by Mary Jo
One of my allllll time favorite romances is/was Mary Jo Putney's The Rake and the Reformer aka The Rake. I love Reginald Davenport…he turned out to be quite a hero. My question for all wenches: How do you take a drunk/ licentious/ corrupt/ not-hero-material man and redeem him? And, when you're writing this character, do you recognize him as hero material? Or, does it come as a surprise when readers start wanting him as a hero?
MJP: I immediately grabbed this topic for a blog, but it's such a great question that other Wenches may pick it up for blogs of their own. For asking this question, Kay Spears will get a book from me.
Reggie Davenport made his debut in my very first Signet Regency, The Diabolical Baron. Since it was my first book, I was feeling my way and just wanted an antagonist for my hero, Richard, a Waterloo veteran who has learned that he's heir to the Wargrave earldom, a responsibility he isn't sure he wants. Reggie is his cousin who has long thought that he was the heir.
Reggie starts out as a typical Regency character, the hard drinking devil-may-care sportsman. The two end up together at Wargrave, where Richard is doing an inventory under a different name while trying to decide if he wants to claim his inheritance. They don't much like each other. At the end, Reggie frightens the gentle heroine, who is Richard's fiancée. Richard explodes and practically kills Reggie in an impromptu sword fight–and this is where things get interesting.
In defeat, Reggie displays a grace and unexpected humor that make him a more complex and intriguing character. I liked him and some readers thought he looked like a hero. When I thought about it, I realized that every time Reggie behaved badly (which was often), he was drunk. And that made him even more interesting to me because Regency heroes frequently drank heavily, with no consequences.
I wanted to see consequences. I'd also witnessed alcoholism and recovery at close range (as so many people have), so I decided that's what I wanted to inflict on Reggie: he deserved it. <G> (I will say that the finished book came as a considerable surprise to my editor since I hadn't mentioned alcoholism in my synopsis. Ooops. <G>)
So Reggie's journey begins with him as a jaded, cynical rake well on the way to perdition when his cousin Richard, now the Earl of Wargrave, gives him one last chance: the ownership of Strickland, the estate where Reggie grew up. Dimly recognizing how self-destructive his behavior has been, Reggie goes to Strickland and begins to build a new life for himself (one that includes the heroine, a very competent female steward named Alys Weston.)
Reggie's path to sobriety is familiar to many alcoholics. First he denies that he has a problem. Then he admits that he might have a problem, but he can control it. Then he realizes he can't control his drinking, which is the black moment when he breaks and must try to rebuild himself.
Anyone familiar with the Alcoholics Anonymous 12 Step Program will recognize how Reggie is living the steps Regency style. Ultimately he becomes sober and deeply self aware. Alys is supportive, but I made sure that she didn't become an enabler for Reggie's addiction.
Now to the specifics of transforming a villain into a hero:
1) "Save the cat!" This is the most important element to redeeming villains and is defined as the moment when a character does something that allows readers to see him as sympathetic and interesting. Reggie's save the cat moment is at the end of The Diabolical Baron when he behaves so well after Richard defeats him in their sword fight. That's when he shows that he isn't just a jerk: he's a man worth knowing better. In Reggie's own book, it became clear that he is a rescuer and some of his most shocking actions were to help people in need. He even rescues a herd dog so incompetent "she couldn't even herd geese." <G>
2) Make him more sinned against than sinning. Or put another way, to understand is to forgive. Reggie turns out to have had a very bad childhood, losing his whole family when he was a child, then being raised by his uncle the earl, who despised and mistreated him. The result was a very angry young man with a strong contrarian streak.
3) Show his pain and his struggles as he attempts to rebuild his life. Overcoming addiction is difficult, and that should be very clear. Reggie earns his new and better life. Show how people around him see him and appreciate him. By the end of The Rake, Reggie and his cousin Richard have become friends who support each other.
4) Show his care for others. Though Reggie is in love with Alys, he engineers a reconciliation between her and the long estranged father she loves even though he knows he'll lose her. Luckily, she realizes that he's being noble and cures him of that. <G>
What other villains have you enjoyed becoming heroes?