Female villains in romance novels come in a class of their own. For example, it’s fairly simple to pluck a male baddie out of the bargain bin at the Obsessively Misogynist Murderous Rapist Barn to provide some last-minute conflict, but female villains with actual rap sheets are relatively rare.
But that doesn’t mean that they can’t be effective and dangerous adversaries; female villains tend to be more intellectual, and their weapons rely on carefully-chosen words or manipulations. The wounds they inflict, therefore, are often internal. Instead of attacking a protagonist outright, they’ll simply wear away at their self-esteem, their confidence, their trust in themselves and the world around them.
That being said, after spending years reading romance (for science!), I’ve noticed that the majority of female villains tend to fall into one of these five types:
The Keeper of the Status Quo
Everything has their place—and it’s the Keeper of the Status Quo’s job to keep the hero and heroine in theirs, and away from each other. Keepers tend to be older authority figures with a high social standing—dowagers, grandmothers, school board presidents. They’re often called in for boundary-crossing romances to remind the hero and heroine that their love cannot work because the world is inherently racist, classist, ableist, ageist, and otherwise unfair—and that’s the way it should be.
This female villain is one of the milder types. In fact, it would probably be fairer to say that the Keeper is usually more of an antagonist than a villain. Malevolent intent against either protagonist isn’t required, and the spectrum of Keepers is fairly wide, spanning from the Insanely Racist Snob to the Concerned Pragmatist.
Example: Lady Catherine de Burgh from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.
The Rival is easily identifiable thanks to her perfection, or apparent perfection. The Rival romantic interest for the hero is typically beautiful, educated, socially elevated, and successful, although most romance novels elaborate on how her beauty is fake—the Rival typically uses enormous amounts of expensive beauty products and rigid exercise regimens while the heroine is “naturally” beautiful.
And her education is useless; she can quote Socrates but she can’t change a tire, unlike the downhome small town heroine. And her success is portrayed as cold and shallow—sure, she runs a Fortune 500 Company, but she doesn’t have any time to have the hero’s kids! Unlike the heroine and her naturally wide childbirthing hips.
Despite these obvious, er, flaws, the Rival, like the Keeper, doesn’t necessarily have to be malicious. She just can’t be right for the hero. Sure, some Rivals are willing to go to vicious lengths to win the hero’s affection, but just as many go on to become heroines in their own books.
Example: Lauren Edgeworth from Mary Balogh’s One Night for Love.
The Evil Ex
The Evil Ex is the woman who did wrong by the hero in his past and hardened his heart against love. Their breakup (when not caused by death—I count the Evil Dead Wives of historical heroes in this category as well) is almost always thanks to infidelity or abandonment on the Ex’s side. Evil Exes share certain similarities with Rivals—they’re always beautiful and frequently successful, but with the added bonus of being sexually promiscuous.
Every hero has a girl that got away—and just as many seem to have the girl they threw back. The worst ones are the girls who keep swimming after the boat, who want the hero back (or else want him to suffer in singledom). Like Rivals, they’ll fight the heroine for the hero’s attention, but unlike Rivals, they’re frequently delusional, oblivious, or outright insane since they’re just as eager to hurt the hero as they are to win him. Because of this, Evil Exes are far more threatening than Rivals and more likely to resort to violence.
Examples: Riley Bohland’s ex-girlfriend from Susan Donovan’s The Girl Most Likely To…, Sybil from Mary Balogh’s The Secret Pearl.
The Evil Vagina
The Evil Vagina is a female villain whose moral character is defined entirely by her sexual choices—that is, by her choice to use her vagina, a lot, for eeeeeevil. Essentially, she’s the Psychotic Village Bicycle. Everyone’s had a ride, but she’s determined to be the hero’s last. At any cost.
The Evil Vagina is one of the most offensive and lazily-written character types in romance, but is also one of the most commonly used. They tend to enjoy rigorous, frequent, emotionally detached, and unorthodox sex, and while the hero is always their first choice, they’re not especially picky. Evil Vaginas rarely receive in-depth characterization. Their motivations are childlike and simplistic; they want to bang the hero, and when their desire is thwarted, they resort to violence against him or those they perceive to be their rivals.
Evil Vaginas, being psychotic, rely on a lot of evil methods when their needs are denied, and are typically the most physically threatening of the Villainess types. However, their promiscuity is always used as the primary indicator of their evil, which says a lot about the sexual double standards that still exist in the romance genre. While Rivals, Evil Exes, and Bad Muthas all possess sexually promiscuous tendencies, their entire characters are not defined by that trait to the extent of the Evil Vagina.
It’s especially awkward when an Evil Vagina is the primary villain in a novel where the hero is also promiscuous, such as Lady Ashby in Lisa Kleypas’s Dreaming of You. The hero, Derek, is just as much of a tomcat as Lady Ashby, but Lady Ashby’s tastes are too kinky even for him. So it’s not evil to be promiscuous, it’s just evil to outshine the hero in bedroom antics.
The Bad Mutha
Hate Misogynist Alphhole Heroes? Blame the first woman to teach him that all women are just grasping, slutty attention whores. Spanking the hero as a child isn’t enough, the Bad Mutha’s playbook includes childhood abandonment, physical abuse, neglect, favoritism, gold-digging, substance abuse, and mental illness.
The Bad Mutha is a combination of the Keeper of the Status Quo, the Rival, and the Evil Vagina. Bad Muthas are often upper class, and are adept at navigating treacherous social waters. Despite their neglectful parenting, they can be absurdly protective of the hero, especially against heroines from different social spheres. They are never less than stunningly gorgeous, to contrast with the heroine and defuse any unwelcome Oedipal symbolism. Along with all of this, the typical Bad Mutha is also sexually promiscuous and can maintain an active sex life well past middle age with a large number of partners.
The Bad Mutha is such a powerful Villainess that she can continue to impede the protagonists’ romance well past her own death. In fact, one could argue that Bad Muthas are more effective after death, when they can no longer be banished or argued with.
In this sense, I would argue that the Bad Mutha is the most powerful type of Villainess in romance. The role of the Mother is so important in our society that the idea of someone deliberately misusing that responsibility and privilege is terrifying. However, because the idea of motherhood is so strongly tied to the idea of femininity, the Bad Mutha is a frequent repository for gendered stereotypes.
But most of these Villainess types can perpetuate negative stereotypes if they aren’t written carefully. The idea that women are more conservative, that they are vain and frivolous, that their sexuality is something that inherently renders them untrustworthy, these are concepts authors need to be aware of when they write female antagonists. Women are just as capable of being wrong as men, but let’s make them wrong for the right reasons.
Elizabeth Vail hails from Alberta, Canada. A book reviewer and aspiring YA writer, she currently runs the review blog Gossamer Obsessions under the screenname AnimeJune.