It’s Villains and Anti-Heroes Week here at Le Sweet Rocket! In today’s riposte, we’ll look at just what makes for a good bad boy hero, be he a rake, anti-hero, or straight-up villain!
Romanceland is the land of the bad boy, the rake, the bodice-ripping pirate and dark knight. What woman doesn’t swoon at the idea of reforming a rake, melting the heart of the ice-cold nobleman or even making an honest man of the deadly mercenary? It’s the tale as old as time, indeed, and one that is the basis of countless romance novels.
But what separates the dark hero from the true anti-hero? The villain from the rake? Or, better still, the real bad boy from that worn-out romance trope, the fake rake?
It’s a fine line for an author to toe, to create a hero that’s deliciously wicked without being so degenerate that readers are turned off rather than turned on, and it’s often one that separates the bad boys from the real men, the fake rakes from the reformed villains.
Both the fake rake and his close cousin, the Duke of Slut, can, in fact, be traced to this very difficulty. Fake rakes and Dukes of Slut are famous for their wicked exploits, but we rarely see them in action — we hear about them second hand. The heroine hears horrified whispers and snippets of conversations to tell her that the hero is baaaaad, that he uses and discards women like handkerchiefs, that he’s dueled/shot a man in cold blood/cheated at cards, but we never catch a real glimpse of this bad behavior. It’s the easy way out, for authors who want to have a bad boy hero but don’t actually want to risk losing readers by showing their bad deeds.
The difference between a fake rake and a real rake is all in the telling. An excellent example of a real rake is the Duke of Tresham from Mary Balogh’s More Than a Mistress. When we meet Tresham, he’s engaged in a duel thanks to his bedding of a married woman. The heroine, Jane, a domestic servant, interrupts the duel and sets the wheels of the plot in motion. Jane becomes Tresham’s nurse when he’s injured in the duel, and afterward, his mistress. Whereas a fake rake would have gone into the vapors at the thought of besmirching a young virgin’s honor by first risking her reputation by moving her in with him, then setting her up as a mistress, that’s hardly Tresham’s style. He’s so despicably snobbish and selfish through much of the book that it rarely occurs to him to treat Jane with anything but pettiness and unwitting cruelty, but slowly, throughout the course of the story, he is redeemed by Jane’s kindness.
Tresham’s despicable actions make him as much an anti-hero as a rake. Anti-heroes, unlike rakes, fake rakes or Dukes of Slut, are not necessarily debauched or slutty, but are, instead, so at odds with the heroine that it’s hard to imagine them being in the same room, much less falling in love. Elusive, dark, brooding and naturally fascinating for it, the anti-hero is the standard hero of the Gothic romance, and often the medieval, as well.
Gunnar from Lord of Vengeance is a good example of an anti-hero, but an even better example may be Michael from Anne Stuart’s Now You See Him. Since Stuart herself has often bemoaned the fact that she came to romance too late to write Gothics, it’s no surprise that many of her novels feature gothic overtones, particularly her heroes, most particularly Michael. A secret agent (think James Bond), Michael seeks out the book’s heroine, Francey, because he suspects of her being involved with an Irish terrorism ring. He lies to her about his identity, leaves her in the lurch at least once or twice, and, despite his developing attraction for Francey, has no plans of abandoning his career to be with her. Oh, and did I mention that he’s a stone cold killer? Yet he’s one of Stuart’s best anti-heroes, which, considering that’s pretty much all she writes, is saying something.
Just as Tresham could have been an anti-hero, Michael could easily have been a villain, which brings us to our final breed of romance bad boy, the reformed villain. The reformed villain is perhaps the most challenging hero to write, because, in order for him to be successful, he has to first be very very bad, yet not so bad that readers can’t stand to see him redeemed. When this works, it’s wonderful. When it doesn’t, it’s often because the villain suffers from fake rake syndrome, or because he’s simply not bad enough to be believable as a villain. A reformed villain for the ages is St. Vincent from Lisa Kleypas’ Devil in Winter.
As is often the case for the reformed romance villain, St. Vincent appears in two books in a series. His first, dastardly appearance is in It Happened One Autumn, where he is a cad of the first order. He betrays and deceives his best friend, then abducts the heroine of that book. Plus he’s a degenerate gambler and a rake (naturally). St. Vincent was so heinous, in fact, that many Kleypas fans were worried that he could not be redeemed, when they discovered that he would be the hero of Devil in Winter. St. Vincent’s redemption works because he is not redeemed off the page, between the two books; he’s paired with Devil in Winter’s heroine, Evangeline, because he’s marrying her for her money, and he proceeds to be a real horse’s ass for much of the book. This wouldn’t be a romance if he weren’t eventually reformed, but the reader sometimes wonders how, exactly, that’s going to happen. Which is as it should be with a reformed villain.
When the redeemed villain plot fails, it’s often because the author is afraid to let the villain be too despicable, lest he be irredeemable. A good example of that problem is Elizabeth Hoyt’s Thief of Shadows; one of that book’s villains is so obviously being set up as a hero for a future book that his motives are so obscure and his behavior so wishy-washy that as a reader, it’s difficult to believe in him, either as a villain or as a future hero.
Why, if rakes, anti-heroes and reformed villains are so difficult to pull off, do we love them so? While our desire to believe that true love can conquer even the worst in human beings is strong, I think there’s more to it than that. A believable rake, villain or anti-hero almost always comes with fascinating back story, for one thing, which makes for an page-turning read. Redeeming such a bad boy provides inherent drama and plot, of the most human, and therefore natural, kind. I suspect, however, that we love a good bad boy because it takes a very talented writer to create a character who is so bad, and yet so good…