This rant is a long time in coming. You’ve probably seen the trope yourself: Two women — sometimes the only two in the entire book — one is our heroine, the other, well, she’s mostly a four- or five-letter word . . . you know the words I’m talking about. The latter usually earns this title for flimsy reasons and because of her proximity to the female lead’s love interest. The narrative itself often offers very little reason for why readers should hate this other female character.
Perhaps the most disheartening aspect of the perpetuation of this trope is that it is usually a woman writing the tale. As to why the one character is treated derogatorily, it could be social conditioning on the writer’s part — the same that showers condemnation on the woman vs the man in an affair — or it could be for any number of other reasons, maybe even something personal.
Still, it’s disheartening that women writers are turning to this trope and, in turn, turning fictional women into wedges that prevent other female characters’ happiness. Sure not everyone is going to get along, but there is a huge difference between having some friction and having the FMC (female main character) view everything the other female character does as annoying, out-to-get-her, or just, well, bitchy. The FMC in this trope seldom sees anything but a threat, particularly if the other female character is getting too close to her man.
But you might ask, what if the FMC is an unreliable narrator? What if its all in the FMC’s head? If only . . .
Often these stories are framed in such a way that the reader is obviously supposed to side the FMC, even if the evidence being shown to the reader is shoddy at best. The secondary character or female antagonist is simply a wedge in between the FMC and her happiness (her love interest, her dream job, her coveted internship). While the writer wants us to also view this other female as a threat, all the reader can really see is that she is too close to the love interest, considered “a wet blanket” even if she is just trying to keep other characters on track, or called a B-word for being too assertive.
Sometimes, the FMC comes around and realizes that “Sheila” really wasn’t so bad; however, after going a whole novel with just negativity for no reason at this other female character, it just does not feel genuine. Little glimpses of regret for viewing a character so negatively for little things (because it is often little things) would be nice, a genuine apology for being so cold toward the character would be nice — just the FMC being human, acknowledging her own biases, insecurities, or in some cases, misbehavior — you know, be an adult! With added maturity or self-awareness, this trope wouldn’t be so cringe-worthy.
Or better yet, let’s create female characters who lift each other up, develop friendships or understandings between each other, even if they don’t get along all the time. Recently, I had read Wings of Morning, an Amish inspirational by Murray Pura. This book had a lot wrong with it writing-wise; however, one thing I appreciated is how Pura subverted this trope by having the FMC and her rival-in-love actually become good friends to the point the FMC nursed her back to health from Spanish influenza. I really appreciated that.
In more mainstream media, I think of The Legend of Korra. Over the course of that series, the audience got to witness Korra and Asami go from love rivals for Mako to developing a deep friendship that ultimately blossomed into a romantic relationship. Both Korra and Asami behaved like adults, properly addressing the would-be bad feelings or drama between them. This was super refreshing.
Now I am not saying that a female protagonist can’t have a female antagonist or antagonistic relationship with a secondary female character. There are plenty of good stories with that setup; however, to craft a story that works, the antagonist or secondary female character needs to be complex. The simple four-letter woman is not, which is likely why most of the writers penning these types of characters are just getting started. They haven’t had a chance to refine character creation, so they rely on basic good vs bad and immature, junior-high-level conflicts.
The key is to actually examine characters and their relationships. Look at the story surrounding them, and how these relationships are actually being shown. Are enough reasons being shown for the antagonistic relationship? Are these reasons solid, or are they flimsy? If you are going with the unreliable narrator, are enough clues left that show that the narrator’s views of the other female character are heavily shaded? And if a relationship with hard feelings is resolved, does it feel genuine?
Having more women within a story in order to offer a variety of relationships (the good, the bad, and everything in between) could also prove to be a boon. Variety, after all, is the spice of life, and it is good to reflect real life. Plus it less likely that all women will be considered wedges in the way of each other’s happiness.
This is the first post of a series that I”m calling “Women in Fiction” in celebration of Women’s History Month. So, check back each day until Sunday, March 25.