Your villain is probably male.
That top ten list? (Parts one and two.) Seventy percent male. Most villains in modern fiction are male. I’m not saying yours shouldn’t be female, but girl villains come with hurdles to overcome that boy villains don’t, and that makes writing them well and getting your point across more difficult, so many authors just don’t bother. The obstacles aren’t insurmountable but some stories just don’t have the space to devote to it or the villain may not be important enough to the overall story to justify the extra work – and writers do have to ration out their work or they will burn out, which helps no one.
So what are the pitfalls of a female villain? In short they fall into three broad categories, two of which are rooted in human nature and one of which is more of a modern societal construct.
The first quirk of human nature to address is the simple fact that no person, man or woman, likes to see a woman in danger. Consider this social experiment, conducted by two actors in a public park in London:
Notice how people broke up the argument where the man was threatening, sometimes before he did more than raise his voice, while the man being threatened was basically ignored the whole time and sometimes people even celebrated. People don’t like seeing women in danger, and danger is where most villains have to go in order to get what they want. You might think that people are willing to look past this in the interest of good storytelling but the fact is they aren’t.
Two recent examples of this protective instinct manifesting on behalf of fictional female characters include the protests over the treatment of Daisy Domergue in The Hateful Eight and the complaints surrounding the billboards and posters showing a confrontation between Apocalypse and Mystique in X-Men: Age of Apocalypse. Both times there was protest for women being placed in scenarios that wouldn’t draw a second glance if faced by man.
Some people would assert that this is a result of culture and conditioning but the fact is, keeping women away from violence is a common thread in world cultures so it makes more sense to me to consider it universal. We can’t really expect it to go away any time soon, especially since the people who claim to most oppose these kinds of “gender roles” – namely, feminists – are exactly the people who protested in these two examples.
Point is, there’s little to nothing an author can do about this directly. You could strive to keep your villain out of physical struggles entirely, or keep such things brief or even have them happen off screen, but that limits what you can do with your villain. The alternative is to put your female villain through the wringer and take the inevitable scolding, a la Tarantino. Or, you could just avoid the quandary and make your villain a dude. On the whole, as statistics suggest, authors chose the latter.
The second reason villains tend not to be female in modern fiction is because women, on aggregate, are risk averse. Again, with villainy being a role that brings a certain degree of risk with it, it becomes a thing that we expect more of men than women. Risk taking is something most ladies choose only when circumstances drive them to it. There’s certainly a place for villains who find their calling when pushed to the wall but, again, it’s a limiting factor in how you can use your villain in your story.
Yes, your villain could be a very atypical woman, but that undercuts her utility as a good connection point for your audience. That doesn’t mean you can’t break this stereotype, or even write a story where the restrictions of demographic averages are in full effect, but in either case you’re left with another set of restrictions on what you can do, restrictions that may not serve your story. In many cases it will be simpler to make your villain a man.
These first two hurdles to a female villain are simple facts of life, easily observable in day to day life. They are neither good or bad, they simply are, and anyone trying to tell a story needs to begin with a solid grasp on the way things are before they set pen to page or they risk running afoul of verisimilitude. Sure, fiction lets you depart from reality to an extent but if you’re not brutally honest about how far from convention you’ve gone you risk overstepping what your audience will expect.
It’s also never wise to try and force characters to be something other than what their nature calls for. Breaking convention for the sake of breaking convention may seem innovative but it frequently comes off as a lazy attempt to seem creative. but it If your character isn’t fitting well as a woman then write them as a man. This goes double for villains, who demand to be taken on their own terms.
But what about the societal reason?
This is a much touchier subject. (And it’s not like the previous two were contentious.) The third reason I think female villains are uncommon in modern fiction is because society puts women in a position of moral authority.
This may come as a bit of a surprise to you, most people are taught that we live in a society where men run everything but even a cursory examination suggests something much different. Most teachers for children under ten are women, most major colleges have women’s studies departments and just a quick Google search shows a number of articles explaining why the treatment of women is the gold standard for morality (examples one and two). This attitude is seen in action when a mere accusation of violence got Auburn University student Jovon Robinson expelled simply by accusing him of a single act of violence, with no evidence or police inquiry.
There is an extent to which women get to measure who is good and bad in modern society. If a villain has the power to define whether what they do is good or bad then, by definition, they cannot be a villain.
Writing a female villain within the confines of the moral authority society gives them, usually the authority to brand the men in their lives (fathers, brothers, bosses and boyfriends for the most part) as violent or degenerate, pretty much impossible. You can write a gripping thriller about a villainous man who murders, or tries to murder, his spouse but make him a woman and anything but a sympathetic portrayal becomes almost impossible today.
Once again, this imposes a limit on what can be done with the female villain, and, notably, not one that existed in the past. In days of yore it was considered equally feasible for a woman to be an aggressor and a bully towards the men in her life as the reverse. Lady Macbeth, anyone? Today those kinds of villains are much less common.
One thing you shouldn’t do is hear me saying don’t write female villains. You should, when the time is right. But there are factors that make female villains more difficult to take on and you need to know them, weigh them and decide whether you’re up for them and whether your story wants to deal with them. Writing a story, getting all the pieces in position and understanding all the characters is a major undertaking. Sometimes you just don’t want to toss all those extra variables into the mix. If you don’t you’re in good hands. Many great villains came about without needing to tangle with them. Plenty exist in spite of them, too. Honestly, this shouldn’t be the biggest factor in your thinking by a long shot. But it’s not something you see discussed much, so hopefully this has been a help to you. See you next week when we wrap up this series with a few final thoughts about villains, why modern villains fail so badly and what comes next.