The Plight of the Villainess

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At Planet Comicon with friend and fellow Avila professor, Benjamen Pascoe.

I had a great time at Planet Comicon last weekend. Met some fun people, saw lots of great costumes, sold a few books… All in all, it was very enjoyable, and I think I’ll be up for more when the time rolls around again next May. Many thanks to all the folks who stopped by Uptown Authors to say hi, check out our books, and support our work.

Next weekend, I’ll be at ConQuest, the annual meeting of the Kansas City Science Fiction and Fantasy Society. In addition to having a table in the vending room with my fellow Uptown Authors, I’ll be on a couple panels and will also do a reading Saturday afternoon. I’ll post the full schedule later this week.

One of my panel topics centers on female characters in SFF: Are our expectations of female characters too high and unrealistic? From the panel description:

“…the characterization of women receives more critical attention from readers. Do the subconscious biases that affect women in real life translate to fictional characters?”

When I was first assigned to moderate this panel, I thought it might be something of a straw man – or, ahem, straw woman – discussion. But as I’ve reflected on the topic, I’ve realized that I’ve run into some important biases in responses to my own female characters. In addition to discussing these next weekend, I’ve decided to talk about them in a series of blog posts, starting today with unconscious biases against female villains.

The Plight of the Villainess

Revisions for The Sword of Shadows, the second edition of High Maga, are well underway. I don’t anticipate a lot of changes in this new edition, but some details need to be tweaked, mostly due to revisions in book one of the series, Eolyn. 

Among these changes, I’ve decided to give a handful of scenes to a new point of view (pov): Rishona, Queen of the Syrnte, will have the opportunity to tell part of the story from her perspective.

I love to play with multiple pov’s in my novels. Everyone has a different perspective on important events, and showing this diversity of lenses, I think, can greatly enrich a story. That being said, one has to be careful not to divide a novel into too many points of view, as this can lead to a dispersed story line that confuses the reader.

When writing High Maga, I had to make some decisions on which characters would get their own pov. Rishona made the short list, but she did not make the final cut. This was a difficult call on my part, but one that felt right at the time. Rishona’s co-villain, Prince Mechnes, seemed plenty capable of representing Team Evil, and it wasn’t clear to me what more Rishona would have to offer.

But an interesting thing happened when I started hearing feedback from readers about these two characters. For many readers and critique partners, Rishona was easy to hate from the moment she appeared. The Syrnte Queen was seen as evil and manipulative, jealous and violent, ruthless in all her ambitions. Most of all, she was without hope or redemption.

Mechnes, on the other hand, was given much more leeway in his behavior. Some of my readers even worried that poor Mechnes was in over his head with Rishona. They speculated that he might be redeemed by “the right woman” – in this case, another character whom he captured, tortured, and then enslaved. No matter how violent and brutal Mechnes’s behavior, it seemed readers were willing to believe that unlike Rishona, this awful man could somehow become a better person.

This double standard troubled me, because as the author, my understanding of the characters was exactly the opposite. Mechnes is evil, pure and simple. He’s amoral, interested only in indulging his own sadistic pleasures and advancing his own selfish interests.

Rishona, on the other hand, is more torn in her path. She seeks to right and old wrong – the betrayal and murder of her parents – and she’s driven to an alliance with Mechnes because he becomes her only hope for military superiority against the Mage King, who occupies a throne that should be hers. Granted, she indulges in a little human sacrifice and demon summoning, but in her heart of hearts, Rishona is trying to serve a greater good.

How was it possible that some of my readers did not see this? For a long time, I blamed it on my own decision to omit Rishona’s point of view from the story. And maybe that was part of the problem.

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Rishona’s mother, brutally murdered by her husband’s assassins, was named after Tamar of Georgia. Painting by Mihály Zichy (1880s)

But that doesn’t explain why these same readers were so lenient in their judgement of Mechnes. There is nothing in his point of view that hints at the possibility of mercy in his heart. The first time we step inside Mechnes’ mind, we learn he’s an incestuous pedophile. A few chapters later, he’s revealed as a rapist and a torturer. How is this in any way redeemable? And why is Rishona, obviously at Mechnes’s mercy because he has the army she needs, judged so much more harshly?

Has Rishona been a victim of unconscious bias? Are we quicker to condemn her simply because she’s a woman? Do we perceive it as less acceptable – more perverse, somehow – when a woman character chooses the dark and violent path?

No answers here, just questions. I’d be curious to hear your thoughts.

For myself, I’m hoping to do Rishona a little more justice the second time around by giving readers some insight into her thoughts and perspectives. In Sword of Shadows, we will get to see certain events from her point of view. This will not condone her actions, of course, but perhaps it will help change the balance a little when her evil is weighed against that of her ruthless uncle, Prince Mechnes.

Next Week on my Female Characters in SFF Series: The Other Woman. 

4 thoughts on “The Plight of the Villainess

  1. I’ll be very interested to see how readers respond to Rishona’s POV. Very interested. I, personally, found nothing redeeming in Mechnes. I can’t imagine anyone believing he could in any way be redeemed.
    How would one redeem him, even if “the right woman” had managed to turn him? My daughter and I were having this conversation just this weekend–how do you redeem Darth Vader? In the end, Luke might have touched on what good was left in him, but you can’t redeem a character that has destroyed countless thousands of innocent people whether or not he spares his son in the end. Same goes for Kylo Ren, but that movie is too new, so no spoilers!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Terri! Good point about Darth Vader. There’s a trope that permeates a lot of our stories, that enough love from the right woman can make a bad man good. I’ve seen this in a lot of romances – not all, but enough to annoy me. So, I suspect there’s a set of readers that expect the same theme to play out again when they run into a character like Mechnes. Expectations are probably compounded by the fact that Mechnes is charismatic in the way that powerful men often are. So I can see how people want to believe he has it in him to turn around, even though all evidence points to the contrary. But again, why did he get the benefit of the doubt, while Rishona was so often simply thrown to the wayside? It’s a questions worth mulling over.

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  2. Karin, you may have just shamed me into reading High Maga- I always thought it would be cool, but I met you so early I was still being too careful about who I read (“don’t want to be accused of stealing!”). That’s the only way to provide a meaningful answer of course, to read it.

    But everyone kibbutzes about things they don’t know, like fans who didn’t see the game. Based on what you just wrote I am surprised that you chose Mechnes to represent the PoV anyway; even in these few paragraphs you had MUCH more interesting things to say about Rishona, and when I interviewed you that was my choice as well. If you had surveyed me before this article, I’d have answered without hesitation that she was a PoV character. Maybe it would have been too hard for you to tell everyone about the awful things Mechnes did (which I presume were private), whereas Rishona you saw as wearing her grievances on her sleeve.

    But if you’re asking whether gender bias played a part here, I bet you’re right. And I would have fallen right in. I know I’m not going to have much patience for your villains anyway. But it is interesting!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Will! At this point, you may just want to wait until High Maga is released under its new title, THE SWORD OF SHADOWS, later this summer. Or, you may want to read them both, to see what changes. 🙂

      Whichever route you take, I think you’ll understand when you meet Mechnes why I judged him deserving as a pov character. I’m not taking that away from him in the second edition, just adding Rishona in at key moments. The more the merrier!

      Thanks so much for stopping by & commenting.

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