Thursday, July 7, 2016

Eight Reasons Why I Love Complex Villains

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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.

The Naturals series focuses on four extremely-intelligent teenagers who form a group that helps the FBI solve cold cases, but every few chapters, the still-anonymous killer gets a page or two to send a chilling, threatening message. This glimpse into the mind of a murderer keeps the plot popping with eeriness and suspense that would not have been possible with undivided focus on the crime-fighting team.

Perhaps the most practical reason to read about complex villains is that learning to make sense of the most vile of people teaches you how to empathize with individuals who are hard to understand. 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.

To me, 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.

At the beginning of Prisoner of Night and Fog, Gretchen is a perfect member of the National Socialist Party in 1930s Munich—and she is a close family friend with Germany's rising leader, Aldof Hitler. Readers see several scenes of her interactions with the man she lovingly calls "Uncle Dolf," but that's before she meets an ambitious Jewish journalist and begins to doubt her allegiances. She soon has to question the rules she's grown up with, the ideas she's been brainwashed into believing, and the power of her loyalty to her family—and the up-close, complex portrayal of one of history's most well-known villains makes these moral questions all the more pressing and confusing.

It's spring break of senior year, and Anna and her friends are having an amazing time in Aruba—that is, until Anna's friend Elise is found dead. Anna is suspected in the investigation, and the media paints her as guilty although the evidence is far from watertight. And all the while, readers will be desperate to know whether or not her claim of innocence is true. That's the setup of 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.

In 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. 


  1. This is a fantastic list! I love how you wove book recs into this. I think that complex villains are necessary because they really show those two sides of the coin and can sometimes put you at odds with deciding if they really are the villain or not.

    Liselle @ Lunch-Time Librarian

  2. I agreed with every single point of this post! The reason I like complex characters is probably because it no longer becomes "good guy versus bay guy", and makes you have doubts and inner conflict and all that good stuff.

    Great post!

  3. I love this. I definitely love complex villains - especially if the story is told from the villains perspective :)

    Molly @ Molly's Book Nook

  4. THIS. I completely agree 110% Emily. Complex villains are some of my favorite characters too. There's something eerie yet fascinating at the same time to see how someone turns into a villain from a psychological perspective. Thanks for sharing Emily and, as always, fabulous post! <3

  5. I LOVE this. Complex villains are definitely the way to go and I wish I saw more of them instead of a standard evil for the sake of being evil type of villain. Moral complexity and psychology are some of my favorite things about them. I like knowing that they're human, too. There's just something so terrifying about a villain that seems more real and more relatable.

  6. Yes! I think it's possible to humanize a villain a little *too* much. (I mean, it's not scary if I don't actually think anyone is really evil.) But in general I like them to have some complexity. I don't buy into villains at all who just seem evil for no reason or with no motivation.

  7. Ooh totally! In fact, I find that if a novel doesn't have complex villains, it kind of kills it for me - because complex villains are just so fun to read about! I especially love the books where the villain is the same as the protagonist - it definitely challenges what I think is right!
    Geraldine @ Corralling Books

  8. I like villains who have shades of grey and are interested. It sometimes seems like the villains are just too evil and I much rather see villains that make me think or who I want to understand. Great post!


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