Immoral Women: Why We Need More of Them

A highly stylised rendering of Meredith from Dragon Age 2, done primarily in black, grey, and red.

 

One of the most irksome things I hear when I make arguments for ‘good/positive portrayals’ of characters from traditionally marginalised backgrounds is that my interlocutors immediately assume I’m calling for portrayals of moral paragons. They seem to think I’m saying “if you write a gay male character, he must be the most righteous dude ever.”

In a word, no. That’s what today’s article is about, particularly with regards to women characters.

The reality of the situation is that the portrayal of women as pure, stainless alabaster icons of virtue is a huge problem that arises from cultural stereotypes of women. The notion that women are inherently more virtuous, kinder, and so on is part of the limiting and fetishising pedestalisation that serves to fence us off from being thought of as persons. Human beings are flawed characters with failings and weaknesses; angels are not.

When I call for ‘good portrayals’ I do not mean that all women should be virtuous. On the contrary, I actually want to see more women as villains, or as morally grey/dubious characters. The simple reason for this is that such figures can be fascinating, merit much discussion, and are  fully human. Think of your own interests in fiction: what characters do you love to hate? Who is your favourite villain? What character could keep you up for hours at night as you discuss their philosophy and the writing behind them? Which characters have you debating their morality: good, evil, anti-hero? We all have answers to these questions, and that alone tells us why ‘good portrayals’ include morally flawed/villainous characters by necessity.

My objection to femme fatale villains is not that they are villains, but that women’s agency is always reduced to sexuality in such portrayals. Consider the Drow from Dungeons & Dragons, for instance. The women are defined by rampant, unchained sexuality that is used to literally dominate men. There’s nothing interesting in this, save as a rather specific form of pornography perhaps. Moral weakness, failure, compromise, and villainy are about much more complicated motivations than luring men to their dooms with T&A.

My favourite character of all time is a woman who is widely considered a villain: Kreia from Knights of the Old Republic II. My love letter about this character can be found here, but for the purposes of this article the main points to raise about are these: her character is defined by a philosophy, she is not reduced to sex, she is an agent whose motivations are complicated, her morality shades into a good deal of grey.

Kreia Being Awesome. (Older woman in Jedi robes, pallid with long pigtails, and three purple lightsabres orbiting her).

It’s hard to peg Kreia as pure evil. She isn’t. Her overarching, long-term goal is ultimately a positive one: she wants to eliminate the new Sith threat as much as you do (if you’re a light-side character), but for her the ends justify the means. Throughout the story you’re treated to many examples of Kreia’s richly self-justified taint manifesting itself in odious actions that service the greater good she has in mind. She is utterly driven by hard-won truths in a life that has been struck by torture, betrayal, and the harshest kind of learning. It produces a figure who is conscious of how far she has fallen, but will use her last gasps of energy to train someone who “may yet be saved.”

If you are a moral idealist, as I try to be, her incredibly well-written dialogue will force you to account in detail for why you believe what you believe. You may disagree strongly with what Kreia does, but you cannot deny she has her reasons—reasons she’ll talk about at length which define her character.

This is far more interesting than what we usually get.

Another example of such a character comes to us in the form of Dragon Age 2’s Knight Commander Meredith. She is horribly undermined by an ending that, in my view, reflects lazy writing and was perhaps the game’s worst moment, but you are otherwise shown an equally morally compromised woman who struggles mightily to do what she feels is right. Machiavellian evil is fascinating because it most closely imitates the evil we see in the real world. Most people are not Snidely Whiplash-esque moustache twirling sociopaths who do evil because it’s funny to them. Evil manifests itself in our world mainly in the form of people who are utterly convinced they are doing the right thing. Morality is rather tricky like that.

"Do not brand me a tyrant!" What I also find interesting about some of these characters is that they are portrayed as being older-- lines of middle age are visible on Meredith's face, for example, and Kreia is older still. It's a positive image for older women, to say the very least.

Knight-Commander Meredith is one such person. She is introduced to you quite forthrightly, her sword running through a powerful Mage on the verge of killing you. But she quickly evolves into an adversarial force. Meredith is a holy Templar commander driven by her desire to ensure that the Circle Mages under her command in Kirkwall are kept under control and do not become blood mages or abominations. With this in mind, she justifies increasingly onerous restrictions on their freedom. A literal red scare takes hold of her city as she sees the dreaded “blood mages” around every corner, purges becoming a regular feature of life in the city of Kirkwall. But through it all it’s impossible to walk away feeling Meredith has not thought this through. She commits moral wrongs in the name of moral rectitude; her convictions are deeply held and premised on fear of Mages with freedom causing widespread destruction. Meredith has considered all the arguments against her ideology. She is, you learn, painfully aware of the hurt she causes but believes strongly that she is resolutely holding back the tide of a greater evil.

To challenge her is to only compel her to stand her ground, and in a stentorian voice that feels like living scripture, she enjoins you to give her a better solution to this Gordian knot of a crisis between Templars and Mages. If you cannot—and indeed your character cannot—“then do not brand me a tyrant!” she thunders.

This is how you write a villain, and this is how you portray a woman as a human.

The most compelling characters make you think, and sometimes the most intriguing villains are those who are not outright evil, but who are morally compromised. Good people corrupted by the difficulties they confront, who convince themselves that the ends they envision are worth wicked means.

Other examples include Mother Petrice from Dragon Age 2, a quietly zealous manipulator who, again, is committed to doing what she sees as right. In a beautiful moral contest, Grand Cleric Elthina—her superior— can be shown chastising her for her radicalism, telling her “Eternity is long enough that we do not need to rush to meet it.” Elthina’s moderation contrasts with Petrice’s blossoming zeal. The struggle here is not one of cattiness, nor does it revolve around a man, but around a profound theological rift that each woman has her own struggles with.

Lord Zash, forcing someone to pay the price for their lack of vision. (Red robed, light skinned woman shooting lightning out of her hands.)

Moral complexity is wonderful, but you can also write complicated, interesting out-and-out evil. The Old Republic has a woman villain who, in an MMO with an enormous cast, manages to stand out: Lord Zash. While her physical beauty is occasionally remarked upon, what drives the story of the Sith Inquisitor class are Lord Zash’s manipulations and a carefully planned game of chess that testifies to a truly devious and thoughtful mind. A scholarly genius and an intelligent (rather than brash, impulsive, and childish) Sith Lord, she plays a long game leaving you to wonder if you’ll be ensnared next. Her evil is not the showy, infantile evil of your usual hyper-macho scarred Sith Lord (with the way some talk, it’s not hard to imagine some go out of their way to kick puppies and steal candy from babies). It is, instead, the evil of careful, strategic planning born of a true intellect. Each strike is the solution of an equation, a carefully calculated blow rather than an impulsive iota of violence-for-the-sake-of-violence.

Speaking of such, I’m making a note here to say that GLaDOS was a triumph (if ever there was one).

There are many ways to write such characters, of course, but careful attention given to motivation ensures that a character’s humanity—rather than a fetishised gender/race/sexuality—is what defines them as a narrative figure. Kreia is motivated by a drive to stop the Sith from using an ancient evil to consume all life in the galaxy, and by a long nursed hatred of the Force itself, as well as a desire for her as a teacher to have a successful student. Knight-Commander Meredith sees herself as the woman who must make painful choices to ensure peace and order in Kirkwall, and to stop Mages from becoming abominations that threaten the lives of all. In the name of all the above, they will commit to doing repulsive things.

At no point do we find ourselves harping on their looks, their sexuality, any femininity they may possess, or any other fetishised quality. Neither is turned into a man-hating caricature. And neither is a fundamentally morally righteous person; instead, they are human beings whose profound flaws are a part of their characters. What constitutes their “immorality” is also, crucially, not at all related to their sexualities.

Consider my title here: “Immoral Women.” Even now it conjures images of promiscuous, ‘loose’, or otherwise proudly sexual women, which is a testament to the suffocating and dehumanisingly limited framework with which women are saddled. I want that notion of immorality to be expanded to be something more fully human.

Speaking of fuller humanity there is another note that must be made, one of great importance when it comes to conceptualising “women”– it is a reminder that the category “woman” includes women of colour. I adore all of these characters, and am always grateful I have all these examples of great morally compromised women to choose from… and yet also dismayed that they all are, or appear white. Everything I’ve said hitherto applies just as much if not more to the lack of morally compromised, strong women of colour in games. Isabela from Dragon Age 2 is not a villain but as a rogue/pirate/renegade, definitely skirts the outer limits of ethics– and her struggles therewith define her character well. But it’s hard to think of many other women of colour with Kreia-level thought invested in their characters, regardless of whether they’re heroes, villains, or anything in between.

This brings us back to the beginning: the role of moral diversity in character portrayals and my sincere desire to see more women (all-inclusive) as villains and compromised figures. Perhaps part of the communication problem I have is that I use the word “good” when I say “good portrayals,” which leads people to think of it as a moral proposition. What I really mean is “well-written.” This includes the full spectrum of morality, it includes amorality, it includes immorality, and everything in between and beyond. Humans are flawed, and humans are capable of that full range of emotion, motivation, and morality.

No human is a true moral paragon of perfect righteousness. This is not a pessimistic statement about human nature, far from it. It is merely recognition that many people have intricate characters to some degree, and that because women are human, we can commit great wrongs as well as do good. What influences our sense of ethics is a complicated melange that no Madonna/Whore dichotomy can ever hope to capture.

The key to getting past stereotypes is recognising this.

About Quinnae

Quinnae Moongazer, (or Katherine Cross, as she is known in Muggle-speak) is a pizza loving feminist sociologist, trans Latina, and amateur slug herder, working on her PhD at the CUNY Graduate Centre. When she's not studying or gaming she can be found at the Sylvia Rivera Law Project. Her blog can be found at quinnae.com and her writing has also appeared in Women's Studies Quarterly, Bitch Magazine, Questioning Transphobia, and Kotaku. She is a co-editor of the Border House.
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43 Responses to Immoral Women: Why We Need More of Them

  1. Patches says:

    You write so beautifully on the idea of complex characters. Always a pleasure to read.

    I wonder–as an aside–whether the coming-of-age for female and POC protagonists comes with an acknowledgement that this is what we want from our characters as a whole. In terms of parity, I SUPPOSE we need minority characters in the mold of the generic MALE ACTION HERO, but part of me says that if those characters are boring, who cares if we don’t get any more like then regardless of their gender/sexual orientation/race/etc. Or am I missing a point?

    • Quinnae says:

      Thank you kindly. :)

      And I agree with you entirely. Prejudice is a real force, but it’s especially actualised by lazy writing. If you create cardboard stock characters that are unimaginative, you will invariably redound to stereotypes (“Okay, this character is the chick! What do chicks like? Uhhhh… shopping… wearing bikinis, uhhh…”), and thus it’s not a coincidence that some of the most gross portrayals of women/POC occur in the most poorly written games, while the inverse is true: we find the best portrayals (if not perfect) in *well* written games.

      To address your point specifically, no I don’t think you were missing anything! I’d love to see much, much more diversity on all fronts. I really think that we’ve had enough of Grizzled Space Marine. If women/POC headline a Gears of War style game, I’d prefer that they be more compelling characters than that, not just Grizzled Marines with a different skin colour and/or gender. I didn’t mention this in my article, but the other thing I love about those characters I listed: they are anything but “tokens.” Good writing makes it clear that they have a presence as a *character*- not merely a person of a given demographic group.

      Better writing can only be a good thing for video games as a medium, in my view.

  2. Dave Fried says:

    We need more female characters who are full moral agents, period. And we need more women who are held accountable for their ethical and moral choices – another thing which is quite rare in fiction and in games.

    One of the really interesting moments in DA:O was when you run into Cauthrien the second time – at the Landsmeet. Cauthrien is a good character, if a bit lightly-developed. She’s allied with the bad guys but still morally ambiguous. The first time through the game, I realized I could probably talk her down, but I decided to murder her anyway. In a lot of ways it was a character-defining moment for my PC, but it was also a refreshing change for a (male) PC to be able to just kill a female NPC for being a jerk.

  3. Brightwanderer says:

    This reminds me of a quote from Jingo by Terry Pratchett – “Be generous, Sir Samuel. Truly treat all men equally. Allow Klatchians the right to be scheming bastards, hmm?”

  4. Trodamus says:

    As much as I enjoy the article, it’s a bit of rehash to talk about how much we like the well-written characters mentioned above while not mentioning morally ambiguous characters in recent releases — Syndicate’s Lily Drawl, for example.

    I could go into detail if no one minds spoilers.

    • Quinnae says:

      Comments are an invitation to continue the discussion, and I certainly can’t claim to have played or seen every game. :) Please share.

      • Trodamus says:

        I do enjoy reading about Kreia, and Meridith was so well written it didn’t even occur to me to question that she was actually an (older) woman, so good points on that.

        So, okay — Spoiler Warning for the Syndicate game recently released.

        In the single player portion of the game, you play white male mute cyber soldier guy Miles Kilo as he spies on, rescues, attempts to kill, then allies with brilliant CHIP designer Lily Drawl (POC, voiced by Rosario Dawson). From minute one Drawl seems to have something up her sleeve and her file shows tenuous links to “downzone” (CHIP-less) populace and anti-syndicat movements. But nothing serious as she has ostensibly distanced herself from them.

        Kidnapped during a raid (a real raid, none of this upper-arm grab stuff), you set about getting her back and take a detour around some bad parts of town and learn that she’s been fomenting some kind of data exchange with a rival Syndicate.

        Turns out this was one of those ace in the hole things, as she was trying to lessen the evil of the Syndicates, and in the end pulls a Tyler Durden-esque plan of causing mayhem on a global scale just for a chance at a level playing field.

        Add to this that she admits in the last moment of the game to manipulating you from minute one into wrecking the Eurocorp Syndicate (your company) and murdering the CEO, Denham (voiced by Brian Cox), who up to that point was painted as every bit a manipulative bastard as Drawl turned out to be.

        She basically engineers a global Syndicate war and personally destroys your life and uses you to murder someone else out of the self-righteous reasoning that it needed to be done.

        (on a side note, the co-op campaign features two male and two female characters, a nice change of pace for this sort of thing).

  5. Laurentius says:

    Oh, Kreia, I’ve already commented on your article about her that for me she is the best nPC in video game, so in some way I’d rather keep her out of equation as in comparison all other characters: women or men seem pretty much meh ;)

    Síle de Tansarville from Witcher2 was quite interesting character/villain with influence on the plot.

    As for immoral woman of color, I don’t know, only Elizabetha Torres from GTA IV comes to my mind.

    • KA101 says:

      Non-moral WoC? GTA franchise?

      Catalina (3 & SanAn, adversary & mission sponsor, respectively) isn’t as deeply written as Kreia, but I think she might qualify. Denise (SA: plot-mandatory dating interest) isn’t deeply written at all but takes pleasure in shooting gangsters and packs a micro-Uzi during dates for that purpose. Not sure about Kendl (SA: PC’s sister) who certainly doesn’t seem to have a problem with the player’s methods of improving the family’s lot in life, but that might be because she shows up increasingly rarely as the game proceeds, and therefore just doesn’t have a voice.

  6. Ms. Sunlight says:

    Suikoden 5 has some fantastic examples of well-drawn but morally ambiguous woman characters, in particular your character’s aunt, Sialeeds. Like Kreia, she’s with you from the start of the game, and although she travels with you and helps you it soon becomes clear she has her own agenda.

    The Suikoden series in general is a rich source; it’s major selling point is its characterisation. Sarah from Suikoden 3 and Windy from the first game also stand out as interesting female villains, but there are many more.

    One of the things the Suikoden games do really well though is to allow all their characters their own lives, motivations, interests and agency; they have sympathetic villains, unpleasant heroes, and all sorts of enigmatic characters that fall somewhere in between. I’d recommend that anyone play at least one of them; number 3 or number 5 are both great introductions.

    (One of my favourite examples of morally reprehensible female characters is Ming Xiao from Vampire: The Masquerade Bloodlines. It’s hard to say much about her without major spoilers for this great (if problematic) RPG, but I love the fact that, in a world of inhuman monsters, she is perhaps the most inhuman of all. The very fact that she’s not, in fact, human means she’s not the ideal example to write about in response to this article, though.)

    • Ms. Sunlight says:

      Is it weird that I get all twitchy and anxious when I leave a blog comment and realise I’ve made a typo or put an apostrophe in the wrong place and can’t fix it? Aaargh!

      • Korva says:

        Not at all. Well, in my book at least. :p I always check and triple-check my posts, andstill (almost) always find a mistake, which makes me want to pound my head against a wall in embarrassment and frustration for not seeing it.

        • GarrickW says:

          When an edit function *is* available, I find the best way to find errors is really just to publish the post straight away and then reread it “in the wild.” They leap right out at me then, I suppose because I’m suddenly aware other human beings might read them.

  7. Korva says:

    I actually haven’t played the games mentioned here, aside from TOR which I tried for a bit but can’t stand to fire up anymore, because as much as I want to experience the stories, I hate the MMO. Though a friend of mine who enjoys playing Sith was really enthusiastic about Zash too, so at least the name is familiar. She definitely sounds a hundred times for interesting than all those puerile “lol im so evilk3wl i zap u just cuz i wanna lol” types. Anyway:

    I agree on principle and the cited characters sound like great examples, so I’d just like to add that womens’ portrayal hasn’t actually been all that pedestalizing. For every “Madonna”, there’s a “whore”. For every pretty princess, there’s a wicked witch. Women who claim agency, no matter how feebly, easily get demonized. The femme fatale, the wicked witch, the jealous evil stepmother (or mother-in-law), the gold digger, the woman who gets pregnant to trap the poor hero who doesn’t want to settle down, the shrill nag who barges into the lives of buddy-men and tries to take over the household with tyrannical girly notions of order and cleanliness … It was something that bothered me to no end as a child.

    There is more diversity now than there was then, thankfully. But in the light of these old stereotypes and all they imply, I’m still a bit sensitive about women (and other marginalized people) as villains. It’s so easy to do it painfully wrong, whether deliberately or not, and even when it honestly isn’t deliberate it is still revealing and hurtful. Still, since I’m always keen on seeing more women in (almost) every imaginable role, that has to include villains as well. Your “I want that notion of immorality to be expanded to be something more fully human” is definitely something to agree with.

    You know — I’d be interested to see a storyline, in a game or elsewhere, written entirely gender-, color- and sexuality-neutral. Then assign these factors randomly. If the roll of the die determines that the villain is a trans, gay, black woman, at least we could be certain she wouldn’t be a hateful stereotype (though of course she could still be shallow as a villain).

    • GarrickW says:

      “You know — I’d be interested to see a storyline, in a game or elsewhere, written entirely gender-, color- and sexuality-neutral. Then assign these factors randomly.”

      I’ve always thought that would be a really great idea. Heck, with computers, it could be even more radical – you could have the game randomly generate a different avatar for each character on each playthrough, or even let enterprising players customize every character however they want. Any identity could literally play any role in the story.

      Aren’t there a (small) handful TV shows that do something similar, where they just cast anybody of any race/gender who can act the part? I can’t think of the name, but I remember reading about it recently.

    • sonic says:

      “You know — I’d be interested to see a storyline, in a game or elsewhere, written entirely gender-, color- and sexuality-neutral. Then assign these factors randomly”

      that would be fucking awesome!!! It would make the replay value of many games go WAY WAY up for me.

    • Quinnae says:

      Your comments are, as always, insightful catalogues of the relevant issues.

      You run through the exhaustive list of misogynist trope figures in fiction, and what links them– often as not– is a highly gendered definition of “failure;” tragedy for a woman must mean she failed as a mother or as a dutiful wife, that her sexuality was uncontrolled, or that she was too independent minded. Goodness, how many stories have we seen where women who work for wages are turned into tragic figures because they “neglect their families” or somesuch?

      Or consider the villain in the film Fatal Attraction; the misogyny in this movie *and* the public response to it was well catalogued by Susan Faludi. A sexy career woman with a touch of madness about her (sired by her career, of course), lures an innocent man to his near-doom by having an affair with him. (Spoiler: she gets killed in the end). It’s a noxious combination of women as hate-figures.

      I certainly didn’t mean to suggest all women everywhere were pedestalised– I was more suggesting why I had a problem with the “you want all women to be good and nice” straw man. I should’ve expanded on this in the article, however, elaborating on how most media often fails at portraying women as villains, specifically, for reasons you’ve done a stellar job of outlining.

      So I definitely see what you’re saying, and I actually really appreciate you saying why you’re still nervous about seeing women as villains. In a broad sense, I am too, but I felt that it was worth saying loudly that women can be portrayed as villainous characters without falling back on all the old stereotypes that you and I listed, that a woman can have a profound moral dark side that could just easily belong to a man in her position. It’s definitely a risk, but one that’s worth taking in my view. Part of it is personal taste: I find character studies of evil to be richly fascinating viewing/reading. But it’s also a desire to, as I said, realise women’s potential as fully human actors.

      Thanks again for your comment!

      • Korva says:

        Thanks for the compliment, that feels good coming from such a skilled writer. And I agree that writing minorities in all positions on the morality scale is a “risk” worth taking, a necessity even. On a personal level, I’m still pining for more genuinely positive portrayals of women first and foremost, though. ;)

  8. SleekitSicarian says:

    I think female villains tend to come up hard against the ‘strictures’ of female character design that have been outlined in previous articles; the ‘scary’ factor tends not to mesh well with the ‘sexy’ factor (whether it can and should I leave to others), and when female characters are designed towards sex appeal to the exclusion of all other attributes you end up with folks who insist that female villains can’t possibly be threatening.

    So female villains tend to get dismissed out of hand, and when they do turn up it tends to be in the form of caricatures far removed from the already-problematic femme fatales of noir’s heyday – but only because, like Korva says, they’re updated manifestations of our cultural hangups with women. Hence the broodmothers, the vagina dentata, the shrill and ineffectual ‘harpies’…

    • Maria says:

      By broodmother, are you referring to Dragon Age: Origins? Because the broodmothers weren’t the monsters, they were the victims. Branka was the monster.

  9. Doone says:

    Your prose is something to aspire to. You articulated your argument extremely well. I haven’t had first hand experience with the characters you discuss, but reading this makes me want to go meet them.

  10. Actually, for me?  The first thing that came to mind was “treachery.” 

    It was, however, followed rather quickly by speculation as to how many people would read the headline and presume that Quinnae was talking about these characters’ sex lives.

  11. KA101 says:

    Shortened thought from last night, which I probably won’t be able to defend until tonight, my apologies therefor:

    “To challenge her is to only compel her to stand her ground, and in a stentorian voice that feels like living scripture, she enjoins you to give her a better solution to this Gordian knot of a crisis between Templars and Mages. If you cannot—*and indeed your character cannot*—“then do not brand me a tyrant!” she thunders.”
    –OP, regarding Knight-Commander Meredith, emphasis added

    I’m not sure whether that means that the PC has a dialogue option to offer a better solution, but any social-skill check automatically fails (problematic, but there are obstinate real-life people too), or that the PC simply never has such an option in the first place (much worse–PCs who should be able to at least make an argument are artificially denied the chance).

    The second case reminds me of the problem I had with Kreia–that the player character really couldn’t affect or counter her plan in any significant form, and so was basically just along for the ride.

    Are there well-written woman characters who are well-written by the same standards as a well-roleplayed PC? To put it another way, are there well-written woman non-player characters with whom the player interacts on an equal footing, rather than being artificially forced to accede?

    • Quinnae says:

      Ah yes I remember we had this back and forth on my Kreia article many moons ago. ;)

      Personally, what I love most in these games is interactivity, and then choice. I don’t see choice-uber-alles as the distinguishing feature of a *good* RPG, it *can* be but it doesn’t *have* to be.

      Our very own Alexandra Raymond made a good argument about this with regard to DA2: http://whilenotfinished.theirisnetwork.org/2011/09/27/fate-deserve-choice-triumph-remains/

      I don’t know if you’ll agree, but if you’re interested in considering these questions, it’s worth a read.

      To answer your question, you don’t– at that point in the dialogue, due to a number of factors– find yourself able to argue with her much further, no. Honestly, that bugged me but not for the same reasons it may have bothered you. Meredith is set up as precisely the person you could have a long philosophical argument with, and I lament that you don’t really get the opportunity to do that. You can have a light debate with her, challenge her, present her with alternate ideas, but due to the pacing of the narrative that doesn’t last very long.

      That said, apropos Kreia and the sense of being along for the ride, I personally reject the idea that the best video game stories are told from the perspective of a player super-agent (or superhero, if that metaphor works best). Sometimes constrained choice can make for just as good of a story as completely free choice, and the greatest characters in fiction were not superheroes but flawed human beings thwarted at times by problems aplenty. So I don’t necessarily see it as inimical to roleplaying to sometimes have choices– even big ones– taken away.

      • Doone says:

        That link is the best review of Dragon Age 2 I’ve read. She really got it right. I’m usually a strong supporter of player choice, but her accurate insights into how and for what reasons it’s employed have rarely been better expressed.

      • KA101 says:

        OK. Not sure how to parse that wink but I’ll be glad I amused you.

        Short version:
        1) Noted. I find choice important, and though story is noted, undermining/overruling player choice should be done sparingly.
        2) Alex and I appear to have different priorities. I agree that NPC independence from the PC is good, that fridging is lazy and sexist, and that there is value in developing NPC relations as a primary game component, but strongly disagree on the comparative worth of endings.
        3) So, it’s primarily option 2 with a light bit of option 1. Not so good. It’s good that KC Meredith is characterized as being able to state her reasoning, and I agree that being able to sit down with her and hash it out would probably improve the game. Supporting NPC characterization includes permitting them to hold a problematic opinion and refuse to budge, provided that the writers take the time to properly lay the foundation for that opinion.
        4) I really think we’re talking past each other there: I don’t demand superhero PCs. I am asking for NPCs to play by the same rules as PCs, and I hold that though constrained choices can make storytelling easier, when the constraint is arbitrary and defies the player’s known abilities, best to find another solution. If the PC wears a gas mask to the bar on Nar Shaddaa, it will fail to protect the PC from Mira’s gas as well as the bar atmosphere, so Kreia can come to the rescue with a power that only works in the bar. Objection, arbitrary & capricious. Kreia’s strength would be better demonstrated by working around player actions, not simply invalidating or outright denying them.

        Long version:

        First, your reply doesn’t seem to answer my primary/stated question (well-written women non-player characters, moral or no, with the player having comparable ability? Cooperate or compete therewith as the case may be? Actually have character design affect the outcome of interactions?) Not sure if that’s intentional or if I missed something. Apologies accordingly. The options I offered to Laurentius don’t reach that level, and frankly neither do those I’d considered from System Shock 2, namely Shodan and Sgt. Bronson. I’m not sure Nathyra from Neverwinter Nights/HotU qualifies either, but she’s all I can come up with at the moment.

        As for my position on choice in games: I object to the term “choice-uber-alles”, but yes, I think player-choice affecting outcomes is a good thing. IMO Fallout 2 and Deus Ex are both excellent examples of doing an RPG right. FO2, ironically, involves the PC *not* having any significantly greater power than the average wasteland dweller–being the Chosen of Arroyo grants a V13 vault suit, the PipBoy, and being idolized by a fairly nondescript (and dying) village. Closest thing to “superhero” one gets in FO2 is the (over)abundance of quest opportunities and security gaps to exploit. DX does involve a truly special PC, who has multiple options to resolve any given issue…but then all three endings leave significant questions as to the PC’s self-determination and future. None are indisputably “good”. NPCs do take some level of independent action, but they *progress*, not *succeed*, in cutscene.

        I’ll grant that it’s not to the DA2 or KotOR2 standard, and that the NPCs involved are male. It’s possible that I’m just a sexist git, and it’s late. Nor are FO2 & DX to my ideal: that the NPC’s success or failure outside of combat be based on xyr stats, modifiers, and luck, as with PCs.

        My problem is not necessarily that KotOR2 is the Story of Kreia–annoying and should have been marketed as a JRPG, but I respect JRPGs’ right to exist as a genre–but that the player cannot frustrate her goals.

        [Similar problem evidenced in Alex's post on DA2: the NPCs *will succeed* in their goals with or without the player's assistance. Post implies the possibility of PC active opposition to a NPC goal, though. If I were to tell them that $PARTY_MEMBER is planning to blow them up, xe ought to have to work around that somehow, if not fail, and probably be out for my blood in either case.]

        Spoiler warning, KotOR2
        For example, I can’t–willfully or by chance–defeat Tobin by cutting his head off, and thereby make him stay dead. Thus, Kreia can’t resurrect him and send him to Nihilus. I’ll fight her former apprentice anyway when Visas takes the PC there, as she says she’ll do once the PC is ready. Kreia will get his demise. But apparently we must endanger Telos, for some reason–is allowing the Republic to maintain the Citadel project, which was already in danger enough, some critical threat to her plan? And if it is…why can’t she have to deal with that somehow, rather than getting it plot-enforced?

        For that matter, the Council had a point about my character leveling up via killing. I have the option to agree with them, but not to let them know that I’d been working with Kreia, or (if I’d had her in the party, and thus would know in-character) that she was waiting outside the Council chamber. For that matter, there’s no option to discuss her with any of the Council members individually, IIRC. The PC probably wouldn’t be able to turn, pull a blaster, and shoot Kreia when she intervenes, but perhaps the Council might have been able to repel her had they known she’d show up.

        I don’t have a problem with NPCs having independent goals, even if they oppose the player. That’s more realistic characterization and I’m all for it. NPCs need not, and should not, be slaved to the player. No argument there.

        I have a problem with arbitrary, cutscene-enforced NPC success, and I’ve had that problem since working Crystal-protection detail in FF2US, over a decade ago. NPCs succeed however and whenever they please, but as a player, I have to “earn” a happy ending–and then Quinnae, via Alex, chastises me for being too narrow-minded. Wouldn’t it be a better story (define “better”, please?) if I barely got my PC out alive, possibly having to abandon one of my friends, so there’s drama?

        No, not really. But thanks for the offer.

        I’m an attorney. I encounter people who are making the best of bad choices (with drama resulting) as my job. I try to give them better choices, and sometimes I can. Most of the time, I’ve had to tell them which choice I think is the least problematic. I think I get enough grey morality and drama during working hours.

        As I’ve said before, if I want to play a game with a predetermined story, the JRPG genre is quite well-established already. More realistically for me, since I don’t need to play the game to determine the story (I just need to manage the party’s logistics and battles long enough to see the next plot development), I can skip the game and read the FAQ, if not the script, from gamefaqs instead. That seems to work well enough so far. [I trust that CBS' legal staff would find any copyright problems; since scripts are present without disclaimers, I presume they're OK for general use.]

        I know that’s long; it took me a few hours to draft out. Thanks for your time and consideration.

        • Korva says:

          Again the caveat that I haven’t played DA2 or KotOR2. That said, I agree with you on the issue of what NPCs shouldn’t do. Among my big pet peeves in gaming is when a cutscene robs me of control over my character and forces her to be artificially helpless, stupid or passive in a way that doesn’t make sense. Another is when an NPC gets plot powers/armor/immunity just to be made to look badass — add extra annoyance points if it’s a party member yet those “k3wl p0w3rz” aren’t available on demand later on (*). Combine those two pet peeves and I’m a really, really pissed-off player.

          I’m all for more NPC autonomy. I want them to have their motives and their limits, and if I treat them badly or go against their goals or beliefs, I want them to confront me, up to and including leaving the group for good or even trying to kill me. (I also want them to be much more picky when it comes to “romance”, but that’s another topic.)

          What I can’t stand is being used or upstaged by a plot-immune, plot-power-wielding NPC, especially if it’s a companion betraying me, and especially if, in the tradition of unsubtle writing, I can see it coming a mile away yet am not allowed to have my character do anything about it.

          (*) Actually, that annoys me in PCs too. If I am (or an NPC is) supposed be to “special” in some way, then let gameplay support that instead of just mentioning it once or twice in conversations. One example out of many would be the Grey Wardens’ immunity to the taint, which makes them so crucial — yet our non-Warden party members spend the entire game wallowing in darkspawn blood, guts and pus without so much as blinking their eye at it.

  12. sonic says:

    although I don’t really like the series itself, Metal Gear Solid’s The Boss is a great example – she’s a complex character with tough decisions to make – she is a top-notch soldier/warrior, she’s a mother, a lover, a woman whose motivations I could understand and whose actions made sense within the context of those motivations.

  13. Beth N. says:

    Semi-coincidentally, I’ve started reading the first “Drizzt Do’Urden” book on a friend’s recommendation. Quinnae is spot on about the drow: aside from the way women are depicted, what entire group of people, or even any one person, would identify THEMSELVES as evil? I found Isabela’s depiction in DA2 problematic, not because she is frank about and comfortable with her sexual desire, but because of her character design, which is striking among the party members in going, in my opinion, too far in a pandering direction. Meredith was a striking character: powerful, driven, frightening whenever she walked “on camera.” Even when I came to understand her better through her dialogue in my Templar-centric play-through, she scared me! And yes, she does get short shrift in DA2′s endgame, which was one of a number of disappointments I had with the latter parts of the game.

  14. Rakaziel says:

    A bit off topic due to being a fantasy novel idea of mine, but I came up with a bunch of somewhat layered female villains and anti-heroes, more different shades of grey than black and white. Their plotline (one of the few I lined out) revolves around the conflict between six orders of healers (yes, the women as healer theme is a bit stereotypical but I like it. male healers exist in the setting but women usually learn it faster and are better at it, partially due to intuition and partially due to the healer’s gift’s gene being on the X chromosome so they have a chance of getting it twice). Since the novel stopped at an early stage the different healer orders are described by colors and not names.

    The violet order are the oldest of the orders and morally dark grey, they are not malevolent but simply very pragmatic and quite amoral, which led them to go easy but unethical ways (using nerve stimulation powers developed from their healing powers to torture prisoners for the local major and to train warbeasts by a mix of torture and sexual conditioning) and developing a taste for the power it gave them over others.

    The green order split off as a counter movement but went too far in the other direction, becoming too ascetic and dogmatic for their own good and the good of their patients, sometimes refusing to help where they could because it collided with their dogmas. After a short alliance with benevolent necromancers (“let the soul crushing work be done by the soulless” and “cure mortality” kind of guys) and then a war over the control of Asmorgaith, the once apprenctice who mastered both arts and was able to resurrect people they became even more dogmatic and averse to new ideas, their higher ups sometimes even hiring assassins to remove people with “dangerous” ideas – a definition that, by them, includes a lot. All things considered they are light to medium grey.

    The central character of this storyline is Moraigh, a rebellious novice in the green order who took the heavily demonized version of Asmorgaith from their cautionary tales at face value and as an idol. This led to her cutting ties with the order, rejecting all their tenets, including pacifism, turning fleshcrafting from a rarely used reconstruction method into an art form, founding the red order and using her skills to “improve” the bodies of soldiers and warbeasts – part commission work, part for her own army. By the time she has become a plundering warlord she makes contact with the violet order and, closing the circle, allies with them. Her biggest challenge is not on the battlefield, but meeting Asmorgaith (healers can rejuvenate themselves (and others), it has been eight hundred years since the necromant war) and the mutual disappointment resulting from this meeting. This leads to her questioning her morality and later allying with the protagonist instead of allying with the threat he is fighting against. Most of the time she is medium to dark grey.

    The other three healer factions are Asmorgaith’s grey order (light grey, as they focus too much on keeping a low profile to resurrect hardly anybody outside their order),

    the hybrid elves (the result of a short alliance between Moraigh and some wood elves, combining flesh crafting and the wood elves’ plant crafting to turn themselves into hybrids (and hermaphrodites, inspired by the plants) and then wanting to conquer the world on grounds of being evolutionary superior. Dark grey.)

    and the steel order (focus on crafting metal to flesh and want help others both with a heling hand and with a hand holding a sword to defend them. And they sometimes raid villages when they run out of supplies and their swords are their arguments more often than diplomacy. They are both righteous and self-righteous and things considered light grey.).

    Just putting them here as an example and maybe inspiration. And because I would like to hear what you think about them ; )

  15. Karellen says:

    Well, I think I’m a little late to the party; however, villains are a favourite narrative element of mine, and there’s a point I don’t think is really represented by this post that I think goes right into the heart of what villains are good for (har har), in a narrative.

    By way of prologue, I remember reading an argument in a blog I unfortunately cannot seem to find anymore (written by a woman, I believe) that a considerable difference between the ways men and women differ in their consumption of fiction is that male audiences have no compunctions with identifying and vicariously living through villains; meanwhile women, to a considerable extent, don’t.

    Now, this is a blanket statement built on stereotypes, so it’s blatantly problematic by default. Still, the statement stuck with me, and I find it quite compelling, particularily since literature and fiction is full of (mostly) male villains that are specifically written with this concept in mind. Hans Gruber from Die Hard, for instance, is an utter scumbag and a murdering bastard. He is also suave, intelligent, charming, and gets all the best lines, is played by Alan Rickman and inexplicably has Bethoven’s Ode to Joy following him everywhere.

    In a lot of cases I think villains like this represent male escapism and power fantasies far better than the oft-derided standard white male hero; after all, villains are socially transgressive and do things that heroes can’t do, including robbing ludicrous amounts of money and shooting annoying people in the face. Now, certainly, in the end Hans is thrown off a skyscraper, and proper order is restored – but this does nothing to change the fact that the whole premise of the film is that the audience likes the guy and feels some satisfaction from the successes of his clever plan.

    Back to female villains, though – don’t get me wrong, Kreia, for one, is a fascinating, well-written and intellectually provocative character, and as a fan of moral greys I could not agree more that creating more villains, female and male, of her ilk is an essential task. However, that is not the only type of great villain, and even though that is the point of the article, I’m a little disappointed that all the villains discussed in the article are mostly defined by the evenhandedness of their portrayal.

    On this note, may I ask what opinion do you hold of Ravel Puzzlewell from Planescape: Torment? The game is an interesting set of tropes, and certainly its female cast is written explicitly as secondary characters for a male’s heroic journey (albeit a subversive and self-critical one). Ravel, for her part, is explicitly a wicked witch archetype; that said, she is a well-written, delightful character, and I’m under the impression that she’s almost universally considered the culminating highlight in a game often considered to be the epitome of WRPG storytelling.

    I think a critical element of her appeal is that, in addition to being an interesting character, her portrayal is utterly shameless; a (literal) fairytale villain reveling in that role. I’m all for nuanced portrayals of complicated women with agency and ability to commit evil (and Ravel might actually qualify for that too); still, I keep wondering if something precious hasn’t been lost if female audiences can’t derive satisfaction from depictions of unrestrained, archetypal female villainy, with all of its cackling, poison-brewing, turning princes into frogs and stuffing annoying heroes into ovens. After all, in the right context, stuffing people into ovens is, if I may say so, pretty awesome.

    • sonic says:

      woah, totally. I do admit, I love it when a woman can just be a badass villain. Like Hex from the show ReBoot. They do what they want – they’re bad and they’re badass.

      I am a gamer who sometimes really roots for the villain – not because of any reason other than the fact that they don’t give a fuck and they are strong and powerful. So, yea, I totally agree w/ this comment

    • Nonny says:

      I’m cis-female, and I often root for the female villains in stories. I haven’t gotten very far — only a few episodes — but I’m actually pretty impressed with the portrayal of Regina from Once Upon a Time. I was also recently in a discussion about Scarlett O’hara and she’s one of my favorite characters ever — and she is most certainly not a nice person.

      One of the LJ communities I’m on is doing a daily feature on women in history for Women’s History Month, and they spotlighted Wu Zetian, a woman through political scheming and ruthless action became the Emperor of China. Her story is fascinating, and I couldn’t help but feel awed and impressed by what she’d accomplished, even though she would certainly be qualified as a villain if she were fictional.

      I wish there were more well-rounded women villains. I adore Cersei in the early books in ASoIaF but by book 4, she’s starting to crack around the edges and make a lot of mistakes, when previously she had been fucking competent. It pissed me off a lot, because many of the few times that there are women villains or antagonists, they’re either sloppily done and have no real motivation except to be evil, or they’re so incompetent that it’s ridiculous.

    • Ari says:

      One of my favourite video game villains of all time is unapologetically evil: Genevieve Aristide from the F.E.A.R. series. She’s fearsomely competent, utterly ruthless, ambitious, and powerful. She’s not afraid to manipulate with her intellect, or just cap someone in the back, whatever the situation calls for. She’s completely morally bankrupt.

      And yet somehow she’s one of the most convincing characters in the whole series. She’s a self-made executive, and the story draws directly parallels between her cutthroat attitude and her career success. She’s not as cartoonishly evil as some of the scientists in the series – she even refers to them as “sick fucks” – but nevertheless has no qualms about the profiting from their debauchery. She’s old school neutral evil – if it was to her benefit it to do something good you get the impression she probably would do it. But right now it’s to her benefit to be really, really nasty. Rarely ever do you get a this kind of female character outside of the femme fatale trope, which comes with a whole host of issues all its own, but Aristide is a) visibly aging, b) never employs her sexuality, and c) never assumes she’s thought of as weak because of her gender. She’s a self-made CEO after all, you’d have to be a moron to think she was anything less than extremely intelligent. Also…

      SPOILERS BELOW

      (She wins.)

    • Ms. Sunlight says:

      I think that Ravel’s not a villain; she’s a victim. The Nameless One charmed her into doing something unspeakable, and she’s trapped in the consequences of that, alone and losing her sanity through isolation and horror, many years later. I find it quite interesting that you see her as the archetypal wicked witch, as though lifted from a pantomime; I’ve played PS:T several times and never got that feeling from her.

      • Karellen says:

        Well, “villain” doesn’t really enter in PS:T in the conventional sense. Just about everyone The Nameless One meets becomes a victim of his torment one way or another, and TNO’s deception of women, with all its consequences, is symbolic of all his other dark deeds. The game, of course, is to a large extent about coming to terms with that.

        That said, Ravel was a fairytale villain with actual fairytales told about her unspeakable deeds long before she met TNO, who happns to be her favourite of among them. What’s interesting about her is that all the stories told about her are actually true; it’s just that they’re not all she is, since her villainy isn’t really motivated by malice so much as curiousity and, in TNO’s case, actual fondness. Her affection for TNO is in fact something of a redeeming trait for her, not that it makes her any less dangerous.

  16. Anjasa says:

    I always find it kind of disheartening to hear people talk about ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ ways to write certain marginalized characters, because I fear that it makes people less willing to make risks.

    Men are less likely to write women characters because they’re afraid of the criticisms, white individuals are less likely to write PoC characters because they’re afraid of being offensive. While I think we all need to be a bit more cognizant of the implications and stereotypes in our writing, I want to encourage people to take risks – and get it wrong – and learn from their mistakes. I want people to analyze themselves and their works and try to get better, to improve, to become more sympathetic and empathetic.

    Failure is an important part of growing as a human being, but it’s difficult to be called a sexist or a racist or whatever because of how you portrayed one of your characters. I admit that some of my characters use their sexuality to get what they want – and it’s a big part of their personality. It’s also a big part of reality – some women do, in real life, use their sexuality to manipulate and coerce men.

    I knew one woman who would get random men at a restaurant to pay for her and her boyfriend’s meals, just by pouting and looking a bit sad. She was manipulative, and it worked. It might not be the most flattering picture of women, but it is realistic, and I do find it interesting. That’s why I don’t have anything wrong with the Evil Demon Seductress Trope.

    I also like men who would be the male equivalent – men like Spike and Dracula, for instance.

    • Quinnae says:

      Hey Anjasa, thank you for your thought-provoking comment. I always appreciate it when people can disagree in such communicative and respectful way. :)

      I do certainly agree with you on one level: if we are all human then none of us should expect to be portrayed with perfection. After all, are there not many horrible, one-dimensional white cis het male characters? So why should we as women, POC, etc, fear the occasional weak or stereotypical portrayal? Well, the reason has to do with two things that are germane to your specific argument.

      1) It’s absolutely true that you sometimes have to take risks and be unafraid of getting it wrong in order to make a truly great character. The huge problem, however, is that many of these characters are the *opposite* of risk taking. To portray a woman as a sexy stereotype without much depth to her is not an attempt at anything new, rather it’s the product of a certain kind of laziness. Oftentimes, those characters where risks *were* taken were those who produced… well, some of the great folks I catalogued in this article, and the ones many people in the comments brought up. :)

      2) The real reasons for keeping women and POC out of the characterisation limelight has to do with the fact that many writers (or their bosses) feel that such characters wouldn’t “sell”– or they’ll only “sell” if they’re sexy/sterotypical, etc. I do think some writers fear being accused of prejudice, but it isn’t the fault of activists that our society makes any word ending in -ist a kind of kill-switch. We have to work to change that.

      I would also add that part of the process of making better characters exists in the collective discussions about characterisation that this article participates in. I’m highlighting what I feel are good writing habits to get into, not that I think all women should be portrayed similarly. But what of your specific contention that some women *do* act like the stereotype and thus it’s realistic? My response to that is that such stereotypes are already way overrepresented in media. We are not suffering from an inability to portray *that* reality.

      What I would qualify this with is that most stereotypical portrayals do not delve very deeply into character motivation. Why does she use her sexuality? “…Well… er… because she’s a… ladytype?” In the real world, women who engage in sexual manipulation may have a welter of reasons for doing so (some that may inspire sympathy, others that may inspire a more credible distaste). In other words, they have *character*. The problem with a stereotype is that it’s like a cardboard cutout. You get a 2D representation of the surface features and that’s all. So while there may be a million interesting things about your archetypal Temptress… we usually don’t get to see them. Just that she’s a temptress because that’s what women do, I suppose.

      Also, I see you write literotica. ::fans self:: I might submit to you that it, in many ways, is a much more appropriate genre for sexuality-defined characters. After all, it makes it extremely easy to explore specifically sexual motivation.

      • Anjasa says:

        Very good points, all. I think we both agree with the same things at the core – we want less 2-D representations of non-white hetero males. I just don’t feel it’s so much the subject matter that’s the problem, but how it’s handled. In the hands of a good writer, the stereotypical and cliche representations of people can become rich and full.

        And I do think you’re right that some people fall back on these stereotypes because it’s easy at times or, worse, because it’s all they know. In that case being exposed to different media that does show a wider range of the human condition is really, really important.

        Well, I’d argue that showing the wider range of humanity is important for everyone’s growth as humans and society as a whole.

        I’m glad you didn’t take offense to my post; it was a fantastic post over all!

        And I definitely agree – erotica is a great way for exploring the sexual side of individuals! I love plot heavy and character heavy erotica, and I don’t feel there’s enough out there, so my partner and I seek to change that. Along with my blog, I’m super into analyzing media and sexuality.

      • Nonny says:

        And the thing I’d add here is that there will be no one view of a character. People interpret things differently. Let’s take, for example, Isabela from Dragon Age II. I’ve seen a LOT of argument over her character. Some people love her and considered her an empowered woman in control of her sexuality; others consider her a weak stereotypical oversexualized character.

        No single group is a monolith. I’ll also mention the example of Avatar (the one with the blue cat people). Leaving the racial issues aside, there was a lot of controversy within the disability community over this movie. There were a lot of people who were upset because Jake hadn’t come to terms with his disability and that he wanted to be able-bodied again — and (SPOILER) then he got magically cured at the end.

        I personally felt a lot of sympathy for the character, because, I don’t feel that my disability is something I’m ever going to particularly value or want to keep. I have a chronic pain condition. Just today, putting on my clothes was agony to the point I was in tears. It is part of who I am, but if there was a magic pill to be rid of it entirely, I would take it. I think both views are valid.

        The important criticism is that the disability-is-cured plot is all too common and there are very few representations of disabled characters who remain disabled and still kick ass in spite (or because of!) it. I don’t think this particular movie was poorly done, but the fact that there is nothing else besides it is frustrating.

        And that’s really what it comes down to, like you said. There are so many stereotypes out there. Why not do something different? It’s why one of the stories on my plate is a fantasy potentially-novel-type-thing about a woman with rheumatoid arthritis. Because you rarely see characters with disabilities in fiction, and when you do, they aren’t chronic pain. I can think of all of one character I’ve read that fits that, and his disability was able to be cured/controlled (I honestly don’t recall which; if not cured, then controlled to the point it wasn’t an issue anymore). (The book is Mercedes Lackey’s Oathbreakers, and the character doesn’t appear until fairly late in the book.)

        /rant

  17. Ultraviolet says:

    The woman Commander Shepard imo goes here too. It’s lovely to see her having a full spectrum of human reactions, inc Macchiavellian and violent ones, not coloured in stereotypes of cheap sexy.

  18. Not from a game exactly, but when I see this I think of Beatrice from Umineko no Naku Koro Ni. Presented as a cartoonish, “Femdoming” villain at first but becomes more and more complex every game.

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