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As readers, movie-goers, storytellers, and more, we love our protagonists. Whether you're a fan of Harry Potter's fight against He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named or Katniss Everdeen's expertise with a bow and error, you surely have a handful of heroes you admire—and, let's be honest, probably want to be.
But every heralded hero needs a vile villain to create a story worth telling—and my favorite adversaries are the ones who are complex, the ones whose inner thoughts I get to glimpse, the ones who sometimes even inspire empathy. Here are eight reasons why complex antagonists are the best, complete with eight books featuring wonderfully-written villains.
Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys tells a World War II-era story from the point of view of four different characters, one of whom (as my friend Willa and I discussed in our podcast) is a member of the Nazi party. Despite his evil ways (another character once refers to him as a psychopath in training), readers grow to not only recognize his desperate desire for accolades, but to feel sorry for him. And if we can empathize with a character on such a terrible side of history, surely we can empathize with most real-life people.
Although many young adult and middle grade novels focus on bullying from the point of view of the bullied, fewer stories are told from the bully's perspective. Amanda Maciel's Tease, however, allows us to watch a girl come to terms with her actions after driving her classmate to suicide. She is undeniably a villain in the story, but her unusual tale allows readers to explore the moral grey area of accepting responsibility for, and promising to never again cause, such a tragedy.
Shatter Me's Warner will always be an amazingly-written villain, a person who is told "go to hell" and responds with "I'm trying." For that reason, I don't pull out the fangirl terms (I ship them! They're my OTP!) when talking about his relationship with Juliette; Warner simply isn't love interest material in my mind. However, watching the two characters fall for each other—watching Warner soften his hardened personality and watching Juliette learn to appreciate someone who originally treated her terribly—is still an intriguing experience. Their relationship is a fascinating look at the way love can change people, a psychological journey that wouldn't have been as powerful without a despicable villain.
Dangerous Girls by Abigail Haas, a story that made me feel nauseated with suspense and a novel that demanded to be read in one day. The story's protagonist is the most complex and most confusing possibly-villain, possibly-not I've ever read.
Dear Killer's main character is a moral nihilist who, with coaching from her mother, has trained for years to become a skilled bare-hands assassin. Her after-school job involves killing people based on the requests of Londoners who leave letters in her hidden mailbox, an activity she views as a mere business transaction. The protagonist's disbelief that murder—or anything else for that matter—is wrong makes her a villain who readers will want to understand, creating one of the most fascinating premises I've ever read.
Trish Doller's The Devil You Know, Arcadia is on a road trip with two boys—one of whom she may be falling in love with and one of whom may be responsible for a recent set of murders. (There's no telling if both descriptions apply to the same character or not.) The detailed, personal portrayal of both potential villains (combined with my fear for Arcadia's safety) made me more concerned about uncovering the criminal's identity than I would have been in a more removed murder mystery.
All in all, complex villains are a great kind of character—one I'd love to see more often in YA. Are you a fan of complex villains? If so, what do you love about them and who are some of your favorites? Let me know in the comments.