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Regency folks in a cloakroom. A larger room than you'd think.

I didn’t mean to talk more about Harriet, Countess Granville’s letters, but this bit really spoke to me. She wrote this while she living in Paris, where her husband was serving as ambassador, complaining to her sister about a certain set of French women she dealt with in her duties as diplomatic hostess.

“…it is the woman made by Herbault, Victorine and Alexandre (dressmakers and a hairdresser), the woman who looks to see if you have six curls or five on the side of your head, the woman who talks, dictates, condescends and sneers at me—quos ego. It is odd that their effect upon me is to crush me with the sense of my inferiority whilst I am absolutely gasping with the sense of my superiority.”

I can so relate to this feeling! I know a few women like that, who always look perfect, who never have a tag sticking out, and who dominate every social situation. Even when I know their appearance of perfection is a sham (their relationships and family life are often a mess), they still somehow get to that nerdy kid inside me, the one their counterparts snubbed in high school. But like Harriet, I know that ultimately I’m happier than they are.

This is a classic theme in romance, going back at least as far as Jane Eyre versus Blanche Ingram. It works well, though the mousy but goodhearted governess versus the fashionable schemer has become a very common trope, verging on stereotyping. There’s no reason a heroine couldn’t have style and poise and a warm heart, too. An evil governess might make for an intriguing switch-up, too, come to think of it.

I also think it’s interesting when authors show sympathy for the character who puts so much effort into appearances. For one thing, it is probably exhausting. I suspect taking fashion so seriously would take a lot of the fun out of it! More importantly, why does she feel compelled to appear so powerful, so perfect? The answer could make her a more nuanced villain or even into a heroine, hiding trauma under a glamorous exterior. This is why I listed Melanthe (from For My Lady’s Heart by Laura Kinsale) as one of my favorite heroines in Carolyn’s recent quiz.
What do you think about “perfect” women in romance?  Who are some of the most interesting?

Cover of Perilous Journey by Gail Eastwood
Also, make sure to stop back next Sunday, when I will interview my good friend, the very talented Gail Eastwood, about the current and upcoming ebook reissues of her award-winning Regencies, starting with A Perilous Journey, available now on Nook and Kindle.


My latest read, which I’ve about halfway done with, is Diana Gabaldon‘s Lord John And The Private Matter, which takes place in mid-eighteenth-century London. I’ve only read one other Gabaldon–Outlander–and Lord John definitely does some fairly awful things in that book. But Gabaldon makes Lord John more than just a two-dimensional villain, and that, for me, is totally delicious.

See, I like ’em bad; to my mind, there’s nothing more compelling than someone who seems irredeemable being redeemed by love. One of the best examples of that is
Anne Stuart‘s Black Ice; her hero is really, really bad, but you end up believing in him because Stuart writes him so well.

I was watching Pretty In Pink last night (such a guilty pleasure it’s almost come back around the other way and is okay now), thinking how I’ve always liked the James Spader character more than the Andrew McCarthy character. Sure, he’s a snobby a–hole, but he’s hurting. I also have to admit having sympathy for the Joaquin Phoenix emperor in Gladiator.

Maybe I am irredeemable.

The act of redemption is very hard for an author to pull off; we can all cite many cases where the lukewarm villain in one book is the hero of another. Even in the first instance, the reader can tell the villain isn’t that bad. What takes talent is taking someone truly bad and making their redemption believable. In Regencies, Mary Jo Putney has done it, as has Mary Balogh.

Fiona Apple’s song “Criminal” does a great job of getting inside the mindset of the villain maybe to turn hero. The lyrics are below, with few questions for you to answer (if you’d like) following.

Fiona Apple–“Criminal:”

I’ve been a bad bad girl,
I’ve been careless with a delicate man.
And it’s a sad sad world,
When a girl can break a boy
Just because she can.

Don’t you tell me to deny it,
I’ve done wrong and I want to
Suffer for my sins.
I’ve come to you ’cause I need
Guidance to be true
And I just don’t know where I can begin.

What I need is a good defense
’cause I’m feelin’ like a criminal.
And I need to be redeemed
To the one I sinned against
Because he was all I ever knew of love.

Heaven help me for the way I am.
Save me from these evil deeds.
Before I get them done.
I know tomorrow brings the consequence
At hand.
But I keep livin’ this day like
The next will never come.

Oh, help me, but don’t tell me
To deny it.
I’ve got to cleanse myself.
Of all these lies till I’m good
Enough for him.
I’ve got a lot to lose and i’m
Bettin’ high
So I’m beggin’ you before it ends
Just tell me where to begin.
What I need is a good defense
’cause I’m feelin’ like a criminal.
And I need to be redeemed
To the one I sinned against
Because he was all I ever knew of love.

Let me know the way
Before there’s hell to pay.
Give me room to lay the law and let me go.

I’ve got to make a play
To make my lover stay
So, what would an angel say?
’cause the devil wants to know.

What I need is a good defense
’cause I’m feelin’ like a criminal.
And I need to be redeemed
To the one I sinned against
Because he was all I ever knew of love.

What I need is a good defense
’cause I’m feelin’ like a criminal.
And I need to be redeemed
To the one I sinned against
Because he was all I ever knew of love.

So–do you like bad folks turned good? Which books are the best examples of the villain made hero?

Thanks for reading–



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.



My kids started me watching the new Sherlock series from BBC America. It’s a modern retelling of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic stories. I like it a lot, not just for the cleverness of the adaptation or for the mental puzzles of figuring out who did it and how, more for the characterization and relationship between the brilliant and rather autistic Sherlock (played by Benedict
Cumberbatch) and his more easily relatable friend, John Watson (played by Martin Freeman).

Going backwards in a way I don’t usually do, I am now reading all the original stories. What still interests me most are the relationships between the characters and also the motives of the criminals. Somehow, reading these stories is helping me think about villains, which tends to be hard for me.

A while back there was a test that was purportedly designed to identify psychopaths (this has since been debunked on Snopes). I failed it miserably and although that might be reassuring to my friends and family, maybe it just proves that I have trouble thinking in the same way as the perpetrator of this particular Internet hoax. I know I can’t think about villains as easily  as writers of detective stories and thrillers do. Not all villains are psychopaths either, but even so, they may need to be capable of premeditated harm. I think it takes a certain skill for basically decent people to envision that.

Back to Sherlock Holmes. Have you seen the new series and what did you think?  I haven’t seen any other film adaptations. Are there any you’d recommend? Did you know that Sherlock Holmes never actually said the words “Elementary, dear Watson”?

What are your favorite sorts of villains either to write or read about? And if you haven’t taken it before, here is a link to the psychopath test. Let us know whether you figured it out!


This year, my son is going out trick or treating for Halloween dressed as the Grim Reaper. Apropos of nothing, but it does demonstrate the allure the Dark Side* has, even for six year-old boys (maybe especially for six year-old boys).

Villains. In some romances, villains are two-dimensional characters set on one thing (Revenge/Rape/Disgrace/Financial Gain/Name Your Poison). They are obvious in their intentions to everyone but the oblivious hero and/or heroine, and they are what makes some well-written love stories go down the tubes for me.

And you would think writing about evil would be so easy! And fun, too! After all, Milton spends oodles of time writing about Satan, and Satan comes off as much sexier and fun than the other guy. Satan talks about his choice of Hell as a residence:

Here we may reign secure, and in my choice
To reign is worth ambition though in hell:
Better to reign in hell, that serve in heav’n

For me, the best villains are those characters whom you can’t tell are villainous from their first appearance on the page. What are their motivations? How will they attempt to achieve them? And then, when the book is over and all is revealed, you can reflect on how the villain fooled everyone, including the reader. Shakespeare says it better than I do:

And thus I clothe my naked villainy
With old odd ends, stol’n forth of holy writ;
And seem a saint, when most I play the devil.

Villains who end up being heroes or vice versa appear in Edith Layton’s False Angel and The Duke’s Wager, Mary Jo Putney’s The Diabolical Baron, Falling For Chloe by Diane Farr, Lady Sophia’s Lover by Lisa Kleypas, Bliss by Judy Cuevas . . . the list goes on and on (for more villains, check out All About Romance’s Special Titles Listing on Villains, which gives details about who becomes a hero/heroine in subsequent books).

I think that uncertainty is why we are fascinated by Harry Potter’s Professor Snape (the six year-old and I are reading Prisoner of Azkaban now), as well as Gollum from LOTR. My own private obsession, HBO’s Deadwood, features a masterful villain in the character of Al Swearingen–he’s murdered, stolen, and lied, not to mention swearing all the time, and yet there are times when you root for him.

Villainy can be scandalously sexy.

Which is why, this Halloween, you’ll be seeing many more devils**, witches, vampires, and werewolves than Good Samaritans, pilgrims progressing, Mother Theresa, and Gandhi.

Thanks for coming over to the Dark Side with me for a moment,


*Cara, I promise I had nothing to do with my son wanting to dress in a long, black robe.
**After six years of being a witch, my son made me switch to dressing as a lady-devil. I bought my red sequin horns, tail and pitchfork yesterday.

Posted in Reading, Research, Writing | Tagged | 7 Replies
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