Well, we have a new writer that I’ve been talking to for a while, and I must say that her first post is very good. So, here is the first post from Abigail Brubaker:
Faerie tales are a foundational genre for many modern storytellers, myself included. Through everything from Disney movies to hefty volumes of Grimm or Anderson, faerie tales long ago established their influence in my mind – and, by extension, my writing. Their patterns are easily learned. For a reader familiar with the genre, reading a faerie tale is much more a dance of well-known steps than a baited-breath chase after an unpredictable plot. Faerie tales are methodical, as a general rule, and tend to make use of the same elements. These familiar tropes – recurring places, plot devices, and character roles – can be examined, extracted, and repurposed for use in stories of any genre.
Today’s post will address the figure of the villainess – the evil stepmother, queen, or witch (or combination of the three). In stories which feature her, she is the primary force of malevolence, the one who lays a terrible curse or throws children out of their homes. A number of the best-known western faerie tales include some incarnation of this archetype, with varying degrees of menace and power. The stepmother in Cinderella is a comparatively light version of the trope, with no magic or influence outside her own home. Snow White’s villainess, on the other hand, is stepmother, queen, and witch in one.
Here is the core of the villainess figure: she is a force of spite, of self-centered violence and vengeance. She is envious and petty, cunning and relentless, always scheming against those who are in her way. She seeks her own gain and glory (or that of her own children) with every ounce of dominion she has at her command – magical or otherwise. There is no pity in her, no hesitation. Her only moral compass is her pride. Anyone who touches the things she considers her property – a head of lettuce, the title ‘fairest’ – is subject to her fury. Neither will the smallest slight be borne. Beware, those who would leave her off the guest list for a royal christening. She is queen regardless of titles or crowns; her household is her realm, or her cottage, or her garden. Her ire is swift and her hand unyielding.
The villainess of the faerie tale canon is notable for her typical lack of depth. Her motivations, as given by the text of the stories, are purely selfish or malevolent. She is not written to be sympathized with; she is written to be feared and hated. When writing a villainess à la Grimm, be conscious of that precedent. Either play it up – portray your villainess through the eyes of those who dread her and see her not as human but as an embodiment of evil – or turn it on its head and build a character who acts as a villainess but whose actions are explainable and whose motivations resonate with the reader in some way. There is great potential in both avenues. The strength of an indecipherable, inhuman force is terrifying, while a villain who is revealed to have been made villainous as a result of their humanity can illicit the audience’s fellow feeling.
Three examples of this trope from contemporary culture are Cruella de Vil (of 101 Dalmatians), Miranda Priestly (of The Devil Wears Prada), and Cersei Lannister (of A Song of Ice and Fire). Cruella is the most simplistic of the three – as complies with her cartoon setting. She is entirely despicable, being described as “a spider waiting for the kill,” a “vampire bat,” an “inhuman beast.” She has no qualms towards the prospect of killing puppies in order to produce the coat of her dreams, and there is nothing redeeming shown about her character. Miranda, the cutthroat editor-in-chief of a premier fashion magazine, rules her offices with a razor tongue and what seems a complete absence of human emotion. She is given a hint of sympathy, however, when the audience is granted a glimpse of her love and concern for her young daughters. Finally, Cersei is perhaps the most nuanced villainess of the three. She is a calculating, vengeful queen who seizes power at every opportunity; however, as her story advances, she is revealed as thoroughly human, with an array of traits both positive and negative. Her ruthlessness towards her foes is driven both by her pride and her love for her family.
The villainess archetype can be played straight or subverted, as described; either approach can produce a highly potent character appropriate for any setting or genre. It may appear difficult to repurpose pieces of told-and-retold faerie tales without any persistent staleness. However, with care, faerie tale elements can be boiled down to their essentials and put to use quite effectively. Whatever abstract or literal empire the villainess may rule, she is a salient figure as much at home on Wall Street as an enchanted wood.