When I was about thirteen I strolled with my friends along the sidewalks of our downtown square. We stopped inside the tiny record shop to look around. While my companions riffled through the 45s looking for the latest tunes, I made a beeline for a metal book rack propped against a wall. Hmmm…what did I want to read? I picked up a book I’d never heard of and scanned the back cover.
Thus began my introduction to two of my favorite fictional bad girls: Rebecca de Winter and Mrs. Danvers.
“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” To me, Daphne du Maurier created one of the best opening lines of a novel when she began Rebecca. Even in its vagueness, it promises an intriguing story. What or where is Manderley? Why did the narrator dream of the place? Why would she go back again?
Of course, it is also interesting that, throughout the book, the heroine/narrator is never given a first name, yet the villain in the story gets the title.
We never actually meet Rebecca when she’s alive, but that’s the thing that makes her such a fascinating villain to me. Long after her death, she held tremendous power over people. With the exception of her husband, Maxim de Winter, nearly everyone believed she was an angel. But she haunted Max. It wasn’t until her body was discovered lying in her sunken boat that the threads of her well-crafted charm began to unravel.
Goal, motivation, and conflict are preached over and over to writers creating their heroes and heroines. But villains need that GMC, too. Without it, they’re flat, cardboard caricatures like many of those in a B-movie detective story. Readers must know why the characters do what they do.
In the backstory, Rebecca wants to be mistress of Manderley (goal) because the position comes with power, money and respect (motivation), but illness threatens everything she has worked to achieve, including her courage (conflict), so she discovers a way to reach a quick end and ruin her husband in the process. That’s cold.
Rebecca possesses something else a villain needs—humanity. It gives them that 3-D effect and makes them believable. Her weakness—fear over physical suffering and a lingering frailty—is what makes her that well-rounded character. Once we discover the reason for her final action, we sympathize with and despise her at the same time.
Rebecca was selfish, manipulating, adulterous, conniving…on and on, but we also see a softer side through Mrs. Danvers and Jack Favell. Both loved and defended her. No one loved Rebecca better than Mrs. Danvers, the woman who cared for her in life and guarded her secrets in death. But even Danny didn’t know the one secret Rebecca kept to herself.
Mrs. Danvers did her best to see that Rebecca’s memory remained alive. She intimidated Wife Number Two through her subtle (and not-so-subtle) remarks. It wasn’t hard, since WNT was a mouse—at least in the beginning. I can’t blame WNT, though. She was dealing with one spooky and vengeful woman.
And lest you think our hero, Maxim, has clean hands, think again. While the reader doesn’t look at him as a villain—only a victim of his wife’s manipulation and cruelty—Rebecca’s final evil deed took away his claim to innocence. As a result, the material possession that meant the most to him—the reason that drove him to put up with her for so long—came to ruin.
And the ashes blew towards us with the salt wind from the sea. With that last line, so ends the Bad Girls of Manderley.
Do you have a favorite villain whose character repels you while their circumstance raises a bit of sympathy?
Sandra Ardoin writes inspirational historical romances with stalwart heroes who melt the hearts of her strong, sometimes unconventional, heroines. Her goal is to entertain the reader with a gripping story while revealing the depth of God’s love and forgiveness.
She blogs at www.sandraardoin.com and is the Wednesday hostess on the Seriously Write blog. You’ll also find her on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and Goodreads. And don’t forget to check out Sandy’s Pinterest boards where she mixes writing fun with personal fun. She’s represented by Diana Flegal of Hartline Literary Agency.
Sandy is the married mother of a young adult. She enjoys reading, country music, and gardening in her rocky North Carolina soil.