Tuesday, January 26, 2010

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Tortured Heroes Vs. Villains

Got another issue for us to tangle with based on my reading of DANGEROUS MEN & ADVENTUROUS WOMEN (1992, edited by Jayne Ann Krentz) (the previous post is here). Another aspect that intrigued me centered on the authors’ revelation that one popular execution of a romance hero was to make him part hero, part villain. According to the various essays, this type of tortured hero starts off as a brooding, isolative, even dislikeable character, but learns to tap into his heroic side as a result of the heroine’s interventions.

I began reflecting on how the presence of a tortured hero (or heroine) might impact the presence of villains in science fiction romance. I’ve blogged about villains in this subgenre previously, but was still scratching my head over why they often get such short thrift. Now I think I’m beginning to understand why.

I recall encountering one SFR villain whose physical presence came across as so intangible and distant that I realized the author had made a decision at some point—perhaps unconsciously—that he/they/it was hardly germane to the story. But the hero—ah, he had all the makings of a great villain. So tortured and broody. Sardonic. Dangerous. I mean, it was no contest. What’s a villain to do?

After I finished DANGEROUS MEN & ADVENTUROUS WOMEN, I wondered if the devotion to the tortured, hybrid hero-villain decreased the chances of authors constructing villains who are equally compelling. If all the creative energy is going into the hero, what’s left for the villain? It makes sense, too, because having two tortured male characters would create redundancy. They’d end up canceling each other out.

Villains are a staple of science fiction stories, and I expect to encounter them in SFR on a fairly regular basis. I don’t want them to overshadow the romance, but a well-crafted villain introduces tension and raises the stakes for our protagonists. Now that I think about it, an example of how a villain can be balanced with the romance and science fictional elements is COUNTDOWN. Author Michelle Maddox incorporated her villain into the story in such a way that I had a good taste of him (!) without feeling that he stole the show.

If tortured heroes are sapping all the energy away from villains, how can authors address this imbalance? One way, of course, is to create a compelling “good guy” hero who squares off against the typical tortured villain. Not goody-two shoes, necessarily, more like strong but complicated. But what if the story demands a tortured hero?

Perhaps it’s the villain who needs reinventing. This could be done either in terms of the villain’s personality (e.g., disarmingly charming), or in the type of villain that’s created. I can overlook and even appreciate a two-dimensional villain IF he/she/it is cleverly constructed, executes at least one heinously villainous act during the story (shown, not told), or arrives in an unexpected form. Villains don't always have to be human. They could be mechanical in nature, or environmental.

Tortured heroes probably aren’t the only reason villains in science fiction romance aren’t fully developed in some stories, but I’m wondering if they’ve been a significant factor.

What do you think? If we change the way in which we envision them, what type of villain would be a good match for a tortured hero or heroine?

Joyfully yours,

Heather