Monday, July 20, 2009

Villains vs. Bad Guys

By Jenna Byrnes

I don't think of myself as writing villains. Villains are someone like Darth Vader from Star Wars (although he became a little less villainous when Hayden Christensen played him in Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith). I also consider Ursula from The Little Mermaid a first-rate villain.

And Cruella DeVille from 101 Dalmatians is about as villainous as they get.

I write contemporary erotic romance and romantic suspense, so while there's the occasional bad guy, I never really considered them villains (I've used that word more times in this post than I probably ever have in my life.)

I love writing romantic suspense because it combines the two things I most like to read, romance and mystery. It takes some plotting, but when I can pull it off, it's a great feeling. It's exciting to keep the reader guessing who the bad guy actually is. In most good fiction, TV or movies, part of the fun is trying to figure out "who done it" before the end. The trick in writing this is to introduce a variety of possible characters along the way, dropping hints as you go. When it's over, the reader/viewer wants to be able to look back and say, "Oh, yeah. I get it. That makes sense." There should be a feeling of satisfaction that the loose ends have been tied up properly.

Some of the legal-type thrillers get so caught up in details that when you sit down to pick up where you left off, you actually have to try and remember what's going on and who the main characters are. I know someone who writes in the front of books to keep track of the cast. That's way more work than I want. If I'm reading and it's not work-related then it's for relaxation, and I want to be entertained, not put through the wringer.

But even in those books, I don't consider the bad guys villains. I guess I reserve that term for the really epic baddies.


  1. Hi, Jenna,

    So what kind of bad guys do you have in your romantic suspense books? Can you give an example?

    I think that the paranormal genre lends itself more to "epic baddies", as you put it. When you are writing about people or beings with power, well, misuse of power can do a lot of damage.

    Certainly Cruella de Ville is a classic villain. Even she had her motives, though. All she wanted was a new fur coat...


  2. Ursula and Cruella Deville, two of my favorite gals!

    When it comes to mystery and suspense, I do like to be kept guessing about whodunnit, but I also like to see more than one villain in a story. The Amelia Peabody mysteries do a good job of that, introducing unsavory side characters that keep things lively. Of course, said side characters come with intriguing side plots that eventually tie into the main mystery, which makes the story even better.

    I'd like to see some of your bad guys. What makes them not quite villains?

  3. To me, villains are a personal demon to the protags. The villain may have larger concerns that the personal grudge falls into, but there is a personal component. Cruella could have gotten her fur coat by buying puppies from breeders all over the world...or having someone do it (or stealing them from all over), which she did, in part. She wanted the Darling puppies for personal reasons, to hurt Anita and her husband for refusing her. She wanted the puppies in 102, because they were puppies of one of the original brood. That's a villain, in the making.

    Bad guys are a more general nuisance. A boss that makes your life hell might be a bad guy. He's a PITA and makes everyone's life hell...or anyone who doesn't agree with him, which might make it seem personal, on some level. It might be a serial killer that you ran afoul of but wasn't targeting you specifically...just someone of the pattern (perhaps until it becomes personal, and he/she takes on villainous qualities...think the bad guy turned villain in Frequency or in Kiss the Girls).

    Bad guys are inherently somehow less in-your-face and threatening, because we all face bad guys every day. We don't all face the villain: the stalker, the psycho who wants you specifically and not just a target who fits the profile...

    Being a villain doesn't mean you don't have reasons for what you do. Being a bad guy doesn't either. Ideally, any well-written character should have goals and motivations, even if they are spurred or guided by mental illness or traumas that make them unlikely choices for someone not thus afflicted.

    I write both villains and bad guys. I also write one becoming the other...or villains who are not so villainous, when you hear THEIR sides of the stories.


  4. Hi Jenna,

    I surely get your take here. Villains are the biggies, guys who rape/pillage and burn the villiages along the coast because he likes the pretty color and the way the women scream. Bad guys are like the guy next door who you'd like to strangle when he's found with a basement full of stolen good. LOL Oh hey, that second guy might be handy to have for a neighbor... Snicker.

    Seems it's all a matter of degree. A really interesting topic. Thanks so much for your take on it.


  5. Thanks for the comments Lisabet, Helen, Brenna and Jude. Maybe in another post I'll explore my bad guys further. I'm having computer issues and can't focus on much else today. Sheesh, can't live with them, can't live without them- just like men!



  6. Jenna,

    Great post. (And I've always had a soft spot for Cruella DeVille).

    Best wishes,



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