Romancing villains and how to write them

What makes a good villain romance, in your opinion? For example, should they be redeemed? How bad is too bad? How do we write them without romanticising toxic relationships (and is that even possible)?

I have been thinking of making this topic for a while, and so I finally decided to put it to sea (but if this topic would be better moved somewhere else, please let me know :heart:)

I have a lot of thoughts on the matter but no answers. And I hoped together maybe we can get somewhere :smiling_face:

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Ooof. This is my topic. I’ll need more time for that.

Only if you want me to lose interest in them. I HATE the “my love can heal him!” fallacy. I know some love that trope. I don’t. I fell in love with them, because they were how they were. Not because I saw them as a project.

No bad is too bad.

I don’t care about that. I’ve had highly traumatic, abusive relationships in real life, still can deeply love them in fiction. As long as they are not forced upon me and I can always opt-out.

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It’s absolutely possible. Romances with a villain aren’t necessarily toxic at all. Toxic relationships generally come from failure to communicate or ignoring boundaries. Neither of those are requirements for a villain.

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I love the moral dilemma it usually presents itself with. The Soul Stone War in particular does this fantastically with Manerkol’s romance.

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Oh, a well done villain romance is my jam.

Personally, I don’t mind a redemption arc as a general rule (so long as it’s not directly tied to the romance - if the romance is the only reason they’re changing then it’s a no-go for me), but corruption arcs on the side of the hero are extremely good.

I enjoy mutually destructive romances… having the good guy be a complete doormat with little or no agency isn’t very appealing for me. I’m more ok with it if the villain starts with more of an upper hand, but the hero can then adapt and impress the villain by using their weaknesses against them!

One of my favourite things about a villain romance is that respect and attraction across moral lines and the internal conflict that can bring, so I definitely enjoy the option to romance without having that change the morality of either character.

Also, overly-tragic backstories can be a bit of a turnoff compared to villains who’re more self-aware and confidant about their morality.

Whilst I agree with @geldar here with regards to a villain romance not having to be toxic, I also think that worrying about ‘romanticising toxic relationships’ is perhaps the wrong mindset to be looking at things? In my experience, there’s more harm in assuming that any display of X trait or Y relationship in media is blanket bad, than in critically appraising your own and others work.

IMO with self-awareness (and potentially content warnings or safety mechanics if applicable), you’re more likely to create a work that people can enjoy safely with very dark topics than one that assumes because they’ve gone down a certain checklist of ‘good’ topics and traits, that their work couldn’t be criticised from that lens. Everyone has different boundaries after all, and what’s a hard no to one person might be enjoyable for another.

Personally, I enjoy fictional romantic depictions of things I wouldn’t want in real life all the time! Fiction can be a great way to explore these darker topics safely and so long as it’s approached with compassion towards yourself and any potential readers, you can get some really affecting fiction with tremendously dark topics.

Overall, I think you should focus on your comfort with regards to this: how dark are you comfortable getting? What will best fit the tone of the story? From there, you can work with beta readers to see if you maybe stepped over any major lines, and then either edit or provide necessary warnings.

Hope that long-ass ramble was helpful aha :smile:

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Can’t wait! :kissing_smiling_eyes: :+1:

Interesting–so there has never been a redemption you found believable/good or is it the “badness” of the villain that is the main draw?

Really? Not sure I agree, especially in a product such as this–but I appreciate the candor! :laughing: :+1:

Let’s say, “hypothetically” ( :sweat_smile:), I was writing a villain romance, and I cared about that–that I would like to avoid making abusive or toxic relationships a positive in the eyes of some more impressionable readers, would the message of “This is bad” be enough if there is no happy ending with them?

You’re absolutely right–but I also don’t remember seeing many villain romances that didnt atleast teether on the edge of many classical abusive relationships signs. Would a non toxic villain RO be interesting? Do you have any examples? :smiling_face:
(And I have to admit that I find that that many character that are… bad… are also attractive—maybe because of their bad traits. I find that morally conflicting.)

I haven’t tried that yet! I’ll check it out! :smiling_face: :+1:

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Ohh very true, I agree that can very easily fall flat!

Ooff, I agree completely, that’s definitely a huge draw for me too—Same with Rival romances tbh.

Agreed—would love to see more villains with a perfectly happy childhood and no major trauma :joy:

Your later paragraphs were very helpful and interesting, thank you! I feel like you’re probably right, but some articles I read about romanticizing darker themes still stays with me–but… hmm yeah, I’m still unsure what’s right. But I really liked your points. (Not to say that this topic is here to convince me of anything, I’m merely taking advantage of the topic :sweat_smile:) But maybe what’s right and wrong will become apparent once the content is written and is in front of me? Maybe its a per situation type situation.

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Okay, here goes, I’m sure I’ll think of more:

Let’s start by explaining why I usually prefer villains over heroes:

They often tend to be the more complex and interesting characters. Especially if you, like me, have a strong kink for guys with dom energy. Killing and taking what you want = more dom energy than talking things out (morals don’t matter for the equation). Is it the kind of dom energy you’d see in a healthy real life BDSM relationship that follows the playbook? Of course not, but that’s what fiction is for. It doesn’t have to be!

Drawing the attention of a villain, piquing their interest, makes me feel chosen in a way no cheap prophecy can. There’s this cruel, highly intelligent, incredibly hot dude, who walks over corpses, is on his way to ruling the world, who could have and take anyone, but stops and gets a boner for me OF ALL PEOPLE? Why, thank you! :smiling_face:

And let’s face it, there’s a reason it’s only a very specific type of villain who gets to have a fan following. It’s never the dumb, ugly ones whose only strength is, well, physical strength. The most popular villains are always the biggest trophies. The ones, whose interest feels like the biggest compliment TO YOU.

There’s also the factor that fear is exciting. I don’t want to have the kind of relationship where I feel like the villain is making an exception for me when it comes to their ruthlessness and carries me on their hands, while slaughtering the rest of the world. I know some prefer that and see villains as “good protectors” when they’re on your side. Like ultimate guard dogs. But I’d rather have the thrill of being scared. Being scared can be a very erotic thing, that’s why watching horror movies together used to be big among young couples back in the day. And that’s also why I vastly prefer Hayden Winter over Manerkol, despite liking Manerkol. Hayden scares the shit out of me, Manerkol doesn’t. Why would he? I’ve tamed him!

Then there’s the fact that villains allow you to act outside your own moral standards. We have to follow them every day in real life, it can feel liberating to let go and let your own dark side reign free in fiction. (Basically what @hellblazest was also getting at) A villain is the right partner for that, he won’t judge you like his hero counterpart. He can even function as a mentor while you’re exploring those corners of yourself.

Like I said before, I have been in real life relationships before that were extremely unhealthy. And they were always with men who showed very villainy traits. Back then I was one of those naive fools who thought “I could heal them”. Those guys were always very charismatic, narcissistic, calculating and… of course, assholes who never changed and never made THE EXCEPTION ™ for me. But I was one of those who fell for them. Now I’m an old fart and I’ve learned my lesson, but the attraction remains. There’s nothing I can do about it, I just feel drawn to this type. And I’ve long felt guilty about it, like I didn’t deserve better, then. I’ve moved on from those thoughts since. And I appreciate having an outlet for that in fiction that can’t harm me in real life.

Embracing my villain kink as openly as I do now, is for me actually a form of self-love.

I can’t think of one off the top of my head. And being believable =/= maintaining their appeal. The badness is indeed a main draw.

I’d be mad if there was no happy ending. It would feel like being punished for my aforementioned kink. Why does the good always have to prevail and make everything boring and predictable?
But with regards to the former: Thom Baylay does an excellent job with this if you romance Hayden in the Evertree Saga. The narrator basically comments all the time on the dangerous nature of your relationship, and comes close to asking you ad verbum “Why the fuck are you doing this?” It started to annoy me later on, but the framing couldn’t possibly more self-aware of the toxicity of the relationship.

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I’m glad! I’m definitely not saying that portraying, for example, an abusive or toxic relationship can’t be done badly, more so that I think that people who say it can’t be done well are missing a part of the story.

Dan Olsen actually talks about it in his (excellent) video about Fifty Shades of Grey (unarguably an example of someone failing at portraying dark subjects matter with compassion and self-awareness). The short section that I’ve linked to explains my POV on the matter much better than I ever will, including discussing using video games specifically to explore dark topics!

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Good topic @Doriana-Gray I’ll keep my eyes on this one as I’m in the same boat lol…

A good villain for me is someone that everyone hates and also likes enough to not murder them immediately lol. Like I know you’re bad but I’ll also give you a chance to explain yourself and after that, I’ll decide if I should kill you or emprisoned you.

Getting a redemption arc should be the readers’ choice I think. At least that’s how I plan on dealing with my villain. Having the villain in a situation by the end where the reader will decide what to do with them.

For me, no bad is too bad, It’s a villain make them as bad as you want. my villain is cold, manipulative, heartless, selfish, and a child killer, and for me, that’s pretty bad.

Writing them without romanticizing toxic relationships is a bit difficult, and I think it also depends on the setting of the story… What I have them do so far is not be abusive toward MC and have MC stand up to their bullshit whenever they try to act up. Yes, they can kill MC in a heartbeat if they want to, but they also need MC, and they have to work together.

Or maybe give the reader the option to choose where they stand?

Choice
#I know you’re not a good person, but we still need to work together.
#You’re the worst thing that ever happened to me and yet I keep wanting to drink that poison that is you.
Is there ever a chance in the world that I could change you?
#I don’t really care about what you’ve done.
#When you’re with me you’re the real you and that’s the person I want to be with.

I added the “change you” in there because some people do want to change the bad guy. I think there’s even a name for it where you see your love interest as someone you can fix. Just don’t automatically make them change for MC, but give MC the illusion to think that they can change the bad guy?

Depending on your villain, they can be too far gone and you can’t really change them. They will still be a killer, but a killer with a reason to stop killing. My favorite example is Vlad Tepes and Elizabeth his wife.

Vlad didn’t stop being a vampire after marrying Elisabeth, he took a vacation and traveled the world, but completely lost his shit and killed everyone when he realized that his wife was dead.

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My first thought is like a mob boss whose spouse knows but isn’t involved. Like “Yes I’m a criminal but I love you and don’t want to implicate you in any of it if you don’t want to.”

There’s also a lot of “forced to be a monster,” particularly in vampire/werewolf games, where they’re actually not a bad person at all but definitely do bad things.

A character I’ve thought about is both sides of this: Unwilling vampire has a mortal spouse who is a serial killer and takes home people for their spouse to feed on.

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Humanise your antagonist and give them a completely different persona when not at odds with the protagonist that we as the readers get to see on accident: Show us them thanking the cashier and packing their own bags, or maybe them dropping their keys and swearing about how useless cheap key rings are, or dropping off some laundry that they are too busy being ‘evil’ to clean and having a continued chat about the workers children.

Make the character likeable when they aren’t trying to wipe us out for whatever reason, or raising anarchy for the government.

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…And that would be the biggest turn off for me. :smile:

There’s ways to humanize them without making them nice. A quirky hobby for example. That would be my preference.

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I’d suggest getting some input on @gower for this. Haze is both a fairly villainous character and a fantastic romance.

I think just about every answer here is going to boil to finding a way to demarcate the villainous aspects of a villain’s personality from the aspects that make them a good romance.

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Same. Even if they’re not the villain, that’s not what I look for in an RO.

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I feel like this might be generic, and maybe a bit of a non-answer, but ideally they should be able to run the gamut. Having the option to have a redemption, having the option to be wholesome, and even having the option to be outright toxic

I personally believe it’s also not necessarily on the author to “not romanticize” a toxic relationship, but for the relationship to feel as authentic and in-character as possible.

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In the end, there will always be fans who WILL find ways to romanticize the most toxic relationship, no matter how hard an author tries to prevent this from happening and be all sensible about it.

If you asked me to name CG villains for 30 minutes straight, Haze wouldn’t be among them. They’re a great character, but I never thought of them as a villain either. It’s… debatable, I guess.

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Is Haze… a villain? It’s been a while since I’ve played Tally Ho but all I can remember them doing is robbing the aristocracy (which is a good deed as far as I’m concerned).

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I’ve only played the demo, but if that’s the metric for villainy then the only person who’s not a villain is Fireshear (I think that’s his name?)… (EDIT: Firesnuff apparently. Fireshear is a city in the Forgotten Realms.) who… is probably the most villainous in my mind.

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To be fair, I think this is contextual: Tally Ho’s tone is humorous and quite light. It has antagonists more-so than villains, and they run the gamut from sympathetic to fun to ineffectual. Haze is an antagonist depending on your path as far as I can remember (though I’m pretty sure I always ended up helping them out because crime is fun and cool), so depending on your definition, villain is applicable.

Which actually brings me back to a thought on the topic. I actually think that ‘how bad can a villain get’ is almost entirely dependant on the tone of the story. I’d be less likely to go for someone who’s a bully in a lighthearted school-romance kind of story than I would a murderer in a dark crime story, for example. (Another factor there is distance to be fair: we’ve all probably known more bullies in our lives than murderers, so it’s less personal).

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