What do Scarlett O’Hara, Erica Kane, and the Wife of Bath have in common? The obvious answer is that they are among the most memorable fictional characters ever created, possibly the most memorable female characters, period. They are femme fatales–that is, no man who becomes involved with them emerges unscathed. In real life we hate such women–but in fiction we find them irresistible. So how do you go about creating a femme fatale?
At first glance the characteristics are not obvious. Two of these women are beautiful, but the third is plain bordering on ugly. Two of their stories carry them into middle age, still strong and sexy, but the story of the third ends when she is only 28. Two of them start life with little or nothing and claw their way to the top, but the third is born to wealth. Two of them have a fabulous sense of fashion, but the third is a fashion disaster. Note that it is not the same two vs. the same one in each case.
So, what do all three share? One obvious answer: numerous husbands and other men in their lives. Scarlett O’Hara marries three times. The Wife of Bath marries five times. And according to the Who’s Who in Pine Valley website, Erica Kane has thus far had eleven marriages to eight different men (three of whom she has married twice).
But what do all those liaisons signify? That these women are sexually attractive and amazingly manipulative. Intelligent men have their common sense overpowered by womanly wiles.
They have two kinds of relationships with men: for love, and for money or power. But when it’s for love it’s a disaster, while marriage for money works because the woman has no expectation beyond a marriage of convenience.
Scarlett’s experience with marriage for love is complex, even warped–she never does marry Ashley, the man she wastes her emotional youth on, but her yearning for him makes it impossible for her to love her obvious soulmate Rhett. The other two women have more conventional marriages for love, but they also never work out. So one characteristic of a femme fatale is that although she shares the same dream of true love as every other woman, she is never able to achieve it. The femme fatale’s inability to find true love is a vulnerability that allows the female audience to sympathize with her.
Another characteristic is keen intelligence. None of these women are well educated, but they are all very, very smart in areas far beyond manipulating men. Scarlett and Erica are successful business owners, while Alison, the Wife of Bath, is a skilled weaver and has learned Latin, philosophy, and theology to back up her keen wit.
A story they all share is that they achieve riches, lose them, and work their way back to the top again. They become self-reliant, so their mature relationships with men may still be for twisted reasons, but no longer for money or power.
Hence the secret to writing a femme fatale is more complicated than simply creating a sexy, manipulative woman. Put together these five characteristics of character and plot:
1. A femme fatale has numerous marriages and other liaisons with men. She yearns for true love, but often forgoes it for practical reasons.
2. She is very sexually desirable, and never afraid to use it.
3. She has two kinds of marriages and other relationships: for money or power, and for love. The ones for love never work out, leaving her disillusioned.
4. Although she has little formal education, she is keenly intelligent and street smart.
5. Her life story is a roller-coaster: she achieves wealth and power, loses it, and claws her way to the top again.
Create a femme fatale and you, too, may have an unforgettable character who will live down through the ages.
Copyright 2010 by Jean Lorrah