Crafting Compelling Female Villains for Your Story

Photo by Brian McGowan on Unsplash

The art of antagonism. 

When I think of female villains and archetypes, the scariest to me is the mother archetype

I don’t know, maybe; it is because I lost my mother early in life, or it could be the whole psychological nurturing thing that is associated with mothers, but as villains, they scare me. 

My mother was my world. I knew I was loved; safe, and I was secure in that knowledge. The contrast to that is a betrayal beyond imaging to me. I know it happens in real life. 

Two movies pop immediately into my mind. The first is a drama based on the real life of Christina Crawford, Joan Crawford’s adoptive daughter, in Mommy Dearest

Faye Dunaway played the mother in the movie. It was disturbing to watch such basic human betrayal, and horrifying to know a child lived it. Part of the fascination was the extreme contrasts in personality from good mother to evil mother. 

The fear factor of what happens behind closed door, and the image the rest of the world sees created a compelling, disturbed character with many facets, that was hard to imagine in one sense, at least for me. 

It was not a horror movie, but still a nightmare. 

The second is a horror film, Ma, about a lonely mother who invites a group of teenagers to party in her basement, but with specific rules. Octavia Spencer plays the mother.

The story goes from being a teenage dream of liberty to a teenage nightmare of survival, as the mother-archetype morphs and twists into an obsessively dangerous monster, mentally unhinged, through her own obsessions. 

The mother archetype is universal. The twist to the abnormal takes human expectation and comfort levels from safety to the ultimate betrayal and evil. 

Challenge the expectations for universal archetypes.

What makes these types of antagonist/villains so interesting?

Well, for one because it is so universally human. Everyone has a mother. Mothers take care of their children, or at least we expect them to nurture, as they are raising the next generation. 

Unless you have lived it, you don’t expect mothers to act in villainous or in evil ways. The above movies challenged society’s expectation of the typical-mother archetype and prevalent stereotype. 

The mother/child relationship is universal, whether you grew up with a mother or without one. It is globally relatable, and matters, broken or unbroken, it’s part of who we are. 

Create Creditable Female Villans. 

Make the motive creditable, layer the reasons, dress them in a pure motive layered with the undertones that are linked to selfish motives, such as power, revenge/vengeance, or perhaps a twisted justice. 

Movie: The Hungry Games: President Alma Coin
Revolutionizing Villains Rae Elliott

1.Motives require substance: Alma’s veiled motive involved freeing her oppressed people. Her true motive involved vengeance and bloodlust on behalf of fallen victims. While morally upsetting, this was still a believable and tangible motive for Alma.

2. Motives can have a moral gray area: some would say Alma was right to seek vengeance on behalf of her people. After all, it was just getting back at the Capitol for their heinous crimes- Right?

3. Motives can (and should) have layers: Alma sought justice, but her imbalanced thirst for power and blood had her justifying heinous ambitions.

How far will your villain go for love? Think of Kathy Bates in Misery. 

Some other suggestions:  From The Guide to Writing Dangerous women who are not cliches. 

  • Sexuality — use it skillfully. Don’t make it all about the sex, but give the antagonist complexity and depth. The movie Fatal Attraction plays on the protagonist weakness and the antagonists obsession, which is not obvious at first. 
  • Try not to use romance as the primary motive. Add layers to make a more 3-diminishable female antagonist. 
  • Color your character in shades of gray, creating a tug-a-war and uncertainty in choices and principal motive. 

One of my favorite female villains is Ursula, from the Little Mermaid

Villainous Traits

There is not really any such thing as villainous traits. Traits are just traits and can have a positive and negative side. Even positive (the good traits) can produce negative consequence and morph it into the monstrous. 

Find the strengths and weaknesses of your antagonist/villain and then, Flip the Trait, like a two-sided coin, allowing it to be their strength and their greatest weakness. Such as confidence morphed into the trait arrogance that blinds the character to their faults or missteps. 

Or ambition that drives them to kill, or admiration that takes it to the level of stalking, or love that forces them to recreate, preserve, claim, perfectionism, or own aspects of that love e.g. serial killer or maniacal futuristic societies and so forth. 

These are extremes, but there are many shades of gray in between positive and negative. 

And nothing says your villain cannot have some positive traits with good results either. That just makes them human and more relatable, despite their bad deeds or monstrous acts. 

23 Of The Best Female Villains You’ll Love To Hate
Female villains across film and TV often have three things in common: a killer wardrobe, a dramatic beauty look and an…

The female antagonist against a male protagonist.

Writing Complex Female Villains She Writes


“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. “ ~SHE WRITES

Challenge the stereotype of female. Women can be just as powerful antagonist/villains as men. 

Hella from the Marvel Universe faces off with her brothers and holds her own. 

In the movie Fatal Attraction, the female antagonist becomes terrifying in stalker pursuits, creating a feeling that she’s unstoppable. This would give me nightmares for years. 

Mystique in the Marvel Universe is one of my favorites. She is both supervillain and an antiheroine. 

She started as one of the X-Men’s deadliest foes in league with Magneto, the main Superbad, and then her character arch carries her into the status of antiheroine. She is just a cool character, able to shift hiding in plain sight. 

Top 10 Female Villains in X-Men.

So challenge the archetypes and flip the traits, adding layers and dimension to your villains. 

Bonus Exercise: Challenge The Archetype — Create Female Villains That Rock The Protagonist World! Get the brainstorm sheet here. 

Find out more about Juneta here, her Medium publications: The ART of Fiction & Storyteller’s Gambit.