Sympathy for the Devil: Crafting a Delectable Villain
Good morning, readers! I'm excited to have this chance to chat about a subject I ADORE but, as a romance author, am rarely asked about: how to craft a believable and compelling villain. As a writer of dark medieval and Renaissance romance, I’ve always had a sneaking sympathy for the Devil (i.e., the villain) in fiction. That’s why I wove the tapestry of my medieval romance, By Royal Command (Harlequin/Carina, July 2012), around a deliciously complex villain. He was a real historical figure in Anglo-Saxon England whose actual descendent, incredibly, is a personal friend of mine. And I am proud to say my villain does not twirl his moustache.
Set on the turbulent shores of Anglo-Saxon England during the Viking conquest, By Royal Command is the story of a daughter of royalty who must choose between two warring brothers to save the English throne. Lady Katrin of Courtenay believes she murdered her cruel husband when she prayed for his death, but she doesn’t mourn him. Struggling to defend her northern lands, she’s proud and courageous as any man. Determined never to remarry, she believes manipulation and deceit are a woman’s only true weapons. But they won’t be enough to save her from her vengeful uncle: Ethelred, the King of England. Katrin’s marriage to a powerful ally is the cornerstone of his scheme to defeat the Viking invasion and save the English throne.
Katrin’s uncle, King Ethelred of Wessex, was a real historical figure who ruled England until he was overthrown by the marauding Sweyn Forkbeard in 1013. Ethelred assumed the English throne at the tender age of thirteen after murdering his brother, which cast a shadow over his reign. The details I provide about Ethelred and his family are mostly true, although his dark brilliance and sadistic tendencies in the story are my own invention. He began paying the Danegeld, an annual tribute to buy off the raiding Vikings, in 991. Ethelred’s dilemma was immortalized by Rudyard Kipling, who famously warned, “If once you have paid him the Danegeld, you never get rid of the Dane.”
When Katrin makes the Devil’s bargain with Ethelred and agrees to an arranged marriage to save the man she loves, Ethelred becomes Katrin’s dark ally—invested in her success for his own sinister motives. And I could have kissed the Goodreads reviewer who read By Royal Command and spoke admiringly of Ethelred as a criminal mastermind. This is a villain worth his salt.
What are my secrets for crafting a villain both the hero and the reader can respect? Personally, I need to be fascinated—even a little in love—with the devils in my fiction. Here’s how I make that happen.
1. Villains are people too. I make my villains human, giving each one a backstory that’s developed as fully as my hero’s story. I know all the major milestones of my villain’s childhood, the pivotal catalysts that make him the villain he is. I give him strengths as well as weaknesses, laudable qualities as well as flaws, human vulnerabilities as well as advantages. Incidentally, the smarter and stronger the villain, the stronger the hero must be in order to overcome him. In other words, a good villain makes for a good hero.
2. Every villain is the hero of his own story. When you’ve made your villain a real person, it becomes much easier to endow him with strong and believable motivation for his dark deeds. In the immortal words of screenwriter Robert McKee, no villain should ever twirl his moustache. Although we may not agree with his values, every villain acts for reasons that seem laudable to him. Bear in mind that, for most villains—unless they’re insane or invading aliens—random destruction does not make a compelling goal.
3. Make the villain the hero’s dark mirror. Here I dip into material from the workshop I teach on “Sympathy for the Devil: Dark Heroes in Popular Fiction.” Many of the best, most fascinating heroes reveal unsettling similarities at some level with the villain. Hero and villain may have common backgrounds, a similar personality trait or passion (in love with the same woman?), or a shared history. Whereas the hero’s response to these stimuli is to behave heroically, the villain follows a darker path. Thus, the villain becomes the hero’s dark mirror. In these cases, the villain’s role is transformative, and his opposition makes possible the dark hero’s redemption.
If you’d like to read more about my villain the King in By Royal Command, my publisher has released an exclusive extended excerpt (the first five chapters!) free for a limited time. You can find the goods here at http://t.co/T4qZ6vUY.
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Originally published in Asian Cocoa's Secret Garden (July 2012)