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