Why women make such scary villains

I’ve been writing a couple of little cozy mysteries lately. Both my killers have been women, which has opened up a whole line of debate in my head: namely, why are female villains so much more frightening than male ones?

I was listening to Elizabeth Elliot over the weekend, and oddly enough, she touched on this very thing. She was talking about what it means to be a woman, and she had this interesting observation.

“I was having a conversation with my brother several years ago, discussing the topic of feminism. He pointed out that men are always the great generals, and statesmen, and artists. Women don’t do this because women are so much closer to the heart of things. They are occupied with helping, with nurturing, with caring for the weak, the hidden, the imprisoned, and the betrayed.” (Quoted verbatim because I can’t get back to that particular broadcast.)

But this gave me an interesting perspective. What makes the White Witch so scary? What made the original Maleficent so chilling? Why is the evil stepmother a universal trope throughout all fairy tales?

bbc-white-witch
Because the BBC White Witch had so much more style.

If women are closer to the heart of life, that makes them uniquely poised to strike and harm that heart.

King Solomon once observed, “A wise woman builds her house, but a foolish woman tears it down with her hands.”

There’s nothing more defenseless and harmless than a human child. Women have the wonderful power to birth and raise the next generation. But when a woman embraces selfishness rather than her innate power of helping and nurturing, she can also destroy that life–emotionally, physically, spiritually.

That’s where the evil stepmother trope comes in. The woman who takes in children who aren’t her own and works tirelessly to destroy them, whether it’s with poisoned apples, abandoning them in the woods, or condemning them to work in the ashes as a servant. Each of these things are carefully calculated to destroy the child either physically, spiritually, or emotionally.

What makes the White Witch so disturbing? Is it when she feeds Edmund the corrupting Turkish Delight? Is it when she turns the partying animal folk to stone? Or is it when she ceremonially kills Aslan?

In my opinion, it’s not the barefaced violence that makes her frightening. It’s the diabolical backstabbing, the curses, the poison, the lies. She’s even scarier in the Magician’s Nephew, because you get to see her talk about how destroying all life with the Deplorable Word (basically a magical nuke) was totally her right.

Men can be wicked, too. But a man will generally shoot you or rape you. A woman will poison your coffee. That’s the fun of the mystery genres. We WANT a diabolical killer who eludes the police with superior clue-hiding skills. That’s why men and women are both fair game for murderers–but a female killer is slightly more chilling. Because she’s reversed her role as a nurturing, caregiving woman and become the opposite–one who takes life instead of giving it.

The wicked stepmother is indeed wicked on many, many levels.

sw_queen

How my scariest villain was the least visible one

Back in my teenaged fanfic days, I decided to write a sprawling epic story. A story that basically crossed Digimon with World War 2. A huge conflict that would put our heroes against impossible odds. I wrote a massive war novel in the world of Sonic the Hedgehog.

In battle animes like Digimon, there’s a progression to the power flow. The heroes fight a bad guy. They get stronger. They find the bad guy’s commander. They defeat him. They get stronger. They find the next rank of bad guy, and on up it goes. By the end, the heroes and villain are throwing galaxies at each other.

gurren-lagann-galaxy-battle

If I wanted my heroes to get strong, I needed a stronger bad guy. I needed a scary one. So I went to the scariest villain I had read at that time: Sauron from Lord of the Rings.

Sauron has no screen time. He speaks exactly 1 line. Yet he is absolutely terrifying. As I studied the mechanics of how this worked, I realized that it broke down like this:

  • Heroes can read Sauron’s mind
  • His Eye is felt
  • His influence is felt
  • His armies are seen (and they’re bad)
  • His Nazgul are seen (and they’re bad)
  • He controls a freaking volcano
  • His power can corrupt people from far away (the Ring)
  • He can alter the weather

The heroes talk about him with dread and horror

Yet the closest we ever get to seeing him is Pippin’s account of looking into the palantir. Sauron is never described.

After LOTR, I attempted to read Wheel of Time. I successfully bored my way through book 2, The Great Hunt. In the end of that book, Rand faces off with the evil skeletal bad guy who is basically Sauron.

And you know what? It wasn’t scary. It was sort of dumb. Kind of like the first Hulk movie. Once he was on screen, the villain’s threat diminished to that of a cackling cartoon character.

The LOTR movies suffered from the same problem. Sauron is reduced to a searching spotlight outside a prison complex. Not really … you know … menacing.

eye-of-sauron-desk-lamp-12053
The Eye of Sauron Desk Lamp from dudeiwantthat.com

So, if I wanted to make my Big Bad scary, I’d have to keep his screen time to a minimum.

So along came Leviathan. He was based on the characteristics from Job 41.

Can you draw out Leviathan with a fishhook? Or press down his tongue with a cord? 2 “Can you put a rope in his nose Or pierce his jaw with a hook? 3 “Will he make many supplications to you, Or will he speak to you soft words?  Lay your hand on him; Remember the battle; you will not do it again!

9 “Who can strip off his outer armor? Who can come within his double mail? 14 “Who can open the doors of his face? Around his teeth there is terror. “Nothing on earth is like him, One made without fear. 34 “He looks on everything that is high; He is king over all the sons of pride.”

leviathan1

Like Sauron, he was invincible, except for one tiny weakness. He was this self-healing nanite-based android with a super-computer brain. He made himself into the Borg King and began assimilating the entire world into his cyborg army.

I used my observations about Sauron and followed them closely. Leviathan appeared at the beginning of the story, at his birth, and the end, at his death. The rest of the book is about the heroes fighting his armies, dealing with refugees, and rescuing each other from cyborg assimilation.

Levi, himself, remains off-screen. It builds this growing, horrible dread the longer the story goes. And the more enormous, horrible things that happen, the more his reputation grows. The scarier he becomes. And we haven’t seen him in hundreds of pages.

It’s AWESOME.

And it must have worked, because tons of people begged permission to use Levi in their own stories. I read as many as I could find. Everyone wanted their characters to kill him, too. But nobody had figured out how to make him as scary as I did–they gave him too much screen time.

When Levi is on screen, he’s just a robot dinosaur. Oh, he’s strong and menacing enough. But he doesn’t have the presence of doom that he achieves by staying off-camera.

Now, this won’t work for all villains. Lots of times the villain must have screen time because he’s just as interesting as the hero, with his own journey. Or he’s the hero’s best friend, even. I personally love my villains and show them as much as possible.

But sometimes you just want that backstage mastermind kind of villain who stays out of sight. The really scary one. I think Unbreakable said it best:

there's always two kinds of villain; there's the soldier villain — who fights the hero with his hands; and then there's the real threat — the brilliant and evil archenemy — who fights the hero with his mind.