Writers' Workbook: Creating Evil Exes

June 2, 2015

Greetings, romance readers and writers.  Let's talk about EX...ex-husbands, ex-wives, ex-girlfriends, ex-boyfriends.

Exes make easy villains, offering insight into a main character's scars and showing what the new love interest is up against. 

But when I set up these kinds of villains, I always face a problem: does having a toxic ex make the protagonist less sympathetic?  Will the reader think less of a protagonist who has a really awful ex?

A Sense of Unrest


A (very poetic) friend-of-a-friend once put it this way for me. When he hears co-workers or acquaintances complaining about their wives or ex-wives, he thinks, "Well, you fuckin' married her."

Sometimes I experience this unrest when I read a romance novel where the main character complains at length about an ex.  It's the kind of pause I'd feel if I were going out with a guy who continually badmouthed his last ex-girlfriend without taking any of the blame himself: "She was a raging bitch.  I was her innocent victim.  Should we order dessert?  What do you think, tiramisu?"


Past Relationships Must Exist in Context


So how to fix this? For me, the bad relationship must exist in context. Perhaps the protagonist (male or female) was too young or naive to make the right choices.  Maybe the ex started off as a good person and the protagonist's sense of loyalty clouded his or her ability to see any kind of degeneration.  Maybe there were external reasons binding the protagonist to his or her ex: kids, financial responsibility, evil trolls, earthquakes.  I don't know.  Whatever the case, it must be a really, really good reason or else the protagonist will be a lot less sympathetic to me as a reader. 

This is a personal preference, but I also like it when a protagonist brings up a couple (not more than a couple) of the ex's good points along with the bad.  This helps me as a reader to understand why the relationship existed at all.  The protagonist also appears more self-aware, a highly attractive quality in male or female characters.

Subtle Evil: A Controlling Ex


If you are creating an evil ex backstory, you might like this article from Psychology Today called "Twenty Signs Your Partner is Controlling."  Instead of a one-note big bad, the villainous ex could be more of a subtle controller.  To me, this is scarier, and a protagonist who's left this kind of relationship is someone who has had to wrest back strength and his or her sense of identity to do so.

For example, here is one sign of a controlling partner:
Teasing or ridicule that has an uncomfortable undercurrent. Humor and even teasing can be a fundamental mode of interacting within many long-term relationships. The key aspect is whether it feels comfortable and loving to both parties. In many controlling relationships, emotional abuse can be thinly veiled as "I was just playing with you; you shouldn't take it personally." And in one fell swoop, not only does the original criticism stand, but now an additional criticism of you having the "wrong" reaction has been levied. And you're basically being told that you don't have a right to your own feelings—a classic move by controlling people everywhere.
And another:
Thwarting your professional or educational goals by making you doubt yourself. Maybe you always assumed you would go to law school, but now your partner is making you feel your grades weren't good enough to get in. Maybe you used to have a lot of drive to own your own business, but your partner tends to think of your ideas as silly and you find you've lost confidence to pursue them further. Often a controlling partner has a way of using you as a weapon against yourself, by planting seeds of doubt about whether you're talented or smart or hard-working enough to make good things happen in your life. This is another way they can take away your autonomy, making you more beholden to them—and serving their purposes quite nicely.
Ah, shudder.  This article has been a gold mine to me.  Lots of fun to explore, and very helpful in creating a toxic but powerful and realistic ex worthy of my newest protagonist.

Adam Sandler on SNL's "The Denise Show."