So. Hello everybody and welcome to today’s discussion post, in which I’ll talk about the baddies of YA and hopefully not veer wildly off the mark. To begin with, I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that traditionally, YA has had a villain problem. Snow and Coin were a good starting point and played with much gravitas by their respective actors (hello there, Julianne Moore) but the trope of the primary antagonist being a shady, omnipresent government represented by a crusty, occasionally ruthless bureaucrat became quite the cliché.
This applies mainly for sci-fi/dystopia, of course. I’m not as familiar with paranormal/pre-Sarah J. Maas fantasy, and maybe someone more well-read in those genres can help me out. But the one-sidedness of many villains is only natural. After all, writing a properly characterised baddie is hard. Have too much fun with them, and suddenly what you’ve got is a Bond villain–perfect for the screen, but likely less effective in a YA novel, where the stakes are typically more personal and you can’t rely on the natural charisma of the actor to sell the character. Of course, never say never: The suave Evil Is Sexy villains can and have been done well in YA. Like Leigh Bardugo’s Darkling. The thirst is real with this one.
For the most part, though, I’d call it a good thing that YA has more diversity in villainy than the average blockbuster. In books that I’ve read recently, two common tropes have been the traitor reveal and the villain protagonist. The former being when a character close to the protagonist turns out to be the big bad at the climax, and although I won’t spoil this by naming specific books, I have been seeing it a lot lately. The latter takes place in books like Forest of a Thousand Lanterns and Genuine Fraud, where I’d argue that the narrators’ intentions cross the line from mere antihero territory to flat-out villainy.
Whatever their identities, though, the things that make a villain interesting remain the same. We want to understand their motives (as dark as they may be), to see what makes them tick, to maybe get a glimpse of the humanity underneath, if that still exists. If not, we want to be impressed by the scale of their ambitions as they become the person we love to hate.
Keeping in mind the qualities that make a villain truly great, here are five of my favourites from the YA books I’ve read:
5. Jurian, A Court of Wings and Ruin
Who he is: An legendary mortal general during the war between humans and their Fae oppressors centuries ago, who is resurrected near the end of the second book by the all-powerful Cauldron. He then allies with the big bad the King of Hybern.
Why he’s great: I have Jurian this low because I’m not sure I can really classify him as a villain. Certain revelations in A Court of Wings and Ruin make him more of an antihero, as does the ending which foreshadows a positive future for him. But I had to include an SJM character somewhere on this list, because as questionable as most of her characterisation is, she pulls off suave villains like nobody else. Jurian is no exception–he’s irreverent, powerful and handsome (like most SJM
villains characters, honestly)–and gets in a fair amount of shots within limited screentime.
And yes, I liked Rhys better as a villain. This entry should really be “Rhysand, ignoring everything after ACOTAR.”
4. Callum Harker, This Savage Song
Who he is: Father of protagonist Kate Harker and de facto dictator of the north side of Verity, thanks to having brought most of the city’s monsters under his control through ruthless displays of force.
Why he’s great: The trope of the protagonist’s parent/guardian (typically the father figure, but sometimes the mother) being the main villain has grown pretty popular lately, as authors look for ways to keep the parents of their teenaged main character relevant to the story without killing them off. Callum Harker is the best of that bunch. The Littlefinger of Verity, he’s a brilliant and immoral tyrant who contextualises the relative brutality of his daughter while making a strong impression in his own right.
Sure, Harker’s ultimate purpose in the Monsters of Verity narrative may be as mere fuel for Kate’s personal growth, but when a narrative pawn of a character is this memorable, that’s more a testament to Victoria Schwab’s skill than an indictment of Callum Harker himself.
3. Alectar von Pasus, The Empress
Who he is: One of the most powerful men in the galactic Empire and foremost champion of the heliocentric faith, determined to take down the new Emperor Tyrus and his empress Nemesis. Nemesis is widely reviled as a Diabolic, a genetically engineered humanoid created as a killing machine, and von Pasus will stop at nothing to make her pay for having killed his daughter in self-defence.
Why he’s great: Alectar von Pasus is one of the few YA villains that I’m truly intimidated by. Not only is he a cruel, sadistic master of realpolitik, he wholeheartedly follows the backwards heliocentric religion that wilfully oppresses science and education in order to keep the ruling elite in power. I suspect that what gets me so much about von Pasus is that he’s not just a psychopathic genius, but his character has echoes of many historical and contemporary figures. In other words, he hits a little too close to home.
The fact that von Pasus is a slimy, punchable old man (well, I guess he still looks young thanks to futuristic anti-ageing tech, but that makes him no less repulsive) suits his role in the story really well. After all, in the world of The Empress, there are no true heroes, at least not ones who are still alive. Seeing that this is what the protagonists are up against makes you root for them even harder, no matter what methods they use.
2. Minya, Strange the Dreamer
Who she is: The chronologically oldest and unofficial leader of the godspawn, half-human children of the evil gods who enslaved the people of Weep for two centuries before being ousted by an uprising. Minya’s power to entrap and control ghosts has the side effect of stunting her growth, leaving her in a six-year-old’s body.
Why she’s great: On one hand, Minya’s extremism is unacceptable. She thirsts for revenge on all humans for having killed the gods’ children alongside their parents. Her bloodthirstiness has no bounds, and she’s willing to manipulate, threaten and torture even those closest to her in order to inflict maximum pain on her enemies. And yet, thanks to great writing and a scant few paragraphs from her perspective, it’s easy to understand and even sympathise with Minya’s anger. She feels like the whole world has done her by, and in a way, it has. She’s suffered and made her fair share of sacrifices. But at the end of the day, we can never support her moral rigidity, which calls for the deaths of an entire people.
Minya’s Magneto reimagined as a creepy necromancer. I’m eager to see where she goes in Book Two.
1. Mehmed II, Now I Rise
Who he is: Kiersten White’s take on Mehmed the Conqueror in his adolescence. He’s intelligent, ambitious and he’s got his eyes on the prize of Constantinople–no matter what the cost.
Why he’s great: Oh dear. I wasn’t even intending to put this as my top nomination, but one thing led to another, and here we are. You know that Mehmed is a villain with some bite when half the readers are clamouring for his death on the Goodreads page of the as yet unreleased final book. I don’t have this kind of intense hate for Mehmed, but I have to admit he’s his own brand of compelling. Mehmed is the middle of one of YA’s most unique love triangles, which takes the trope of the two sides as siblings and puts a wonderful new spin on it. The romantic tension between him and antiheroine/anti-villain (depending on how you want to look at it) protagonist Lada is fiery and destructive, and through the first two books you really get to see all his nuances as the fatally fundamentalist hell-bent on taking Constantinople.
Whether you want him to rise or burn, it’s hard to deny that he’s a great flawed figure in a series where there are no true heroes or villains, only people with different agendas.
Madeleine Wallace, Batman: Nightwalker
Queen Katharine, One Dark Throne