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How to Write Complex Female Villains
Written by
She Writes
December 2018
Written by
She Writes
December 2018

Women are continuously fighting for gender equality and although it may feel easy to write a heroic female character, creating a complex female villain can be a little tougher. Not wanting to play into stereotypes or perceived weaknesses, it’s understandable why some writers struggle to write impactful villains that don’t offend female readers.

Use Sexuality to Your Advantage

Female villains are often portrayed as sexy, alluring and tend to use their bodies and beauty to trick men. While overused, there is a right way to use sexuality effectively. Instead of your villain using her sexuality as a way to distract her victim, emphasize just how powerful a woman’s sexuality can be. Keep your female villains in control throughout the entire story by keeping her sophisticated and focused on power over sex.

  • DON’T dress your character in a skimpy outfit to distract men.

  • DO use the art of flirting to outsmart your villain’s opponent.

Don’t Use Romance As Motivation

If you want to write a compelling and believable female villain, don’t rely on a star-crossed romance to lead the story and set your villain’s motivations. Make your villain passionate about something other than a relationship or the potential for a new romance by creating storylines about family, friends, secrets, loss, etc. 

Love can be a factor without being the sole source that drives a woman mad. Layered characters will keep your readers on their toes.

Here are a few motive ideas to get you started:

  • Extinction

  • Climate Change

  • Economic Hardship

  • Equality

  • Abuse

  • Avenging a Death

Villains You Love to Hate

No person is just pure evil. So your character shouldn't be either. Even the most horrific figures in human history think they are the hero of their own story. 

Add complexity to your villain by giving them traits that are generally considered likeable. Does she have a sharp sense of humor even though she's a murderer? Is she wickedly smart despite the fact that she's your main character's office nemesis? The thing that makes villains intersting isn't turning up the dial on just how evil they can be. It's the fact that in certain moments, your readers might actually like this character if it weren't for her dirty deeds.

In The Devil Wears Prada, Meryl Streep's character Miranda Priestly can be downright nasty, but don't you also kind of want to be her sometimes? She is powerful, beautiful and brilliant. Yet, she's awful to the sweet protaganist. 

Cersei Lannister from Game of Thrones is erring much more on the "purely evil" side of the coin, however, she has an amazing motive: she would do ANYTHING for her children. This is a feeling all mothers can relate to. 

The key to a great villain isn't making them so disgusting all readers shudder in horror. The key is to make them sort of relatable. When you've won is when your readers love to hate your villain. Or even better, kind of want to side with them.


Whether you're writing a hero or a villain, backstory is important. One note characters who are just evil for the heck of it or good because that's what's right are boring. Throw a wrench in your readers' expectations by giving villains something sympathetic in their background. 

The villain doesn't have to be beloved. It is okay though to give them some justification for their behavior. Most people don't just wake up and decided to burn the world to the ground. What compels them and how is it in opposition to your hero? 

Man vs. Woman

Female villains are notorious for fighting other women in novels, movies, TV shows and comics. The implication often being that women can defeat other women, but it takes a man to bring down a fellow male. While we all know that's not true and we also know there is a lot of interesting material in pitting women against each other, make sure you don't fall into any territory where you are assuming the only match for a female hero is a female villain and vice versa. 

Hella, The Goddess of Death, from the Marvel Universe goes head to head with her own brother, Thor. She has incredible physical strength, a tragic and dark background and while she is seductive in her lust for power and shocking abilities, there isn't some heartbroken school girl in her history, driving her character to do evil. 

Instead, it's a complex relationship with her father that has made her what she is today. And that shared, but skewed, backstory with her brother makes for storytelling gold. 

There are no rules in writing, but the more surprising your female villains can be the more the whole world is exposed to the complexity of women. One note characters are bad. One note female characters can be a major social set back and may also raise the eyebrow of some of your more modern minded readers.

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