How bad do bad guys have to be before they are unbelievable? These days such horrid crimes are committed in real life that almost anything might be considered believable in a fictional character. Not that I want to move into Stephen King territory with my current wip, not at all; but I find that most of my characters qualify for the label villain in some way. Perhaps I have a warped, villainous mind and create characters in my own likeness.
Genre matters, too. A Thriller Villain surely has to be a worse villain than a Romance Villain. Your average villain in a Regency Romance needs some redeeming qualities, otherwise no heroine would love him, would she? I know certain women love a bad boy, but there's a limit - I hope. A villain facing Rebus in the grey streets of Edinburgh can be as wicked as he likes and he still won’t out-villain the villains we have in our society today.
What about the villains who fill the pages of historical novels? We know that people suffered horrid deaths, lawfully applied. Documents list hideous facts of torture. But if my characters live in those times, will their senses will be less squeamish than mine? Does it depend on the mental toughness of the character? Not everyone would be bold and brave. In A Place Beyond Courage, Chadwick has a female character who is an absolute wimp - and very believable. Facts record that the Marchioness of Salisbury picked herself up and ran from the executioner who failed to deliver the first blow correctly, and ten more blows followed as he chased her. One has to hope that the tale has been more than a little embroidered, but it has a terrible ring of truth about it.
I've come to the conclusion that the times about which we write dictate the villainy level of the characters. Tudor characters had to be tough to survive in their world and maybe I'm wrong to label them as villains. But they're turning out to have some villainous qualities. All of them. Uncomfortable as it is, I will have to sit very firmly my 21st century sensibilities and think Tudorish. Otherwise the book will never be finished.