was younger, in the end, his death was satisfying b/c it wasn’t quick and he ended up with nothing.

  19. 19

    Well.  I have to admit my taste for revenge and punishment isn’t very well-defined.  I’ve found books ruined for me by killing villains at the end, especially when the hero or heroine does it and then walks off into the sunset, as if nothing is wrong.

    Doesn’t matter how bad the dude is.  If you kill another human, no matter how necessary, no matter how tiny your role in their demise, you’re going to be pretty screwed up.  It’s just not a happy ending to me.

  20. 20
    Lady T says:

    I’ve always been a fan of villains in literature and depending on the evil level,have either relished their downfall or rooted them on(particularly if they happened to go after people just as bad or worse than them-Dexter,for example).

    Hannibal Lector is a classic “Too Evil To Live” guy,but he’s so smooth with his wickedness that you’re not totally disappointed about him getting away(even in the book version of Hannibal that Hollywood didn’t have the guts to truly adapt). Voldemort,on the other hand,is one TETL that you’re just about begging to see get what he deserves.

    Sometimes,it makes a better point to the story to have the bad guy walk away,seemingly unscathed. The Usual Suspects is perfectly brilliant because of that bit of business-“poof! And then,he’s gone.”

  21. 21
    Mary Stella says:

    Just like I enjoy a great romantic resolution where the hero and heroine achieve their happily ever after ending, I expect the villain to get what’s coming to him/her/them—in a glorious, technicolor ass-whipping.  (Said ass-whipping can be literally or figuratively delivered as long as the villain knows his uppance hath come and is verily pissed off that he was defeated—at the hands of the hero and heroine.)

  22. 22
    Lori says:

    I don’t normally focus that much on how the villain gets his/her comeuppance in romance novels. As long as there is some sort of punishment I’m usually OK with it. I know there have been times when I thought the villain deserved worse than he got, but it doesn’t ruin the book for me.

    What does ruin a book is when the hero or heroine does something I find unforgivable. Like Sarah I sometimes feel that h/h has done something so rotten that I don’t want to see him/her get an HEA. It feels too much like rewarding someone for being rotten and I don’t enjoy that. I’m in the middle of a book right now where I’m so mad at the heroine that I have no interest in seeing her happy. If things don’t improve in a hurry this one is going to be a wall-banger.

    Those with a preference for a more vengeance oriented approach to evil might want to consider the Reacher books by Lee Child. Reacher has no patience with the bad guys. (Note: There’s always a woman, but the books aren’t romances and most of them are pretty dark.)

  23. 23
    Sycorax says:

    While I can’t actually remember how Steerpike from Gormenghast died, I remember it wasn’t bad enough. I hated him so much it spoiled my enjoyment of the book. That’s pretty rare for me. I generally enjoy villains and I like it when their fate doesn’t involve straightforward righteous punishment.

    Lady T, I agree about the pleasure of occasionally watching a villain walk away. Hannibal Lector is a good example, another (very different) is Thenardier from Les Miserables. You rarely get that in a romance novel as the villain is only important as a force that keeps the lovers apart. A layered, complex villain is a distraction from the main relationship. Georgette Heyer did produce an awesome villain in The Black Moth but even he was something of a caricature.

  24. 24
    GrowlyCub says:

    Georgette Heyer did produce an awesome villain in The Black Moth but even he was something of a caricature.

    I’m probably in the minority on this, but I thought Jack really boring and thought Diana would have led a much more interesting life if she had ended up with the ‘villain’.  Btw, did you know that Avon from These Old Shades is based on ‘The Black Moth’, so villain redeemed!

  25. 25
    MaryK says:

    The Forest Lord by Susan Krinard.  At the end, the heroine’s mother kills the heroine’s lover, the hero (he’s supernatural so he manages to find his way back from the afterworld).  Then the heroine and her mother kiss and make up.  I wanted to rip the book to pieces and burn it.

  26. 26
    Suze says:

    I don’t seem to notice villains except as plot devices.  I really don’t remember any in particular.  Except Ward’s Lessers, and they’re just an irritant.  I know I read Blue Smoke, but I honestly don’t remember the villain.

    That said, I don’t read horror, because it scares me (and if I somehow read it anyway and like it, then I don’t understand why anybody would label it horror).  I like my villains to have closure, by which I mean, it doesn’t matter how evil they are, as long as they don’t win, and as long as they’re not loose to commit more evil at the end of the story.  Or, um, if they do, then the story for the h/h has changed such that the villain just isn’t relevant anymore.  Which I hope makes more sense than I fear it does.

    I had nightmares after watching the movie Big Trouble in Little China (yes, the silly one with Kurt Russell) solely because that big orange monster was loose at the end.

    Anyway, since I’ve become more aware of business and political news over the last decade or so, evil has become fairly commonplace.  Could you make a fictional villain more villainous than Dick Cheney?  Joe Stalin?  Idi Amin?  The Enron guys?  If you tried to write any of them up as fictional villains, your editor would tell you to tone it down and make it more realistic.

  27. 27
    Venus Vaughn says:

    A villain that received a well-deserved comeuppance was Ty Winsloe in Stolen by Kelley Armstrong.

    The author and heroine took their time messing with Winsloe’s mind, keeping him in pain physically and making him fear his inevitable demise.  It was delicious.  He was a bad guy who had no moral compass, and they stripped him of all dignity before sending him to meet his maker. 

    It was the sort of destruction of a villain that we rarely get to read.  Usually in a romance, the H&H are so busy making puppy eyes at each other and enjoying the hope and healing they’ve just discovered that they’re not as invested in making the bad guy pay. 

    This book wasn’t a romance, though there was a strong love bond, so maybe that’s why there was room for letting the guy have a good killing.

  28. 28
    Kaetrin says:

    It was my first rape romance. A few chapters in I (literally) threw it against the wall. I kept picking it up and chucking it around until I finished it.

    Thanks for that Sarah – the mental picture of you “chucking it around” until you finished it made my day! *snort*

  29. 29
    JenD says:

    I agree with Lori on this. I get much more upset if a h/h does something that, in my eyes, in so bad that there’s no coming back from it.

    I think I expect evil to go unpunished (not punished enough perhaps) to an extent because that’s just been my experience. For some crimes there’s no redemption big enough anyway.

    With my h/h’s I expect a level of ‘rightness’ I suppose. I know evil is evil and justice isn’t always served- yet I want my heroes to be, well.. heroes. Having worked with abused women and children, I simply have a low threshold for ‘forgiving’ an abuser, rapist or general asshat.

    Life’s just too short to go around putting yourself into bad situations over and over. So when I see a heroine get right back in line for more beat-downs, she enters the TSTL catagory pretty quickly.

    That or I want to give her a good therapist’s number.

  30. 30
    Cat Marsters says:

    Hmm, tough question.  Part of the problem with a villain getting his/her comeuppance is where it’s going to come from.  Will it be a hideous trainwreck/suicide/accident, in which our stalwart but wronged protagonists have no part, but can mutter grimly, “It’s what he deserved,”?  Yeah, but it feels like a damn cop-out.

    Or on the other hand will our unjustly persecuted hero and heroine devise a just ending for the villain?  Sure, they deserve their vengeance.  But will it be enough to make up for the terrible things he’s done?  Can it be?

    Doesn’t matter how bad the dude is.  If you kill another human, no matter how necessary, no matter how tiny your role in their demise, you’re going to be pretty screwed up.

    This is most sadly true.  However much you want your hero to get his vengeance, won’t murdering the villain put him on the same level?  There are some acts of villainy that are too vile to be left unpunished, and certainly the punishment ought to fit the crime, but who’s going to carry it out?  A quick merciful death isn’t good enough—or bad enough—for a heinous villain.  He merits a slow, painful, torturous death.  But do you really want your hero meting out said death?  I’m not sure someone capable of that sort of act is all that heroic.

    It’s a conundrum.  Personally, there have been more heroes I’d like to flay alive, and heroines too—yes, Whitney, I’m looking at you.  And your rapetastic, bizarrely named-husband (a duke called Clayton?  What was she smoking?).

    I’m trying to remember what I did to the child-rapist villain in one of my books.  Oh yes.  A giant cat ate his face.

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