Sunday, July 19, 2009

Curses -- Foiled Again!

By Lisabet Sarai

In the good old days, when I first began writing erotica, I didn't worry about villains. None of my first three novels has a truly evil antagonist. Raw Silk does include Edward Harrison, Kate's sleazy boss who steals her brilliant innovation and tries to sell it, but he's a minor character whose crimes serve mainly as an excuse to push the relationship between Kate and Gregory into a new phase. In any case, he gets his come-uppance in a torrid femdom scene that raises the heat level of the novel significantly.

The primary conflicts propelling Raw Silk and Incognito arise from the heroines' confusion about their sexual needs rather than through external events. Ruby's Rules is driven by the competition between the hero and the heroine, but although each stoops to some unethical tactics, neither one is in any sense evil. A villain was not required.

I didn't start needing villains until I wrote Exposure. This novel is an erotic noir thriller that begins with a double murder. In Exposure, as dictated by the genre, nearly every character is a potential villain. The biggest bad guy is a crafty politico with no scruples and an anger management problem. However, since his identity as the primary evil-doer is not revealed until late in the book, I didn't need to explore his character too deeply.

My first serious encounter with the villain conundrum occurred in writing my recently published paranormal erotic romance, Serpent's Kiss. This book is loosely based on Mayan mythology and features an apocalyptic struggle between twin gods reincarnated in modern times. The latest cycle has reached its end. Jorge Pélikal and Teodoro Remorros are ancient enemies, fighting to determine whether the earth and mankind will be completely destroyed as the cycle reaches its conclusion, or whether some aspects of civilization will be spared.

When I had finished the first draft, I asked Garce to critique the book. He was, as always, both tactful and helpful, but his comments about Remorros made me realize that how amateurish my attempt at an arch-villain really was.

Garce wrote:

“In some ways the relationship between Remorros and Jorge is more intriguing than the one between Jorge and Elena. This is the great Brahma and Shiva theme, or creating the world and destroying it. From a human view the creator is good and the destroyer is evil. But nature doesn’t see things this way. Destruction is the engine of evolution, causing some forms to pass away and better adapted forms to replace them. ... This raises interesting questions in your treatment of poor Remorros.

Remorros, as presented, is something of a mustache twirler. His function is tie the hapless girl to the railroad tracks (or bed posts) and get lost while she frees herself or Dudley Do Right frees her. This is unworthy of the premise attached to Remorros who has an essential function in things. He is the asteroid that frees the world of the dinosaurs and opens the way for Homo Sapiens who pray to the Gods he creates.”

I cringed. He was right on the money. Remorros was ultimate evil, with no rationale for his cruelty and no redeeming features. He inspired no sympathy, and hence, very little interest. He was a cardboard cut-out. Garce went on to educate me on the key to memorable villains:

“A good villain has a moral nature, he has a moral argument. If he ties the girl to the railroad tracks, he has reasons that seem good to him for doing so. Darth Vader didn’t start out as Darth Vader. He tells Luke the Emperor will bring order to the Universe. Shakespeare’s great villains were all moral beings. Macbeth is a good man who descends into evil in the progress of the story. Goneril and Regan torment their father Lear out of a twisted sense of public duty. Iago baits a trap for Othello because he hates the black moor; because he has been passed up for promotion and suspects Othello has been fucking his wife and partly because he really doesn’t like black folks. But he has reasons, he’s the most thoroughly evil of Shakespeare’s villains but we love him because he is so clever and he has his reasons”

I went back to work and tried to broaden and deepen Remorros' character. In the final version of the book, he is a lover of chaos. He truly believes that the universe needs to end. He tries to convince Elena (the heroine) that her lover Jorge is naïvely attempting to hold back the inevitable, that the world is dark and deserves to be destroyed. He has some success because Elena's history had given her an understanding of cruelty. She is no stranger to darkness.

Remorros still doesn't begin to fulfill the vision that Garce laid out for him. Hopefully, though,his added complexity makes him a bit more believable.

Now I am facing the mustache-twirling problem once again. I'm working on a M/M paranormal erotic romance called Necessary Madness. Kyle suffers from violent bouts of precognition that foretell terrible disasters. Rob is the cop who falls for Kyle despite the young man's disruptive psychic powers. I have both these characters well in hand. I know who they are, their history, how they will react in various situations and why they are attracted to each other. The villain, on the other hand, was until recently a huge mental blank.

I knew that he was a sort of black sorcerer who stole psychic powers through horrific rituals. That was necessary in order to fulfill the requirements of the plot. But who was he? Why did he want to do this? At first I thought that he was an older man, distinguished and wealthy, a prominent philanthropist with a dark secret life. If he already possessed money, respect and material power, though, why was he driven to acquire paranormal powers as well?

I raised the topic with Garce. Here's part of what he said:

“You need that back story answer for Anthony. Did he start out evil? Or did he become evil? Remember also, he does not see himself as evil. Never. He thinks he's right. Right about what?

So the question becomes - what are his values? Not sure? Go at this from another angle - the hero or the heroine - what are HIS/HER values? The villian will often have the same values as the hero but centered on himself. Or his values (think Darth Vader/ Luke Skywalker) will be the reverse image of the hero's.

The Joker is a mirror of Batman, which they both acknowledge... They share the same demons but handle them differently. Does Anthony share some personal demons in common with your hero? Think about your hero. There should be a connection between their values. What are your hero's values?”

Reading this triggered a classic “aha” experience for me. All at once I knew that the villain must be young, not much older than Kyle, and charismatic in a similar way. He is handsome and brilliant, the sort of person who makes your heart beat faster just being around him. Like Kyle, he was born into a family with paranormal abilities, but somehow the only power he inherited is the ability to sense the psychic abilities of others. Despite his personal gifts, he feels cheated and inadequate.

Kyle's prescient visions are a curse. They isolate him from humanity. He trusts no one (until he meets Rob, of course!) and contemplates suicide. Meanwhile, Anthony would kill to acquire Kyle's ability to see the future.

I'm not sure successful this take will be. I've only written one short scene involving Stefan (as he now calls himself). However, I feel far more confident that I can bring him to life. I have hopes that he will be a more complex and involving character than poor Remorros.

I don't know if villains will always be tough for me. I do marvel at the fact that ten years after publishing my first novel, I still have so much to learn. And I'm enormously grateful to have colleagues who share their insights, knowledge and opinions to help guide me along my upward path as an author.


  1. You raise some good points. That's why I like humor, I don't have to worry much about villians.

  2. Lisabet!

    So glad I tuned in. First - thanks for letting me see your stuff in its early stages. I always regard this as a privilege, like someone asking you to be godfather to their baby. And god knows you've been valuable to me, especially with stories like "The Dying Light", and "Lady and The Unicorn". You made a huge difference with those stories. Where would we be without our first readers?

    When I was reading your post it suddenly occurred to me how rarely my stories have any villains in them. I may not know as much on the subject as I like to think I do. I need to invent some villains of my own, mustaches and all.

    Thanks for letting me read your stuff!


  3. Villains are a BIG challenge, but when done right, wow.

    I can't wait to read Exposure (it's next on my TBR list)!

  4. I was interested in this post as my Victorian villain was a bit cliche and so I created a reason for his prejudice and now I feel he's more convincing as a character - not nicer, just more believeable. A fascinating read - thanks

  5. Hi Lisabet,

    This is going to be an interesting week for me too. My villains are too predictable, in my opinion. I'd love to be able to create one of those really sneaky bad guys who everyone things is wonderful until he gives himself away by doing something truly wicked. The good guy/gal bests him, of course, and all is well in the world of romance. Sigh!

    Okay, maybe I'd like it a bit darker than that. LOL

    A really interesting post, some great thoughts and insight. Thanks so much.


  6. Excellent post, Lisabet. I'm just the opposite of you. I have problems with the heroes. *chuckles*

    When writing a villain I'm like a kid in a candy shop. So many flavors to chose from and I go wild. My newest villain I wrote I loved way too much and I feared my publisher or editor might have issues with said villain. I was pleasantly surprised though and they deemed the villain excellent.

    Maybe my problem is that I considered being a psychologist at one time. The darker side of the human psyche has always fascinated me.

  7. Reading this made me think of my favorite manga, "Fruits Basket" by Natsuki Takaya. Throughout 23 volumes, one of the more fascinating aspects of reading has been to decide what the 'villain' is really up to, and why he does what he does. Thankfully, the creator invested a great deal of depth into all her characters, heroes and villains alike, which led to an ending of the story far more amazing than I could have imagined.

    Villains are more than just foils to show off how wonderful the hero is. They need to really test the hero, and even make the reader question the hero and his choices. The best villains, I think, put cast some serious doubt on the hero.

  8. villain conundrum

    I like that, Lisabet. LOL

    Great post. You put so much into your writing, it's obvious you grow from one work to the next. I'm sure your villains will continue to grow more dastardly as you go along.

  9. Thanks so much, everyone, for your comments!

    My favorite villains are those who make the dark side so appealing, it's difficult for the heroes to resist. Seductive and beautiful, as Lucifer is rumored to be. That's part of the appeal of vampires, at least in the modern incarnation. They hold out the lure of immortality and power -- who wouldn't be tempted?

    Got to run. Thanks again!


  10. Hi Lisabet,

    Fascinating post. I was particularly pleased to see how much you were able to take away from Garce's insightful criticism.

    Best wishes,



Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.