PART I: THE ROLE OF THE FEMME FATALE

15-DEC-2011 Depending on your flexibility with the term “femme fatale,” this literary device can be dated all the way back to Greek mythology.

More popularly in 20th century pulp fiction, we recognize it as that fierce woman in detective novels, the woman whose intentions you never can pinpoint giving a reader pause whether she’s a good girl or bad girl. She is still strong and clearly shows that she has the staying power of the private dick himself.

Femme fatale (n):  is a mysterious and seductive woman whose charms ensnare her lovers in bonds of irresistible desire, often leading them into compromising, dangerous, and deadly situations. ~wikipedia

Writer SEAN H. TAYLOR constructed an amazing look at his favorite femmes from the cinema, comic books, fiction and television. He points out characters that I hadn’t even considered like Saffron from Serenity/Firefly played by the voluptuous Christina Hendricks; here’s an actress that finally gave modern curvy women a role model in sea of figures like Sarah Michelle Gellar and Eliza Dushku. Saffron was a perpetual liar but you simply can’t help but get sucked into her stories.

Vampires have been cliche as the bad girl. You can take Pam from TRUE BLOOD or Bianca from THE DRESDEN FILES. They’re already considered dangerous and in need of “saving.” Because of the innate necessity to be a bad girl if one is a vampire, I’m going to try and skip over them.

Taylor took an evening to answer some questions so that we may dig deeper here in this character, this woman we know we’ve seen but we search for a thesaurus just to describe her. My reading background is mostly filled with cozy mysteries who on occasion run into a femme fatale, usually something in the line of a husband or boyfriend’s former flame. Taylor is much better read and can fill in all the gaps.

When balancing the various characters in any story, a writer would need to the impact of each and decide if one needs to be edited for less interaction or increased for more. Except for the vampire genre, most mainstream stories seem best balanced with only one bad girl unless of course, there’s a gang of bad girls. Nonetheless, in a gang, one will be the standout. On writing more than one femme, Taylor said, “It’s possible, sure, but I think that when you do that you tend to dilute the power that a femme fatale brings to a story. It’d be like the sexual equivalent of adding another two people to a ménage a troi. At some point it just becomes an orgy and it loses its impact of being something unexpected and enticing.”

It’s also possible to not include a bad girl. Taylor explained, “Sure, mystery writers from Agatha Christie to Sherlock Holmes to Sue Grafton have all done it – and quite successfully. But for my money, I prefer, the monkey wrench that a femme fatale brings into the world of the crime story. She’s the literary change in time signature to shift the jazz of the tale from Benny Goodman to Miles Davis. Either one is good, and really good, but one has that something special that makes it a lot spicier to the ears.”

He also said my favorite subgenre, the cozy mystery, doesn’t usually include them “…because a femme fatale, at least in my understanding, brings a sense of sexual and criminal temptation into the mix. In a standard cozy mystery, the threat of violence seems to be hinted at best and shown off camera, so to speak. Also, all the cozy mysteries I’ve read, from Hercule Poirot to the cat series, all seem to have protagonists who are as much sexless as they are intelligent. Typically, the grittier a mystery becomes, the more welcome a femme fatale will be in the mix.”

I seem to get stuck thinking of any powerful driven woman as the femme fatale character in a story, but quite often I find that I’m actually looking at a female hero and not the bad girl. Sexy protagonists abound in literature and television (especially TNT and USA Network programming) so I began to wonder if the role of female hero and femme fatale had merged to form a new identity. Taylor describes the new modern female character that has evolved from the tough dames of noir: “I think so. I think the female hero is actually a modern outgrowth of the doors opened by the femme fatales of the past. If it hadn’t been for tough dames who could hold their own against the men, often as equals, and sometimes as betters, who chose death or loss rather than being a traditional arm decoration, then the modern female hero wouldn’t have had such a strong foundation on which to stand today. But I also really don’t see these modern female heroes as femme fatales at all. In some cases, they may share traits with them, but they’re an entirely different animal. ”

Taylor delineates the pulp fiction roles classically and to him, the femme fatale is not the protagonist nor antagonist, “The one who is bad news for the core character. Usually the femme fatale is neither the protagonist nor the antagonist. She’s the monkey wrench that messes up the machine. Neither –tagonist can get what they want easily when she’s around.”

This made me wonder about this seductive character even more. Does she need to come to a tragic end and die or vanish mysteriously? Can she come back in sequels? Taylor said, “I think she can pop up in sequels. I certainly hope so. That’s my plan for Eternal Light, a sci-fi femme I created for the Blackthorn: Thunder on Mars book and also for Monique San Diablo, the Saint Devil, whom I created as a recurring femme temptation for Lance Star: Sky Ranger in his collections.” So there is hope. If you fall in love with a devilish dame, you might get to see more of her.

And there will be more of this in PART 2: THE FEMME FATALE CONTINUES

 


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