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Essay: "Heras and Villainesses" - The Wordsmith's Forge — LiveJournal
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Essay: "Heras and Villainesses"

The upcoming fishbowl theme is "heras and villainesses" so I wanted to write a little bit about that tonight.  Female characters often get short shrift when compared to male characters, whether good or evil.  Let's take a closer look.

First, we have the two terms that everyone knows: hero and heroine.  A hero is a male protagonist, the lead character in story -- especially an adventure or something else dangerous.  He is often portrayed as somehow larger than life.  Although a heroine is often described as a female hero, that's not quite how it works in practice.  She's more of a junior  hero, like the Little Sister at a fraternity.  Often she is little more than the hero's love-interest.  This can fail to satisfy female readers.

A hera is a female protagonist, the lead character in a story.  She is strong and capable; she does not need to be rescued, can get herself out of trouble, and may rush to the aid of others in need.  She has the same proportion of strengths and weaknesses as a hero does, which can vary depending on the type of story.  She may or may not fall in love, and if she does, she is not a subordinate partner but an equal or even a dominant partner.  She might take up with a hero.  Then again, she might choose a heronet -- which means "little hero," the male equivalent of a heroine.  He's the gentleman in distress whom she rescues.

The villainess is a counterpart of the villain.  She is a female antagonist, the Big Bad of a story.  Like the heroine, she often gets softballed in stories, or falls hopelessly in love with the hero and gives up her own goals  to follow him.  Meh, I say to that.  "The female of the species is more deadly than the male."  A proper villainess is both formidable and determined. 

Note that not all antagonists are necessarily evil, or even wrong: they are simply opposed to the protagonist for whom the audience is supposed to be rooting.  Sometimes they steal the show, and people relate to them more than expected.  From this comes the dark sister of the anti-hero: the anti-hera.  We'll get to them in May.

Favorite Heras
Ayla (from the Earth's Children  series)
Cordelia Naismith (from the Vorkosigan series)
Destiny Ajaye (from Genius)
Ellen Ripley (from Alien)
Jirel of Joiry (from the Jirel of Joiry  series)
Paksenarrion Dorthansdotter (from The Deed of Paksenarrion)
Sarah Connor (from Terminator)
Tarma and Kethry (from Vows and Honor)

Favorite Villainesses
Cruella de Vil (from 101 Dalmatians)
Grendel's Mother (from Beowulf)
Irene Adler (from Sherlock Holmes)
Lady of the Green Kirtle (from The Silver Chair)
Marquise de Merteuil (from Dangerous Liaisons)
Mother Gothel (from Tangled)
Poison Ivy (from Batman)
The Wicked Witch of the West (from The Wizard of Oz)

See also "Heroines and Villainesses."

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13 comments or Leave a comment
kengr From: kengr Date: January 3rd, 2012 08:05 am (UTC) (Link)
I'd say Kris Longknife (from the Kris Longknife) books is a hera as well. Though often a *damn* frustrated one as people keep interfering.
fayanora From: fayanora Date: January 3rd, 2012 08:08 am (UTC) (Link)
By these definitions, Lyria Spellspinner would be a hera, despite being true neutral and morally ambiguous.

I suppose Nokwahl is also a hera, despite her people being hermaphroditic.

I think Raven of the animated Teen Titans might be a hera. Sure, she works with a team, and in a couple episodes needed some encouragement from Robin to face her father (who is the evil Trigon), but she's largely pretty damn capable and powerful.

Oooh, Tangled! I love that movie!
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: January 3rd, 2012 08:29 am (UTC) (Link)


You have great characters!

I love Tangled because it does what Disney does best: it takes a traditional fairytale and retells the familiar story in a cool new way. It has a fun, wild antihero who kind of reminds me of Han Solo and a sheltered yet ferocious princess who ... I suddenly realize reminds me of Leia. Hee! And Mother Gothel is among the most savagely abusive characters I've ever seen; that was brilliantly rendered. Maybe it will help children who are being verbally abused realize what's going on.
fayanora From: fayanora Date: January 3rd, 2012 08:30 am (UTC) (Link)

Re: Yes...


Have you seen The Princess and the Frog?
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: January 3rd, 2012 08:33 am (UTC) (Link)

Re: Yes...

That's another favorite, yes. I liked the cunning-woman who lived in a boat in a tree.
riverotter1951 From: riverotter1951 Date: January 3rd, 2012 02:40 pm (UTC) (Link)
Thanks for a wonderful essay.
je_reviens From: je_reviens Date: January 3rd, 2012 06:18 pm (UTC) (Link)
Buffy the Vampire Slayer is one of my favorite Heras. On that note, Glory the God is one of the best villanesses ever.
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: January 8th, 2012 02:29 am (UTC) (Link)


I agree on both counts. Glory was alarming.
paka From: paka Date: January 3rd, 2012 06:58 pm (UTC) (Link)
I guess that fits the big thing I don't like about roles in old gender stereotypes.

I think that the important thing here is that; gender isn't all that crucial to the character. It's a description. The character's female because, well, half of everyone is. For this reason I'm really kind of... mmm... it's really hard to deal with characters heavily defined by motherhood and by relationships because that last comes so close to and then the hot chick falls for the strong/hypercompetent/masculine hero/villain.

So I really liked some of your heroine choices (and here we differ about semantics; I would rather use the old word, because I tend to like "big tent" definitions) because these are people whose role within the story doesn't hinge on them being female. Like I know that the script didn't decide what gender Ripley was until Sigourney Weaver showed up and the writers went hey, okay, Ripley's a woman - that's kinda neat.

It's weird, Jirel is so defined by being desired and by the potential relationship she herself put an end to, but she never comes across as being defined by it. I think it's 'cause she's still herself through the entire process; it's her choice, and I guess the "and I killed the one man who might be a really good match for me for my land, my pride, and my people" just lends her a lot of class. And I mean she basically says "no" to a demon lord. That's pretty badass.

I'd disagree with Poison Ivy. I mean I love the character, but like Catwoman, she seems like a character who was originally there to be The Hot Chick Adversary, and ever since that inception people have been scrambling to tack some greater (is this the right word for the situation?) legitimacy onto the character.
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: January 8th, 2012 02:28 am (UTC) (Link)


>>I think that the important thing here is that; gender isn't all that crucial to the character.<<

I think it depends on the character, culture, and story. Sometimes it doesn't matter much. Other times, it's the core of everything. And we need both kinds of those stories and characters.

>>So I really liked some of your heroine choices (and here we differ about semantics; I would rather use the old word, because I tend to like "big tent" definitions) <<

It's okay. Language is the ultimate democracy: ever speaker gets one vote on how words should be used.

>>because these are people whose role within the story doesn't hinge on them being female<<

Except for Tim, the Schrodinger's Heroes characters all started out gender-indeterminate. I rolled for their genders and races with on a gaming website.

>>I'd disagree with Poison Ivy.<<

I'm okay with Hot Chick Adversary as long as there are other types of female characters around. After all, some women DO use their sex appeal as a weapon, for good or ill.
natf From: natf Date: January 5th, 2012 03:28 am (UTC) (Link)
I do find it fascinating how the English language varies (and mutates) from place to place and time to time. The definition-in-usage in my head for "heroine" is exactly the same as yours for "hera" and 'my' definition for "heronet" is "baby heron" (á la 'eaglet') but apparently it is not a real word (see below). ;-p

I had been meaning to ask you why you use "hera" instead of the usual "heroine" and I think I can now understand it a little but I cannot as yet internalise it. Thank you for explaining!

P.S. both "hera" and "heronet" throw up red squiggly lines underneath them on my mac. Also, neither word is in my (UK) dictionary.
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: January 5th, 2012 03:55 am (UTC) (Link)


Years ago, I coined "hera" from "hero" and the feminine -a ending, and as a reference to the goddess Hera. I have since seen other people use it; I don't know who thought of it first, and believe that it's polygenetic. It mostly appears in feminist writing where you'll see other things like "wimmin" and "grrl."

As far as I know "heronet" is mine. It's from "hero" and the "-(n)et" diminutive male ending, as in "baronet."

I'm a wordsmith. If I can't find the word I need or I'm not satisfied with the available options, I'm liable to make up something new.

(Deleted comment)
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: January 8th, 2012 03:43 am (UTC) (Link)


>>Just a semi-random thought, because I like poking at the places where things or people start to push at the boundaries of taxonomies.<<

I think those are good places to find stories.
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