Okay, okay. I don’t actually have a problem with female villains. But I do hate the way most of them are written. (Aside – I use ‘he’ when talking about villains because the majority ARE male, it’s shorter than he/she, and most English speakers have no idea what xe/xie is, not to mention it’s an awkward thing to pronounce in English. So if you were wondering, that’s why.)
Here’s the bottom line: people tend to write female villains in a very flat or otherwise simple way, and women, generally speaking, are not flat or simple. They tend to be incredibly complex! Am I saying that men aren’t? No, but then people tend to have a lot less trouble with writing a complex man than a woman, in my experience. Perhaps it’s because of the idea that men are complex in a different way than women, although when it comes to character complexity, men and women are quite the same. We actually do tend to want and like the same things. We just tend to go about getting them differently. (If you came here looking for advice on how to write a female villain, you’ll want to just pop over to that link.)
What do I mean when females are written simply? Well, for one thing, there’s the Femme Fatale. You might have noticed me use this phrase before – sorry if you didn’t know what it was. Here’s the link to the TvTrope page (It’s a trap! Now, if you clicked on that link, I guess I can expect you’ll be back to read the rest of this post maybe sometime next week…unless you have remarkable restraint.)
What’s the problem with the Femme Fatale? First let me be clear what I mean when I use the term. I’m not actually talking about the noir Femmes, which are actually pretty good. I’m talking about the James Bond-esque Femmes. Now let me ask you this: how many movies have you seen, books you’ve read, games you’ve played, with a distinct Femme Fatale character? She tends to be rather shallow and/or petty, not often actually evil but just a woman scorned at one point, or else she’s power-hungry, and her defining characteristic is sex. Often, especially in action movies, she is given fighting skills. She can therefore be boiled down to fighting skills with boobs. And for one who is supposed to be good at using her sexuality as a weapon, she certainly does seem to be seduced by others a lot. I think the only non-noir Femme Fatale I haven’t totally hated was Catwoman (if you want to classify her as such). While some women are shallow and petty, most aren’t. And yet, most female villains, the ones I’ve seen, are displayed as just – just – that.
If they’re not a Femme Fatale, they tend to be a variation thereof, like the Evil Priestess or the Evil Enchantress. If they’re not one of these things, they slip into another over-used, over-common, often too simple type of female villain. The Evil Relative: Stepmother, Mother-in-Law, Stepmother-in-law, Stepsister. The Evil Queen tends to be somewhere between the Evil Relative and the Femme Fatale. She can be something else, too, but then, all Evil Queens tend to run similarly, too.
“Come on, Rii, you can find tropes and cliches with male villains, too!”
Yeah, but there are a lot more of them, and the personality variations tend to be wider within tropes or cliches. Also, the examples of males who aren’t fully embodied by a certain trope are far less rare than females.
I think a lot of the trouble with writing males and females is that people forget/don’t know/refuse to acknowledge that male and female psychology are different. You can argue that there’s enough fluctuation on the spectrum of behavior that it all evens out, but you’d be wrong. You can find more effeminate men and more masculine women but it doesn’t even out in the slightest, because those are outliers on an average or bell-shaped curve. Even the Psychology of Women class I took, which did turn out to be Feminism 101 for the most part, did not try to say that men and women were similar enough that there isn’t really a real difference in them. Just that the ways men and women tend to more similar than they are different and that the way they’re different/the same tend to be surprising. Like I said, men and women want the same things. It is true that boys and girls are more similar than they’re different – but they are different! Of course they are more similar than they’re different, as both males and females are human beings (or otherwise members of the same race). But again, there are differences, and they aren’t just biological. Here are some stereotypes that actually have psychological research and statistics backing them: females are more emotion-based than men. Men tend to be more problem-oriented (with females as relationship-oriented). Men rely more on physical violence, women emotional and verbal.
That’s why the girl villains in a modern-day high-school setting tend to be the best displayed, in my opinion – because the people who write those Queen Bee types understand better what those girls are all about. The manipulation, the verbal abuse, the careful destruction of one’s reputation and standing.
When writing a female villain, remember that most women don’t actually like to be treated as objects. Seriously. It’s a male fantasy that women use sex to get their way. Not nearly as many women are willing to do that as it seems to be assumed. What’s more likely is careful manipulation. Contrary to popular belief, men do have emotions and can be guilt tripped, which is “better” than sexual manipulation, for example. Women are generally master manipulators – that’s a far better assumption to make than that women are generally whores. And the manipulation often relies greatly on emotions. Jealousy and anger. Guilt. Anxiety. Love. There’s a lot to work with and both men and women are emotional creatures, even if one sex tends to be more emotion-based than the other. My goodness, how I love to see a master emotional manipulative woman villain!
“So…all of our villains have to be really complex to be good, then? We can’t have any “dumb blonde” villains?”
No, I didn’t say that. Look at Harmony from Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, both by the fabulous Joss Wheadon. She’s as dumb as a brick, with a few tiny moments of only being as dim as a burnt-out lightbulb. Is she a good villain? Well, okay, no. She sucks. But she’s still a great character. Even as stupid and shallow as she is, you can still watch her and think, “I know a girl like that.” That’s a sign you’ve done a shallow character well! You’ve made her stupid and shallow – but real. However, even if the world is full of stupid people, let’s remember it’s got plenty of smart ones, too, so let’s try to avoid having too many bimbos, eh?
“Okay, So we can have a smart, complex woman or a “dumb blonde”, as long as they aren’t a sexual character.”
Hold! I don’t mean to put the ban on sexual characters, either. I just don’t want to see every last woman ever as a sexual creature. Remember that while men can be stereotyped desiring sex for the physical sensation (which I don’t actually think is an entirely true or fair stereotype) women are stereotyped as in it for the emotional attachment. So if your woman is going to use sex as her way to get things, and there are women who do, think carefully about her motivations behind the method. Why is she using her body as a tool? Is she disgusted with herself for doing so? Does she hate using that method? Is it just with particular people she finds attractive? What kind of person doesn’t mind objectifying herself to get her way? Is she emotionally dead inside? How did she get there? Remember that most (all?) women don’t like to be objectified, that they’re people, too, and if they use their bodies as a weapon, they need to have appropriate reasons behind it…and most women won’t use this tactic.
Honestly, it shouldn’t be so hard to write a female villain. Your villain will very often just be a normal(ish) person who sincerely believes something that happens to be wrong. How interesting could it be if your villain was a mother who had some sort of erroneous belief about how to protect her child? Normally the protective mother is a “good guy” in part because we all agree a mother’s love for her child is a beautiful thing. But what if the mother believes she has to protect her child by slaying someone else? Or by taking down the government? Now that could be a complex female villain!
Just remember that even if you’re writing fiction, you need to write real people. Not only does it help your suspension of disbelief in the fantastic if the mundane is realistic, but your reader will relate far better to your characters if they seem like real people. The Femme Fatale is often just male fantasy of a deadly woman, so let’s try to write something better than that.