The Big Idea: CJ Leede
Be the change you want to see in the world. For author CJ Leede, that means creating a villainous, monstrous female character because she didn’t see enough of them in the world. Dive into her Big Idea and see how she crafted a truly bad bitch in her novel Maeve Fly.
Can a woman be a monster without first being a victim?
There are times in life in which mortality and the world at large just nearly get the better of you. When you slip so far under that you barely know where you end and the rest of it all begins. This was one of those times. Precarious health of loved ones, grieving lost family, facing so many novel rejections, I’d lost count. I had just driven from California to New York to be with family in a pre-election, pandemic-ridden, vitriolic nation. I’ve crossed America plenty of times, and never have I faced the open hostility we were met with in the Fall of that year. Never have I felt such opposition, so much fear from so many. I was grappling with every painful feeling I’d ever felt, and one new one, one I had never known before and could hardly explain:
So I did what any writer would do. I turned to other writers, and all their rageful characters.
I wanted them dark. The more unhinged, the better. I craved villains, misanthropes, liars, anti-heroes, monsters, I wanted to live in worlds in which rules did not apply and none of the pressures of life weighed down on me while reading. I read and reread Story of the Eye, Notes from Underground, American Psycho, Fight Club. I watched all the monster and villain movies I could find.
And it helped. It really helped to escape into the darkness, into the chaos. But there was one thing I kept searching for and couldn’t find, one missing piece that felt elusive and yet… vital.
I found countless male villains and misanthropes who were monstrous, and we as the viewer totally accepted them. Bad men do bad things. Michael Myers, Patrick Bateman, Freddy Krueger, Randall Flagg. These men are just what and who they are, and we don’t ask further questions about it. Sure, we can connect them to a greater societal message, but I’m talking about the characters themselves. We don’t discredit them—no one ever says, but a man wouldn’t do that!— on some level we believe they could and might exist. But the women.
In nearly all the classic iconic movies and misanthropic literature I found, female monsters operated differently. They seemed to need a reason, a traumatic backstory, something that was done to them to turn them into villainess. There are of course exceptions–Annie Wilkes comes to mind, as well as a few Shirley Jackson characters–, but they are few and far between. On the whole and in an overwhelming majority, our iconic female villains are either possessed by a demon (male) or brutalized (mostly by men) and now haunt, kill, and destroy in retaliation. Because they’ve justified it, they’ve earned it. There’s a moral reason. We’re even seeing female Disney villains in their own stories now, centering on who did what awful thing to turn them into what they are.
In this moment in time in which I was dancing with something volatile and spiny—grief, pain, this futile, juvenile, irrational rage—I thought, this can’t be right. By only showing the things that have been done to women to turn them into something fearful, it’s just another way to undercut us, another way to take away our power. If we can only be monsters because we are victims first, and usually victims of men, what does that say for us? That men get to have their monstrous icons but ours have to be tempered, have to be subdued first? That a woman is incapable of choosing darkness just for the sake of it as a man is? That a woman who is not first and foremost a victim in life can exist at all? As if the purpose is to remind us of an inherent weakness, as if to say that we as a society cannot or will not accept a woman being monstrous of her own volition. Even a fictional one. We will not allow her that agency or power.
We all know women have gotten the short end of the stick in so much of our history, but might we imagine something different? What would happen if we did? What does it look like to see a female brutalizing, being the brutalizer, because she can? Not because she was first brought low by someone else. And why aren’t we seeing more of it?
So Maeve was born. As an experiment. And she grew because once I started, I couldn’t stop. She poured out of me, messy, unpredictable, juvenile, naïve, arrogant, misguided. And I love her with every beat of my own deeply imperfect heart. Because finally, in writing this book, in inhabiting her insane, rage-flooded brain, I felt a freedom I didn’t know I was missing.
There is deep value in a Patrick Bateman, even outside of the societal critique. Read it once, watch it once, and you get the idea. But why do people come back? What has made it endure, hold its relevance in our culture even as equally violent literature and movies continue rolling out? I would argue it’s the simplest idea of all:
Because it’s really fucking fun.
I’ve received a fair amount of pushback on the idea of a violent woman existing without personal trauma. People are quick to jump in and remind us that women are victims of a society built to oppress us every single day. And yes, that’s totally true. Of course it’s true. We are still fighting for rights that we should not ever have to fight for. And even still, especially still, we deserve a character without those constraints. We deserve to get to move through a world unencumbered by our own.
And mostly, we deserve to have fun. To be just as free in our fictional worlds as men are. Even if it’s aspirational, even if we are not there yet. Why not dream? Why not play around and get crazy and bathe in the blood that all these fabulous, raw, psychotic monsters have paved the trick-or-treat path with before us?
At the end of the day, it’s fiction. And life can inform fiction, but fiction can inform life too. And all of it is too short and too painful to not find the joy and play.
To not ask the question, What if?