Five Great Kids’ Lit Villains

Villains can make or break a book. I’ve heard it said they’re especially important for sequels, when we want to see the heroes tested by something harder and from a new angle.

The ones I find most interesting are the ones who get inside protagonists, playing off an insecurity. It might be that they trigger an especially strong fear or hatred. It might be that they trigger tenderness at the same time, making the hero and reader unsure how to react.

5. Gwendolen Chant

(Charmed Life by Diana Wynne Jones)

from deviantart user kecky

It’s hard to list all the reasons why Gwendolen is so memorable without giving away major twists from Charmed Life. Suffice to say that she’s able to make Cat squirm in very interesting ways. She is a powerful foe, but it’s the way that she uses her power that create images and conflicts.

The picture above is kind of a spoiler already. Those who’ve read the novel will get the significance of the match. Those who haven’t read the novel, should.

4. The Other Mother

(Coraline by Neil Gaiman)

from Tabitha Raincloud on iRez

Gaiman has talked about how parents are often more creeped out by Coraline than children are. There’s just something incredibly disturbing about having the villain be a loving mother with buttons for eyes.

The Other Mother is perfectly designed to fit into what Coraline thinks she wants. She’s tempting because we all understand the want for love, and terrifying because we see there’s something off about what she’s offering.

She’s also difficult to vanquish, and even when it seems like Coraline is safe from her, she isn’t. The Other Mother breaks the usual rules of Magic Door Stories, by refusing to stay only in her world.

3. Goth

(Silverwing Trilogy by Kenneth Oppel)

image from Wikimedia Commons

Goth is a gigantic, fervently-zealous, cannibal monster who escaped from a zoo. Are you scared yet? Because that’s terrifying!

He’s a good match against Shade who is the runt of his litter, an especially small bat. Compared to humans, Goth might not be so bad, but on the scale of bats he’s a huge. There are several moments when Shade fantasizes about being as strong as the cannibal.

I’ve said before that I don’t like generic evil, and I don’t think Goth qualifies as that. He is an embodiment of fear and death, but he’s also manipulative and plays on Shade’s uncertainties, trying to rip him apart from his friends, and his hope.

2. Dolores Umbridge

(Harry Potter Series by J. K. Rowling)

from deviantart user *WayForge

We’ve seen this one before

so who took #1?

1. Long John Silver

(Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson)

from deviantart user vitorart

Long John Silver is not only an iconic character–the crutch, the parrot, the grin–he also gets deep inside Jim Hawkins.

Early in the novel, Silver is a father figure to Hawkins. This is a hugely important part of the relationship that isn’t always done well in adaptations. Long John Silver is cutthroat, but he’s also jovial. And Hawkins looks up to him.

A lot of Silver’s power comes from physical prowess, but it’s also from charisma. And it’s not just the other pirates that follow him. Readers do as well, to the point that we share Hawkins’s grim hope and relief that Silver escapes with money.

My personal fondness for the character is cemented by Tim Curry’s portrayal in Muppet Treasure Island. I would love to post his final scene, but that would be a spoiler, and I can’t find it on youtube anyway.

Instead, I’ll leave you with this…

Next week, I’ll tackle one of the most common questions that writers get asked: “Where do you get your ideas?”


Five Great Harry Potter Villains


I’ve seen Voldemort appear on bloggers’ lists of the greatest kids’ book villains of all time. Personally, I don’t think he’s even the best villain of the series that he’s in.

The Harry Potter series does have great villains, but Voldemort is one of the least interesting. He’s the generic evil problem I talked about in my last post. The more interesting characters are the ones with internal conflict, or the ones who make us angry because they remind us of people we’ve met.

Before I continue: a shout out to the deviant artists whose work I’m using in today’s post. I didn’t want to use movie screenshots because I was sure that fans could capture the characters in interesting ways, and help me keep this about the books. Clicking on images will take you to the artists’ pages.

5. Grindelwald

from deviant art user dreizehntredici.

I find Grindelwald a more interesting character than Voldemort for a few reasons. His motivation is similarly generic, but there’s more mystery and detail around him.

Really though, it’s because of his relationship with Dumbledore. Rowling has said that the reason Albus didn’t take a strong enough stance against Grindelwald is that he was enamoured with him. I like to take this a step further. In Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, Harry asks Dumbledore what he sees in the Mirror of Erised. According to the mirror’s rules, it should be something that he longs for, but can’t have, and may actually cause him damage.

He tells Harry that he sees himself with a new pair of socks, an obvious lie. I like to think that he sees himself in a relationship with Grindelwald.*

4. Dudley Dursley

Image from deviantart user ~Gytrash01

I love the Dursleys. From the opening description of the first book, they’re hilarious and on point. The fact that Uncle Dursley works with drills is the perfect detail for his character.

Dudley is the one who makes my list because he’s the one who changes most over the course of the series. There’s a tendency in the series for the overweight characters to be lazy and stereotypically stupid (Uncle Vernon, Slughorn, Umbridge, etc.) Dudley still hits that note.

But he also gets a redeeming scene after Harry saves him from the dementors. He gets a little respect for his cousin, and actually stands up to his dad.

3. Draco Malfoy

from deviant art user Adyti

Like Dudley, Malfoy experiences internal conflict, and changes over the series. He also has to stand up to his dad. But for Malfoy, the struggle is a lot more intense. He gets dragged into a situation where he almost has to kill Dumbledore, and after he’s gone this far, it’s incredibly difficult for him to turn around.

He also works well on the level that a punk-brat villain should–he’s very easy to hate. When Hermione curses him, everybody is happy. The two-dimensional sneer isn’t that complex, but it’s highly effective.

In short: he’s a great rival when the series is acting as middle-grade, and he transitions well into a more tortured character when the series becomes young-adult.

2. Severus Snape

from deviant art user Violette-Kollontai

I don’t have Snape this high on my list for the reason that most HP fans adore him. I think his relationship with Lily is more creepy than heroic. I think it’s interesting, but I don’t think it redeems him, and I think it’s really weird that Harry names one of his kids after him.

I have him high on my list because I was never sure whether he was actually a good guy or a bad guy. I was so sure each way, and especially when he kills Dumbledore, I thought that was it.

For keeping me guessing, Snape is #2.

1. Dolores Umbridge

image from deviantart user *WayForge

I hate her so much!

And that’s great. There’s the description as toad-like and dressed in pink that makes her instantly iconic. There’s her repeated phrase, “Hem-hem”, annoying and evocative of character. There’s her meanness.

What really sells it is her restraint. The fact that she’s in such a position of power, and that she’s so stubborn, and that she dials it up slowly until we can’t stand her any more without ever tipping over the edge.

I really don’t think I’ve ever hated a character more. She made me want to throw the book across the room. In a good way.

Honorable mention to Gilderoy Lockhart. He was very, very close to stealing #5.

Next week, it’s another list of Five Great Things! I’m going to expand my focus and look at villains across all of children’s literature. Will Umbridge stay at #1?


*EDIT: Apparently Rowling has said what Dumbledore saw in the mirror: “He saw his family alive, whole and happy – Ariana, Percival and Kendra all returned to him, and Aberforth reconciled to him.” So I guess #5 should be Lockhart.