Welcome to Authorology, where authors talk about their favorite parts of YA books.
Want to know what people like more than really amazing heroes? Really amazing villains. Let’s talk about the best villains in YA books.
Human and monster.
I love it when the villain is both human and monster, enticing and frightening, like Dale/Bob in Twin Peaks or the questionable ghosts in Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw. I like it when I am taken on a journey like the workings of a dream, or of a nightmare, when the narrator situates me in reality, but then, when I least expect it, I am given confusing peeks at the unknown, unseen darkest places of the mind, and I am struck by a desire to know more along with the simultaneous fear of what that more is, what the rest means. That is Violet’s desire to know about River in Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea. Set in the haunting town of Echo with crumbling mansions, dark forests, and children who chase the Devil in the cemetery at night, April Genevieve Tucholke’s book explores the presence of evil in the most fascinating way. I want my villains to truly scare me, and as Violet might herself say: Damn, River and his Devil ways sure did scare me good.
– E. Katherine Kottaras, author of How To Be Brave
Maven in Victoria Aveyard’s Glass Sword. I love a well-written villain, and I love that so much what he does makes sense from his perspective.
– Marieke Nijkamp, author of This Is Where It Ends
IMHO, no one makes a better villain in the YA genre than a frenemy. Even though that term is recent, the concept of a so-called friend who looks for opportunities to shade and maybe even sabotage you is as old as humankind. Even the Bible talks about them.
I suffered my first frenemy in fourth grade which is probably the first time I read the enduring classic Are You There, God? It’s Me Margaret by Judy Blume. Although I didn’t move to the suburbs like protagonist Margaret Simon, we both were the new girl in class and had to make friends. Also like Margaret, our first new “bestie” wasn’t someone we sought out. Nancy Wheeler just shows up on Margaret’s new doorstop within hours of her move to New Jersey. My frenemy Claribel (of course, that’s not her real name because the woman done found me on Facebook and… never mind) was instructed to show me the ropes in my new classroom.
In these days of cyberbullying and girlfight videos, I miss Nancy Wheeler. There’s no question that she’s a snob. Yet the way Blume writes Nancy as well as Margaret’s underreaction to her, you can never tell if Nancy is conscious of her efforts to shore up her own insecurities at Margaret’s expense or whether she has knowingly befriended Margaret . Eventually, we learn that the self-professed goddess has clay feet, and we love and respect Margaret even more for how she handles it, deciding to show compassion to Nancy in her vulnerable hour yet also choosing to nurture her friendship with Janie. Nowadays our popular culture is rife with girls who are knowingly, proactively and relentlessly mean, but how true to life is this? I work with middle school girls, and while I’m aware how their relational aggression they is encouraged and exacerbated by things that I didn’t have to deal with, I also know that they’re rooted in social and emotional challenges that are timeless. As nasty as she can be, five will get you ten that the mean girl was made not born.
Maybe just maybe if we had more contemporary versions of Nancy Wheeler in popular media aimed at youth, they could get a foothold in acquiring the socio-emotional skills necessary to manage adolescent angst without, say, becoming an evening news story. Wishful thinking? Perhaps.
All I know is that seeing my relationship with Claribel in Margaret’s complicated friendship with Nancy helped me realize that something was wrong and that I didn’t have to bend myself beyond recognition to make it work.
– Sofia Quintero, author of Show and Prove
Leck, from Kristin Cashore’s Graceling, Fire and (his legacy in) Bitterblue because he stood for more than just someone who had a terrifying Grace. He felt to me like the patriarchy personified. No matter what, if it was good or bad, people believed and did what he said to do and were convinced it was for the best, even when it was harmful, while they were under his influence. He was cruel, petty, and sadistic. And the aftermath of his Grace is as pervasive and painful as systems that guide our own cultures and societies.
– Katherine Locke, author of the upcoming YA The Girl with the Red Balloon
My knee-jerk response when someone asks for my favorite villain is Dolores Umbridge from Harry Potter, but I think she’s everyone’s favorite, and I really wanted to go another direction for this one. Because I write contemporary YA, I also read it voraciously, and I’m always studying how other authors create and use villains in their stories. What I typically find is that the villains are so well-crafted that I still find myself empathizing with them and understanding how they got to be the way they are, even if I didn’t like them. Sometimes, I even feel a little bad for the antagonist at the end of the story because I can empathize with not getting what they want. But Elliot Webb from The Wrong Side of Right is a villain I despised from the very beginning and still hate (and it’s been a while since I finished the book). He is the very epitome of everything wrong with politics. He’s seedy, he’s an opportunist, and he’s so focused on winning that he doesn’t care who he steps on or knocks over along the way. He lurks in the background like a vulture throughout most of the story, and every time he comes to the forefront, I want someone to claw out his eyes or push him out of the campaign bus. And worse, his fate at the end of the book is too good for him, and that’s probably part of what makes him my favorite villain. Elliot Webb is so awful and horrid and despicable—and I think he resonated so strongly with me because we all know people like him exist in real life.
– Ella Martin, author of Will The Real Prince Charming Please Stand Up?
The Young Elites.
My two favorite villains come from the same book— Marie Lu’s The Rose Society. What’s really unique in this sequel to The Young Elites is that the main character is also the villain! Adelina Amouteru, the White Wolf, is the heroine of the story but also a deadly villain. Her limitless abilities and thirst for power make her adversaries fearful, but her friends even more frightened. Additionally, her nemesis, Teren Santoro, is a sickly deviant self-hating villain it’s so easy to hate. Both of these characters have enormous depth and character which makes Lu’s tales so fascinating to me.
– Lisa Amowitz, author of Until Beth
Simon vs. Martin.
Martin in Simon Vs. The Homo Sapien Agenda by Becky Abertalli. Man, who doesn’t want to hate the guy who wants to out someone? I mean, I don’t care if he’s a class clown, you just want to hate him. Until maybe you don’t. And that’s one thing…
– Joy N. Hensley, author of Rites of Passage
The noseless one.
Voldemort. I think the later Harry Potter books qualify as YA, and the realistic menace presented by the Snake-Faced-One has always impressed me. The key scene for me is the murder of Cedric. Voldemort doesn’t hesitate, pontificate or explain away the murder. He just sees an extra obstacle to his ascendency and orders it eliminated, immediately. Rowling doesn’t present the death of Cedric as “meaningful.” She’s too clever for that. Evil is just evil sometimes, and evil people kill. We tend to look for meaning in death, but it’s amazing to me that she presents a tougher question to kids – how do you respond to a “meaningless” death? To a callous waste of a person’s life? Wow.
– Kevin Sylvester, author of MINRS
You’ll want this 2017 debut.
There are a lot of villains in young adult novels and many of them aren’t even actual people. Case in point, I just finished reading a terrific debut by Stephanie Elliott titled Sad Perfect, which pubs in 2017. The villain is all things villains are in YA: a pest, a needler, a scary threat, a ghost, a hoverer, a haunter, and a bully. But Elliott’s villain doesn’t have legs, or a mouth, or cascading hair or a wicked laugh. Her villain is, quite simply, an eating disorder, one that grows and grows until it’s a monster of mythical proportions that threatens to destroy Elliott’s main character.
And that’s the thing about villains: they aren’t always easy to spot. They are so good at being shadows, at waiting for just the right moment to strike, when a person is at their weakest and most vulnerable. Villains can be obvious (oh, how I love Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter series and his insidious, obsequious manner, how he manages to hit all Harry’s soft spots, every single time. Because that’s how bullies work, they are relentless), but I think the better villains, the ones we can learn from, are the ones that we never talk about in real life (or don’t talk about enough): depression, self-harm, eating disorders, OCD. All the things that threaten to derail an adolescence, and life, in general.
As a teen, I needed those villains in YA. They hounded me relentlessly in real life, and I needed to read them in order to know I was not alone, and in order to learn how to fight.
– Kathleen Glasgow, author of the upcoming Girl in Pieces
I’m a sucker for a truly terrifying villain. Monologue-happy evil-doers are fun, but an insidious bad guy sticks with me for weeks. In Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely’s All American Boys, villainy is a moving target. Yes, there is Paul Galluzzo the “fist-happy cop” who beats Rashad Butler in a corner bodega, but even he becomes secondary to a system that turns Rashad into a criminal and turns, unwilling witness, Quinn Collins into a silent accomplice. That being said, this isn’t a novel that excuses individual wrong-doing as merely a symptom of a larger problem. Villains exist here, often in places that characters like Quinn do not expect, but that wrongdoing can’t be cordoned off and dismissed as one man’s problem. Paul is no “bad apple.” In the end, what I love about the villainy in All American Boys is that it can’t be owned by any one character. It demands to be shared.
This one was really hard for me because I must admit that I hardly notice the villains. Even in favorite books, I could remember all kinds of details, but not anything about the villain. So I’ll have to go with the institutional “villain” in Jaclyn Moriarty’s Colors of Madeleine series. There’s not really any one “bad guy,” but the way the system is set up makes it nearly impossible for the good guys to do the right thing without getting into some kind of trouble.
– Shanna Swendson, author of Rebel Mechanics
The crazy, abusive polygamist Mormon minister in the terrifying The Chosen One by Carol Lynch Williams. I still get upset when I think about that book. The scariest people in existence are religious fanatics.
– Heidi R. Kling, author of Paint My Body Red