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Today’s Women in SF&F Month guest is Amy Leow! Her debut novel being released on September 10 in the US and September 12 in the UK, The Scarlet Throne, is described as “a dark, heart-thumping political epic fantasy… full of scheming demons, morally grey heroines, talking cats, and cut-throat priests.” I’m thrilled she’s here today to discuss a type of character she loves—and her protagonist in the upcoming first book in The False Goddess Trilogy—in “Villains, Grey Areas, and What Women Can and Cannot Be.”

Image for The Scarlet Throne by Amy Leow
Illustration by Nica Galvez

Villains, Grey Areas, and What Women Can and Cannot Be
by Amy Leow

I love unhinged characters. Even more than that, I love unhinged women. There is something oddly cathartic about seeing a female character go off the rails and have everybody bow at her feet, perhaps because of how in real life women are often not allowed to do so.

The world loves them too. Female protagonists in plenty of books have a touch of darkness to them, and so much of marketing—especially in the SFF circle—revolves around these morally grey women making complex decisions and possessing complex motivations.

But as much as I loved these unhinged female characters, I also felt that something was missing from them.

Let me preface this by saying that there is nothing wrong with having these characters in the roles that they were written in. Yet, while it’s clear that these women can make bad choices, they are—mostly—on the good guys’ side. And even if they are on the antagonists’ side, they will most likely have some redeeming quality. They commit genocide, but maybe they do it in a warped, twisted attempt to protect the ones they love. Or they are good rulers to their own people, but villains to anyone from the outside.

Almost as though women cannot be evil for the sake of being evil, while the misdeeds of male villains go unjustified, because apparently only men can be wicked in nature.

In other words, I grew tired of reading “morally grey” female characters who weren’t actually morally grey. I craved unhinged women like Azula from Avatar: The Last Airbender, who harbored childhood trauma, but was also clearly evil and power-crazy from the get-go. I wanted to see more women like Adelina Amouteru from The Young Elites, by Marie Lu, who was born cruel and only grew worse when the world turned against her. I adored characters like Xifeng from Forest of a Thousand Lanterns by Julie C. Dao, or Lada from And I Darken by Kiersten White, who manipulated everyone around them and reveled in their brutality.

I wanted messy women. Batshit-crazy women. Women who don’t have to justify anything they do to others.

So I created Binsa, the main character of The Scarlet Throne. She is a vicious young girl who—while shaped by her circumstances and her mother’s questionable parenting choices—is very much ambitious of her own will, and will stop at nothing to get her way. I purposely wrote her as lacking a clear “motivation” for her villainy too: because just as some are altruistic in nature, some are wicked. In Binsa, I wanted to create a character who is utterly evil and irredeemable—and for her to thrive with those characteristics.

Oddly enough, I know that with writing Binsa I will find readers who will inevitably question Binsa’s motivations for being a villain, when the whole point is that there are some things that you just cannot explain. I grew up in Asia, where women are told to be quiet and to only play supporting roles to men and to elders. My own anger and ambition were out of place in such a society. And when asked why I grew up this way, when everyone was teaching me otherwise, I could only answer that it was in my nature to be like so.

In some sense, I found release and joy in writing Binsa. I enjoyed embracing my inner villain when writing The Scarlet Throne, and although it deals with dark, heavy issues (like emotional abuse, xenophobia, and the exploitation of young girls for the sake of religion), it is also an escapist and self-indulgent story. Sometimes, there is no need for an explanation behind every action someone takes.

After all, women too, can be downright nasty and repugnant—and it’s okay for them to be like so.

Photo of Amy Leow Amy Leow is the author of the False Goddess trilogy (Orbit US/UK, forthcoming Summer 2024). Currently residing in Kuala Lumpur, she graduated with a degree in linguistics and is currently pursuing a PhD in the same subject. She is often found dreaming up worlds of feral gods and even more feral girls.