Monday, November 7, 2011

Villainesses and Anti-Heroines

Happy November.

For various reasons that are beyond the scope of this blog, I've decided to take it easy on myself with this month's post, and give all of you a treat while I'm at it: an audio-recording of a reading I did this past September from my short story 'Creatures of Light'. 

'Creatures of Light' is a portrait of Selenia, a brilliant and ruthless woman scientist living in a fantasy Age of Exploration. The audio-recording includes just two scenes from the short story, both featuring some remarkable organisms that Selenia studies. One day this short story will be expanded into a full-length novel; until then I can give you this small taste of what is to come.

Selenia has been mentioned on this blog before; I brought her up in the discussion following our very first post in September (Why Fantasy?) as a possible example of an anti-heroine.  And because a week cannot pass on Heroines of Fantasy without a discussion of some kind, I'd like to pull out the topic of anti-heroines once again, and couple that with the topic of villainesses. 

Here are my questions for you:

What do you like to see in your anti-heroines, and your villainesses?  What makes this kind of character appealing, engaging; a woman we might actually relate to even as we abhor her decisions and actions?

Who are your favorite anti-heroines and villainesses, and why?

What would you like to see in an anti-heroine or villainess that you have not yet seen in your reading?

Do you expect the anti-heroine or the villainess to act in ways that are qualitatively different when compared to the anti-hero and the villain?  Why or why not?

You don't have to tackle all these questions in one week, of course.  But if you're up for sharing your thoughts on at least one, I'd love to hear them.

While you're mulling over what to write in your comments, here's that audio recording I was talking about.  I hope you enjoy Selenia; she's one of my favorite characters to work with.



Posted by Karin Rita Gastreich

23 comments:

Terri-Lynne said...

I love, love that story. I think it's time for another read. And I can't WAIT until it's a novel I can devour!

You know, one of my favorite villainesses of all time is the "Wicked Queen" in Snow White. She is the heroine of her own story. She's protecting her place as Queen, and the most beautiful woman in the land. She sees her actions as a necessity, as a means of survival, because a woman without power and beauty in her world is powerless indeed. A victim, and that is not something she would EVER consent to be. Truth be told, I always wanted her to be the victor in that struggle (once I got a bit older, anyway.) Snow White was such a WUSS! Couldn't survive in the wood without the animals, without the dwarves, and then didn't even leave her rescue on her own two feet, but got carried off! Why was she deserving of happily ever after? You know why? Because she was sweet and nice and pretty and compliant, content to do what the men in her life bid her do--THAT is why she lived happily ever after.

Egads--what a TERRIBLE life lesson for girls!

When I wrote my urban fairy tale "Melting" the "wicked queen" was the force behind Snow's escaping her world of parasitic men, and in the end, Snow saved herself.

Terri-Lynne said...

btw--the oldest versions of this tale aren't quite as anti-women-power, though still pits woman against woman to a degree. I'm talking about the version of Snow White most of us are familiar with.

Karin Rita Gastreich said...

Hi Terri!

Ironically, Snow White is one of my favorite heroines. But NOT, of course, as she was portrayed by Disney. I always saw her as surviving well in the forest, forging a life of her own while straightening out the lives of seven (!) men.

I love your choice of villainess, though. Gregory MacGuire did a fun rewrite of the Snow White tale a few years back, in which Lucrezia Borgia was the "wicked" queen. And did she ever make a wonderful wicked queen.

I always liked the Wicked Witch of the West as well, as portrayed in the movie. What an awesome villainess. Green face, great cackle, unforgettable exit line. I liked what MacGuire did with her in Wicked, too.

Terri-Lynne said...

Karin--yes, MacGuire's Elphaba is an extraordinary anti-heroine. Probably one of my very favorites. I read Mirror Mirror and loved the whole Borgia angle-wasn't crazy about the book, though. I think Wicked was just THAT good, no matter what came after, it was never going to be able to get free of the glare.

Venator said...

Snow, Glass, Apples (a short story by Gaiman found in his book Smoke and Mirrors) is a rather amusing version of Snow White from the point of view of the wicked queen (though I must say, speaking personally, I'm struggling to see a problem with the original story's moral...). He does a great Santa Claus story too: Nicholas Was.

I don't think there's really a fantasy anti-heroine yet written who carries a book in the way that, Say, Elric does, which surprises me slightly as some female characters could easily have been expanded upon enough to carry a book or two.

I don't really have a favourite anti-heroine because as I say I've not really read a book where I'd say any woman has a prominent enough role to serve as such (supporting cast, yes). As far as villainesses go, probably Thalis from Howard's The Slithering Shadow for potential (I never understood why Conan didn't ditch the rather drippy girl he was with in favour of the far more interesting Thalis...) and Salome from A Witch Shall Be Born. Though i should probably pass over the specific reasons for the choices... the Grendel's mother isn't a bad choice either, but for completely different reasons.

Very seldom (probably never, I can't recall one) have I read a fantasy villainess who was not either beautiful and cruel or ugly and wicked. I think that says quite a lot in itself (though possibly just about my preferred reading matter). While I think it is largely the business of fantasy to deal in extremes or ideals, having a villainess who was not either hideously disgusting or devastatingly attractive (and in the latter case generally sexually depraved too) would be a refreshing (if somehow also disappointing) change.

Pongo Pygmaeus said...

Snow, Glass, Apples (a short story by Gaiman found in his book Smoke and Mirrors) is a rather amusing version of Snow White from the point of view of the wicked queen (though I must say, speaking personally, I'm struggling to see a problem with the original story's moral...). He does a great Santa Claus story too: Nicholas Was.

I don't think there's really a fantasy anti-heroine yet written who carries a book in the way that, Say, Elric does, which surprises me slightly as some female characters could easily have been expanded upon enough to carry a book or two.

I don't really have a favourite anti-heroine because as I say I've not really read a book where I'd say any woman has a prominent enough role to serve as such (supporting cast, yes). As far as villainesses go, probably Thalis from Howard's The Slithering Shadow for potential (I never understood why Conan didn't ditch the rather drippy girl he was with in favour of the far more interesting Thalis...) and Salome from A Witch Shall Be Born. Though i should probably pass over the specific reasons for the choices... the Grendel's mother isn't a bad choice either, but for completely different reasons.

Very seldom (probably never, I can't recall one) have I read a fantasy villainess who was not either beautiful and cruel or ugly and wicked. I think that says quite a lot in itself (though possibly just about my preferred reading matter). While I think it is largely the business of fantasy to deal in extremes or ideals, having a villainess who was not either hideously disgusting or devastatingly attractive (and in the latter case generally sexually depraved too) would be a refreshing (if somehow also disappointing) change.

Terri-Lynne said...

Venator/Pongo--you are one in the same? Or is this just an eerie coincidence? ;)

Reading your comment, I was reminded of Orual of CS Lewis' "Till We Have Faces," a retelling of Cupid and Psyche. Oural, the Psyche character's sister, is an AMAZING anti-heroine. If you've not read it, DO! Like you need more on your TBR pile, right? But this one--yeah, no one should miss it.

Karin Rita Gastreich said...

Terri & Pongo --

Both of you are adding to my to-be-read list.

Terri -- My favorite work of Maguire's was "Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister". Beyond that, I've read 'Mirror Mirror', and 'Wicked', in that order. I enjoyed both, but they were a disappointment when compared to 'Confessions'.

I liked what he did with Elphaba in 'Wicked', but the story itself got a little perverse at points for my taste. ('Mirror Mirror' kind of did that too, now that I think about it.) Also, I thought there were just a few too many unanswered questions regarding the underlying politics and mythology of Oz. Not that all the mysteries had to be solved, but it was weird to see Elphaba lose so much, then die in a rather meaningless way, without ever really understanding the motivations, or at least the social dynamics, behind it all.

One thing I liked about 'Mirror Mirror' was the end; I thought Bianca's "prince" was well chosen.

Pongo -- I think your point about beautiful/cruel vs. ugly/wicked is a good one. I also have that other thought stuck in my head from our earlier discussion -- that examples of the 'chaste' villainess are hard to come by, and would be a very interesting twist on an old theme.

Terri-Lynne said...

Karin--Ah, you did not read Son of a Witch. No great loss, to be honest, but it did do a lot of explaining that didn't get done in the first. Unfortunately, Mr. Maguire didn't listen to the "rules" of first books--they need to stand on their own. :)

My second favorite of those books was actually Lost--the one that riffed on A Christmas Carol. All in all, though--I was disappointed.

Mark Nelson/ Pevanapoet1 said...

I think the questions posed by the post are excellent, and I had to think for awhile before replying because I, too, have not read much fiction where a non-disneyfied feme-evil appeared.

All the figures I accessed seemed to me to fall into Pongo's definition of the cliche. I think that is a pretty sad literary fact in itself. Makes me wonder why.

I started watching Once Upon a Time and have been enjoying the evil queen mayor character and the whole slam on fairytales writing, but I can already see thinness in the queen's character. Too bad, really, for they have attempted to give her some plausible emotions, but unfortunately the cartoony quality of the writing shows up in hints every episode. Still, pretty cool effort.

When I think of evil woman characters, some of the gals in Evangiline Walton's Mabinogion retellings come to mind. Arianhrod for one. She was NOT NICE. There are others in that tetralogy, but I will have to dig around and find them to dig up the pertinent details. Still, Celtic folklore seems quite fruitful in terms of developing the ugly-cruel/beautiful-cruel construct.

One need only look at the panoply in the Arthurian saga to find relevant incarnations as well.

And in both cases referenced above, the women act with power and conviction, passion and pitilessness. And yet even so, the story-tellers have not done them total justice, for they still fall into that morass of invective associated with the judeo-christian mythos. Jezebel anyone?

Frankly, I think there is room here for modern storytellers to begin developing a new archetype. Perfect. Terri will get right on it! :)

Terri-Lynne said...

Mark--I'll get on it pronto! :) Actually, I do have a character in Beyond the Gate that might fill this gap. She's an interesting character--changes with the everchanging scenery of her realm. Sometimes she's beautiful, sometimes she's ugly, sometimes something in between--but she's always batshit crazy. I wouldn't call her EVIL, but she is cruel. One of my favorite characters I've ever written.

Through reading these comments, I'm wondering if the appearance, whether ugly or beautiful, is more pronounced in villainesses than it is in villains. I'd have to really THINK to find prominent descriptions of male baddies, one way or another, but so many beautiful/bad, beautiful/cruel female baddies come to mind--those in which their appearance is a big part of their character.

wendigomountain said...

I'm going to go out on a limb regarding the Wicked Mayor in Once Upon a Time. Aside from the bad writing, she's the worst part of the show. Whenever she gets on screen, I just hate her. "Flames...on the side of my face" hate her.

Cartoony is right. Everything that wicked queen does is basically like the contrary baddie in Jem or the Smurfs where everything they like is nasty and rotten, to the point of being ridiculous. Real bad guys/gals aren't this way. Sure, they don't mind bringing the pain, but it's important that they have Pathos.

Not that I'm able to plug a book that hasn't been published, but I made a character who turns out to be a harbinger of a world-devouring evil. She's a plucky fighter pilot who makes a desperate decision and then the path she follows is just awful for everyone. She takes no pleasure in what she does, but she does hurt people. Real villains don't sit back and play with their waxed mustaches all day, cackling to themselves.

Even the Wicked Witch of the West was just trying to get back her property from some invading flatlander that murdered her sister. And yes, "What a world, what a world..." is loaded with Pathos.

Terri-Lynne said...

I always love when you stop by, Clint.

Yes, the Mayor/Wicked Queen in OUaT bothers me. The only hope I have of some depth of character was Snow White and Charming's lines:
PC: Why does she want you dead?
SWL Because she thinks I ruined her life.
PC:Did you?
SW: Yes.

I will wait and see what comes of this.

wendigomountain said...

Always a pleasure to come by. There's a startling amount of intelligent conversation on the internet. I'm glad I can always find it here.

Karin Rita Gastreich said...

Terri, I'm very much looking forward to reading your next novel! And Mark, I agree: If anyone can tackle this challenge, Terri can.

I have a very interesting situation with the villain and villainess for High Maga (sequel to Eolyn). Both of them are, in my mind, equally depraved in terms of their actions.

The villain is amoral; everything he does is simply to serve his own ambitions and appetites.

The villainess actually has a moral argument behind what she's doing; this is, in effect, her final desperate and bold attempt to reclaim what is rightfully hers, and to avenge the brutal deaths of her own parents.

Nonetheless, my readers tend to sympathize with/like the villain more. In fact, there have even been scenes where they are equal participants in brutal acts, and somehow readers succeed in letting him off the hook.

I think this is largely due to the fact that in High Maga, we are allowed inside the pov of the villain on multiple occasions, but always see the villainess through the eyes of other characters.

But this week's conversation also has me wondering whether we are simply more apt to judge in favor of the villain, and against the villainess?

My villain is handsome, by the way. And my villainess is beautiful. But pretty much all my characters in the Eolyn saga are attractive. Call it a writer's flaw. Or maybe it's just that, like any good mother, I can't help but see all my "children" as beautiful. ;)

Karin Rita Gastreich said...

Clint & Terri --

Again, we're talking about Once Upon a Time! I'm starting to feel like I should watch it just to get up to speed.

Then again, I kind of like what Clint said to me the other day -- that he watches bad TV so I don't have to. ;)

Terri-Lynne said...

Karin--I cannot WAIT to read High Maga. Are you done yet? No? Are you done NOW? Not yet? How about NOOOOOW!!!???
:)

Terri-Lynne said...

Karin--you might like Once Upon a Time. Might. I'm not sure I like it yet, but I like it enough to give it a few more episodes.

Ah, that Clint--he is the clever one!

A. Thomas Schlesinger said...

Terri-Lynne, it's funny that you should mention a Disney villainess; right away that is what came to my mind when trying to pick an example.

And I need to ask; why?

Why do I need to turn to children's stories to find an example of an evil woman? Are they so rare?

The answer is...yes. Women are not prone to destruction, at least our idealized view of them. Oh sure, when protecting their family, a woman will load up a flame thrower and level buildings, but for her own, selfish reasons?

No, not really.

So we turn to Disney. The formula is simple; be the opposite of a woman's natural trait. Destroy life. Think of their own needs first. Act impulsively and--most of all--crave power.

From Fiction, one of the most evil women I know--who is not from Disney--is Annie Wilkes, the nurse in King's Misery. But she is insane, so a bad example.

Thinking...

This is hard...

Oh yes, of course. This one should have come up right away. The woman Stephen King once said was the "greatest make-believe villain to come along since Hannibal Lecter." The very thought of her sends chills down the spine of any sane person.

Dolores Umbridge.

wendigomountain said...

Cersei Lannister is up there, but again, she's got Pathos.

Then we've got Mags Bennett on "Justified." *shudder*

Did somebody leave a window open around here?

There's something to be said for a mother figure who will stop at nothing. Probably goes clear back to Grendel's mother and Medea.

Terri-Lynne said...

Thomas! Dolores Umbridge! She is definitely one of the best villainesses of all time.

Karin Gastreich said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Karin Rita Gastreich said...

Thomas -- Good choice on Dolores.

I have a novel on my 'to read' shelf where Catherine de Medici is the villainess. It's sort of a history fantasy thing. I'll let you know how that goes when I get around to it.

Clint -- Cersei was a great villainess in Game of Thrones; by book 4 she began to disappoint me. But I'd definitely put her on my list of favorites