Have you ever noticed how much depth and hidden motives are given to male villains? The bad guy has as much development as the protagonist, almost to the point where you don't know which one you love more? Now flip the gender and you begin to see where female villains tend to fall flat. While there's been a shift in both film and literature where more prominent roles are being given to female characters, they still tend to be based heavily in cliches and stereotypes. This is especially true for villains, where emphasis still lies predominantly on the femme fatale, scorned lover, and mean girl types.
We don't know about you, but we think it's time for something different. We want to see women who accurately reflect the women we know in real life. Bring on the bitchy bank teller, the petty sister, the backstabbing best friend, and the love/hate relationship that comes with being the daughter of a woman diagnosed with a mental illness. Give us women who hurt others because they're disappointed with their lives, women who kill because they love the thrill, women who do terrible things because they're power mad and can't stop. These are the vibrant villains we want to read about, the dangerous women who grip us from page one and refuse to let us go.
Interested in coming up with your own dangerous woman? You've come to the right place. Today we're sharing our guide for writing dangerous women who aren't cliches.
How To Write A Badass Female Villain:
The first thing you should consider before you ever develop your villainess is her motive. Why are they committing the heinous atrocities in your story? What, at the core, is the root of their driving force? Was it a childhood experience? The end of a relationship or the culmination of events stretching across their entire lives? Do they feel they've been wronged or deserve better? Whatever motive you choose, consider all your options below.
Writing female characters is tough. There's a lot of complex feelings and emotions that are often all linked to every single action and thought the character has. Sometimes their motives aren't just one thing, but rather the culmination of several different motives.
With motive established, you can begin to develop the other aspects of your villain. Think about what you want your character to look like, her quirks and mannerisms, how she dresses, how she acts, etc.
Need a little extra inspiration? Check out these other articles: Character 101: Establishing Values & Desires, Character 101: Building Relationships & Backgrounds, and Character 101: Making Your Characters Unique & Captivating. They'll help you develop a well-rounded antagonist that will be sure to win over your readers.
Tips For Avoiding Cliches:
Okay, so now you have some semblance of a person created. How do you avoid turning her into a stereotype? Like archetypes, it's okay to start with a certain concept. The key is to then work in unique details and other contrasting traits so that by the end they no longer adhere to the original template. There needs to be a level of depth and realism achieved in order for your villain to stand out.
Not sure which cliches have been overused? Check out this Youtube video from MsMojo. It's got great examples of tropes that have been used far too much in both television and novels.
Here are some other ways to add originality back into your feminine icon. As you develop her further consider these following fresh takes:
Female villains who are...
Feminine (but not ditzy girly-girl)
Childish (whether they are actually children or just immature)
Genuinely funny (and not in that snarky sarcastic way)
Support or defend other women
Not traditionally attractive
Those who have fallen in love and are still strong
Those who are violent for fun
Not physically strong
Emotionally conflicted by their actions
Have fear has their primary motivator
Tomboyish or manly in appearance or mannerisms (without being a lesbian)
Don't use long-range weapons
Don't fall to pieces emotionally
Emotional not reserved
Strong of her own accord
Of all ages, not just mid-teens or old
Have feelings but remain in control of them (sorry, PMS is no longer an excuse)
Not a man-hater
Not a self-deprecating woman-hater
Not a lone warrior
Not alone or an orphan- they have family or friends...they just may not appreciate them
Able to cry/display emotions without having to justify them
**Bonus! Here are 5 extra tips:
1. Use sexuality in a more subtle way: We're all familiar (overly so) with the femme fatale, the female who seduces every guy in the room with a single hair toss and then stabs them in the back with her knife while they're busy looking at her exposed cleavage. Overplayed? Definitely. Interesting? Not really. Characters like these tend to fall flat because they're written as one-dimensional physical objects. Your villainess can definitely still have sex appeal, but by writing her in a more subtle way you can bring depth back to sexuality and open the doors to new nuances.
Instead of writing about the way her body looks, place emphasis on the power of sexuality itself. Rather than merely being sexy, have her focus on the power dynamics within sexual encounters. Her true aim is power, flirting is merely her weapon. Write about the power she craves, not her breasts. Trust us, the confidence she exudes and the way she uses her body to manipulate others will bring plenty of sex appeal without shining a spotlight on it.
2. Avoid romance as the primary motivator: Again, using romance as a motivation isn't a bad thing, it's about the way you choose to write it. There are a lot of female villains who use failed love as the reason for their misdeeds. From the scorned wife, to the jealous girlfriend, to the sexy mistress- it's all been done multiple times before. When you use love as your villains excuse for villainy, consider all types of love. There's a lot of interesting nuances in family relationships and hidden secrets, and in friendships/platonic relationships too. Both love and loss are powerful motivators.
The best way to use romance is to layer it with other motivators, this way a romantic relationship isn't the only thing driving them and thus your story has a fresh new spin. Some other ideas to layer with this one include: loss, economic hardship, natural disasters, avenging a death, dealing with a loved one's incurable illness, the foster system, having a family member in prison, etc.
3. Let her fall into the gray area: While evil for the sake of evil has its uses, this one doesn't quite fly in most modern stories. You need to have characters and a main villain who are more realistic and have a bit more substance then just making your villain evil. Even the most horrendous killer has their reasons (even if no one knows what they are!). By writing villains in the gray area, you ensure that your readers can connect with them on a deeper level. Example: Maleficent, who acts in equal measures good and evil.
Remember, in your villain's mind, they're the hero and what they're doing is completely normal and necessary to them. They don't think of themselves as the villain, and to some extent your reader needs to be able to understand that. Think about Daenerys Stormborn from Game of Thrones. While her character arc is painted in a heroic light throughout most of the series, one can argue that she was a villain from the start. She committed modern genocide via dragons, was ruled by her lust for power, and generally speaking was pretty self-serving the entire time. That being said, readers everywhere adored her because they could relate to her struggle and hardship. Give your villainess likeable traits and you'll see similar results.
4. Develop her backstory: Few female villains truly get the backstory they deserve. The best female villains thus far have undoubtedly come from comics (like DC's Harley Quinn), where they appear in various forms, personalities, and highly detailed backstories. Look to these women for inspiration when writing your own villains. The more layers and details you give them, the more vibrant they'll be on the page and the more memorable they'll be to your readers overall. Need help developing her backstory? Consult this guide: Character 101: Building Relationships & Backgrounds.
5. Man vs. Woman: As the video addressed earlier, there is a discrepancy between female villains vs. other women and female villains vs. men. In the final face-off consider having your main character be a man who defeats your villainess in a show of equally balanced strength. This is one of those things that while seemingly small will do big things for your story. Matching wits between women and men evens out the playing field and allows both to showcase their unique skills...plus it seems less like a man's romantic fantasy when all is said and done. A great example is from Xena The Warrior Princess where Xena had to face Ares in multiple showdowns, where each were well-suited to each other's strengths and weaknesses. While Xena technically wasn't a villain in the series, she had her moments of inner darkness, which means she makes the cut for this post.
Writing dangerous women can be challenging, but if you're willing to put in the work, you'll be able to create a memorable female icon that audiences everywhere will love to hate.
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