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Rakes, Fake Rakes, Anti-Heroes and Reformed Villains

Here’s a gratuitous picture of Basil Rathbone, everyone’s favorite villain. And he’s in costume as the dastardly Mr. Murdstone from “David Copperfield!”

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, the result of his affair with 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 Daniel Craig’s take on 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. The redemption 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…

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Series-itis Sweeps the Shelves

If you’re a reader of popular fiction, especially in the romance and mystery genres, then you know what I’m talking about when I bemoan the dearth of unrelated books on the shelves. Bookstores, drugstores and Amazon listings are all suffering from an acute case of series-itis that shows no signs of clearing up anytime soon.

As a matter of course, I avoid series historicals like the plague. Since most of my popular fiction reading is in the historical romance genre, this is no mean feat. At first, I thought it was only my disdain for series books that accounted for the apparent deluge of series, but a cursory survey of the past 17 historical romance reviews at All About Romance proves that I am not imagining things. Only five of those 17 historical romances were not part of a series. Of that five, three were Harlequin Historicals.

It’s not that I haven’t given series a chance. I’ve even enjoyed a few. Mary Jo Putney’s Fallen Angels series is a favorite of mine, as is Liz Carlyle’s “Never” series and a few of Mary Balogh’s series. But increasingly, I find that I dislike series, and here’s why:

Too many characters. Most series historicals I’ve read are the literary equivalent of a too-crowded party — you’re so busy trying to keep up with everyone that it’s hard to pay attention to anyone. In a well-done historical series, the incidental mention of a character from another book in the series feels natural, and if they’re integral to the plot of  the book, then it  seems organic and believable. Most of the time, however, these other characters appear at intervals to give advice that’s usually common sense, or simply to create curiosity about these characters’ books in the series. These kinds of name-dropping seem tedious and/or forced — i.e. there’s no real purpose served by having Lord Such-and-Such reappear, but since this is a series, reappear he must. It’s irritating and distracting from the story at hand. Just keeping the names straight can be a headache — if you’ve ever attempted to read a Julia Quinn, you know just what I mean.

Too much backstory — or not enough. Some series writers are smart enough to realize that many readers will discover a series halfway through. Those writers often feel compelled insert backstory from every other character in the series that appears in the book in question, taking precious words and time away from the lead characters. It’s frustrating and repetitive if you’ve read the other books in the series, distracting and confusing if you have not. Other writers, however, are arrogant enough to assume that you have read or will read every other book in the series, and drop these characters in with no hint of who they are or why they are there. I really hate it when a character shows up for one scene, with no explanation, never to be seen or heard from again, or only tangentially, leaving you to wonder for the duration of the book whether this is a character worth remembering.

Writers with either problem would do well to pick up Mary Jo Putney’s Fallen Angels series; without presenting a synopsis of every character’s book, Putney always manages to work her cast of characters into other books in a natural, logical way, presenting just enough information about characters to make you curious about their stories without dumping information, or, on the other end of the spectrum, having them appear out of nowhere. It also helps that she never felt compelled to use every single character from every single book in every single book, if such a concept makes sense. Rather than having all of the Fallen Angels (the more I type that, the more I realize how trite that series title sounds, but never mind) appear in each book, only one or two appear, and only when necessary to the plot.

Too little of the main characters/story. The whole concept of the romance series seems to have changed in the past 10 years or so. Putney’s Fallen Angels series and several of Mary Balogh’s series from 12-15 years back, for instance, were more interrelated books than series; i.e. none of the action from one book depended upon action from another, nor was there any real continuation of action from one book to the next. Don’t get me wrong — there’s certainly nothing wrong with series where each book builds upon the other. But writers (romance writers in particular) need to decide whether the book will be able to stand alone, or will depend upon the other books. Unfortunately, many romance writers are trying to have it both ways, and the result is, well, almost every thing I’ve pointed out so far, plus something even more problematic.

When an author is confused about whether or not the book will stand alone or depend upon others, the most obvious sign of the struggle is that the main characters and/or plot are shortchanged. A textbook case of this is Elizabeth Hoyt’s latest book, Thief of Shadows,  which is, of course, part of a series. I won’t repeat everything I said on this subject already in my review of that book, but suffice to say that Thief of Shadows suffers from almost every ill I’ve listed here, and something even more dire: a hero and heroine whose story is sacrificed in order to segue into the stories of the other books.

Hoyt spent so much time on other characters from the series, and setting up situations for other books in the series that Thief of Shadows’  hero is, for lack of a better word, emasculated by the need for the series to go on. While reading the book, you feel that she should either have: A. written a longer book that lets the main characters’ story stretch out, while also incorporating the other characters from the series, or B. simply written the book as a standalone, throwing the premise of the series away. Either would have been better than the book as it is.

My biggest problem with the series books I’m seeing now, however, is less specific. To wit, it’s pure laziness. Most series books seem to me to be borne of laziness more than any desire to continue interrelated stories over a number of books. Why come up with an entirely new setting, new characters, new situations, even new verbal tics and slang, when you can just use-and-reuse those from previous books, and get away with it because you are “world building?”

It’s not world-building when nothing new but more character names and a slightly re-worked plot are added to each subsequent book in the series. You’re not building a world so much as moving dolls in and out of a dollhouse when the situations and characters are so similar from book to book that you can’t keep the names or situations straight.

For someone who doesn’t like series and finds Harlequin Historicals to be iffy in quality, series-itis is a disturbing trend. Good thing Carla Kelly, Elisabeth Fairchild and Diane Farr are re-releasing their old Traditional Regencies in e-book format, else I’d be looking for a new popular fiction genre altogether!