How Do you Judge a Book’s Villain?

villain

I recently finished reading Fairest and Winter by Marissa Meyer and it has really got me thinking about how I react to antagonists/villains and how I judge them. In most books, it is very easy for me to dislike (and often hope for the death of) the antagonist. They represent a threat to the main characters happy ending (which I’m usually very emotionally invested in).  There are antagonists like Caroline Bingley from Pride and Prejudice who no one likes because of the mean girl vibe. Then there are others like The Bane from The Burning Sky who are the 100% evil, all powerful villains that everyone wants to kill. Next are the villains that you actually like (or even cheer on). I know most of you are probably thinking of the Darkling right now from Shadow and Bone.

But what about Queen Levana? If you’ve read Fairest, you would know the very difficult past that Levana had when she was growing up.  She never knew love from her parents (or even what real love was) and her older sister emotionally and physically abused her from a very young age. After physically abusing her, Levana’s sister continued the emotional abuse through their teenage years.

Levana grows up craving for someone to love her. Even through her adult life, Levana just wants people to love her. In the first three books of The Lunar Chronicles, Queen Levana is simply one of those 100% evil villains that everyone just wants to die.  It isn’t until reading Fairest that we learn how she became so evil and the sad truth of what drives her. When reading Fairest, I was conflicted about how I felt towards Levana. While it was horrible the way she was treated as a child, she did things that were even more horrible in her teenage and early adult life. The problem is that she always believed she was justified in her actions (as most villains do). She always believed that she was doing what was best for herself and her people.

The question to ask is, does Levana’s tortured past and upbringing justify how she acts as an adult? I’m not asking if her actions are justified, but is it understandable that she acts as she does because of her upbringing?

How about this question. If you grew up in the same conditions that Levana did, would you have turned out the same way? Is it Levana’s fault that she acts so evilly now?

It’s easy for me to hate the things that Levana does, but harder for me to hate Levana as a person. I think I would feel differently if Levana found enjoyment in killing people or making them suffer. I mean, we can agree that she wasn’t as bad as her sister, Channary, who was extremely selfish and cared nothing for the people of Luna. Channary did horrible things to people simply because she could, while Levana was always trying to do things for Luna and be a “better queen” for her people.

Researching more on this topic, I found this article: http://insight.thechicagoschool.edu/2011/headline/the-making-and-unmaking-of-a-criminal/

Many experts argue that inheriting a particular gene doesn’t necessarily predispose someone to a life of crime—but add in an abusive or violent childhood or another negative environmental factor and that risk greatly increases.

I don’t want to get to deep into a nature vs nurture debate or anything, but how do you feel about Levana? Was it harder to dislike her after reading Fairest? Are there other book antagonists that have been difficult for you to dislike? Do you prefer your villains to be 100% evil so you can mentally fight against them while reading or do you prefer your villains to be more complex?

What do you think of complex villains?

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Wow you got to the end of the post! As a reward for your efforts, you may have a cookie *gives digital cookie* Oh, ya, who am I? My name is Stephanie and I'm the blogger behind These Paper Hearts. I enjoy reading young adult romance and fantasy, cuddling with my cat, coding websites, and playing soccer. Thanks for stopping by!

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13 Comments

  • Paloma @ Pages and Pineapples

    Great discussion topic! I personally prefer my villains to be humanized & on the morally grey side. I’ve never read anything by Marissa Meyer, but one example of a villain I found compelling was the Darkling from Leigh Bardugo’s Grisha trilogy – he does some really despicable things (particularly in the final book of the series), but amazingly, he’s remains a relatable and pitiable character anyway. Sure, he’s a power-hungry murderer, but he’s also infinitely lonely.

    I’m less intrigued by totally black-and-white villains. Completely evil villains don’t add any psychological tension for me.
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  • Laura

    I agree with Paloma. I also like complex villains with troubled pasts because you can somewhat relate to them and even if you don’t at least you get their point of view of the story… a character’s background story is always important and yes, The Darkling was a perfect example (and my favorite Grisha character).

    What about anti-heroes? Main characters who are supposed to be heroes but instead they’re more on the dark side like Adelina from The Young Elites?

    Great discussion topic!

    Laura @ psilovethatbook
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  • Tasya @ The Literary Huntress

    I don’t think having a difficult past justifies the villain’s actions. There are many characters that also have a difficult past but they end up as the hero or at least a decent person. They want to be a better person than the ones that abuse them. Maybe it’s just different for every characters. I think Levana is the same as Red from Splintered (by A.G Howard). They just tried to be a “better queen” for their people, but destroying other races in the process.
    I personally like villains that are on the gray side and actually have unexpected backstory. Most of villains usually have “difficult past” but I think that huminize them. For example is The Darkling (obviously), Draco Malfoy and Morpheus. While the Darkling is actually the villain of the story, he’s truly lonely and he thinks he’s fixing things for the Grisha. Draco Malfoy and Morpehus aren’t exactly villains, but they remain morally ambiguous throughout the story that some people thinks they’re the villains.
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  • Ksenia @ Ksenia's Book Blog

    Interesting discussion, Stephanie. I haven’t read The Lunar Chronicles yet, but I definitely want to pick it up soon, because I love complex ambigues characters. One of my favorite villains is Ignifex from Cruel Beauty by Rosamund Hodge. He is so deliciously complex and multidimensional.
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  • Chrissie Whitley

    Spoiler alert for Winter.

    I had a hard time while reading Winter, after having read Fairest and then knowing what was beneath the glamour and veil, and being okay with Cinder’s plan to reveal the image captured by the cyborg half of her brain of Levana’s real face. I thought Cinder should have been more empathetic and less gung-ho about showing what she recognized as scarring from burns, considering she carries these same scars. I understand she needed that moment of shock, but I found it difficult to believe she wouldn’t be more hesitant to do the thing she was most scared of in the first novel where she was so scared people would see her cyborg parts. Regardless of the fact that Levana is the reason Cinder has her own scars, Cinder is an empathetic character, often grappling with the decisions she has to make. Even if she did proceed with this plan, I’d like to have had a great internal struggle about it.

  • Kristen Burns

    How perfect that I would find this post now because I JUST finished a book last night that has me so confused about my feelings toward one of the villains. Well, Satan. I’m confused about my feelings toward Satan, haha. He was definitely trying to thwart the protag’s happy ending, but I completely understood and sympathized with his reasons and felt bad for him. There have even been times when the villain was my favorite character, like Captain Hook, for example. Villains often make for the most *interesting* characters when they’re complex, but I don’t think I have a preference. As long the story and the characters are good, I’ll be happy either way! Great discussion post!
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  • Blaise

    Although I have the books on my shelves, I haven’t yet read the Lunar Chronicles. From what I’m seeing here, though, I think I would really enjoy the villain you describe. My favorite villains are those whose motivations are sympathetic and who really and truly believe in what they are they doing. I prefer them because I feel that they are the most realistic as people, as characters, and they’re usually the most heart-wrenching to go up against. It’s for that reason that I strongly prefer Umbridge to Voldemort as a villain in the Harry Potter series–she’s the one who walks off the page, whereas Voldemort is a little larger than life and definitely stuck on the page.
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  • Shannelle

    This is a great topic, and I just love that there are more and more villains being fleshed out. Most villains are made, not born, and I want to see that small slice of their past that gives me an insight of why they’re like that.
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  • Tiffany

    I absolutely love a complex villain. I love feeling conflicted about whether or not to root for them, and I love knowing just enough backstory to help me understand why they’re making the decisions they’re making, even if I know they’re wrong. I mean, even in real life, “bad” people aren’t 100% bad. They have values, they have people in their lives that are important to them, they still have good moments, even if those qualities are overshadowed by the other things they do.
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  • Madiha @ Paper Skies

    I think this poses as a very interesting question – I read Fairest myself, and the main reservation I had about it was the Meyer would make me somehow feel sorry for Levana and give an excuse to all of her actions; however, after reading the book I realized that her past wasn’t so much an excuse as it was a REASON, you know? And yeah, she went through some pretty tough things in her life, but like you said, that did not excuse her behavior in Cinder, Cress, and Scarlet.

    A lot of people suffer – the way in which they deal with that suffering is what defines their character, I think. Levana deserves every bit of grief our protagonists throw at her, yes, but empathy for her exists as well. Great post, Steph! It raises a lot of questions about the evolving nature of villain in contemporary young adult ;)
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  • Mel@thedailyprophecy

    I like that Fairest gave her more background story and turned her more into a person than a villain, but it still didn’t satisfy me enough. I don’t know how I would turned out if I was in the same condition, but I don’t think I would EVER be capable of doing the things she did. Continuing with experimenting on people to turn them into mutants and use them to kill thousands of innocent people? Becoming empress of another planet and mistreating everyone around me? I simply don’t think I have that kind of darkness in me..

    It is the same with bullying. Some people who bully give the bullshit reason ‘they did it because they were bullied too.’ Well, I had the same thing and I turned the other side just because I KNOW how much it can hurt.

    I just don’t think her past is enough to say ‘okay, I can understand why she is doing this.’ To me, there is just something wrong about her. It makes her a perfect villain and a wrong person without justification; let’s be real, she just wants this.
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  • Jeann @ Happy Indulgence

    I think the multilayered, conflicted villain that we all love to hate is much more interest than someone who is one-dimensional. Fairest definitely added that depth to her, even though she’s evil, it kind of made us emphasise with her which was scary you know?
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  • Zoe @ Stories on Stage

    This is such an interesting post Stephanie.

    Personally, I love villains with complex backstories. There’s just something about reading a villain’s backstory that is just eerily fascinating from a psychological view.

    I think that’s what I liked so much about Fairest – we get to see why Levana is the horrible person she is and what made her become so powerhungry and evil. Same with Voldemort and The Darkling.

    Thanks for sharing and, as always, fabulous post! ♥
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