Regardless of whether you love to hate them or hate to love them, villains play an essential role in creating immersive, realistic plots. Sometimes, they're even more compelling than the hero.
It's like Tolstoy once said, "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." Similarly, many of our heroes in science fiction and fantasy share similar traits: courage, an iron will, and resilience. But our best villains can come in all shapes, sizes, and forms. Some can be the main character of a story, others hide in the shadows.
This list of 14 compelling villains from sci-fi and fantasy books offers hobbits, futuristic technology, and regular-old humans. The only thing these characters really share in common is that they'll fascinate you as much as they horrify you.
There are any number of villainous characters in the Red Rising trilogy, but the Jackal is easily the most dastardly of them all. It takes a special sort of demented to resort to cannibalism to set a trap, and ultimately cut off his own hand to escape that same trap. And he only gets worse from there!
The Jackal is cunning, conniving, and has zero qualms about doing anything and everything to win. He’s a terrifying opponent, who will keep you turning the pages long into the night as you root for his demise.
The Lord of the Rings Trilogy
Tolkien's classic has a bevy of compelling villains to choose from. Amazon committed $1 billion to telling the story of Sauron and the Rings of Power. Saruman's betrayal still stings, and the Witch-king of Angmar is an iconic villain.
But the confrontations between the protagonists of The Lord of the Rings and these villains are more pronounced and much more brief than what Frodo must endure with Gollum. The Stoor hobbit called Sméagol was corrupted by the One Ring. Gollum's insanity serves as both a danger to Frodo and something of a prophecy.
To be forced to face your own future—a bleak future of single-minded insanity—is more terrifying and compelling than any witch-king could be.
When it comes to villainous vampires, Charlie Manx in Joe Hill's NOS4A2 takes the blood bag. He doesn’t simply kidnap children to take their lifeforce, he turns them into little killing machines with sharp teeth in return. Even more chilling, Manx actually believes he’s giving these abducted children better lives in a supernatural murder theme park called Christmasland.
He’s full of vengeance and wrath, willing to go to incredible lengths to murder anyone he finds immoral or unworthy. Ghastly and grim, Manx is sure to send chills down your spine.
The Bone Season
In an alternate London, being a clairvoyant is dangerous—mostly because there’s a group of immortal humanoids who feed on their auras. In secret.
Blood-sovereign Nashira Sargas is the head of these brutal beings. She’s brutal in her command, preferring cold cruelty and merciless punishments as her favored methods of leadership.
Nashira feels she’s above humans and clairvoyants, though she’s willing to tie powerful spirits to herself to use as weapons. And because she’s difficult to kill and wants to take over the human world, she makes an extremely daunting nemesis.
Ready Player One
To be fair, the entire Innovative Online Industries (IOI) could arguably be the villain in Ready Player One. But Nolan Sorrento embodies the evil corporate overlord trope with enthusiasm and aplomb.
It’s not just that he works for IOI. Or that he wants to control OASIS. Or that he blames every bad decision (like murder) on the board, when it’s his name on the memos.
Sorrento is an abominable villain because even in defeat, he wears his smug smile knowing lawyers and corporate money will shield him from consequences.
A Game of Thrones
If there’s one thing Westeros has, it’s an abundance of villains. Tywin. Joffrey. Ramsey. Littlefinger.
While they may seem the more obvious choices, Cersei managed to outlast them all. What makes her intriguing is that she’s constantly dismissed by almost everyone in her life, including those who love her. She’s conniving and petty, but rather than learn how to outmaneuver her enemies, she harbors a vicious appetite for vengeance, which she will unleash with zero regard for consequences.
Though many watched her fate in the show, the books may lead her down a slightly different path. One thing’s for sure, her cruel and ruthless decisions are only going to escalate now that very few people stand in her way.
Depending on whom one you ask, Eli is either the villain or the hero of V.E. Schwab's Vicious.
His opponent, Victor, clearly has no qualms using his power for his own ends, and is willing to do whatever it takes to get his way. Eli is far more complicated. He’s a villain with a hero complex, believing it’s his divine right to pursue justice against other ExtraOrdinaries. In that context, what’s wrong with a little serial homicide? Victor manipulates, puts on a façade, and is dishonest about who he is and what motivates him.
Harrowing and tragic, Eli’s righteous agenda makes him formidable. He’s the type of villain only another villain can destroy, which is why he’s incredibly interesting and terrifying in equal measure.
Shadow and Bone
If you like your villains dark and sexy with a side of power-hungry ambition, the Darkling from Leigh Bardugo's Grishaverse is definitely for you.
Even before Ben Barnes brought his devastating charm to life in the Netflix adaptation of the books, the Darkling has been a fan favorite villain for years. It’s hard to argue that his desire to offer a country where the Grisha can live free and safe isn’t noble. The problem is the lengths he’s willing to go in order to see his vision come to life.
He’s powerful, refusing to bend to anyone. He may genuinely love his fellow Grisha, but his desire for power warps him into a manipulative villain.
For more on Shadow and Bone—including the tension between Mal, Alina, and the Darkling—read this take from our friends at Den of Geek.
The Haunting of Hill House
Can a house be villainous? Hill House certainly is. It’s malevolent, violent, disorienting, and cruel. Hill House is a predator, hunting its prey with a calculated efficiency. It wears you down, forcing you to question everything you believe to be real; and when your defenses are at their lowest, it pounces, devouring you wholly.
As with all villains, it’s difficult to say if the house itself was born evil, or the people who lived within it imbued it with their own wicked tendencies over time. Regardless, the house is determined to call certain people home, and to do whatever it can to keep them there forever.
Grand Admiral Thrawn
Star Wars: Thrawn Ascendancy
Before Anakin Skywalker chose the Dark Side, Grand Admiral Thrawn was carving his way through the galaxy on a quest for power. Under Emperor Palpatine, he rose through the Imperial ranks thanks to his ruthless but brilliant strategies.
A firm believer in destroying his enemies by understanding them in intricate detail, he dedicated countless time to studying and understanding every detail of anyone he opposed. This calm calculation paved the way for the Imperial Army to evolve into the First Order after the Empire’s defeat.
Without Thrawn, they wouldn’t have survived, making his villainous legacy far more insidious than Darth Vader’s brutal reign.
Alex The Large
A Clockwork Orange
Anthony Burgess structured his entire novel around a violent sociopath, his gang activities, and the consequences of his actions. Sent to prison and forced to endure experimental treatments, it's hard to say that Alex the Large (or DeLarge, as it is in Stanley Kubrick's Oscar-nominated adaptation) is ever really reformed.
Nonetheless, Burgess's black comedy was named one of Time's best 100 books since 1923. There's no doubt that Alex and his droogs deserve a spot on any list of compelling villains.
Spoilers for Mexican Gothic to follow!
Howard Doyle takes creepy villain to a several new levels. He discovered a mushroom that merges with humans, and can prolong their lives while containing their memories. Which sounds cool until you find out that means he can basically take root in someone else’s body to continue living long after he should have died.
He also uses the spores to induce hallucinations and control other people. And since the fungus is more potent when interacting with certain genetics than others, he’s not above incest and murder to prolong his very extended life.
The Poppy War
Su Daji has absolutely no qualms about being a villain. In fact, she embraces it. She’s the Empress but goes by the more daunting title, The Vipress. And she fully lives up to her name, using seduction, poison, hypnosis, and more to fight for her deadly ambitions.
Her cavalier attitude towards murder is one thing, but her willingness to wreak havoc across the Empire in order to remain in power will haunt you throughout the trilogy.
2001: A Space Odyssey
HAL 9000, the sentient A.I. computer that controls the Discovery One spacecraft, was compelling enough to carry the entirety of the Space Odyssey series, from the Oscar-nominated film to the sequels like 2010 and 2061. More than that, however, it helped popularize an entire subgenre of science fiction, where the artificial intelligence is a little too smart ... and a lot more dangerous than we'd like to admit.
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