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From The Terrifying To The Compelling: The Best Of Literary Villains And Anti-Heroes

By Lucy Lillystone, Kelly Stone and Amy Wright


As readers, we’ve been ingrained to root for the hero of the story and wish for the demise of the villain. However, sometimes we forget to acknowledge just how fantastically brilliant villains and anti-heroes truly are. If written well, the baddies have the power to make us love them, with a grudging respect for their cunningness and immorality. Here’s our list of our most noteworthy literary villains.


The Darkling From The Grisha Trilogy by Leigh Bardugo


In the world of fantasy, villains are usually my favourite characters. From the likes of Aaron Warner to King Leck, the villains bring the wit and the action. No one, however, comes as close to my heart as The Darkling. The perfect combination of badass cruelty and charisma, he makes you believe in his cause, with enough cunning to trick the reader into thinking he is the good guy. He will do whatever it takes to get what he wants and he feels no remorse about it. When I first read this series, I wanted so desperately to comfort him, I wanted to root for him and I tried to find reason in every bad thing he did. And while I do not defend his actions, Bardugo writes with such skill that it’s almost impossible not to be persuaded to like him: he is an inevitable force. The Darkling will test your morals and have you questioning your judgement, offering everything you want in a villainous character.


Victor Vale From Vicious by V. E. Schwab


V. E. Schwab’s Villains series explores a unique take on villains and anti-heroes by featuring what seems like the story’s villain as the protagonist. At the start of the first book, Victor is digging up a grave, having recently broken out of prison. Meanwhile, his rival Eli has become a renowned local hero, who has dedicated his life over the last ten years to eliminating the threats of those with supernatural powers – except, of course, his own. Victor and Eli used to be college roommates and friends. But the closer they became to discovering power beyond what they ever could have imagined, the more their motivations diverged. This unconventional approach to superheroes and villainy shows that morality can be much murkier than it initially seems as the characters’ complex ambitions come into play.


Emma Woodhouse from Emma by Jane Austen


Emma Woodhouse is an unlikely anti-heroine since she is simultaneously the protagonist of the story and a character that most will grow to love during the course of the novel. The character is initially introduced with multiple imperfections: Emma is stubborn, selfish and jealous. She insults the loyal Miss Bates and manipulates her friend Harriet into making poor decisions. Yet, Emma’s defects are realistic and the character development is credible. Her downfalls make her a better person and consequently a likeable anti-heroic protagonist. Whilst Austen herself said that Emma was “a heroine whom no-one but myself will much like”, it is these flaws that make Emma the popular and timeless anti-heroine who has been admired for generations.


Adelina Amouteru From The Young Elites by Marie Lu


Adelina Amouteru is a quintessential anti-heroine in her lead role in Marie Lu’s YA fantasy series The Young Elites. A survivor of the blood fever that plagued her world as a child, she developed mysterious powers that her society has branded as a threat. After being treated like an unwanted outcast throughout much of her adolescence, she finds other Young Elites who are like her. Yet she cannot help but feel compelled by her vengeful ambitions to gain power over those whose cruelty and prejudice made them think less of her. This internal battle follows her throughout the trilogy, showcasing the many delicate sides of Adelina’s relationship with power and control.


Dr Hannibal Lecter From The Silence Of The Lambs by Thomas Harris


Society’s interest in serial killers is profound, evidenced by the well-documented films and books on the subject. No serial killer or villain, however, has projected the monster as an anti-hero image more powerfully than Dr Hannibal in Thomas Harris’s The Silence of the Lambs. Harris created a villain who embodies society’s deepest and darkest fears, made even more frightening by the fact that he is an accomplished, incredibly intelligent, medical doctor and psychiatrist. Hannibal is devoid of science and completely unstoppable, but he is also brilliant, witty and even charming. He has a set of strict ethical principles that he lives by, and kills by, and his capacity for compassion is matched only by his cruelty. What Harris does brilliantly is make the reader question, “Is Hannibal a psychopath? Is he evil? Or is he kind and human?” He defies categorisation, making him an incredibly brilliant and identifiable villain in the literary canon.


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