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EILEEN DREYER | A Villian To Love

July 27, 2010


I admit it. I love my villains. In fact, if I have a book with a villain in it, I have to make sure I have my villain in place before I consider my hero and heroine complete. Because, if you think about it, the way I show the heroism of my protagonists is to match them against an equal opposing force. And that force had better be three-dimensional and compelling in some way, or else it’s pointless. The way I usually put it when I’m teaching is that the villain has to be worthy of the hero, and vice versa.

If there is one complaint I have when I read a book, it’s that the author doesn’t spend enough time or attention on the creation of their villains. It isn’t enough that a person is evil. So what? That isn’t interesting. The villain has to have a reason for doing what he(or she) does. It also has to be a compelling reason, at least to the villain.

But here’s the secret. It’s the best advice I’ve ever gotten about villains. No villain is truly villainous in his own eyes. He always has what he considers to be a perfectly good reason for what he does. Even Hannibal Lector completely believes that he’s the one who’s right.

And so we come to my current–and currently favorite–villain. His name is Gervaise Armistan, and he appears in BARELY A LADY. Gervaise is breathtakingly handsome, he’s witty and charming and a perfect dinner companion. Gervaise is also the great white shark of stalkers. He has been making my heroine Olivia’s life a living hell for five years, orchestrating amazing disasters just so she is susceptible to him. He wants her for his mistress, and he doesn’t understand why she isn’t.

Here’s the fun part(at least for me as the writer). Gervaise simply doesn’t get it that what he’s doing is wrong. He knows in his heart that Olivia would be better off with him. He is, after all, charming Gervaise. In fact, every bad thing he does, he does with gusto. Because it all makes sense to him. It’s everybody else who is confused. As odd as it sounds, I had huge fun writing Gervaise, because he having so much fun.

To tell you the truth, my inspiration for Gervaise came from a movie villain; my favorite movie villain ever, Rupert of Hentzlau in The Prisoner of Zenda. To be more specific, Douglas Fairbanks Jr’s interpretation of Rupert in the 1938 version of the movie(the only real version, as far as I’m concerned). Fairbanks was so good that he almost overshadowed the rest of the cast, and considering the fact that the cast included Ronald Coleman, that’s pretty impressive.

The secret to his performance is that his Rupert can’t imagine anything more fun than what he is doing. He relishes every moment of his day, every action he takes, every challenge he faces. Even more, he is delighted by his antagonist. He is thrilled that in Randolf he finally had an adversary he considered worthy of him.

Of course what he wants is immoral, illegal and probably fattening. But he knows that because he’s the smartest one around, he deserves it. He does everything he can to get it. And even when he loses everything, Rupert makes his exit with panache and laughter. You just have to love a guy like that.

I think it’s why I enjoyed writing Gervaise so much. I’ve written a lot of villains, and the glowering, evil, henchman-type villain just gets boring after a while. I mean, who else is going to be surprised that this guy has the worst intentions? But when the villain is everybody’s favorite dance partner, and really makes people smile when he walks into a room, then the heroine is in much greater peril, because who’s going to believe her that this guy is evil incarnate?

See? Villains are fun. What do you think? Who has been your favorite villain?

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