It’s Top Ten Tuesday eve! This week’s intended topic was a bit of a freebie, Favorite X Setting, yet I opted to do a theme of my own choosing: Best Written Villains. The idea behind this has been rolling around my head for awhile, and I just thought now was the perfect time to test the waters. I’ve found ten characters that all display varying degrees of “villainess”, and are commonly regarded as the antagonist of their story. Not only must they make our MC’s life miserable, but I also had to be captivated by their perspective. I needed to feel what made them tick, to understand the psychology that went behind such a person. Crafting a horrendous character readers can relate to is no small task, and as such these authors warrant my undying admiration. So without further ado…let’s cut to the books!
1.Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo- Kaz
Though Kaz is more anti-hero than villain in Six of Crows, it’s clear the role of antagonist is not one unfamiliar to him. Smooth talking and charismatic to boot, he crafts foolproof plans that would leave Al Capone shrinking in fear. The teenage gangster is morally ambiguous by nature; unafraid to kill, yet bounded to a strict code of honor. Leigh Bardugo sets us straight on this defining fact from the get-go. But, as the layers are pulled back, we see a young man tormented by demons and a quest for revenge. Bardugo never asks us to sympathize with this character (one by all accounts questionable), yet portrays him in a way that allows readers to understand the deception entirely. And that is the true mark of a successful villain, in my opinion. Every logical part of your brain wants to hate them, but the emotion a talented author can deliver outshines all else. To say I’m excited for Kaz’s continued development in Crooked Kingdom is an understatement.
2.Not a Drop to Drink by Mindy McGinnis- Jasper
I don’t talk about the fantastic Not a Drop to Drink nearly enough on here, and when I do it’s about MC Lynn. However this topic is perfect for discussing Jasper, the villain to end all villains in a waterless world. He doesn’t come into the picture until the very end, but boy does he leave an impression. For anyone who’s ever seen The Walking Dead, his origins are very similar to any baddie on the show. He’s a former reprobate who prospered off society’s collapse, using a mix of fear tactics and genuine cunning to achieve “success”. To me though, he’s far more terrifying than anything yet to appear on TWD. This is because he’s not a cannibal, nor a bad wielding psycho, nor any other number of terrifying prospects. Jasper’s a very real person in our world, one who can uses anything to their advantage. It may not be flashy, but I appreciated McGinnis’s subtlety in portraying a villain unbound by the traditional mold.
3.The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins- President Snow
In my opinion, the thing that hold The Hunger Games back from being totally amazing, is the lack of insight into characters deeper emotions. This is exceptionally true for primary antagonist, President Snow. There are so many avenues Suzanne Collins could have taken his character, so many facets of his life she could have dug into. Yet she never did. Despite disappointing me tremendously, I can’t argue that Snow still manages to be incredibly fleshed out…even if he could have been so much more. He doesn’t really become an integral player until Catching Fire, when he coheres Katniss to mediate his citizens. He oozes smarminess; be it his faux good guy angle, or the ever present white rose. I could go on in circles about his villainous traits, but the bottom line is: he’s near single handedly responsible for the massacre of thousands of people. Beyond all else, he’s just plain evil.
4.The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart- The Boy’s Club
Okay, okay. I technically understand that the likes of Matthew Livingston and Alpha are not truly villains. They’re obnoxious high school boys, yes, but that descriptor easily pales next to others on this list. However they ARE the antagonist to MC Frankie’s story, so for that I’m counting them. What’s my beef with their antics, anyways? To be honest I don’t really know, but Lockhart’s portrayal of a private school “boy’s club” really resonated me. Her understanding of neo masculine dynamics was spot on, and despite hating the club…I didn’t hate them? It’s confusing, but a part of me felt for them as products of our society, while also wanting to shake my head for the next generation. Though The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks is a fun one, it’s nods to deeper themes certainly payed off. A great book, with great characters, with even greater “villains”.
5.What Happened to Cass McBride? by Gail Giles- Kyle
What Happened to Cass McBride? is one of the most underrated mysteries out there. It’s suspenseful, horrifying, and artfully written; all wrapped up in an amazing package. Largely that novelty is owed to our villain, Kyle. And he is the villain, right? Afterall, he’s the one who kidnapped Cass, intending for her to die in a grave of his own making. Throughout the narrative however, Giles presents a person entirely unlike one would imagine. A young man raised in a dysfunctional environment, with deeply misguided anger. He’s entirely in control of his own actions (Giles never lets us forget it), but she does intend for us to see beyond the story typically portrayed. Really, she was “making a murderer’ before Netflix made it cool. An amazing story that deserves more love, definitely worth checking out for those readers willing to see between the lines.
6.More Than This by Patrick Ness- the Driver
More Than This is a deeply philosophical book, and one of the best offerings in YA. Though that’s due to several factors, primary antagonist ‘the Driver’ contributed largely to the palpable atmosphere present. An unknown, black clad figure who has no apparent purpose in the book, never have I been so transfixed by a character I know so little about. I hate the situations he puts our characters in, I hate the world he works for, I hate HIM so much. However he just adds so much to the story. Many of the details that made the world so realistic pertained to him, and the circumstances he threw our characters in. I simply cannot imagine the book without his ever elusive figure. Some people may hate that we know so little about him, but I loved the book more for it. You’ll find your jaw dropping every couple chapters, hitting the ground with a twist you never saw coming.
7.The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey- the Aliens
Though Rick Yancey’s series quickly descended into madness, it’s undeniable that the villains of his first novel were authorly goals. The Aliens are unlike any paranormal creature I’ve seen before, defying stereotypes and striking out on a unique branch. Able to embody and inhabit humans, this trait lends to an interesting question: who do you kill if the enemy is you? I’d never seen such a thing done before, and immediately thought it was so intriguing. Similarly it helped me, as a reader, to connect with the invaders more so than if they were just little green men. I respected them as highly advanced members of a different world, and thus not that different from ourselves. This was the backbone that made The 5th Wave really click for me, and without it the story had little going for it. If only Yancey had ridden on this plot line, as opposed to hapless love triangles, this series could have gone down in the history books.
8.Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys- Nikolai
The only historical fiction book to appear on this list, NKVD soldier Nikolai is among the grayest villain/hero’s out there. Protagonist Lina is often unsure of his true colors, as he flips from callous private to savior and back again. As a reader I was often in the same boat, weighing my opinion of his morals in terms of pro vs. con. He truly is the inspiration behind the title, as it’s his characterization that spawns Lina’s reflection on the many levels of moral ambiguity people take on. Between Shades of Gray truly is a story about humanity, and I thought it fitting that equal attention was given to humanizing a brass “villain” in the same way Sepetys would a Lithuanian victim. I cannot wait to see the portrayal of his character when the movie adaptation hits theaters later this year, and I similarly hope the film runner recognizes his importance to the story.
9.Carrie by Stephen King- Carrie
I debated in this case whether Carrie or her mother was ultimately the villain of Carrie, but decided to examine the former in this instance. Stephen King’s debut excaberates a surprising amount of surefootedness in all areas, and our MC Carrie is no exception. She kills hundreds of people in a fit of blind rage, extending their deaths in the most painful way possible. Yet, I still can’t mark her solidly in the category of “villain”. Readers see far too much of her painful home life, a loveless world that unsurprisingly led her to explode viciously. She’s definitely in the territory of criminal insanity, and for that I’ll never truly know my feelings toward the character. And that, right there, is the genius of King. Had any other teenage girl gone on a killing rampage, I would be largely indifferent; uncompelled by the events that led up to it. But by making her a very real, very raw person, I couldn’t tear myself away from the story. Without Carrie herself, there is no book.
10.Ashes by Ilsa J. Bick- Everyone
What truly made Ashes such a unique dystopian to me were the shades of gray present in all characters. Ilsa J. Bick takes special pains to highlight all the ways everyone fears losing the ‘goodness’ in themselves. This, by extension, only makes their villainous traits more transparent. It was such an interesting character study, and what really took the story to the next level. In particular I loved seeing the protagonists (who are, at their core, good people) question whether they truly are the hero’s of this new world. There’s nothing quite like a struggling character, and an existential dilemna will bring about those feelings of doubt real fast. It was in the next two books, when Bick introduced twenty (!!!) new perspectives that the series really lost its touch. The story could no longer focus on pulling back the layers of a small cast, and instead barely touched the surface of a large group. Nevertheless, any aspiring writer could learn a thing or two from Bick’s characterization prowess in this first novel.
Who are your favorite villains? Do you agree with my list? Let me know in the comments!
-Keep Calm and Read On