The Appeal of the Villainous Hero

villain Notes from the Underground, written by Fyodor Dostoevsky begins with the famous opening line, “I am a sick man… I am a wicked man”. In the novel, Dostoevsky creates a hero who possesses all the characteristics of a villain: sarcasm, disillusionment, and a general lack of care for the well being of others. The hero is in actuality an anti-hero, a man who acts like a villain, but who ultimately possesses a core of goodness to redeem himself through words and actions.

Those who read romance know that the broken, immoral, or unethical hero is not limited to the classics, but is more often than not found in the depths of the some of the best romances. However, as with all things, some heroes are more wicked than others. I have found that is often the hero who begins his journey as the villain who makes the best hero in his own story.

When I read a novel with a flat hero and a wonderfully wicked villain I almost always root for the villain. I think most other readers do as well, evidenced by the fact that authors usually develop an HEA for a well-loved villain. The best example I can think of Sebastian from It Happened One Autumn, who was so bad and so intriguing that he had his own story in Devil In Winter. I would argue that though Sebastian’s actions were villainous in the first novel, they did not preclude him from redemption. He kidnapped the heroine and was generally an unlikable person, much like Dostoevsky’s hero, but there was a glimmer of hope that despite his brokenness he would redeem himself, and what better way to do so then with the love of a good woman? The juxtaposition of his actions during the kidnapping and his treatment of Evie during their marriage shows the journey of a man who had every capability of becoming gentle and tender with the right woman to guide him.

Zsadist is another great example of a really bad boy turned good. In Lover Eternal it was clear that Zsadist was going to have his moment of redemption with Bella, but it was hard to imagine. He was a villain whom even the hero feared, both crude and cruel, and seemingly incapable of love, even for his own family members. However, it was apparent that his wickedness stemmed from cruel circumstances and that to learn to love he would have to be shown love unconditionally. Zsadist is one of my favorite villains turned hero because the transformation and redemption in Lover Awakened was so overwhelmingly romantic. Zsadist was forced to let the pain of his early life go in order to become a man capable of all-encompassing love.

This is the real pull of the bad boy: the bad behavior, the recognition that there is a woman worth reforming for, and then redemption. A man who spends a great deal of time being hard, calculating, and sometimes even cruel is my favorite hero when he is eventually tender, generous, and loving. Sometimes it only takes one book to bring a character from villain t hero. Seize the Fire is a good example of when a villain turned hero really worked for me. Sheridan, like Sebastian, begins as a man too hard and calculating to consider the feelings of others, most importantly Olympia. Yet, slowly it is revealed that deep down he has a huge capacity for love. Interestingly, it is not a scene with Olympia, but rather a scene with a penguin that truly reveals Sheridan’s character as a villain with a kind loving nature. There is something about the scene of Sheridan begrudgingly but carefully caring for a helpless animal that just kills me every time.

Then there are the romances where the villain is nearly indistinguishable from the hero. Anne Stuart and Linda Howard, two favorites of mine, are royalty in the genre of bad boys who stay unabashedly bad. In Death Angel by Linda Howard, Simon, the villain/hero, is tasked with killing the heroine. The book was controversial because despite having sex with her, he never abandons his assassination attempts. He only stops pursuing her when she is mistakenly reported dead. Though by the end of the book he has fallen in love with her and has made the decision to no longer work as an assassin, I was hard pressed to find true redemption. Does the love of the heroine and the promise to give up a lifestyle actually change the core of a hero? Are there actions that need to be taken before the reader can believe that a villain has actually become the hero? I think every reader may have a difference opinion on how much Simon actually changes.

Stuart’s villains/heroes are of the same genre: killers, assassins, and generally cruel human beings. The Ice Series was a huge success for me because the men all made decisions that led them ever closer to heroic tendencies. It is always for the welfare of the heroine that Stuart villains become heroes. There is something about a man who abandons all pretenses and preconceptions to ensure that a heroine stays as safe as possible. However, it is also the fact that the heroes never really lose that edge of ill humor and danger that really makes a villain turned hero work for me.

Whether he is a villain, an anti-hero, or merely a rake, my favorite romances are those in which the hero begins wicked and subsequently discovers the love of a woman as a form of redemption. Which villains turned heroes are your favorites? Are their actions that can unequivocally prevent a villain from becoming a hero?

– Jacqueline Owens

37 thoughts on “The Appeal of the Villainous Hero

  1. I love Sebastian in Patricia Gaffney’s “To Have and to Hold.” He commits truly terrible sins against the heroine and yet he saves her. Furthermore, had he not forced her to do things against her will, she would never have taken the steps toward healing that she did.

  2. I love this. I’m printing out this post and highlighting it. I want a villain in my next book and I think I’m gonna make him a villian/hero. Might take two books, but the possibilities are endless….

    Thanks!

  3. I am also drawn to villanous heroes. I guess it does make it all the more sweeter when they fall in love. To Have and to Hold was a great book, as was Lover Awakened, and Devil in Winter. We can’t forget Ruthless! Another terrific Anne Stuart book.

  4. Mary Jo Putney’s “The Rake and the Reformer” alls into this catogory. I love a villanous hero, but sometimes there are thing I will not be able to forgive. It’s a balancing act for me.

  5. I love all the villain-turned-hero that you mentioned but I think Dain from Lord of Scoundrels by Loretta Chase, who is an amoral reprobate without a care for those he walks over or through, is my favorite.

    I had also determined not to defend Howard’s Death Angel, and her character Simon, again… it was a losing battle because he offended so many romance readers … but I came to like him and his heroine. I thought they were more ‘real’ – if that can be said about fictional characters.

    It seems like most human beings are capable of almost anything wicked but they can, and sometimes do, change. Whether Simon and Drea redeemed themselves in the ‘cosmic sense’ is questionable but I thought they deserved a chance at their HEA.

    So I guess my answer to what could prevent a villain from becoming a hero is that there are not as many things as there use to be when I was younger and less forgiving of human nature. Now when I find authors who can make me believe in a character changing his or her ‘spots’ I feel very privileged to have read the book.

  6. Jacqueline, one of Linda Howard’s books has my favorite bad boy/hero characters. I’m talkin’ about James in “Cry No More”. James is one scary dude, but boy oh boy does he ever turn out to be the hero. You gotta love a man who did what he did to put Milla back together again. And to be willing to totally re-invent himself in a legal way to be able to fit into a “normal” lifestyle. Well, hero material in my book.

    Judith James is an author who writes interesting heroes. Due to harsh circumstances in their lives the men start off villainous, but are redeemed as heroes. Gabriel St. Croix in “Broken Wing” and William de Veres from “Libertine’s Kiss” are both villainous men redeemed by good women.

    I found the book “Desperate Desires” by Terri Wolffe to have a case of the irredeemable hero. To my chagrin the irredeemable one was the heroine Lady Davenport. What was done to the Duke of Carlsborough was rape, pure and simple. If the situation had been reversed, we would all be outraged that a man had done that to a woman. I won’t go into any spoilers, but have to say that any reasonably intelligent person would have found a much better solution than what was done in this book. It made the people in the book all seem kind of stupid to me, and I am glad I only paid $3.50 for it, so that when I deleted it from my Kindle I wasn’t wasting too much money.

    PS . Are we being punked? After the hot and heavy 42 opinion debate expressed in the “Grammar Rant” post, the last sentence of this post reads, “Are their actions that can unequivocally prevent a villain from becoming a hero?” Well yes THERE are!!

  7. I like a villain/hero when the author a) doesn’t preach or b) doesn’t make them vile at heart. I couldn’t, for example, believe in a reformed pedophile. Too many issues with the crime.Yet somehow I loved the arms dealer in Howard’s “All the Queen’s Men”, who had a motive for what he was doing beyond himself. Not vile at heart at all. And Zsadist with all his faults is a brother, a protector of his race. So the core of hero existed in both these characters, even if the exterior was rough.

    I struggled with Death Angel because Howard seemed to judge the drug dealer more harshly than the hired gun. That seemed a ludicrous moral judgment but to each their own.

    maggie b.

  8. Two of Mary Balogh’s anti-heroes come to mind: Edmond Lord Waite in The Notorious Rake is so jaded he’s really hard to like and root for until the end. And Anthony Earheart, the Marquess of Staunton, in The Temporary Wife, is the younger equivalent of Edmond and is so bitter I wondered why Charity was so…well, charitable with him.

    And these are only two of the older MB anti-heroes I’ve come to love. (As far as writing actual villains, MB is no slouch either.)

  9. Death Angel and Cry No More are two favorites of mine, although I’m not necessarily drawn to anti-heroes in general. I book I read recently has a “hero” with a violent, amoral past and the author made it work amazingly well. It was The Outsider by Penelope Williamson. The Outsider is a story I’ve thought about for weeks afterward.

  10. I am not so fond of the villain/hero, because I have a difficult time accepting that a truly bad person or maybe the word is self absorbed person is completely changed by love. I think love can make you a better person, but not a different person.

    If the hero is just jaded or disillusioned, but still with a core of decency, then I don’t have a problem.

    If the hero is cruel to the heroine, then a grovel is not enough.

  11. JML: I know there are people out there who would defend Simon to the death, and I think their view on him is just as legitimate. The beauty of his character is that he can be read in so many different ways. Howard took a pretty big risk in making him so ruthless, and I think it’s a testament to her character building that there are so many different opinions on him. A flat characterization would never create such long-lasting impressions on readers.

    Dabney: I must read To Have and To Hold. It’s been on my list forever and I’ve just never gotten around to it!

  12. Adored both “The Outsider” and “To Have and To Hold”. You understand why Sebastian and Johnny are what they are and believe completely in their redemption. Ronsard in Howard’s “All the Queen’s Men” is more problematic. He was quite sympathetic and his situation poignant, but I don’t think I would accept him as a hero because too many innocent people died at his hands. That’s my issue with professional assassin heroes — either the author manipulates the story so that he never kills anyone except other bad guys, or else the killer is more realistic and murders police officers, judges, witnesses, and anyone else thought to get in the way. I don’t care how much in love and protective he is toward the heroine — to my mind he is not a hero. Of course, saying this I realize that I’ve read a few heroes who were assassins against the enemy in time of war, and my opinion of them was somewhat different. Not to mention that YMMV.

    Many of the villains mentioned in the blog are over the top. Mary Balogh’s villains tend to be much more human and more believable. They are, nonetheless, often models of selfishness and thus wonderful villains.

  13. AntiHeros love them or hate them?

    I personally love Anti Heros . I m not saying that I dont enjoy a book where a man is kind and acts decent to the heroine. I am saying that Love Anti Heros because the core of them they are everything and a little bit more a ” real man ” is .
    We ( I can only speak for my self) like to read romances because they are a reflection of the world we live in. If we only read romances that the Hero was perfect and heroine was perfect then there is no conflict. There is no growth of character. There is no happy ever after .

    I can tell that you that I enjoy stories where the Hero takes one look at the heroine and misjudges/ reads her wrong . ( Like all men and women in real life). I believe that with love, happiness and peace in our lives we can change from the people we were to the human accepting flawed people we are .

    I think that the Anti hero “hids” the damage that was inflicted on them. whether it is emotional, physical or mental damage HOW they deal with these bags is what interest us. another item the anti hero hids is how STRONG they really are vs. How weak they think are. We have to as readers be able to simplize for him or be able to emotionally connect with him in order to see the “Hidden streght or Tiger”. When we dont then he is just a flat character. No problems the story remains boring . The hero with this damage can get the Heroine to talk and get her trust. WIth those acts, Can we the readers wish to warn her? We can see wolf but she only sees the sheep.

    I also like the anti hero because You the reader want to believe that the power of love or the power of something can fix them. Also as women we want to nuture him . Give him what he needs to reach his true potential. To unmask him and see the core or tiger or what ever it is about him that makes him ” a true hero” .

    I believe that Romance Authors and readers love these men in particular because we can find these hard, cold , tough ,etc men in society. I once read that ” any work of art ( be it books, movies or plays etc) reflects what we a society believe in or in basic terms art reflect real life.” We know that today’s world is a mess . But in books or movies we find that happy ever after. We know in some cases it might not last or never be . In romance novels especially there is an ending. These people get to be happy, they get the chance to live life as they choose .

    To sum up, whether he is a bad boy, hellion, gambler, thief, out for revenge etc etc. in the end the anti hero ( like in diana palmer books, judith Mccnaught ‘s perfect, double standards ) will have to prove him self worthy of the Heroine’s forgiveness, love and trust again. He have to take hard look of him self and become the man he is suppose to be behind the scars, damage and pain that he hid behind.

  14. I’d love to see more from the ‘villian in first book to hero in next book’ written. There’s not enough of them for me. I like the Lisa Kleypas type of villian/hero- Sebastian was very bad in IHOA but not unredeemable. I’ll have to read the JR Ward books mentioned here.. I’ve only read the first in the series.

  15. Pingback: Why Can Villains Be So Appealing? | The Passive Voice

  16. I have to disagree with Barbie (how many times have I said that?)

    I think we love the anti-hero in romance precisely because they have nothing to do with real life. In real life, I would categorize any woman who thought she could change a “bad” man with her love as naive at best and as a total waste of space and time at worst. She’s probably likely to end up battered in a shelter or facing a lifetime of visiting her spouse in jail. I have spent 15 wonderful years with a really spectacular human being. He’s funny, kind and loving. Everything I want in a man. I loved falling in love with him and would do it all over again in a minute. What I would not want to do is read about it. Seriously, yawn. Not because it wasn’t exciting but real life is about building a relationship, about all the wonderfulness of being in love but also about all the work that goes along with sharing your life with someone else. That’s what I want in “real life”.

    But if I’m looking for a diversion or an escape (which is why I read romance novels) then I love to read about characters like Dain from Lord of Scoundrels (also one of my favourite anti-heros). I thought Sebastian from Devil in Winter was the most compelling of the wallflower mates and I’ve enjoyed many an Anne Stuart villain/hero. These men are uber-masculine, they don’t want to come shopping with me for new curtains or take our daughter to the park for 2 hours. They want to throw women down on beds and tear their clothes off. They are cruel and heart-breaking and romantic and their redemption is so much better for it. I love this in fiction but wouldn’t tolerate any of it in real life. Luckily, since I am a professional woman living in 2011, I’ll never be as helpless as the heroines in these books and I won’t have throw my life on the mercy of one of these bad bad men.

    I will, however, be bookmarking this post so that when I’m done reading the book I’m on right now, I can come find another bad man for my reading pleasure. And when I’m done, I’ll go spoon my really nice man. :)

    • Dani: I think we love the anti-hero in romance precisely because they have nothing to do with real life. In real life, I would categorize any woman who thought she could change a “bad” man with her love as naive at best and as a total waste of space and time at worst.

      Any relative or friend of mine who took up with a known “bad boy” would probably be read the riot act by most of their friends. Most of these kinds of men (and, sometimes, women) usually don’t make good partners in real life. I think we are all aware of relationships that were doomed from the get-go and not surprised they didn’t last. So, I definitely agree that, considering the amount of bad boys we see in romance fiction, it is not reflecting real life. The romance fiction world thrives on fantasy and this is one of them. Not saying that people can’t change, but the success percentages in life don’t match the percentages portrayed in romance fiction books. BTW, this is not a judgement by me, just an observation.

  17. I love Roly Otton from the Golden Chronicles series, whose truly awful (torturing Jacobites) and surprisingly good traits (his talks with his horse!) were developed over many books (5 or 6?) before he got his own, A Dedicated Villain. For those not familiar with Patricia Veryan’s books, this was a well-written series, with fantastic research and witty dialogue, concerning the other side (the English) of Culloden.

  18. I never thought I’d meet a villain I didn’t like, but I was wrong. The hero in “Breathless” just grated on my nerves!!

  19. Hi :)

    Very interesting post. The villain in the stories it’s not actually evil. He/she just reveals bad traits of the human (or other species) nature, which exist in every person. He/she is the villain due to displaying more his/her dark side than the rest of the characters. And of course, the dark side is highly attractive.

    To use Zsadist as an example, mentioned here, he is not evil, he is nasty. He did not accept to kill the King, it never crossed his mind even to think about that, just everyone else believed he could. And that is shown to the readers, before his own book.

    So the villain character is not actually bad, just perceived by the other characters as such. As for the readers, they get glimpses of the villain character’s good traits, even before the villain’s own book.

    However, everything in the universe and nature needs to be balanced. So a hero needs an anti-hero, as action has a reaction in physics.

    Thank you for your article :)

  20. Kathy–

    I’m with you. I didn’t find him at all appealing and I loved the hero/villains of the other two in the trilogy.

  21. I love moral ambiguity in characters for a couple of reasons. To begin with, I believe and appreciate that it is reflective of the nature of most humans. Most of us are not wholly good nor wholly evil. So for me, some “villainous” thoughts or actions can add depth to the characterization and make him (or her) feel more real. I also tend to relate much more to deeply-flawed characters being as I am somewhat of a bad girl whose halo is more than a little tarnished and crooked. And I must admit: I just love bad boys. To really make the concept work for me, though, there must be enough goodness within the character in order for him to be redeemable in my eyes.

    Jacqueline and many of those who commented have mentioned several of my favorites, including St. Vincent and Simon. I would add Jones from Brockmann’s Troubleshooters series as my personal favorite hero of the bad-boy variety.

    Great topic!

  22. I’m not a big fan of villains turning into heroes. Yes, I know romances are fantasy, but I can’t suspend disbelief enough to buy that contact with the heroine’s sweetness and innocence (not to mention her hymen) will cure a sociopath.

    Ruthless heroes, yes. (Of course, I’d love to see more ruthless HEROINES – I also can’t buy a strong man falling for a ninny who has to be rescued 23 times in two weeks) Heroes with shades of gray? Yes. Dark heroes… it depends.

    Also… it seems as if their “redemption” consists of… sexing the virginal heroine.

    How about a guy who WORKS at it? Perhaps a stint in prison or rehab? IIRC, one Loretta Chase anti-hero became a hero after being forced to work for the former heroine’s uncle for several years. (Basil, I think)

    • (Of course, I’d love to see more ruthless HEROINES

      I couldn’t remember the title of the book but didn’t Linda Howard have a female assassin as heroine in one of her books?

      • “I couldn’t remember the title of the book but didn’t Linda Howard have a female assassin as heroine in one of her books?”

        ONE book.*Sigh* And IIRC, I remember hearing that the hero takes over her job at the end.

        Honestly, it’s not about guns or assassins (not that I mind the occasional “beat up the bad guy” heroine – as long as she doesn’t burst into tears afterwards).

        I’d like to see more heroines who aren’t warm and fuzzy.

        A female Jack McCoy who will do ANYTHING to put the bad guys away.
        An Eve Dallas who isn’t a Mary Sue.
        Brenda Johnson from The Closer.

        Or heck – a woman who tells her brother/sister/parents that NO, she’s not moving back to Perfect Small town/giving them her life savings/offering her virginity to Lord Slut so THEY can be comfortable.

        I did love The Rake, but remember, Reggie was already sick and tired of his life and determined to change BEFORE he met Alys.

        • JMM: I did love The Rake, but remember, Reggie was already sick and tired of his life and determined to change BEFORE he met Alys.

          Good point! I had forgotten that but I think that made him more believable. Sometimes, even though this was not the case with Alys, it is hard to believe in the bad boy’s redemption when the heroine is some virginal miss with limited personality.

  23. I agree that the villain turned hero can be appealing because it often adds depth to the story and the characterizations. Two of my favorites are Christian in the Devil’s Waltz by Anne Stuart and the hero in the Rake by Mary Jo Putney and the hero in the Devil in Winter (which has already been mentioned). All three of these characters initially seem unredeemable but start to draw on your heartstrings as you get to know them and understand the experiences that have led them to make some of the choices they have made.

  24. I love villanous heroes! Don’t forget Lisa Kleypas’s Derek Craven from “Dreaming of You”.
    Thanks for the great posting :)

  25. Way back when I was an undergraduate, Vincent Price gave a talk at the university where I was studying and the topic was: The Villain Still Pursued Me. He talked about how villains in fiction were so fascinating that actors would much rather play them. Let’s face it, wouldn’t you like to play Lady MacBeth?

    It’s difficult to make a truly good hero interesting. Carla Kelly can do it, but when I think of fascinating romance heroes, most of the ones that come to mind are the ones who have a touch of villainy.

  26. I love villainous heroes and wish there were more in romances. Nice heroes leave me bored silly and are forgettable too.

    Great post!

  27. Just have to respond to Vincent Price’s comment about actors prefering to play the villain. I’ve certainly read interviews where other actors have said the same thing, but I can think of many movies where that just isn’t so. For example, Liam Neeson in “Schindler’s List” (still think he should have won the Oscar for this), Gregory Peck in “To Kill a Mockingbird”, and Sean Bean in “LOTR” were thrilling. In fact, it’s often the villain who is two-dimensional and the hero, who we see struggling to do what’s right (as in the case of Boromir, who is mightily tempted by the ring), who is the three-dimensional character.

    And for Erika, try reading Laura Kinsale’s “For My Lady’s Heart” or Patricia Gaffney’s “To Love and To Cherish” or any of Carla Kelly’s books. None of those heroes is, to my mind, the least bit boring.

    • Susan/DC: And for Erika, try reading Laura Kinsale’s “For My Lady’s Heart” or Patricia Gaffney’s “To Love and To Cherish” or any of Carla Kelly’s books.None of those heroes is, to my mind, the least bit boring.

      Read kinsale’s and Gaffney’s book. Both are keepers. I’m reluctant to try Kelly’s books because I’ve read her heroes are more beta and not my interest at all.

  28. I’m a total fan of the villain-made-good, but I think few writers really pull it off. I think everyone loves a bad boy, but writers seem to shy away from actually having the hero do anything really bad. If we’re straight inside their head and seeing the “real them”, the inner pain, the conscience, the justification – if we’re seeing the redeemable man – I feel a sense of being let down.

    This is where Damon from Vampire Diaries has worked over two seasons – he’s bad because we SEE him being bad, not just because we’re told so.

    I recently watched Clarissa, with the original unreformed rake, Lovelace. He was brilliant because she could have loved him, except that his wicked nature kept getting in the way. As someone said in an earlier comment, you can make a villain a better person, but you can’t change who they are.

  29. What an interesting discussion. Sebastian, Lord St. Vincent had always been my favorite character until I discovered the wonderful novels by Georgette Heyer. I came upon a discussion comparing Sebastian with Lord Vidal from Heyer’s Devil’s Cub. Sebastian’s brother by another mother, so they say. Snappy and smart writing, funny and serious situations, unpredictable dialogue, characters you care about. Characters that lived with me for days after finishing the book and still are vivid months later. I then rushed to find These Old Shades where I met his father, a villian so bad they called him Satan. Then two generations later we meet Vidal’s grandchildren in An Infamous Army. Bad boys that fell in love with strong-willed women that saw beyond their sophisticated and polished exterior to find a genuine treasure of a man. What I appreciated was that the men didn’t totally change character because they fell in love, they simply opened up and allowed love in.

    Heyer wrote beginning in the 1930s and was a pioneer of sorts in the romance genre. Her stories and characters are still fresh and alive and deserve not to be forgotten. If you love well-researched stories give her a try, you won’t be disappointed.

    It was an unexpected joy to discover her and for those who love the bad boy find a copy of Those Old Shades and Devil’s Cub and get ready for a thoroughly enjoyable discovery.

  30. “I’m reluctant to try Kelly’s books because I’ve read her heroes are more beta and not my interest at all.”

    If by beta, you mean more like the Gary Cooper strong, silent type, they are that. I’ve read all the books mentioned here, all of which are great stories with great characters. I’ve also read all of Carla Kelly’s books and have loved them all. Her heroines are strong, independent women, and of her heroes, not a villain in sight. They are all good, strong, independent men and her stories make them both seem real. Even her plots are not your everyday romance stories. She’s a standout author and ranks with the best, IMHO.

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