Redeeming the Villain: What’s it Take?

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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”)


The Iron Duke
A | BN | K | AB
Here’s another redemptive moment, from The Iron Duke, by Meljean Brooks. Rhys (the duke) will never be the hero of my dreams. He’s written as more of an alpha hero than a villain, but his constant pushing boundaries and his abuse of power means that he tends to tiptoe along my personal line between alpha and asshole. But even I have to admit that Rhys does good grovel:

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?


Comments are Closed

  1. Serious, serious grovel. And if he cheated on the heroine, castration so that if they do end up together, he is going to have to work really hard to give her the pleasure she deserves without receiving any reward.

  2. nightsmusic says:

    Adam Black from Moning’s Highlanders series. He was such a shit through almost all of the series, toying with humans, killing, maiming, razing the Highlands, until slowly, so slowly, you saw a change start in him, two books before his own, and she did it so very well, I cried at the end of his book. I know, I’m a sap, but it was an almost perfect redemption. He’s still my favorite bad guy, by far.

  3. PamG says:

    I have to say that the depth of the grovel by itself is not really an issue with me. I don’t like groveling on anyone’s part, because it implies humiliation and I hate stories that require someone to be humiliated, even a villain.

    Complexity is my standard. The more interesting and complicated the villain is in his villainy, the more likely I am to want to see him redeemed. And guys who badmouth their own selves cuz their moms abandoned them don’t count. Basically, I hate black hats and white hats; give me a thoroughly fucked up, inconsistent psyche that the character and the reader has to work to untangle. And he doesn’t have to reform for anyone but his beloved either. Because an unapologetic bastard is the best. Also, the heroine, whether virtuous or badass, needs to be his equal in courage and complexity.

    Reformed villains I have loved? Felix Rivendale in the Luckiest Lady in London is one–a sly, manipulative asshat from whom his lady extracts full payment. For me the redemption happens when he literally gives her the stars, the one thing she thought she could never have. Lothaire is my favorite at the opposite end of the spectrum. Violently psychotic and as far from Ideal Gentleman as you can get, Lothaire is the best because of his dry was-that-an-actual-joke? sense of humor; he is redeemed by his willingness to give up his lifelong quest for the sake of Ellie. He is also redeemed by her willingness to rescue him. One of the more intriguing lessons of Christianity is that sometimes we are redeemed by the actions of others. So satisfying, the mutual sacrifice.

    There are also a few unrepentant villains out there that I have had high hopes for. Some, like Heyer’s Tracy Belmanoir, dwell forever in the realm of speculation. Some, like Butcher’s John Marcone, are in limbo with the Blue Beetle and the pets. Some, like Snape, die heroically. Others are still in flux. Right now, I’m dying to catch up with Hugh d’Ambray, cuz he is the crème de la crème of villains and the woman who tames him would be awwwwesome! Frankly, I can’t wait for him to get back from his sabbatical.

  4. Leah says:

    I think for me it takes an understanding that you can’t just write off things a character has done as “they had bad things happen to them”. Lots of people have horrible, horrible trauma in their lives, and they don’t go on to do horrible things in return. I’m not saying you can’t use some sort of trauma as an influence in a character’s actions, but it’s often waved as a sort of carte blanche in lieu of any actual character growth. It’s doubly frustrating because it’s usually followed by one of my least favourite tropes… “healed by the love of a good woman”, which is so dangerous, because in a lot of instances it implies that no matter how violent, hateful, mean, and cruel a man might be to you, if you love him hard enough, he’ll “get better”. I don’t necessarily know about “grovel”, but the path to redemption should take a LOT of time, involve a lot of serious introspection and soul searching, and not involve any sort of magical “I’m all better now” moment. Spike is great, because while he’s still a deeply flawed individual and has done some horrible things, he’s always, ALWAYS still working on himself, and on trying to understand his deeds, his impulses, his past, and how he needs to change. He’s still a jerk, still self-centered, but he’s got his head down and is pushing against that to TRY to do better, not just to Buffy but everyone around him, and that to me speaks volumes about his sincerity.

    Trigger warning for the rest of my comment.


    One of the worst examples of this was a noncon “romance” I read a couple years ago when everyone was in a flap about it to see what the fuss was about. In it, the heroine is abducted off the street by the “hero” who keeps her captive and is training her to be sold into sexual slavery… the training involving about what you’d expect it to, and real violence if she refuses. It’s eventually revealed that the male lead is the way he is because he was a slave of a similar sort in his youth, and he’s essentially doing what he is to use the heroine as an assassin against the man who abused him. Naturally the heroine is inexplicably drawn to him (Stockholm Syndrome is mentioned, but in a very passing, dismissive way), and although he repeatedly warns her it won’t happen, he grows to become a little gentler with her because of how gosh darn tenderly she treats him regardless of what he does. The sheer amount of glowing reviews in the comments talking about how he was “redeemed”, even though he continues to abuse the heroine and keep her captive, and how understandable his actions apparently were, really baffled me.

  5. Hi Pam, I love the mention of Tracy Belmanoir from The Black Moth. I always understood him to have been reconstituted as Avon from These Old Shades and thus redeemed.


  6. Joanna says:

    Oh Spike, how I loved him. Such a great character, and yes that grovel was awesome. I loved how he really saw Buffy, all of her.

  7. Jamie says:

    I actually like villains who do the “Road to Hell” journey. Take the Kingpin from Netflixs Daredevil. By the end of the first season, I really had trouble viewing him as the villain. His actions were driven by the same love Matt has: the genuine desire to see the city be better. They’re just coming from opposite directions. I’m not saying the Kingpin is redeemed; in fact, I think Vanessa loves him the way he is, but he’s a VERY complex villain and is almost more of an anti hero. So I like villains that start with good intentions, and who are possibly redeemable.

  8. Mara says:

    A pet peeve of mine is when the grovel (and really, maybe it should be called the apology or the reckoning, because it’s not about humiliation but honesty so that they can move forward) is undercut by the heroine explaining the hero’s actions away. I get really annoyed if when the hero begins to show self awareness and an ability to own his faults, the heroine immediately begins rationalizing why whatever the hero is apologizing for isn’t really a big deal. It makes the heroine seem weak and/or desperate. I think it may come from the author being worried that the reader will think the heroine is a bitch or maybe the author isn’t fully in touch with the realities of the situation she has set up?
    The Meljean Brook example you cite is a great example of a well written and much needed apology. Even though the reader & heroine are aware of the hero’s good/misplaced intentions in the situation that he’s groveling about, his actual actions were actually, truly wrong, and it’s important for us to see him being aware of that, genuinely apologizing for it, and showing how he’s going to change in the future. Once that has happened, it opens Mina up to have her own reflections about how the incident might change how she thinks about her sexuality and about Rhys, but that can only happen as a result of the apology, not as an effort to mitigate the hero’s need to apologize.

  9. Beth Not Elizabeth says:

    So my favorite reformed villain is Sebastian St. Vincent in Lisa Kleypas’ The Devil in Winter.

    HOWEVER. I read this series out of order (that’s how I roll). And when I read WHY he was a villain and how he acted in the previous book I was not ok. I didn’t believe the rationale of “he wouldn’t have really gone thru with it” held up. Because his behavior in the previous book was straight up assault. Does he really reform, or is he just given an out. Not sure. Mixed feelings. Still a little sick with myself for loving him.

  10. Heather says:

    I’m in love with Spike forever, but I must admit the grovelling was not all of it. They took a whole season to make it clear he was more funny than scary. And the hair, and the over-the-top English accent, and the jacket, and the… you get the idea 😉

    I still loathed The Iron Duke precisely because the character crossed the line so much there was no possible going back for me. Okay, he apologised for pushing her too far, and so what? He’d been saying from the beginning that he would have her whether she wanted it or not. After that the apology didn’t do anything for me. I still finished the book for some reason, but I was disgusted with him and utterly turned off.

  11. Lia says:

    I second the need for a Hugh D’Ambray story. I was so happy when Ilona Andrews put up that cover and blurb on their website, only to later find out it was an April Fools Day joke 🙂

  12. Deborah Taylor (@shackle52) says:

    I did read the Wallflowers in order and I admit, I adored. Sebastian St. Vincent in Lisa Kleypas’ The Devil in Winter.He was despicable in the book before but his turnaround was well done, I thought. He still remains my gold standard for reformed rake.

  13. carolinareader says:

    I think this is why I always preferred Spike to Angel. We saw him try to become a better person before he got his soul,which he wanted, back. Angel on the other hand was an awful person/vampire who had a soul forced on him to make him no longer a villain.

    I like to see them go through the stages. No one becomes good over night. In the end I want them to be good because it is what they know its right and not because they will get something out of it.

  14. Hope says:

    It’s an old book, but Patricia Veryan’s Dedicated Villain is wonderful! So excited her books are finally being published electronically.

  15. Algae says:

    Has anyone else read The Bitter Kingdom trilogy by Rae Carson? One of her characters is a member of the “evil” group and is forced to help the heroine’s group. But slowly, you come around and he’s not evil or a villain and while he slowly changes, what really happens is both sides begin to understand each other. And by the end of the trilogy, you’re really hoping he gets a happy ending, too.

    What I liked is that Carson never really changed the Villain and she never really changed other people, but she allowed more aspects of his personality to play and he became a better character for it.

  16. DonnaMarie says:

    My favorite take on this recently was Juliana Grey’s “How To School Your Scoundrel”. Philip was the “villain” in two books of her previous trilogy: a seducer of another man’s wife, and the unloving husband of another character. I thought Grey’s take on him was interesting and original. Suddenly you find yourself thinking, well really, if my wife made it so clear that she despised me and was willing to keep my own child away from me, why wouldn’t I be cold and forbidding? Wouldn’t we all guard our hearts? Although you like her well enough in her own book, “A Gentleman Never Tells”, where she’s run away from him, Elizabeth’s character becomes very questionable.

  17. LauraL says:

    Sebastian St. Clair from the Grace Burrowes’ Captive Hearts series is set up as a terrible villain in The Captive, the first book in the series. When he returns to England after the Napoleonic wars, he is known as the Traitor Baron. In the second book, The Traitor, we learn Sebastian’s true motivation for being a villain while in France. By the third book, The Laird, I was feeling better about the Traitor Baron as were his former prisoners. The Traitor was a tough book for me to read and I ended up putting it aside several times. Sebastian redeemed himself in the end.

  18. Phoebe says:

    I have always loved that Spike speech. Sigh.

    I think what I loved so much about the Spike/Buffy thing is that they made each other better. They managed to love each other as is and still call each other on their flaws — a very difficult thing. (Much like Evie/Sebastian, another favorite of mine)

  19. Christa says:

    I am so glad someone has mentioned The Dedicated Villain. The perfect redemption story. But I must say that while Roly was one of the bad guys in the series, he was very funny and likeable from the start, and showed his better side from time to time. That made the redemption much more believable and enjoyable for me.
    And what is that about Patricia Veryan in electronic format???? I must check that out this instant. She is and always will be my ultimate catnip.

  20. Teev says:

    In the original Avatar series Zuko starts off as a villain, and it is a long and arduous journey for him to come around to the hero side. As said above, this stuff doesn’t happen overnight, so he’ll do a good deed in the most assholish way possible, and backslide, and it is so great. I find his journey much more compelling than Aang’s tbh.

    For romances, my favorite villain to hero is Villiers. He’s the closest thing to a villain in the first Desperate Duchesses book, not truly committing evil but definitely being an insufferable asshole, and then over the course of the next 5 books he’s always in the background getting his shit better together. Finally in his own book he is STILL not getting it right but getting it wrong for the right reasons (his kids) and then apologizing. I adore him.

    St. Vincent can suck it. He’s an oily creep.

  21. My favorite redeemed villains are all on television, although there is 1 literary villain that had potential to be redeemed and I really wanted that redemption. I was hoping that in the last Harry Potter book we’d see Petunia becoming more human towards her nephew, but it didn’t happen. There was the moment in book 5 when she talks about how she lost her sister and you get the idea that she really did miss Lily, but we never really see that side of her again. (I like the fan theory about Petunia, Vernon, and Dudley being the way they were because of the continued exposure to a Horcrux–Harry. It makes sense and leaves open the possibility of redemption in the future.)

    On television, Spike is definitely one of my favorite redeemed villains, but I think one of the reasons for this is because he never hid any part of himself and always knew exactly who he was. I love the 3rd season episode when he explains to Buffy and Angel about how he’s love’s bitch. Everything he ever did was to be loved and while that doesn’t make up for the evil things he’s done, it makes him a more likable character. I think it would have been interesting to know him as William before Dru turned him into a vampire. I can totally see him as an historical romance hero. A big part of his redemption comes in the episode Lies My Parents Told Me when you get to see a bit of his life pre-Dru and how much he loved his mother, going so far as to turn her so they could spend the rest of eternity together. In a way, it establishes that he never completely lost his soul. He may have had a tiny part of it all along.

    Regina and Hook on Once Upon a Time are also high up on my redeemed villains list–more him than her, though. One of the things I love about that show is that no one is ever completely evil or completely good–they’re all a little villain and a little hero. Regina started off being the same Evil Queen everyone expected her to be based on everything we’d ever heard about Snow White. Over the seasons, she changes a lot and is now considered to be one of the heroes half the time. My issue with her, though, is that she still sometimes relies on the very excuses that led her to be the Evil Queen to excuse her actions. This feels like she’s not taking responsibility for the things she did–and she did some truly awful things.

    If you haven’t seen last week’s episode, beware of spoilers below.


    As for Hook, he may have started his journey of redemption as a way to prove to Emma (and himself) that he was worthy of her love, but I believe he wants to be good. Part of what I loved about last Sunday’s episode was that he was able to see that the things he did in the past made him a villain, at least in that particular story. The whole reason he wanted to go to Storybrooke was to get revenge on Rumplestilsken and yet, here he is admitting that he was the one to cause Rumple the pain that led to him becoming The Dark One.

    For me, a big part of a redemption arc has to be an understanding that the bad things they did in the past were their fault and no one else’s. Sitting around and blaming everyone else for their mistakes is not what I want to see my heroes doing. They need to be able to accept themselves for who they were and actively want to change themselves.

  22. Sandra says:

    My favorite villain is Prince Ismal from Loretta Chase’s “Lion’s Daughter” who barely survives to become the hero, Comte D’Esmond, in Chase’s “Captives of the Night”. CotN is one of Chase’s best IMHO.

  23. Cordy (not stuck in spam filter sub-type) says:

    I don’t really require a good grovel (grovels often seem kind of fake and pat to me unless handled by a really good writer) – instead, I want to see actual change and actual transformation. I want the grovel or apology to come out of the hero’s genuine transformation from one type of person to a different type of person. Example, unlike (I think) many people, I am not bothered by a hero who is sexually promiscuous or cheat-y earlier in the story, BUT I need him to go through a real process of transformation so that by the end when he pledges his undying love and monogamy/etc to the heroine, I believe that it is possible for him to actually keep these promises.

    These are among my favorite heroes, but they are really hard to find! I think it’s just hard to write. (I mean, real human psychology is hard to pull off sometimes!) I like Sebastian in DEVIL IN WINTER, but I think I like him more because he’s so casually dastardly and then so taken by complete surprise when he falls in love with his wife. (I wish there were many more stories that shared that element.)

    I also think that Laura Kinsale does some heroes in this vein – SEIZE THE FIRE and MY SWEET FOLLY come to mind. Ooh! And FLOWERS FROM THE STORM, in its way, too. Laura Kinsale seems to me like a legitimate romance genius, so I think her heroes are more layered and complex than you often seen in villain-to-hero stories. Her characters are often genuinely transformed by the end of the book in a way I find uncommon in many other romances.

    Anne Stuart writes a lot of dastardly villain heroes of the type where they don’t exactly transform and grovel, but they mentally partition the world into “Everyone else, to whom I will keep being dastardly”, and “This woman I love and for whom there are different rules”. It’s a little bit different than villain-to-hero, but I find her pretty reliable if this is a trope you enjoy.

    PS I am stalking these comments for recommendations!

  24. Vasha says:

    When K.J. Charles said she was going to write a book starring Jonah from Flight of Magpies, I said no way José, because his behavior in that book was genuinely sociopathic. And yet she pulled it off in Jackdaw; it was something like genius. It didn’t involve the author excusing the things he’d done, nor him reforming, exactly; it involved him acknowledging that his moral sense was stunted and finding a way to live with that without hurting people (hopefully). He sort of apologized for his acts, and was not exactly forgiven.

  25. Judy W. says:

    I consider the ultimate villain redemption to be Roland Mathieson (AKA Otten) from the Golden Chronicles by Patricia Veryan. He was such a shit for 5 continuous books and I never thought he could be redeemed. I was wrong and I remember sobbing over the end of this book. Good times! Somebody please get these books digital so I can purchase them! OOps, I see someone else already mention this one. Great taste. I am *Begging* the Andrews to do a redemption book for Hugh D’Ambray because they are talented enough to pull it off. Another great villain turnaround for me was an older Kresley Cole “If You Deceive” where the hero is absolutely bent on revenge to the heroine and really pushes past what you would find redeemable in a lesser authors hands.

  26. Karin says:

    Don’t forget, Sebastian in “Devil in Winter” was redeemed by throwing himself in front of a bullet for the heroine. Even the heroine’s best friends forgave him after that, which is a much higher bar to clear than the heroine herself, who may be willing to forgive much for love.
    But I think Edith Layton’s book, “The Duke’s Wager” may be the best redemption of a villain ever for me. Actually, there were 2 villains vying for the heroine in that book, and until almost the end it was a toss-up as to which, if either, would be able to convincingly redeem himself.

  27. Megan M. says:

    I have a question, if someone could be so kind as to explain this to me – I was a huge fan of the first few seasons of Buffy but then stopped watching it, but I have read many things about it and I knew that Spike and Buffy had a relationship. But… is there not an episode where he attempts to rape her, when they’re broken up? I see so many people saying that they love their relationship and no one mentions that incident. How did he redeem himself after that? Or do people disregard that incident for some reason that I’m not aware of, not having really watched those later season episodes?

  28. excessivelyperky says:

    One thing I like to see in a redeemed villain is that people realized that the villain is redeemed and should at least get some kind of warm fuzzy for his trouble. Now, in Once Upon a Time, Regina is getting a chance for her happy ending with Robin. Rumple, not so much–and nobody on Regina’s side seems to realize the magnitude of the sh*tstorm she’s pulled on Rumple and are totally taking her side on everything when some of what she’s reaping is what she sowed.

    And then there’s Snape–who sacrifices over half his life making up for maybe a year and a half of mild villainy that ended very badly, and he gets *nothing* except a horrific death. We all know that Ms. Rowling hated her science teacher, but um, really? But he yelled at Harry so of course he deserves to have his throat torn out.

    So, if a villain really and truly regrets his or her deeds, and makes them up to the people they actually offended (Regina and Hook, still looking at you), he or she should be duly rewarded.

  29. CarrieS says:

    @Magan M. Re Buffy: without spoiling anything, a lot of the following season has to do with the attempted rape in Season 6. The fallout is a huge part of the story arc.

  30. Sarita says:

    I’m with you on this one, CarrieS. A sincere apology and a good practical attempt at restitution, not contingent on expecting to get anything out of it.

  31. jw says:

    Snape keeps coming up, and I really disagree. His pure love for Lily hardly makes up for the fact that he was a terrible human in general for the entirety of his miserly life.

    Plus, I would argue that his love for Lily isn’t pure anyway. He’s the creepy dude who writes his crush’s name over and over in his journal and won’t take no for an answer. In real life, he would be the guy who posts screeds on 4chan about how he’s such a nice guy but girls “friendzone” him. One of my friends dated a guy like that. After they broke up, he posted her nudes on the internet (that she didn’t realize he had screenshotted from snapchat with a third party app) with her face and personal information. Do you really think that if Snape and Lily had dated and she had broken up with him, he would have let her go without punishing her? This is the guy who punishes her eleven year old son because she married someone else.

    There’s also Snape begging Voldemort to only spare Lily when he went to kill the Potters and IMO, if he had really cared about her, he would have cared about her happiness too. Plus, he called her the equivalent of a racial slur and only felt bad because she stopped talking to him. Dude, if some guy called me a chink or called someone else another racial slur, there’s no recovering from that.

    He might have done the right things, but it was for the wrong reasons and now one of Harry’s kids is stuck with the terrible name of Severus.

    I’m personally kind of on the fence on the whole redeemed villain thing. I’m not a huge fan of it in Regency/Contemporary contexts, but in fantasy or scifi novels, sure.

    When I was fifteen, I was horribly in love with Byakuya from Bleach, who redeems himself. Actually, I feel like in a lot of anime, the villain (or the last opponent) becoming a hero/becoming friends with the protagonist is a really common trope. You defeat someone and they join your crew.

    Man, now I want to read a romance novel where the heroine defeats the hero at the start.

  32. Leah says:


    I think Snape is a good example of potential squandered. Here you have a man who grew up in a physically and emotionally abusive home, was teased and ostracized at school both because of how he looked and behaved, which only further fueled his anger issues stemming from how miserable life was at home. Then you have a woman (well, girl at the time), who tries repeatedly to reach out to him out of kindness, and while he’s drawn to that scrap of affection, it’s embittered because he doesn’t know how to respond. It feels like pity to him (and probably was a little), and that’s further exacerbated by James Potter (no angel) and his friends essentially tormenting Snape for funsies and mocking the idea that Lily could possibly want ANYTHING to do with him. So because he’s a stupid kid, because all kids are stupid at first, he lashes out at her. He’s angry, been alone all his life, and doesn’t know how to handle people.

    None of this excuses his behaviour of course, and that’s the problem, because it’s treated as though it does within the narrative. Snape is, I think, an emotionally stunted man who’s weighed down by a ton of regret and bitterness. He’s had a miserable life, and as anyone who has grown up in an abusive home knows, it’s extremely hard to break the cycle, especially when you have no support system. I don’t think, personally, that Snape dies redeemed. He dies tragically, trying at last to (fruitlessly) atone for at least some of what he’s done all his life, which has been squandered with hatred and resentment. I think he WAS brave, in a way, because he spent his entire life warring with himself, even if it was filled with battles that he lost. For me to say he was redeemed, he would have needed to be handled a lot differently than he ultimately was, because simply dying to save the son of the woman you spent your entire life bitterly worshiping from afar doesn’t make up for the way you terrorized and abused others, even if you were a target of that yourself. I think Snape is a tragic, fascinating villain who is often held up on a pedestal when he shouldn’t be, but I think there’s a lot to his history and character that makes me hesitant to write him off as just a creepy, mean guy, and if redemption is what Rowling was aiming for, then it’s a shame he never got there. (I love Harry Potter, but Rowling has a tendency to juggle too many characters and narratives at once, with the result being that some moments that should be more intense and tragic don’t feel like they get the exploration they should have when competing for space with others.)

  33. Vasha says:

    @jw: now I want to read a romance novel where the heroine defeats the hero at the start.

    Have you read Courtney Milan’s The Lady Always Wins?

  34. Katrina says:

    I love this trope! Seconding the Loretta Chase novels, and they Heyer (where both Avon and Vidal are basically redeemed villains). I also often enjoy novels with Fae heroes for the same reason.
    I too don’t care much for a big splashy grovel, but I adore a hero who consistently makes small changes to improve himself because he sees the error of his ways, rather than specifically to please the heroine.

  35. marion says:

    I don’t like groveling, it makes me feel icky. I think SEP is a writer who uses both groveling and humiliation to a degree that makes me feel very uncomfortable reading those moments.

    I like an interesting anti-hero and a good heel turn is catnip to me.

    A reforming villain doesn’t have to become “perfect” – the author just has to convince me that redemption and reformation is possible and believable for the character.

    Also, sometimes perspective counts for a lot. I have changed my mind about characters after seeing things from their perspective.

  36. Jeanne says:

    I really, really, really have to reread Patricia Gaffneys “To Have and to Hold,” because – honestly – I cannot remember exactly how the Hero in that book redeemed himself… All I remember is that at the time I read the book, a verrrrrry long time ago, I thought that this was a prime example of how an excellent villain-to-hero story should be done! I’ll have to check first chance I get…

  37. MissGuerrero says:

    I personally love my redeemed villians and freely admit that part of my love of thr character of Severus Snape comes from that dark nastiness he shows.

    I find “good guys” a little bland in literature and most TV shows. Villians, specially in the last few years are much more developed and complex. For example, Lex Luthor in the Smallvile series, was the best character in there, he was “a tortured soul”, smart, witty, sexy, etc. I always thought the worst thing they did was kill him off.

    ON the other hand, it’s not the groveling per se that makes me see the redeptiom, it’s the whole “reasons behind his acts” theme.

    For example, The Blacklist’s Reddington (James Spader) is a bad guy, very good at what he does and (so far, it seems) he still has a moral compass, and does good deeds and cares for those close to him, plus, he lost him family and wants them back.

    I love bad guys.

  38. Charon says:

    This is a stylistic thing, but for me it’s important that the villain isn’t a villain at the beginning of the story. They can have a horrible past, and be struggling with it, and backslide sometimes, but they can’t be thoroughly bad when I meet them, or I’ll never like them.

    My prime example is Xena (yes, the warrior princess, and yes, X:WP is primarily a romance…). Her horrible past is revealed in flashbacks that continue for the entire series, but when we first meet her she feels broken and repentant.

    Also Angel – broken and repentant when we meet him, past revealed through flashbacks, etc. And that’s why I never, ever, ever liked Spike with Buffy. Dunno. Ladies seem to mostly be team Spike, dunno if guys are more likely to be team Angel?

  39. Charon says:

    Also, in romances it’s important to me that while the reformed villain must be strong and good on their own, they must reach their greatest heights because of their partner. Their partner is their motivation.

    As Xena says, “You’re my source, Gabrielle. When I reach down inside myself and do things I’m not capable of, it’s because of you.”

    Again, also Angel. He was broken and repentant and pretty much useless… until he saw Buffy for the first time. That started him on the road to being powerful good himself.

    And my examples are TV instead of books because I don’t like villains, and don’t seek out romance books where anyone now a hero was ever a villain 🙂

  40. Library Lady says:

    Not sure who mentioned, but I also like apology as opposed to grovel. It works for me if it’s sincere. One of my favorite movies is “As Good As It Gets” when Jack Nicholson’s character attempts to apologize to Helen Hunt’s character by telling her she makes him want to be a better person. I just find this so personally true, and for me, it redeems a character that is hard to like.

    Another example is Logan from Veronica Mars. So many have mentioned Spike and Logan is like the Spike of that show (for those who watch it, Duncan is definitely the Angel and Piz the Riley).

    From books, I’d say Snape. I’ve loved Snape from the first Harry Potter book, though, and was pleasantly surprised by his back story. Even without that, he was still my favorite character, other than Luna.

    As for books, my favorite author is Juliet Marillier. In her book, Wolfskin (if you’re into historicals with Vikings, I urge you to seek this book out), she had a thoroughly despicable villain named Somerled. By the second book, Foxmask, he was redeemed. He’s also a favorite character, due to his complexity.

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