Musings on Breathing Life into a Heartless Villain, by Pamela Jean Herber


What makes for a memorable antagonist?

I’ve been having trouble with the antagonist in my current novel-in-progress. She’s boring. I have a decent handle on how she operates in her world, and the role she plays in the story, but she feels more like a mathematical formula than a human being. What to do?… Go out in search of a villain I’m excited about who has similar traits to my antagonist.

An intriguing historical villain

In my travels through books, the Internet, and my own memory, I found a deliciously evil woman from the early 1800s who grew up in Bauzelles, France. Her name was Thérèse Humbert.

As a girl, Thérèse was betrayed by her own father. He had raised her to believe she and her family were wealthy aristocrats. When the truth came out upon her father’s death that she was not of nobility, and wouldn’t be inheriting great wealth, Thérèse was robbed of a station in society she believed she was entitled to. Without legitimate means to claim her place, she resorted to her father’s game. Fraud.

She continued to tell the tale of her family’s aristocratic standing. She was able to obtain credit based on soon-to-be received wealth, piling up huge debt buying a lifestyle that gave the appearance of wealth. Along the way, Thérèse’s husband, and her father-in-law covered her debts as best they could, perhaps to protect their own reputations. She convinced bankers to allow debts to go unpaid for long after they were due by weaving story after story of an impending inheritance and a favorable marriage by her sister.

Eventually, Thérèse was arrested, tried, and imprisoned, but not until after she had wreaked havoc on the hopes, reputations, and livelihoods of numerous family members, friends, and business associates. These unsustainable ways lead Thérèse to betray her younger sister in the very way her father had betrayed her.

With only a brief sketch of Thérèse’s life, I’m hooked.

What makes Thérèse Humbert such an interesting character?

  • The fact that Thérèse’s father betrayed her makes her need for money and status believable and heartbreaking. Her actions were still unconscionable, but I sympathize with how she became capable of them.
  • She betrayed her sister in the same way she was betrayed. Wow. Just wow. This makes me worry for not just the family, but for all the descendants, and especially the sister. Will it be possible for her to break the cycle?
  • The younger sister could not have been deceived without the support of family members who knew the truth. Thérèse could not have successfully defrauded so many people without the support of her very victims: family, friends, and business associates.

In light of what I’ve found, what can I try out on my antagonist?

  • Provide a single and traumatic event that drives her need for money and status.
  • Show that her daughter is at risk of falling into the same patterns of behavior.
  • Populate the story with a network of people that support the antagonist.

The villain in the story doesn’t breathe on their own. The person the villain was before the damage, and the people in the villains’s life who have retained their compassion, they are the ones who bring the villain to life.

Dark Desire

By Alexis Duran


“Love is giving someone the power to destroy you but trusting them not to.” Unknown.

Sex and violence. Love and hate. Trust and fear. Protagonist and antagonist. Hero and villain. When opposites collide, sparks fly. All we have to do is look at two of the most popular TV shows of all time, Game of Thrones and The Sopranos, to see how popular those conflict-generated sparks are. There’s no arguing that these elements are intricately entwined within the human soul and so naturally, they make their way into our stories. As a writer of erotica drawn to explore the dark side of desire, I’ve occasionally questioned the value of such stories.

As early as my pre-teens, I remember flinging my sister’s Harlequin romances and “bodice-rippers” against the wall in disgust when the so-called “heroes” forced themselves on simpering heroines who then promptly fell madly in love with their abusers. Rubbish! Crap! Horror!

Imagine my embarrassment when the editor of my new novella Touch of Salar informed me that one of my sex scenes was actually a rape, and that Loose Id prefers their romantic heroes not to be rapists. Apparently no does mean no. A few subtle shifts of language and voila, acceptability is attained. But how in the world did this come about? Why did I write my characters into such a situation? Why would a writer who should know better feel compelled to send her characters into the murky realms of sexual violence?

I decided it was time to take a look at the role of villainous lovers, submissive heroes and what happens when combatants fall in lust.

Dark Fiction takes us into the breach and over the cliff on our own writer’s journey through hell and damnation. Others here on ShadowSpinners have explored the function of horror, mayhem and death in fiction (here, here and here). They found value in the impulse to endanger lives, threaten comforts, kill off gods, upend reality and kick over rocks, and so too have I found rewards in the risky behavior so often present in dark erotica.

In fiction we can safely press beyond the confines of reason, rationality, common sense, political correctness. We can send our characters back into the haunted house or into the arms of Mr. Oh-So-Wrong. What if the protagonist falls in love with the antagonist? Now there is some delicious conflict.

When I first allowed myself to write about terribly flawed characters with a penchant for dangerous partners, I discovered that the challenges of loving a villain, of forcing my characters to the edge of reason, is every bit as compelling as threatening them with death, loss, and destruction in other areas of their lives. There’s no scene quite so intimate, so revealing, as a sexual encounter that challenges everything a character believes about themselves and the other person. They know it’s “wrong” and they do it anyway. Through this self-sacrifice and self-abandonment, perhaps the hero will learn the truth and come out stronger.

And what about the villain/lover? Is she a flawed hero? A wounded aspect of the protagonist? A dangerous other who threatens to bring out the worst in everyone they encounter? The Dark Man or Dark Woman does not have to be a malevolent outside force but a catalyst, a key to unlock passions buried within, a mirror of repressed longing. The dark lover might be the one person who can help the hero experience a sexual freedom they cannot achieve themselves.

And so we conscript our characters to wrestle with deeply buried desires that can’t be acknowledged by the rational mind. There are a hundred reasons not to give in to the dark lover, but reason has little to do with the decision to risk everything. Our characters can be stupid. Our characters can be scandalous.   Our characters can embrace vulnerability and overcome fear. Usually it is society that must be defied, along with constraints of fear, shame and propriety, but often it is one’s very own demons blocking the road to liberation and any author worth her salt knows the benefits of confronting those bastards.





In Search of A Proper Villain

by Christina Lay

As the insightful writer of horror Liz Engstrom often says, “Your story is only as strong as your antagonist.”  It’s been my tendency to concentrate on non-corporeal antagonists, such as the hero’s fatal flaw, or undefined fears that lurk in the dark, or a dysfunctional culture.  I often prefer to set my protagonist up against herself and the pitfalls of her own personality.  Naturally there are always alarming circumstances and challenges to deal with in a good story, conflict galore, and the occasional Demon, body-snatcher, or ghost, but rarely have I deployed the knife-wielding, mustache-twirling sort of bad guy that actively interferes with the hero’s hopes, love life or regular breathing patterns.

I recently sought to remedy this oversight.  Faced with an annual challenge to write a ghost story in 24 hours, I decided to focus on creating a strong antagonist in the most straight –forward sense of the word.  A true villain.  There is no shortage of role models in this area. We all have our favorites in fiction:  Professor Moriarty, Hannibal Lechter,  Annie Wilkes.  The question isn’t really why these villains are frightening but rather what it is about them that makes them memorable and draws us to them even when we want to run away screaming.

I confess I’m not much drawn to the serial killer sort of villain.  I’d rather not take my imagination down those dark and twisted passageways.  It takes a true master of horror to create an Annie Wilkes and still be okay in the morning.  I’ve also grown weary of the phenomena of the psychopathic killer in movies and television, where the goal of each story seems to be to invent the most perverse and sickening way that one person might decide to cancel out the life of another. I prefer my villains to be a tad more subtle, so naturally I turned to the middle ages, to excavate an antagonist most enduring, intriguing, and with the heavy dose of the gravitas that comes from being real.

Oil painting of Vlad Tepes, or Dracul, Prince of Wllachia

Oil painting of Vlad Tepes, or Dracul, Prince of Wallachia

Vlad Dracul was a real person, a prince of sorts in 15th century Romania.  Though Bram Stoker never copped to it, it is blatantly obvious that the historical Dracul was the inspiration for his Count Dracula.  Why has Dracula been one of the most enduring villains in all of modern literature?  Stoker did an amazing job of creating an alluring, powerful-yet-flawed monster, but I believe that the historical reality behind the monster is what really gives him his depth of character and his mystique, another great quality for a villain to have.

Here’s another great bit of writing advice from I know not where:  “The antagonist is the hero of his own story.”  This has helped me tremendously while trying to create a villain who is not a cartoon. Who is believable, with motivations to which the reader can relate.

So you might ask, how could I possibly relate to a mass murderer whose claim to fame is his penchant for impaling his victims on stakes?  And I might answer that Vlad Dracul is a hero in Romania to this day. Why? Because he was the only princeling in Eastern Europe with the cajones to stand up to the invading Ottoman Turks.  Pretty much everyone else either colluded, or rolled over, or ignored the threat, or even worse, stole the money that the Vatican raised for a proper crusade.  At the edge of Christianity on a battle-torn frontier, Dracul waged a war that, even in those vicious times, stood out as particularly brutal.  Chivalry was dead, the times were desperate (have they ever not been?) and Vlad attacked his life-long enemies with an effective vengeance, gaining notoriety for his excessive ways and being proclaimed abnormal and a monster by his contemporaries, while at the same time being hailed as the lone defender of his faith and his people. What a great guy.  And by great, I mean in the sense of possessing “an intensity considerably above the normal or average” and “very skilled or capable in a particular area”.

The very qualities we like in our heroes are also necessary in our villains.  Vlad Dracul, besides being conveniently situated in a misty, mysterious and dark corner of our history, was intense in his passions, skilled in the execution of his plans and conflicted enough to build churches and monasteries to buy his way back into God’s good graces.  What more could a writer want? Of course, with such a great antagonist, the protagonist must rise to the occasion or sink into the realm of hapless victim.  And that, I suspect, is why a story is only as strong as its antagonist.