I’ve been working on character profiles for Charles & Mélanie Book #4, which means, among other things, I’ve been thinking about the villain. Or perhaps I should say antagonist. Because this process got me to ponder the concept of villains and which characters can properly be called villains.

The Oxford Dictionary defines a villain as Person guilty or capable of great wickedness, scoundrel; character in play, novel, etc., whose evil motives or actions are an important element of the plot; (colloq., playful) rascal, scamp.

When I think of villains, the key bit is an important element of the plot. When I think of characters who can be called “the villain” of a story, they’re the driving force behind much of the plot. As I mentioned on the blog previously, I saw a fabulous Othello at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival last month. Iago is my definition of a villain, in that he’s at the center of the story and his scheming drives the plot (in fact, he drives the plot much more than Othello does).

So in a mystery or suspense story, defining a villain can be tricky. There tend to be multiple characters after the “McGuffin,” multiple people with motives to murder, multiple strands of intrigue and conspiracy. I realized I wasn’t at all sure whom I’d call the villain (or villains) in Secrets of a Lady. Carevalo? Edgar? Meg? Jack? From some readers’ comments, I think they’d even call Raoul a villain. Meg and Jack have their own agenda, which leads them to some horrible actions. They affect the plot, but they aren’t the driving force behind it. Edgar, in mystery terms, is the murderer. He’s the mastermind of the attacks on Mel and Charles, but when it comes to Colin’s abduction and the search for the ring, he too is reacting. And of course in most mysteries the murderer’s actions are shrouded in secrecy until the denouement, so even if he or she is driving the plot, one likely doesn’t see it, except perhaps on a re-read.

Carevalo is the mastermind of and driving force behind Colin’s abduction and the search for the ring, but he dies before the denouement, so that the final confrontation is with Meg and Jack and, ultimately, with Edgar. And neither Carevalo nor Edgar is the driving force behind one of the key arcs in the book, the conflict between Charles and Mélanie. In that arc, I suppose, Raoul might be called the villain. He is certainly, at least in the past, the driving force behind much of what happened between Charles and Mel. But ultimately, as I think Charles and Mel would agree, their choices are their own as is the resultant conflict. And while Raoul’s actions are distinctly ambiguous, I wouldn’t call either his actions or his motivations villainous. Mileage definitely may vary.

I won’t go into as much detail on Beneath a Silent Moon, because I know some people who read this blog and comment regularly haven’t read it yet. But when it comes to Beneath, I find it even more difficult to tease out whom I would call the villain. And I’m not at all sure that whom I would call the villain correlates with the person who is unmasked as the murder. I’ve always had a difficult time with villains in general. Since I tend to paint my characters in a lot of shades of gray, it’s often hard to tease out who the villains are or to draw a line between villains and heroes. The characters are often driven not by grand schemes but by personal follies and foibles or perhaps the desire to protect those they love. My books are filled with spies, but often the scheming masterminds turn out not to be the murderers. I have written at least one character, though, whom I would unequivocally call a villain. Daniel de Ribard, whose machinations are a driving force in two of my historical romances, Shadows of the Heart and Rightfully His. Daniel is scheming, brilliant, ruthless, and quite unscrupulous. He is, hopefully, fairly complex, and there may even be one or two moments where one feels a twinge of sympathy for him. But he is undeniably a villain, both in his behavior and in the way he drives the action of both books. Interestingly, I think both Raoul and Kenneth Fraser, in different ways, owe a bit to Daniel.

Do you have favorite literary villains? How would you define what makes a character a villain in a story? Whom would you call the villain or villains in Secrets of a Lady? Or in Beneath a Silent Moon (with spoiler space)?

Be sure to check out the new letter I’ve posted in the Fraser Correspondence. It’s from Charles to David, about revisiting the Berkeley Square house.