9 of the Best Villains in Literature

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Alice Nuttall (she/her) is a writer, pet-wrangler and D&D nerd. Her reading has got so out of control that she had to take a job at her local library to avoid bankrupting herself on books – unfortunately, this has just resulted in her TBR pile growing until it resembles Everest. Alice’s webcomic, writing and everything else can be found at https://linktr.ee/alicenuttallbooks

A good story needs a good villain. Heroes, noble as they are, are usually reactive, responding to a threat (or Answering the Call) rather than kickstarting the action themselves. In many stories, from Lord of the Rings to Shadow and Bone, the central action is provoked and sustained by the villain and their nefarious plans. Without a strong central villain, a plot can start to go astray; heroes usually want to preserve peace and keep order, something that doesn’t make for a compelling story unless there’s a villainous force trying to disrupt that peace. This is as true for realistic, contemporary stories as it is for fantasy epics — for example, a cozy romance may have a nasty ex or a grasping landlord trying to close the protagonist’s business as the central villain, forcing the heroine to break out of her usual routine and act.

A good villain is a memorable character, with clear goals and the drive to get them done — unless the hero stops them. Of course, these villains can come in many different guises. Some pose as friends until their treachery is revealed, while others are proudly evil from the get-go. Some openly want power and influence, while others truly believe they are doing good — as the old saying goes, everyone is the hero in their own story. Some are complex, with understandable motivations, although I do have a soft spot for a villain who relishes in their own evil (I’d hate to meet Freddy Krueger in real life, but as a fictional character, he’s a ton of fun). Here are some of the best villains in recent books for all ages.

Please note that this list will contain spoilers for all the books mentioned, including the actual identity of the villain in some stories where the villain initially seems to be an ally.

Children’s Book Villains

cover of Nevermoor: The Trails of Morrigan Crow

The Morrigan Crow books by Jessica Townsend

The Villain: The Wundersmith

The Morrigan Crow books are a deeply underrated magical school series that I could talk about for years, but one of the reasons I love these books is the compelling magic of the core villain. The Wundersmith is a figure of immense power, who is feared by the citizens of Nevermoor, and when the heroine Morrigan Crow is revealed to have the same kind of magic, she becomes a figure of suspicion to all but a few core friends. However, as the Wundersmith begins to draw Morrigan into his orbit, she learns that her power could be used for good as well as evil. The Wundersmith is a fascinating figure, by turns reasonable and terrifying, and you can often see his point…but you can just as easily see why the citizens of Nevermoor fear him.

Like a Charm coverLike a Charm cover

Like a Charm by Elle McNicoll

The Villains: The Sirens

Elle McNicoll’s duology, Like a Charm and Like a Curse, are set in a version of present-day Edinburgh where supernatural creatures live secret lives alongside the human world. Ramya, a young neurodivergent girl, discovers that she is able to see the fairies, kelpies, and vampires that inhabit this hidden Scotland, and that she is a witch with the potential for great power. However, she soon finds herself coming up against a terrifying group of the Hidden Folk — the Sirens. Sirens are insidiously frightening villains who can manipulate humans to do whatever they want simply by talking to them — unless those humans happen to be neurodivergent, like Ramya and her aunt. In this age of rising hate and intolerance, the Sirens make for terrifying antagonists, whipping up the worst of human nature to weaponise it against vulnerable people.

Onyeka and the Academy of the Sun book coverOnyeka and the Academy of the Sun book cover

Onyeka and the Academy of the Sun by Tọlá Okogwu

The Villain: Dr Dòyìnbó

Okogwu’s high-action superhero story is a fantastic read, not only because of the awesome superpowers belonging to Onyeka and her friends, but also because of the sheer despicableness of their mentor-turned-villain, Dr Dòyìnbó. Dòyìnbó runs the Academy of the Sun, where Onyeka and her fellow Solari learn how to use their powers and protect the people of Nigeria, but he is secretly raising an army of superpowered soldiers in order to take over the country, and perhaps the world.

Teen and YA Book Villains

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes coverThe Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes cover

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins

The Villain: Dr Gaul

This prequel to The Hunger Games, set in the Capitol during the Tenth Hunger Games, is chock full of villains, the most prominent one being the future President of Panem, Coriolanus Snow. However, at this point in his life, the teenage Snow is only just beginning his villainous career. The real monster of the story, in my opinion, is Dr Gaul, a sadistic scientist who experiments on humans and creates monstrous creatures designed to kill or spy on dissidents. Dr Gaul is a chilling villain, delighting in causing pain and terror. Unlike Snow and many others in the Capitol, Gaul seems to be motivated by sadism rather than feelings of superiority and vengeance towards the Districts, making her even more terrifying than the other Capitol leaders around her.

grown covergrown cover

Grown by Tiffany D. Jackson

The Villain: Korey Fields

Jackson’s book on a teenage girl who is drawn into the music industry and exploited by an older, famous artist, is, on one level, a fictionalised take on R. Kelly’s abuse of young Black women and girls — however, it’s also a no-holds-barred takedown of the social systems that allow these vulnerable girls to be abused. Korey Fields is a charismatic, talented singer with a despicably sadistic and predatory side, but, like his real-world counterparts, he would not have been able to carry out his abuse without the complacency and complicity of other powerful people around him. In Grown, the villain is not just Korey, but the system that lets him exist.

cover of Lockwood & Co by Jonathan Stroudcover of Lockwood & Co by Jonathan Stroud

Lockwood and Co. by Jonathan Stroud

The Villain: Marissa Fittes

Stroud’s supernatural detective series, following a group of teenagers dealing with angry ghosts in an alternate London, is a darkly fun read, and is crammed with dastardly villains — however, the worst of all is Marissa Fittes, who founded one of the first ghost-destroying agencies after the dead started coming back in an event known as the Problem. By the end of the series, the heroes discover that Fittes caused the Problem herself by working with a dangerous, powerful ghost, and has magically extended her own life by possessing the body of her own granddaughter.

Adult Book Villains

yellowface book coveryellowface book cover

Yellowface by R. F. Kuang

The Villain: June Hayward

Yellowface was a sensation when it came out in 2023, and rightly so. Kuang skewers the racism and hypocrisy of the publishing industry in her razor-sharp tale of deception and professional jealousy. The protagonist, June Hayward, is also the undeniable villain of the story — she begins by stealing a manuscript from her dead, much more successful friend Athena Liu, and publishing it as her own. June’s actions only get more despicable from then on — she steals more of Athena’s work, is delighted when she is defended by racist commentators from charges of plagiarism and appropriation, and is vicious towards anyone who opposes her.

Book cover of The Writing Retreat by Julia BartzBook cover of The Writing Retreat by Julia Bartz

The Writing Retreat by Julia Bartz

The Villain: Roza Vallo

Another writing-themed villain, the depths of Roza Vallo’s dastardly acts are a fun twist in this creepy, modern Gothic story. Alex is one of five promising writers selected to take part in a writing retreat at the home of Vallo, a renowned horror writer. However, as the writers begin to vanish, it is revealed that Vallo has been stealing her protegees’ work for years — and Alex can either go along with it or pay the ultimate price.

Book cover of The City We BecameBook cover of The City We Became

The City We Became by N. K. Jemisin

The Villain: The Woman in White

Some villains want to take over an industry, a country, or perhaps a planet. R’lyeh, also known as The Woman in White, has bigger ambitions. In Jemisin’s tale of humans becoming avatars for their cities, The Woman in White represents Lovecraft’s madness-inducing sunken city, whose aim is to dominate the entire multiverse. Her plan involves spreading her influence across the human realm, stoking the fires of racism and bigotry in order to destabilise society and weaken or manipulate the city avatars before they can truly come into their power and threaten her plan. If you like your villains unsettling, otherworldly, and utterly despicable, you’ll love hating R’lyeh.

If you’re looking for more great villains, try our list of 10 Compelling Books About Villains. Do you love a face turn? Then check out our recommendations for 8 Books Where Villains Become Heroes

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