Learn more with this helpful guide to the If We Were Villains characters with a summary and review to improve your reading experience of this popular novel.
If We Were Villains was one of Bustle’s Best Thriller Novels of the Year in 2018, and Kirkus’s starred review reported that “[t]his novel about obsession at the conservatory will thoroughly obsess you.”
But, it wasn’t on my radar until years later, when my best friend from grade school, a fellow reader, reached out and implored me to read it. Since we often have similar reading tastes and enjoy literary fiction like this, I gladly took her recommendation and dove in.
Naturally, she was right, and I have a lot to tell you about If We Were Villains, whether you’ve read it or not. I especially want to help you with characters and format, as I initially struggled with both, and I want to make your reading experience easier and better.
I’ll also share details of the plot and my personal review, and I’ll answer some frequently asked questions about the synopsis.
- There are a whopping seven main characters to learn as the story begins and, as they are being introduced, they are also discussing which Shakespearean characters each should play, which makes it extra hard to learn who’s who.
- I listened to the beginning several times on audio but struggled to learn these characters, so I bought the print book, read the first chapters several times again, and took detailed notes, which I share below. I even made a graphic list you can screenshot or save.
- With these notes, I learned the characters really easily and didn’t experience any more reading challenges afterward. So, I think you can easily learn the characters with this guide and read the book in either format.
If We Were Villains is best for adults aged 18 and over. It includes sexual content and other thematic content, including violence, addiction, discrimination, and death, that is best for adults to consume.
If We Were Villains is a dark book with many trigger warnings, including murder, violence, suicide, alcohol and drug use and addiction, incarceration, physical and emotional abuse, blood, post-traumatic stress, homophobia, and more.
There are seven main characters in If We Were Villains, also known as “the players,” who are studying in their fourth and final school year at Dellecher Classical Conservatory in Broadwater, Illinois in 1997, as the main events occur.
In order of appearance, the players are:
- Oliver Marks: The Loyal Sidekick
- Richard Stirling: The Tyrant
- Meredith Dardenne: The Femme Fatale
- Filippa Kosta: The Chameleon
- Alexander Vass: The Villain
- Wren Stirling: The Ingénue
- James Farrow: The Hero
Feel free to screenshot or save the graphic character guide below to help you read this book:
The Loyal Sidekick. When If We Were Villains begins, Oliver, the main character, is in jail for events that occurred ten years earlier, when he was in college. He believes himself to be “average” in every way, and he later calls himself naive. He agrees to tell the story of “what really happened” after he gets released.
The Tyrant. From the outset, it’s said that the players want to kill Richard. He’s 6’3″ tall and “carved from concrete” with sharp black eyes and a bass voice. He has an ego and a temper, and he’s been dating Meredith since their second year at the school.
The Femme Fatale. Richard’s “better half” Meredith has long auburn hair, supple curves, and “skin like satin.” She’s often described by her sex appeal.
The Chameleon. Among the players, Filippa, also known as “Pip,” is the most difficult to cast. She’s tall and olive-skinned with boyish features. She proves herself to be a loyal friend.
The Villain. Alexander is described as “thin and wiry” with long, dark, curly hair and “sharp canine teeth.” He dates another male theater student and battles dark demons.
The Ingénue. Wren is Richard’s cousin. She’s described as the “girl next door.” She’s small and “waifish with corn silk hair.” She struggles with processing difficult emotions.
The Hero. James is the quintessential “good guy.” He comes from a passionate family and is described as “handsome like a Disney prince.”
There are a few more characters that feature prominently in If We Were Villains who you should know about:
Joseph Colborne is the officer who investigated the case ten years earlier and seeks “the truth” about what happened.
Frederick and Gwendolyn are the players’ theater teachers. Camilo coaches the students on their “blocking” — their movement as they act, particularly as they perform fight scenes.
Colin is a third-year theater student dating Alexander.
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Quick Summary (Without Spoilers)
Colborne: “Do you blame Shakespeare for any of it?”
Oliver: “I blame him for all of it.”–page 248
If We Were Villains begins at the end. Oliver Marks has been in jail for events that occurred ten years later. The investigating officer, Joseph Colborne, pays him a regular visit to let him know he’s retiring from the force and, again, seeks “the truth” about what happened.
So, it’s clear Colborne doesn’t believe Oliver to be guilty. Oliver finally agrees that, once he is released, he will tell Colborne the full story.
Next, in five acts that are reminiscent of Shakespeare, we learn what really happened in 1997 at the Dellecher Classical Conservatory in Broadwater, Illinois, where seven theater students known as “the players,” were studying and performing Shakespeare during their fourth and final year at the school.
Almost immediately it’s foreshadowed there is one student they all “want to kill,” (page 8), and indeed, after a pivotal performance and a night of drunken debauchery, one of their own ends up dead.
The question is whether it was an accident or murder. Also at issue is how the players respond to the emergency situation.
As their fourth year progresses and famous Shakespearean tragedies like Julius Caesar, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, and King Lear are performed, they are engulfed by the traumatic fallout of the death, as well as their all-consuming obsession with Shakespeare and the extreme emotions his works cause them to feel:
“…from ecstasy to anguish, love to hate, wonder to terror.”-page 248
Oliver describes this to Colborne as what caused the players to lose touch with reality and struggle to sort out their own emotions from those of their characters.
And, indeed, their actions show it. The players each travel down many dark, twisted, and even surprising, paths over the course of the year.
The suspense builds to a crescendo, and the truth is revealed.
Ending (WITH SPOILERS)
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Review (Without Spoilers)
The genre of dark academia mixed with Shakespearean players makes for a truly perfect blend. Still, If We Were Villains was an extremely daring and ambitious undertaking, especially for Rio’s debut novel.
Did it deliver? Ultimately, yes, very much so.
If We Were Villains truly captured the extreme emotions, as well as the monumental actions they can cause over the course of five tragic acts, in the lives of both Shakespeare’s and Rio’s characters.
This passion is exactly what draws me to Shakespeare. His tragedies never fail to take emotions and actions and draw them out further than you think possible to reach the most shocking and devastating conclusions.
So, a parallel storyline about students immersed in his works beyond any sense of reality totally worked for me. In fact, it’s one of those storylines that makes you think, “Why didn’t anyone write this sooner?”
If you’re wondering whether you need to “know” Shakespeare before reading If We Were Villains, the answer is, no, it is not required. Will it assist you? Absolutely. But, generally knowing that Shakespeare writes epic tragedies and also not getting hung up on all of his characters referenced should be enough to guide you through.
As for the pros, I found If We Were Villains to be well-plotted and well-executed with poignant references to Shakespeare, as well as a compulsively readable mystery with so much suspense and intrigue that you can’t put it down.
It also draws upon themes from dark academia and coming-of-age novels really well for those who like the “loss of innocence” narrative in a darker context. Lastly, the ending comes with a few surprising plot twists, and the characters feel like they will remain memorable to me over time.
What more can you ask for?! It’s one of those rare books you stay up late at night just to finish. (I did!)
As for the cons, as mentioned earlier, it was difficult to learn the characters until I took notes on them. I also found Richard’s character to be too one-dimensional.
Lastly, I also found myself needing to read between the lines to connect the dots a lot, particularly in how the characters related to each other (without giving away). Sometimes, their relations with each other didn’t seem to have enough facts to support them.
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Frequently Asked Questions
If We Were Villains by M.L. Rio is a dark academia mystery novel about seven Shakespearean theater students in 1997. When one of them dies, the circumstances of his death come into question and, ultimately, another one of them, Oliver, is imprisoned for his murder. Ten years later, upon Oliver’s prison release, he agrees to tell the retiring detective, who never believed he was guilty, the truth about what happened.
The main conflict in If We Were Villains by M.L. Rio is whether the main character, Oliver, was falsely imprisoned for murder ten years earlier. Upon Oliver’s release from prison, he agrees to tell the true story about whether the death was a murder and, if so, who committed it and why.
The main character in If We Were Villains by M.L. Rio is Oliver Marks. When the novel begins, he is in jail for events that occurred ten years earlier, when he was in college studying Shakespearean theater. He believes himself to be “average” in every way, and he later calls himself naive.
Yes. There are several LGBT characters in If We Were Villains by M.L. Rio, including Alexander and Colin. Their sexuality is revealed over the course of the entire novel.
In If We Were Villains by M.L. Rio, Filippa is described as tall and olive-skinned with boyish features.
In If We Were Villains by M.L. Rio, Richard is the tyrant. From the outset, it’s said that his fellow theater students want to kill him. He’s 6’3″ tall and “carved from concrete” with sharp black eyes and a bass voice. He has an ego and a temper.
Yes. In If We Were Villains by M.L. Rio, Wren is a girl. She’s described as the “girl next door.” She’s small and “waifish with corn silk hair.”
In If We Were Villains by M.L. Rio, it’s ultimately revealed that the main character, Oliver, is in love with James, his roommate and the “leading man” of the players.
If We Were Villains by M.L. Rio contains some sexual content, but it is not a “spicy” book in the general sense of the word. It is a novel driven by mystery, not romance.
In If We Were Villains by M.L. Rio, James actually killed Richard after Richard made a homophobic comment about him and Oliver. Realizing his love for James, Oliver confesses to the murder.
If We Were Villains by M.L. Rio is a fan-favorite novel that’s worth reading if you like thrilling mysteries, dark academia and/or Shakespearean tragedies.
If We Were Villains is a superbly executed dark academia coming-of-age novel that masterfully intertwines Shakespearean tragedies with a modern Fall-themed mystery, giving readers a haunting tale of passion in which they can indulge.
To recap this post, if you haven’t yet read it, I especially think it’s important to learn and distinguish the characters well from the outset, and my notes above have helped you with that.
And, if you did read it, I have answered some common questions you may have, as well as offered some personal thoughts for added insight.
Share your thoughts on this discussion-worthy novel in the comments below.
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