I’ve never been a big fan of the bad boy or the alpha type, but as I wrote in “We Love Villains: The Strange Appeal of Jareth From Labyrinth,” I love a downright thorough villain. Sometimes these villains redeem themselves through deeds and truly excellent grovel. They become a good guy romantic hero (and, as a bonus, they usually get to keep the bad boy fashion choices and the terrifying motorcycle/dangerous stallion no one else can ride/large heaps of money left over from that criminal enterprise that they are so very sorry about). Everyone’s standards are different when it comes to what it takes to redeem a villain, and my personal bar is set very, very high – but when it works for me it REALLY works.
Here’s what I look for:
- Grovel. In an interview on NPR, SB Sarah said, “The depth of the grovel is usually determined by the depth of misdeeds that he’s done leading up the point where he goes, whoa, I have to change in order to win this person in order to have my own happy ending.” Many a shitty dude has been redeemed by proper grovel.
- An actual understanding of how his actions have affected others, and a determination to change EVEN IF he never gets the love of the heroine.
- Consequences. He should try to make some kind of amends for his past actions, if not directly, then indirectly. In real life, I’d argue that if the bad boy has, through villany, made a huge stack of money, he should prove that he is so very sorry by either returning the money or donating it all to charity. However, romance is fantasy, and in fantasy I’m allowed to be a bit of a greedy hypocrite. So I like to discover that the villain has been secretly giving large sums of money to widows and orphans, but he keeps enough that I get to live in a castle with excellent plumbing and central heating, then I’m cool with it.
Here’s my favorite “asshole redeems self” moment. In this speech from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Spike makes a speech to Buffy when Buffy is feeling like crap about herself. Why is it significant? Because at this point, he’s not trying to get Buffy into bed. He’s not trying to do anything FOR HIMSELF. He makes this speech to Buffy for her benefit, not his own. This is a huge change from the previous season, in which everything he did for Buffy was, in a sense, something he was doing for himself. For the record I’m Team Cookie Dough when it comes to the Angel/Spike debate, possibly because if Buffy never ends up with Spike then I can console him properly. Here’s the speech:
I’ve been alive a bit longer than you, and dead a lot longer than that. I’ve seen things you couldn’t imagine, and done things I’d prefer you didn’t. I don’t exactly have a reputation for being a thinker; I follow my blood, which doesn’t exactly rush in the direction of my brain. So I make a lot of mistakes. A lot of wrong bloody calls. A hundred plus years, and there’s only one thing I’ve ever been sure of. You. Hey, look at me. I’m not asking you for anything. When I say I love you, it’s not because I want you, or because I can’t have you — it has nothing to do with me. I love what you are, what you do, how you try…I’ve seen your kindness, and your strength, I’ve seen the best and the worst of you and I understand with perfect clarity exactly what you are. You’re a hell of a woman. You’re the one, Buffy.
(Season 7, Episode 20, “Touched”)
I lost my head last night.” His solemn gaze held hers. “I vow to you that I won’t drink again. Not while I’m living.”
The wine had made her foolish enough that she shouldn’t, either. But it wasn’t the drink that had made her need him. It wasn’t the drink that had overwhelmed her with fear. And wine wasn’t the reason she couldn’t invite him in now.
She tried not to wish it otherwise. No good came from fighting against something she couldn’t change—and her past was immutable. She couldn’t take away the Frenzy, or the panic that her need summoned.
Gathering herself, she said briskly, “All of your life? I’m sure that’s not necessary. After we find the Terror, we’ll return to London and won’t—”
“It’s necessary.” His voice was low and implacable. “I’d never have hurt you, or frightened you. I didn’t have the head to realize I was. I’m sorry for that.”
Again, what makes this redemptive in my book is the fact that he doesn’t say, “Stay with me and I’ll never drink again.” His choice to stop drinking is based on his actions towards her, and is independent of anything he might get out of it from her. He will keep this vow even if he never sees her again. He also explains the reason for his actions without making it an excuse. He wants her to know that he didn’t intend to do her harm, but he also wants her to know that his actions were wrong regardless of his intent at the time.
So readers, what does it take for a villain to be worthy of true love in your eyes? Do you have a favorite bad-guy-gone-good character to share?