Toxic Romance: Villain to Hero

I’m going to start us off by owning my truth: I love Kylo Ren. I think he is one of the most thrilling and propulsive fictional characters of the twenty-first century. The conflicted villain-to-hero arc was so beautifully teed up by Rian Johnson in The Last Jedi, that it’s still a major pain point for me that we didn’t get to see Ben Solo face the consequences of his actions as Kylo Ren in the final film of the Skywalker Saga.

In a better film, Kylo Ren would have been the epitome of the villain-turned-hero archetype. As Kylo Ren, Ben Solo obliterated entire planets, yet I can’t help but wonder what types of stories we could have had in a Ben Solo Disney+ series. Imagine watching Ben Solo coming to grips with his villainous past and attempting to atone for his actions by bringing balance to the Force. *chills*

Alas, we’re not here to discuss Star Wars today. However, I can’t delve into the topic of villains as heroes without mentioning the sweet emo spaceboy who left us too soon. RIP.

While the anti-hero character is not exclusive to romance, I find that romance is frequently the genre that does the most work to examine if villains are capable of change and worthy of love. Do people who have done terrible, depraved things deserve to be loved? Personally, I find it so much more interesting to watch characters work for redemption as opposed to attaining it through one heroic act that results in their death. 

This is why I believe romance is often at the forefront of exploring the villain-to-hero storyline. After all, the entire goal of a romance novel is happily ever after (HEA). In order to attain the HEA, romance authors have to convince the reader that their formerly villainous character is worthy of their love interest. How? 

To start, the author must force the villain to examine their conscience at every turn on their path to redemption. And the hero must attain redemption in his own right before he can be worthy of the heroine. Loving another isn’t truly enough to make someone a hero. Many authors have tried—to varying degrees of success—to convince readers that their villains are secretly heroes. Personally, I think the greatest example of a villain turned hero is Devil in Winter, by Lisa Kleypas. 

The third book in the Wallflower series, Devil in Winter, starts where the previous book It Happened One Autumn left off. The hero, Sebastian, Viscount St. Vincent is in his home after a failed kidnapping attempt, when the heroine, Evangeline “Evie” Jenner shows up and makes him an offer of matrimony he can’t refuse. Thus begins St. Vincent’s road to redemption, which he fights every step of the way.

Kleypas doesn’t shy away from St. Vincent’s past misdeeds. At separate points, she forces him to face both the woman he kidnapped and the best friend he betrayed, Marcus Westcliff. While the scene with Lillian is important, it is the scene with Westcilff that has always stood out to me.

“And now, Sebastian reflected bleakly, he had broken Westcliff’s trust beyond any hope of repairing it. For the first time in his life, he was aware of a sickening pang that he could only identify as regret.”

Devil in Winter, Chapter 17

In having St. Vincent face Westcliff, we see their broken friendship on the page. Years of trust and companionship lost. Earlier in the book St. Vincent’s regret was that his kidnapping plot was foiled, yet by chapter 17, he regrets ruining his oldest friendship. It is in this scene that Kleypas shows us St. Vincent’s growth. To me, this moment is the true turning point in St. Vincent’s journey to becoming worthy of Evie.  

Another example of a villain-turned-hero is Lothaire by Kresley Cole. If you’re not familiar with Kresley Cole’s Immortal After Dark (IAD) series, I highly recommend checking it out. And while Lothaire is not my favorite IAD hero, he is a fan favorite. In fact, his book was so highly anticipated that when it was released, Cole went on a book tour with a shrink-wrapped Lothaire bus and the model from the book cover. What can I say, 2012 was a wild time in the world of book publicity.  

Cole spends much of the first few books in the series name dropping Lothaire, referring to him as “the Enemy of Old.” There is a quiet menace to his character. He’s mysterious, he’s evil, and he does unspeakable things. All of this carries right into his own book where he lives up to his reputation. He is mysterious. He is evil. And he does do unspeakable things…to the heroine, Ellie.

Things Lothaire does that are complete shit:

Suffice it to say, Lothaire kind of sucks. He’s basically the most trash boyfriend in the world, until he’s not. Cole shows us Lothaire’s inner struggle to accept that Ellie and not Soroya is his true Bride. Despite the horrendous things he does to Ellie throughout the first half of the book, you see Lothaire’s conflict. He is ancient and stuck in his ways, but Ellie is a force of nature and if he is to be worthy of her, Lothaire must evolve. 

  1. Kidnaps Ellie and keeps her prisoner because her body is an incubator for the evil goddess Saroya, who he believes is his fated Bride.
  2. Threatens to kill Ellie’s mother and brother if she harms herself to prevent Saroya from rising.
  3. Frequently insults Ellie and reminds her that she will die so that Saroya can rise.

“Because he was feeling something stronger for her—a bone-deep feeling of possessiveness, of protectiveness. No one would ever harm the female in his arms, not even himself.”

-Lothaire, Chapter 41

Yet, just when you think he’s finally begun to move forward and fight for Ellie, Lothaire shows his villainous hand again. Because she is mortal, she is his greatest vulnerability so Lothaire turns Ellie into a vampire without her consent. Newly vampiric Ellie nearly decapitates Lothaire in a moment of righteous indignation and you realize the Enemy of Old truly has met his match.

Change can be difficult for any being. It is especially hard when you’re a millenia old vampire who has lived a life of evildoing for centuries. The Lothaire we’re initially introduced to is an entirely self-serving creature. Cole had a difficult task in making him a hero, but the brilliance of Kresely Cole is her ability to play the long game. 

Cole laid the framework for Lothaire as a hero in earlier IAD books, particularly in Dreams of a Dark Warrior. It is through his interactions with other members of the Lore such as Thad, Nïx, and Hag that you see his inner hero develop. Lothaire has a strong capacity for loving others, not just Ellie, and this ability to care for others ultimately makes him more worthy of her love. While Lothaire will never be truly good, he is also not purely evil. I mean he sort of seems to get it:

“She seemed to soften at that, but then she asked, ‘Has anything really changed?’
‘I’ve learned I need to consult you in matters, lest you decapitate me.'”

Lothaire, Chapter 60

Yet not all villain-to-hero books work. Sticking with Immortals After Dark, Dreams of a Dark Warrior is a less than stellar example of a villain-turned-hero. In the eleventh book of the series, the heroine, Regin, is abducted and tortured by the hero, Declan Chase, the reincarnation of her soulmate. To borrow terminology from Sarah and Jen of Fated Mates Podcast, Declan doesn’t spend enough time in “cold storage” for his actions. Not only does he commit atrocities to his heroine, but to many other key characters in the series as well. The shortlist of his crimes includes:

  1. Kidnapping and imprisoning underage children in his torture complex.
  2. Ordering vivisections aka dissections on living members of the Lore (immortal beings such as vampires, werewolves, etc.)
  3. Poisoning Regin and causing her to dislocate her shoulder.
  4. Violently and painfully torturing characters in ways that will make it intentionally harder for them to heal.

This book is real gruesome and some of the stuff Chase actively does or allows to happen is disgusting. There is a reason Sarah and Jen of Fated Mates call it Torture Island. It’s not a cute nickname. 

With all of the things Declan Chase says and does in the first 34 chapters in the book, it’s hard to move past his earlier actions and believe his regret throughout the second half of the book. 

“Guilt nearly felled him…I am more of a monster than the creatures out there. First the strain, and now this guilt over the things he’d done? Too much for one man to shoulder.

Dreams of a Dark Warrior, Chapter 40

While the growing self-awareness Chase shows in chapter 40 is progress, I don’t think it’s enough, especially when it is all tied to Regin. Unlike Lothaire, whose path to redemption is marked by relationships with people aside from Ellie, Declan’s path to redemption is solely centered on Regin and if he can be worthy of her. Which begs the question, is he truly remorseful of his actions or is he just expressing remorse so the woman he loves will love him in return?

While Chase certainly has moments of atonement for his sins, his guilt doesn’t pass muster for me. He seems more concerned with whether or not Regin can forgive him than if she should. That, to me, does not make Declan Chase a true hero.

The villain-to-hero storyline is often executed to varying degrees of success. Chase may not end up a hero, but he also doesn’t end up a villain. I respect what Kresley Cole did with Dreams of a Dark Warrior. And while I don’t love it, it does play a crucial role in setting up the next couple of books in the Immortals After Dark series.

Below are some books we recommend if you’re looking for a good villain to hero fix. Let us know if we missed one of your favorites!

  • Devil in Winter, Lisa Kleypas
  • Lothaire, Kresley Cole
  • Dare to Stay, Jen McLaughlin
  • The Chosen, JR Ward