I actually made this list a long while back, but I decided to save the idea for an October post, since villains and Halloween go so well together. Then The Broke and the Bookish published a TTT villain-themed prompt for this week—too perfect!
As I put this list together, it got me thinking about the difference between true villains and plain old antagonists. I realized I kinda have a “type” when it comes to my favorite baddies. I love reading about intelligent villains who lie, manipulate, and cheat to get what they want (probably because I consider this kind of villainy to be particularly difficult to overcome). So you’ll probably notice lots of characters on my list who fall into that category.
I also realized that, to me, a character doesn’t have to engage in grand, world-altering schemes in order to be a true villain. I base my judgement on the extent of the damage inflicted on the innocent, rather than the societal/global scope of the villain’s plans. So a character that devotes themselves to personally devastating a single innocent character might be more evil to me than a cold-hearted megalomaniac.
One final note before we get started: This is by no means a definitive list. I had to leave off some pretty famous names since I haven’t read the books that go with them. For example, almost every list of literary villainesses I’ve seen includes Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Next, but I can’t include her here since I haven’t read the book.
My Top 10 Fave Literary Villainesses
Move over, Maleficent! The reigning queen of evil intent has been scheming her schemes since of the days of King Arthur. I’ve always been fascinated by the impersonal way Morgan sets out to destroy Arthur (her real beef is with Merlin). Plus, she’s crazy powerful. As the Mister put it in a recent conversation about her, “Feared? Respected? Why not both?”
I love Morgan le Fay, but I love to hate Milady de Winter. Pure evil in a fancy dress, she’s the reigning champion of manipulation and corruption. I wanted to cover my eyes every time she set her sights on a new innocent person. Heck, even the book’s official villain (Richelieu) is afraid of her!
Jadis usurps the throne of Narnia in Aslan’s absence and spends her free time hunting down children and turning citizens to stone (SPOILER: Of course, her most evil act is slaying Aslan, but The Magician’s Nephew indicates that she was actually enslaving innocents and destroying worlds long before Narnia was ever sung into being).
If that doesn’t qualify her as true villainess, I don’t know what does!
Ah yes. Good ol’ Putrid in Pink. What Harry Potter fan doesn’t love to hate on Umbridge? I’ll admit, I had trouble putting into words exactly why she disgusts me so much. Is it her smug attitude? The self-righteous way she views her own cruelty? Her nauseatingly cutesy sense of style?
Honestly, it’s probably a combo of the three.
Is the fact that she abused AN ENTIRE SCHOOL OF CHILDREN not enough to snag the Trunchbull a spot on a list of Top 10 Literary villains? How about killing her brother-in-law and making it look like a suicide? Or being an all-around bully to pretty much everyone?
(SPOILER: Let’s be honest: there are few character triumphs more satisfying than Matilda’s defeat of Trunchbull.)
Maria Minchin is probably the bitterest character I’ve ever read. She’s so acidic she can’t even stand people being happy around her. What’s more evil that deliberately attempting to crush the spirit of a little orphan girl just because her optimism annoys you?
These days there are plenty of retellings that try to explain away the witch’s behavior, but let’s face it. If you’re trying to kill a little girl over a pair of shoes, you’ve got issues.
What makes Esme stand out to me as a villain isn’t just the horrible things she does (killing people! kidnapping children! assisting thieves and murderers!) but also her terrible reasons for doing so. At least characters like the White Witch and Morgan le Fay have lofty goals. Esme, on the other hand, is willing to do terrible things to innocent people for no other reason that she kinda wants something and they’re in her way. She doesn’t even attempt to justify her evil actions, because she doesn’t think she’s done anything that merits justification.
Why let a homesick war hero go on his merry way when you can imprison him for 7 years and try to coerce him into marrying you? Calypso’s oh-so-charming personality wins her a spot on my Top 10 list.
You can make an argument for Circe too, seeing as she turned all Odysseus’ men into pigs for awhile. But I decided I couldn’t really count her as a villain since she was so good at imprisoning Odysseus that he actually wanted to stay.
With the advent of the new X-Men movies, it can be easy to think of Mystique as a more sympathetic character. She’s complex for sure, but in the comics she’s consistently involved in some pretty evil stuff. She’s assassinated many prominent politicians for their anti-mutant leanings, revived Magneto’s team of violent super villains known as the Brotherhood, and has no problems double-crossing pretty much everyone.
What female villains would you add to the list?