Why do female villains tend to act and look the same?
Why don’t we take female villains seriously?
Why do so few female villains actually terrify us?
Male villains have made a 180 degree turn over the last few years. That guy with the curly mustache who ties the damsel to the train tracks simply doesn’t cut it anymore. Villains like Heath Ledger’s Joker, James Moriarty, and others have revolutionized evil.
On the other hand, female villains haven’t evolved equally. If we think about the classic line-up of female villains, they share about 3 similarities:
- They wear the same ridiculous, theatrical or super sexy get-up meant to focus all attention on their hot bod instead of their personal goal.
- They have the same “I’M PURE EVIL!” laughter.
- They use overtly sexualized “tricks up their sleeves” to get the job done.
But worst of all, villainesses tend to lack a profound motive which makes their personal conflict seem more like a hissy fit instead of a threat to be taken seriously.
In fact, villainesses tend to be given the same three motives for their actions:
- Petty revenge
- Spurned or unrequited love
But what’s so wrong about these motives anyway?
In it of itself, those motives aren’t completely heinous but when villainesses are consistently put into these three categories and not much else, then we have a problem. How? Because these motives narrow her potential, trivialize her goals, and worst of all, they create a caricature of evil.
Now granted, there are a few exceptions that we could stand to learn from. First, there’s Stephen King’s crazed super-fan, Annie Wilkes, played by the master, Kathy Bates. Then there’s the bloodthirsty hidden antagonist in The Hunger Games, President Alma Coin, who was an extremely well-crafted character. And then there’s one of my personal favorites, Anjelica Huston’s depiction of Cinderella’s evil stepmother in Ever After.
So why don’t we see more female villains like these dangerous ladies? What can we do as writers to break free of these chains and create female villains that are just as bad as the boys? What do female villains need to be as equally threatening, if not more so?
We change up the fundamental building blocks of a great villainess, drastically.
So where do we begin?
Alma Coin’s motive was a pure one at the outset: free the oppressed people of Panem. And we all believed her. Why? Because we witnessed the pain, the suffering, the outrageous acts committed against the districts in Panem through the eyes of Katniss, Peeta, Finnick, and others.
However, what made this villainess dynamic was when we learned about her true motives: vengeance, power, and bloodlust. Although this revelation caused us to view her as a morally questionable character at best, such shocking layers made her (more importantly) a significant character.
Alma Coin was a gifted orator, so we respected the stoic image she portrayed. Alma Coin’s conviction motivated her to utilize the powerful image of the Mockingjay to her advantage. Through Katniss, she gained the favor of the people and likewise gained our trust. Alma rose to power and soon revealed her ultimate course of action: vengeance.
Such a shocking twist in motive added profound layers to this character and revealed an unexpected new villain in the Hunger Games series.
So what can we take away from this?:
1.Motives require substance: Alma’s veiled motive involved freeing her oppressed people. Her true motive involved vengeance and bloodlust on behalf of fallen victims. While morally upsetting, this was still a believable and tangible motive for Alma.
2. Motives can have a moral gray area: some would say Alma was right to seek vengeance on behalf of her people. After all, it was just getting back at the Capitol for their heinous crimes- Right?
3. Motives can (and should) have layers: Alma sought justice but her imbalanced thirst for power and blood had her justifying heinous ambitions.
Good old Samaritan and nurse Annie Wilkes helps a poor stranger out of a tight spot. What are the chances that our main character, author Paul Sheldon, gets in a terrible car accident (breaking both legs) right near her house? Not only this, but Annie just so happens to be his self-proclaimed “number one fan”! She even implies that she’s visited the same hotel he has stayed at, while he was there. Yes, Annie declares her love for him, and her admiration for his character Misery Chastain, in his popular romance novel.
What a good… good devout fan. Only, Annie doesn’t have any plans to actually heal her heartthrob, or take him to any hospitals. Paul begins to sense that Annie is bad news and tries to successfully map the mind of a mentally ill woman, in order to escape to freedom.
But Annie is on to Paul. Her unnerving mind games and unpredictable personality make her a minefield of terror for Paul (and for us). Attacking a sick man with mind games is one thing, but taking a sledgehammer to his ankles when he’s misbehaved is another.
Annie has us biting our nails clean off thanks to the genius himself, Stephen King.
So what can we take away from this?:
1.Your villainess can have multiple methods of attack: Annie was not only a master at mind games, but she had a pretty good down-swing to boot.
2. Your villainess doesn’t have to reveal all the tricks up her sleeve: Thanks to that unpredictable personality, we never knew what Annie was going to do next or how she would react to a given situation. That made her incredibly frightening and truly powerful.
3. Strategy doesn’t have to utilize voluptuous body parts as weaponry/distractions: Annie wasn’t a super hot sex goddess. In fact, other than a sweet face, she wasn’t particularly attractive at all. Annie didn’t use her voluptuous bod to get her target to bend to her whims once. Turns out that an unpredictable mind is a lot more powerful than a nice rack. Who knew.
Baroness Rodmilla de Gent, or as we knew her- Cinderella’s stepmother- was as wicked as they come. She ruthlessly targeted her stepdaughter Danielle de Barbarac (Cinderella) into submission. Using cruel tactics like manipulation, lies, and verbal abuse, Rodmilla turned her late husband’s only daughter into a mere slave to her vanities.
We look at the surface and we believe wholeheartedly that Rodmilla is the epitome of an evil stepmother. We side with Danielle easily because we see how Rodmilla uses social standing as a pretense for her abusive behavior. But in one simple scene we get a glimpse into Rodmilla’s past. We see for a brief moment where her trail to villainy began and we pity her:
“My mother was hard on me too, you know. She taught me that cleanliness was next to godliness. She forced me to wash my face at least six times a day… convinced it was never clean enough. I was very grateful to her. She wanted me to be all that I could be. And here I am… a baroness. And Marguerite shall be Queen.”
In this moment we see how she compares herself to her mother. She too was raised by a critical perfectionist, clearly. This sort of parenting style was all she knew. In her own way, she might have believed she too was helping Danielle become all she could be. Then again, it may have eased her conscience, to tell herself exactly that.
In any case, we see that her childhood must’ve been as equally rigid. And in an instance, we see straight through Rodmilla’s hard exterior. It doesn’t necessarily mean we care for her or we sympathize with her actions, but it does mean that we suddenly see her as a human capable of feeling pain. And that fact is of vital importance.
So what can we take away from this?:
1.Origin stories humanize your female villain: Although we may not sympathize with her journey or agree with her actions, sharing her origin story adds depth to her character.
2. Origin stories require relatable pain and suffering: Some of us can profoundly relate to Rodmilla’s upbringing and because of that, we may even sympathize with her character. It’s incredibly important that the origin story reveals a relatable, realistic trauma most humans can either relate to or empathize with.
3. Origin stories should not overwhelm the current story: Instead, it should enhance it. That is, ideally, the point of an origin story- to bring light to the current actions taking place by the character.
Miranda Priestly is known for her mind games, her manipulative nature and- let’s face it- her keen fashion sense. Being one of the fashion industries’ top names, she lives in a world of Louis Vuitton, Prada, and Vera Wang. That means, she’s one of the world’s best-dressed villains. Being well dressed is a part of her image, her very name, so she dresses for the occasion at every occasion.
Miranda mixes class with high fashion trends, dressing according to her personality and her age. She always looks smart, sharp, and well, frankly, intimidating. That is the power of a great power suit! What I appreciate about this villainess is that she looks sexy without looking trashy. Her outfits aren’t ridiculous, theatrical, or overtly sexy but they still make a statement nonetheless!
(It’s no wonder she comes in as #9 in my Greatest Villains of All Time countdown article!)
So, what can we take away from this?:
1.Outfits don’t have to be revealing to be intimidating: Sexy get-ups are fine if that’s what you choose for your villainess, but remember that the outfit cannot distract from her mission or disrespect her.
2.Outfits should channel the villainess’ lifestyle and goals: Dressing for the era, the mission, the statement they wish to make will help them become an icon of the message they will send.
3.Outfits should not be the sole focus: a villainess must be considered worthy of our time and attention. If we want our villainess to be taken seriously, we need to focus on her goals, her motives, and her journey- not on her strappy bustier.
We have a responsibility as writers (especially female writers) to draw women in a serious light, villain or hero. Don’t let the fictional world tells us that women are only capable of using their bodies as weapons to distract the enemy and that a female villain’s only attraction to any audience member is a physical or sexual one.
It’s our responsibility to tell readers that women offer something of great substance and that their conflict, good or evil, is one worth the time and attention of a serious audience.
So, are you still unsure if your villainess will be taken seriously? Then consider these questions:
- If you were to take away a perhaps sexualized exterior of your villainess, do her motives still offer substance to the audience?
- Does the villainess focus her energies on theatrics (long, overdrawn speeches about revenge, insane get-ups, or outrageous emotional fits) instead of the core issues facing her? (The point here being which outweighs which? Theatrics is fine in it of itself, but if that’s all she offers, she’s baggage and nothing else.)
- In scenes she is featured in, does she take action motivating the plot in a satisfactory fashion?
- Does her origin story involve catty, petty, or shallow motives?
Take your time understanding your villainess. Apply a transformation in these four areas and your own villainess will blow readers away.
What about you, fellow writer? What makes for a great female villain? Who is your favorite female villain? Tell me in the comments section below, I’d love to hear your thoughts!
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How can you be sure you’re creating a unique, dynamic, and truly absorbing villain or antagonist for your story? You prepare yourself for my latest workbook to be released in just a few days! Through a set of 16 revealing and thought-provoking questions, you’ll learn how to create a stand-apart villain readers will obsess over.