In books: Where are all the evil female characters?

Miss Havisham of 'Great Expectations'
An actress makes Charles Dickens' Miss Havisham, from 'Great Expectations,' a terrifying reality at a London theater.
Stuart Wilson | Getty Images 2013

Every week, The Thread tackles your book questions, big and small. Ask a question now.

This week's question: Why aren't there more evil women characters in literature?

Crime writer Melanie McGrath inspired this question, with her piece last week that asked: "Where are the female thrill-killers in fiction?"

Murderous literary women aren't just missing from crime fiction.They're an anomaly in almost all of literature — with a few bloody and memorable exceptions.

When considering the most evil characters in the canon, they're almost all men: Shakespeare's Iago, Stephen King's Randall Flagg, Thomas Harris's Hannibal Lecter, Cormac McCarthy's Judge Holden, Bret Easton Ellis' Patrick Bateman.

So where's Patricia Bateman?

One explanation is that the horrors of fiction reflect the horrors of reality. By the numbers, women commit less violent crime. Women serial killers are an aberration. But there's more to the question. When women characters commit atrocities, they're often given backstories that justify their behavior.

Their violence is reactionary — they're out for revenge, they're spurned lovers, they're avenging a lost child. They are, as McGrath said, "mad, not bad." These mitigating backstories can soften their acts. Arguably the scariest evils are those without explanation. Few female characters fall into that category.

The ones that do, though, may haunt your dreams. Readers called in to recount the evil literary women that stuck in their memories. There was the fantasy coven: the White Witch from "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," Dolores Umbridge from "Harry Potter," The Wicked Witch from "The Wizard of Oz." Many evil female characters come from fantasy, where magic and the supernatural keeps them distant from reality.

'Misery' by Stephen King
'Misery' by Stephen King
Courtesy of publisher

Then there are the real world nightmares: Annie Wilkes in "Misery," Cathy Ames in "East of Eden," Nurse Ratched in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest."

In this century, many readers thought Amy of "Gone Girl" was the most evil to date — a master manipulator at the top of her game.

In The Guardian, Gillian Flynn, the author of "Gone Girl," offered her own explanation about why characters like Amy are rare: Readers and publishers aren't ready for them.

"The one thing that really frustrates me is this idea that women are innately good, innately nurturing," Flynn said. "In literature, they can be dismissively bad — trampy, vampy, bitchy types — but there's still a big pushback against the idea that women can be just pragmatically evil, bad and selfish."

With "Gone Girl"'s rampant success, on the page and on the screen, are we in for more Amys?

Watch your back, book friends.

Evil women on the page

• Medea in Euripedes' "Medea"

• Lady Macbeth in Shakespeare's "Macbeth

• Lady deWinter in "The Three Musketeers" by Alexandre Dumas

• Miss Havisham from "Great Expectations" by Charles Dickens

• Cathy Ames in "East of Eden" by John Steinbeck

• Cora in "The Postman Always Rings Twice" by James M. Cain

• Mrs. Danvers in "Rebecca" by Daphne du Maurier

• The White Witch in "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" by C.S. Lewis

• The Wicked Witch of the West in "The Wonderful World of Oz" by Frank L. Baum

• Nurse Ratched in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" by Ken Kesey

• Dolores Umbridge in the "Harry Potter" series by J.K. Rowling

• Amy Dunne in "Gone Girl" by Gillian Flynn

Who did we miss? Tell us your favorite evil women characters in the comments below.

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