Villains are so under-rated! Oh, sure, we need the hero and he has to be the central male focus of any romance. We adore our heroes. But think about it- just how heroic is the hero without the villain?
Way back in the Dark Ages in Senior English class, Miss Neal taught us that every novel must have one of a very few basic plots. Man versus Man, Man vs. God, Man vs. Society, Man vs. the Elements, Man vs. Himself. We were sure there had to be some stories that didn't fit her neat, simplistic divisions. We jumped immediately on Man vs. Woman but she told us that was included in the Man vs. Man type. She'd taught this class a few times before (like about 25 years), so she might have herd that one before. She did agree, God vs. the Elements might be a possibility, but since God and Nature were in accord, there was no conflict, and therefore no story.
Essentially, in Miss Neal's mind, anyone/thing on the opposite side from the protagonist was the antagonist, the villain, and the villain needed to be a strong match for the protagonist. "Never write a stupid villain," she told us, "because your hero doesn't have to show his strength, his worth, to win."
Conflict is the nature of fiction, and fabulous villains make for great conflict. In some stories, the villain's story overwhelms the hero's story.
In 3:10 to Yuma, which starred Russell Crowe as the villain and incidentally Christian Bale as the hero, the hero does win, by losing- his life. His son wins by standing up to the villain. And the villain wins, yet loses, because he escapes, having used the hero and his son to the fullest of his supremely manipulative ability, yet he can't change. He is broken beyond repair, and thus can never have what he truly wanted in life. And Wade's story is so compelling, it's hard to even remember the hero.
Phantom of the Opera, starring Gerard Butler in a musical re-make of a Nineteenth Century novel by Gaston Leroux, is another example of a villain taking over the story. Any similar character in a modern news story would be considered pathetic, and evil, living for vengeance. Sympathy? Little or none. But when you see him through the heroine's eyes, he really jerks your heartstrings. The hero, played by Patrick Wilson, with a =character deliberately written to be weak- reactive instead of proactive, doesn't stand a chance against the phantom.
In both of these examples, the villains showed sympathetic glimpses into their true character through their actions, so bit by bit the viewer began to understand how they became what they did. We saw their deep wounds, and what they had to do, become, to survive. And despite their villainy, we began to care and feel that tiny spark of hope grow, that they might overcome their evil. That's what kept us glued to our seats, not the heroes, no matter how heroic they were.
You can't get away with this very often in a romance. Because the romance has to be central to the story, the hero must be the strongest male. Often romance writers solve their problem by creating villains with no redeeming qualities. Or they make them cardboard, weak, almost not there. Mary Jo Putney got away with it, and in a sequel, The Rake and the Reformer, later enlarged to become The Rake, produced the lovable, awful rake, Reggie, the alcoholic who turned his life around to make one of the best heroes ever written. But in reality, he only had a few sympathetic moment at the end of the story, when he became gracious and accepted defeat, "letting" the hero win the heroine. Mary Jo said it was that unusual twist that brought to her the glimpse of Reggie as an eventual hero.
Now, sorry, I'm having trouble thinking of any other examples. But Mary Jo helped me out with this comment:
"Don't we all love our villains if they're redeemable? Another great example of the redeemable rake-Patricia Veryan. The Dedicated Villain is the sixth of her Georgian/Jacobite series, and it took that many books to redeem the villain/hero.
That gets me to thinking- I do believe I have been influenced by some fine villain-writers. I didn't succeed as well as I'd hoped in Lady Valiant. The minute the hero's father, the duke, became really visible through his motivation, he stepped from flat, everyday nasty guy to a deeply wounded man with a mission he was desperate to fulfill. He became so strong, he completely took over the book. My hero and heroine became mere pawns in his hands. It took me a full year to tame the guy down and get him to let go of my story. And he's still too strong, for some people. But I'm not sorry I wrote him the way I did, and I learned a lot from him. Years later, he still niggles around in my brain, demanding to know when I'm going to give him center stage.
I put what he taught me in Sins of the Heart. Davy Polruhan is the hero's adversary. He's very charismatic, and a good man, not evil, but his good intentions cause harm. He's one of those people on whom God's sun seems always to have shone. He's lived a life in which everything has been all but perfect. And that's what's wrong with him. He's so used to having things go his way, and he's never had to deal with adversity, so he lacks the skills. He just takes it for granted that someday the heroine will marry him. She doesn't. She falls in love with the very kind of guy Davy dislikes most, a d..... nob. And suddenly there's blackness in his heart he never knew he could have.
So Davy got to be himself in that story, but there's still so much left for him that he needs his own. That will be Strangers in the Night. When it's finally done. And he will be his own villain. Because he's so good at it.