I was thinking quite a bit about what I really want when I say I want villain heroes, and while sometimes I am looking for that morally black hero (Lord knows I’m obsessed with shows like Hannibal and Killing Eve), I realized that what I’m most often looking for is a “Big Bad” as TV tropes would call it. The bad guy behind the high-stakes central problem in the story. I want him to be morally gray, but he’s chosen to do terrible things that negatively affect a lot of people—maybe the entire world.
I Want the Villain to be Powerful
Through the universal fantasy lens, I’m pretty sure this is a delicious melding of the ultimate hot villain/”bad boy” fantasy and the being desired by the most powerful/wealthiest man fantasy. Because I’m not fantasizing about the guerilla terrorist leader or the bootstrapping mad scientist trying to raise a world-ending god. I’m drooling over world rulers, here: dictators, lords, emperors. Men at the highest rungs of the power, status, and money spectrums.
I Want the Villain to be Obsessed
No matter which way you slice it, I need my villains to deeply desire the female main character, to be obsessed with her. He’ll stop at nothing to have her. Do I even need to name the universal fantasy here? A super-eligible man wants you so badly, he’ll stop at nothing to have you. And there’s the added desire factor with a villain: he will stop at nothing.
I also really love master x servant relationship dynamics, especially when they take the form of supervillain x right hand. But even here, it’s imperative that the heroine be someone the villain finds invaluable. Someone he’d absolutely lose his shit over if some pesky heroes managed to kidnap her.
I Want the Villain to Remain a Villain
And I don’t want the hero to change his ways and stop being a villain through the power of love or whatever. I also don’t want the author to sweep the bad things he does under the rug to “justify” the HEA (“Sure, he’s still oppressing millions, but look! He bought her mom a house, cured her little sister’s cancer, and wifed her up! The h can now ignore what he does to everyone else because he’s good to her and her loved ones.”).
I Want Gray Morality and Grit All-Around
Let the heroine morally compromise herself in order to accept him. If she was the chosen one meant to stop him, have her let the world down and join him. If she was a damsel, have her accept him even though she struggles with the knowledge of what he does to others, powerless to stop him (or is disturbed by how easy she finds it to ignore the bad things he does).
Why I Want to Explore the Villain Gets the Girl Trope Through Dark Fantasy Instead of Dark Romance
You can probably tell that dark fantasy is my first love, with a generous sprinkling of other speculative fiction thrown in there. Books like A Song of Ice and Fire, Wildseed, and The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue are soooo freaking good at exploring nuance and allowing for these kinds of morally complicated relationships. Romance, by definition, must end in a happily ever after or at least a happy for now. I think once you start getting too dark and gritty and nuanced and emotionally realistic, you stretch the boundaries of what romance is meant for.
According to Brandon Sanderson on his excellent podcast about genres, romance is about comfort. It promises that everything will turn out all right in the end. But that’s hard to pull off when you’re dealing with a true villain who remains a villain. Not for the first time, I’ll argue that stories that glom onto dark romance because it sells well and there’s really no subgenre alternative need to start forming new categories. In my case? Dark romantic fantasy. Dark erotic fantasy. Dark relationship stories. Something that frees these deliciously nuanced stories from the shackles of romance so authors can explore the full range of what a dark, intimate relationship with a villain might look like.
Dark fantasy is such a perfect genre for exploring dark, complex relationships between a heroine and a larger-than-life-villain. And plenty of them have. But it’s never a selling point, never a niche or subgenre one can search out.
I want to write dark fantasy (and occasionally other speculative fiction, perhaps) that focuses more on one dark, twisted relationship with a villain and has said villain win (AKA get the girl) in the end. Oh, and has lots of dark spice, of course, lmao.