Reading,  TV and Film,  Writing

How To Love A Villain

urlI’m a great fan of Downton Abbey and have faithfully watched each season. In fact, at this year’s Washington Romance Writers Retreat in April, I’m going to do a workshop on what Downton Abbey can teach us about writing Historical Romance. You’ll be hearing more on that later.

This week’s episode featured more on one of my favorite characters, Thomas, finely acted by Rob James-Collier.  (Don’t worry, though. I won’t give any spoilers in case you haven’t seen it yet)

imgresIn season one, Thomas was a scheming footman who would manipulate anyone to put himself in a good light. He’d get the dirt on the other servants and use the information against them, if he thought it would serve his own ends. He had it in for Mr. Bates from the beginning, never missing an opportunity to make Bates look bad. He even put the moves on one of the handsome houseguests, the foreign royal who seduced Mary and dropped dead in her bed.

In other words, Thomas was a villain. Along with O’Brien, Lady Grantham’s ladies maid, Thomas was the character we were supposed to hate, the quintessential bad guy.

In season two, though, something changed. Thomas went from being a character I loved to hate to someone more complicated. By the end of the season he was one of my favorite characters and still is.

If you want to make a villain sympathetic, this is how to do it.

Motivate him

In season two it became clearer that Thomas was a lonely man who wanted better for himself and who really had nobody who cared about him and no opportunities to aspire to more than service in an country house. I suddenly understood why he connived and clawed his way in life. When he is duped in his profiteering scheme and he loses everything, he has to go back into service. By this time you know what a difficult thing that is for him.

Make him vulnerable

In season two we saw a different side of Thomas from the smart-talking conniver. He went to war and was terribly traumatized by battle, so much so he lifted his hand out of the trenches and waits for it to be shot. That fear and desperation touched my heart.

Show his pain

Also in season two Thomas fell in love with an injured soldier who he tried to nurse back to health. His kindness and sympathy towards this man was unexpected, but showed that he, too, could have feelings for another person. When the soldier killed himself, Thomas was shattered. In season three he also breaks down into tears when Sybil dies, telling Anna, “There are few people in my life who’ve been kind to me. She was one of them.”

Now I know what makes Thomas who he is and I can see beyond his scheming facade. That is the trick to making a good villain. Show who he is, why he is the way he is, and show something of his humanity. If you do it right, you can even make the villain a character I can love.

Do you have a favorite villain? Why is he or she a favorite?

Are you watching Downton Abbey?

I’ll be selecting Anne Gracie’s winner at midnight tonight, so there’s still time to leave a comment for a chance to win a copy of The Autumn Bride.



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Karen H in NC
Karen H in NC
9 years ago

Oh, I love Downton Abbey and haven’t missed a single episode. I have to agree with your assessment and descriptions of Thomas. He is a true villain, One we love to hate, but he does have some redeeming qualities. If you haven’t seen all of season three yet, you’re in for some enlightening scenes with Thomas. I actually think we’ll see Thomas turn around in season four. He has hero potential.

I can’t really think of another villain I like. I know some of my favorite authors have written stories giving hero status to a villain in a previous book. Not an easy task to pull off. True sign of a writers’ talent to do so.

Amanda McCabe/Laurel McKee

Poor Thomas! I did feel for him last night (though I am not sure the sympathy and understanding of almost everyone in the house for his sexual orientation was very realistic in this time period AT ALL. Not that I expect gritty realism from DT, because that’s not what it’s about, but still…I did like the earl’s comment about Eton lol)

I think a workshop using DT to explore plotting and character is an excellent idea! Wish I could be there (I’ve learned a lot about character arcs and, especially, pacing problems from watching)

9 years ago

I am a Downton obsessive. Thomas has grown on me over the seasons. I actually liked him from season one because although he’s a conniving villain, you could see that he had a reason for being bitter, especially considering the time period. But he’s a charming villain.

I am so interested to read more about your workshop using Downton Abbey.

Na S.
Na S.
9 years ago

I definitely like when I can understand a character better and making them vulnerable and motivating them helps. A villain who is more vulnerable does add more dimnension to him. I don’t have a favoritee villain but if they have these qualities I Know I’ll enjoy reading about them or seeing them on screen.

9 years ago

I do like it when the villain is multidimensional and human rather than a mustache-twirling Snively Whiplash (for those of you old enough to remember Rocky and Bullwinkle).

One of my favorite villains is from an old Gayle Feyrer book, “The Thief’s Mistress”, which is the Robin Hood story told from the POV of Marian rather than Robin himself. Guy de Guisborne is the villain but your heart breaks for him as you come to understand his history and why he feels he must do what he does.

9 years ago

What a great post, Diane! Definitely tucking this away for future reference. And how I wish I could attend your workshop! Dare we hope you might bring it to RWA Nationals one of these years?

I haven’t seen Downton Abbey yet, but I think I really must because in spite of the digs I’ve heard about historical inaccuracies it does sound fascinating.

I will say I found Erik Northman in the Charlaine Harris books an excellent villain. He truly is manipulative and self-serving in the books to the point of being ruthless, but for those he loves he is loyal and his heartbreak at the loss of those he cares for is shattering to read.

9 years ago

Ugh, I haven’t been able to get it into my schedule to watch Downton Abbey. I don’t like to be hit-or-miss on continuity series. I am just going to have to rent the lot at some point, to see what I’ve been missing.

Agree with all your points on villains. When they are well-written they often do need their own stories!

9 years ago

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