What are ‘villainess’ webtoons and why are they so worth reading?

Catarina Claes from My Life as a Villainess.
Image via Crunchyroll

Up until the last few decades, the villainess of a film or book nearly always met a grim fate, with her punishment ranging anywhere from social ostracism to death. Even the rare humanized female antagonist was usually allotted some severe punishment for wrongs done, even if she showed signs of remorse or attempted to make amends. However, the popular “villainess” webtoons that have taken webtoon apps and fans by storm reverse this trite trend, allowing fictional women who have gone down the path of villainy the opportunity to change their fates and fend off doom. And if you’ve seen the recent anime My Next Life as a Villainess: All Routes Lead to Doom!, you’ve already experienced a glimpse of what this thrilling sub-genre entails.

Just like in the plot of My Next Life as a Villainess, it’s refreshing to see a villainess get the chance to redeem or save herself. And there’s a whole world of webtoons out there right now that offer this type of story!

First of all, for those who aren’t aware, webtoons are online cartoons inspired by the manga and anime art style, and are sometimes based on the contents of popular webnovels that preceded them. The “villainess” webtoon category is just one of the many types you can find online, with all sorts of differing genres and protagonists available to explore.

“Villainess” webtoons are often part of the Isekai genre, with the story usually beginning with the main character’s (MC’s) demise and transportation to another world, either owing to supernatural or inexplicable means. In Isekai-inspired “villainess” webtoons, just like in My Next Life as a Villainess, the MC dies in our world before being reincarnated in another, waking up in the body of a female character (either a little girl or young lady) who identifies as the villainess of a novel she was reading or an Otome game she was playing. Alternately, in the non-Isekai-inspired webtoons, the “villainess” remains the same person throughout the story, and is simply brought back in time without leaving her original world after meeting a grim end, either owing to her own misguided deeds or the animosity of enemies in her previous life. Having been given the chance to go back in time before the moment of doom strikes, she is faced with the task of trying to alter her once-dark future by making different choices this round. (Being reincarnated as a doomed character from a novel or an Otome game, or returning to the past as the same person with the chance to change one’s past fate, with the plot of both scenarios focused on the MC’s attempt to avert a bad ending, can also be the central theme of non-villainess-centered webtoons.)

Either way, whether the “villainess” MC finds herself a different character or the same person, just like in My Next Life as a Villainess, her job is to strategize to ensure her survival this time around. Sometimes she tries to escape from the world itself, while other times, she fights to strengthen her situation within it. This battle for survival can involve improving her skills, forging new alliances, investing in business, or destroying known rivals – capitalizing on prior knowledge of what’s likely to happen in the future. Of course, part of the fun of this type of story is that the future still isn’t set in stone (which is partially what the “villainess” MC wants, at least regarding her own possible bad ending), so things don’t always go as expected. Therefore, the plot, roles, relationships, action, and sometimes even the setting are subject to potential change, and it’s interesting to see it all play out to the webtoon’s end.

Just like in My Next Life as a Villainess, “villainess” webtoons have other archetypal characters set up upon the MC’s entry into the new world or return to her past life, such as a designated hero, heroine, villain, and so on. However, these roles can change, and sometimes even reverse based on the “villainess” MC’s actions. In the juiciest “villainess” webtoons, the MC remains somewhat of a villainess, out to get revenge based on previous wrongs done to her, or facing the realistic need to stamp out enemies, such as in the popular webtoon The Villainess Turns the Hourglass. However, in others, the “villainess” MC becomes more of a heroine, genuinely trying to become a better part of society, just like with My Next Life as a Villainess‘ female lead. That being said, in either scenario, the overarching purpose of the “villainess” MC’s return is ensuring her own survival, and not necessarily becoming a useful or virtuous person. Therefore, she can ultimately become anyone from an antiheroine to a heroine, or even remain a villainess.

“Villainess” webtoons are typically set in an imaginary kingdom with medieval-to-18th century vibes, and revolve around the lives of nobles and royalty, a class to which the villainess always belongs, whether she’s a low- or high-ranking member. There’s usually a rigid social hierarchy in place, with at least semi-traditional gender roles in effect. Although women in these webtoons are sometimes involved in politics or business, they’re ultimately subordinate to men who either match their family’s social rank or exceed it. This hard limit on women’s power often requires the “villainess” MC to gain the social favor of a high-ranking man or two, a strategy that even the tough and savvy villainess in The Villainess Turns the Hourglass makes use of. Still, it’s one of many survival tactics the “villainess” MC may pull out of her hat, and can be looked at as just another social strategy. Overall, what these female webtoon leads come up with to ensure their survival is impressive.

So, what makes “villainess” webtoons so appealing to webtoon fans? Well, what’s not to like about a story with an MC who defies fate and gets the chance to improve her odds of survival and success by making different choices? After all, who wouldn’t like the opportunity to go back and fix past mistakes to improve the present? It’s also nice to think of ourselves as being able to rise to a place of prestige in high society, or even as being born a part of it in the first place, which we get to imagine through the eyes of our “villainess” MC. As humans, we’re naturally drawn to survival stories where the stakes are high, or even just to tales of winners who acquire social clout, material goods, and crucial skills, reaching the height of human potential. And, of course, there’s the drama of possible revenge, romance, failure, or success. Not to mention, the art in these webtoons can be ethereal, with lots of dazzling sights to feast one’s eyes upon.

Where can I go online to find “villainess” webtoons?

While there are many places you can go online to find “villainess” webtoons, some sites do stand out more than others for this specific sub-genre in terms of quality and quantity. Tappytoon has a wide variety of great “villainess” webtoons to choose from, and Tapas and WEBTOON also have some good offerings on hand. You can purchase your “villainess” webtoons of choice on Tappytoon or Tapas by purchasing a set amount of virtual “coins” with which to unlock content, with the option to buy episodes one by one or all at once. Content on WEBTOON is usually free, so you don’t have to purchase coins, unless you want to read specific episodes of your favorite webtoons in advance of their official public release date on the site. As previously mentioned, many “villainess” webtoons are based on popular webnovels that preceded their creation, and you can also find many of these on the same sites as the corresponding webtoons.

What are some good “villainess” webtoons I can read?

Some popular, high-stakes “villainess” webtoons include The Villainess Turns the Hourglass, This Villainess Wants a Divorce!, Beware the Villainess!, The Villainess Flips the Script, The Tyrant’s Only Perfumer, The Villainess Lives Again, Villains Are Destined to Die, and Kill the Villainess. Note that while many of these webtoons contain the word “villainess,” not all “villainess” webtoons do. You’ll have to read the story’s description after clicking on its cover image to gather details, or you can simply type “villainess” into the site’s search bar to quickly bring up easy results.

Are there any “villainess” anime I can watch?

While the world of anime has only recently begun to recognize this specific sub-genre, there is some content out there for “villainess” webtoon fans who wish to see this type of story play out on-screen. At the moment, the two depictions that spring to mind are 2020 Isekai anime My Next Life as a Villainess: All Routes Lead to Doom!, along with its 2021 sequel My Next Life as a Villainess: All Routes Lead to Doom! X, as well as the most recent 2022 anime I’m the Villainess, So I’m Taming the Final Boss. These anime are both based on light novels that inspired their creation. For the sake of us thirsty “villainess” webtoon lovers, let’s hope that these will get the ball of villainy rolling!