Romance Villains

by | December 10, 2015 |

You know who does good villains? Disney. Two easily come to mind: Claude Frollo the scrawny Archdeacon in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and Ursula the massive sea witch in The Little Mermaid.

Ruthless, self-righteous, religiously pious Frollo is super creepy – literally. As he creeps around the cathedral, spouting his doctrines and lusting after Esmeralda, his narrow silhouette is cast in monstrous proportions up the walls. Scary.

Ursula is big and black and throws her weight around under the sea. She doesn’t swim. She oozes, her tentacles spreading everywhere. She swamps everything in her path.

Both villains are out-sized in form and evil ambition. Only the good and pure of heart can stand up to them and defeat them.

Both stories are examples of the romance mode, under the definition of Northrup Frye, the influential mid-20th-century literary critic.

Note: See my blogs: The Anatomy of Criticism (part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5).

Frye notes that the romance mode follows a general dialectic structure, where every typical character has his moral opposite confronting him, like black and white pieces in a chess game.

In other words: Frollo v. Quasimodo, Ursula v. Ariel. The guys who wear the black hats v. the guys who wear the white hats.

The ideal villain is the evil father. For Victor Hugo, that would be Frollo, himself an orphan and adoptive father to Quasimodo. More recently, it’s Darth Vader in the space romance Star Wars.

Recall from my blog The Hero’s Journey that the journey begins when the hero is sent away from his birth parents and ends when he returns to confront them and is honored by them.

In Season 1 of the new TV series Quantico, one of the main characters is a NAT (New Agent in Training) who has a powerful father who doubts his son has the right stuff to become an agent. The son becomes a lesser-prestige analyst who turns his analyzing skills away from trying to identify terrorists and towards investigating his father’s private business.

Spoiler alert: the son discovers that he and his father are in an erotic intrigue with the same woman. Pure Freud, pure family romance.

In romance novels, the villain tends to come in two varieties:

  1. An outside force

An outside force is a person outside the hero’s and/or heroine’s immediate sphere of influence who threatens either the main characters’ livelihood, personal safety, or both.

In a historical romance, it’s a greedy landowner who squeezes every last groat from his tenants in taxes or an evil knight bent on rape and pillage.

In a contemporary romance, it could be a CEO or lawyer in a hostile corporate takeover, a rapacious land developer, a politician or any other public servant, a serial killer, or human traffickers.

  1. An inside force

An inside force is a person within the hero’s and/or heroine’s immediate sphere of influence – a close friend, a close family member – who does harm or intends harm to the main character(s).

In a historical romance, it’s the traitor who is by definition an inside person. The historical period will suggest the form the treachery/treason will take. In a Regency romance, for instance, Napoleonic wars are the backdrop, and anyone trying to interfere with an English campaign in Spain or, ultimately, Waterloo will work as the villain.

Or there might be a stepfather who wants to marry his stepdaughter off to a horrible man or who (shades of Hunchback of Notre Dame) lusts after her himself.

In a contemporary romance, it’s often an ex-boyfriend or ex-husband, that is, a man who has already harmed the heroine by cheating on her, ripping her off financially, or demeaning her in any other way, say, by criticizing her weight.

Just as often it’s a rival woman, an ex of the heroine’s current love interest who threatens to win him back.

In my own work, I have examples of all of the above, both in historicals and contemporaries.

In my most recent story, Love After All (March, 2016), the heroine Laurel has an ex-husband with whom she has a grown daughter. Good people get divorced for all sorts of reasons, and I wanted Laurel to have some understanding of the reason for her divorce. When characters begin to explore complex emotions – when the world does not divide neatly into white hats and black hats – what is marketed under the label romance becomes like any other fiction, what we generally call novels.


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This post was written by Julie Andresen

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