Good guys. Bad guys. As a kid, this distinction is pretty clear. You either want to save all the puppies, or use their fur for a coat. I read my share of fairy tales as a child, so I gobbled this lesson up. It was when I pointed to a news broadcast on TV of the president and asked, “Good guy or bad guy?” that my parents probably decided it was time to teach me about the gray areas of life.
Recently, a villain-loving friend made me think about my black-and-white stance on these evil-doers, explaining, “Real villains always have a motivation that they see as noble and just. They’re always the heroes of their own stories.” We’re so often reading from the protagonist’s point of view that we don’t stop to swim around in another perspective. Who’s right when the so-called bad guys actually believe they’re doing good? While I wouldn’t say I’ve totally crossed over to the dark side, I do try to look at the villain’s point-of-view and hold a greater appreciation for their delightful devilry. After all, vice is a lot more alluring than virtue.
Here’s a list of some literary villains that might just change your perspective, too:
Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins
Long before he was President Snow, 18-year-old Coriolanus was striving for glory as a mentor in the Hunger Games. Portrayed as charming and heroic, we find him searching for a different path, even though we know he eventually becomes the most feared man in all of Panem.
Wicked by Gregory Maguire
How can you be anything but wicked when it’s a part of your name? The Wicked Witch of the West may have gotten a bad rap. Here we learn about how she’d been dealt her own blows in life in this radical evaluation of the green witch.
Cruella by Elizabeth Rudnick
Everyone remembers Cruella De Vil for her sinister appearance and her love of fine furs in 101 Dalmatians. In Disney’s most recent telling, we learn how the young and bullied Cruella is merely taking revenge on those heinous dogs that did something terrible.
Circe by Madeline Miller
Circe is a witch and portrayed as a femme fatale. This feminist retelling of The Odyssey celebrates indomitable female strength in a man's world, and there's certainly nothing villainous about that.
Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo
The Darkling is a villain by his own admission, but he always wants to make Ravka a better place for all Grisha. He tempts Alina to do bad things, but he unwaveringly encourages her to be herself, and her best self, at all times. But like all villains, not everything is what it seems with him.
It by Stephen King
Pennywise the Dancing Clown undoubtedly dances through many nightmares even 36 years after Stephen King summoned him to life in this classic novel. It’s tough to see the merit in terrorizing children, unless you just really don’t like kids.
A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Bad Beginning by Lemony Snicket
One of the most despicable among us, Count Olaf finds himself the sudden guardian to the Baudelaire orphans after their parents pass away. Olaf’s antics are aimed at stealing the children’s inheritance in whatever means necessary. If he now has this unexpected burden of being a caretaker, why not go for a little financial gain?
Darkly Dreaming Dexter by Jeff Lindsay
Dexter is the most noble of villains. Sure, he's a serial killer, but he only kills bad people. The need for justice in an unjust world draws the reader to this vile protagonist who works as a blood-spatter analyst in a police lab by day, and a sociopathic murderer by night.
The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein
Villains take and take and think only of themselves, which is why The Boy rounds out this list. Certainly, he never meant to intentionally harm his friend, the tree. But still, his selfishness (or perhaps, the tree’s selflessness) destroyed her in the end.
Want to borrow these bad boys from your public library? Find them on the Libby app.