6 favourite villains in children's books

Published on: 13 June 2024

Author Clare Povey recommends her favourite novels with brilliant baddies.

A photo of author Clare Povey and the front cover of her book The Wanderdays: Journey to Fantome Island

I love villains as much as I love heroes. Why? Because villains are people too and they can be as deliciously complex, funny, frustrating and daring as the main characters we write.

I take writing villains seriously. I want them to be fully-fleshed out and I certainly never rely on stereotypes. Just like protagonists, villains have positive and negative traits.

While they might do terrible things, it's a writer's job to ensure that they're portrayed as terrible not through their appearance or identity, but through the things that they believe and do.

The villain in my new book, The Wanderdays: Journey to Fantome Island, is Sir Frederick Titan. Frederick was a successful TV presenter who created The Titans – an eco-explorer team, including marine biologists, scientists and environmental experts. The Titans were known for their TV show, The Titans Tour, which documented their cutting-edge research and education projects across the globe.

The inspiration for my villain came from one of our national treasures, Sir David Attenborough. One day, as my partner and I were watching Blue Planet, a rather villainous thought popped into my head: 'What if someone like David Attenborough didn't care about the natural world at all? What if he led a double life?'

An important disclaimer: I don't believe this about Attenborough! But I became obsessed with this 'what if' question, imagining how people all over the world would react if such an admired figure was a chronic liar. Wouldn't it feel like a personal betrayal and make us question everything we think we know to be true?

Here's a selection of my favourite villains in children's fiction.

An illustration from the front cover of The Bad Beginning: Count Olaf looking menacing as he looks behind him at two children and a baby outside his window

Pic: Brett Helquist

1. The Warden from Holes by Louis Sachar

I am equal parts terrified and mesmerised by The Warden. She's the boss of Camp Green Lake and oversees the young delinquent boys who are sent the camp to dig holes all day to build 'character'.

The Warden is fuelled by an obsession passed down by her grandfather. Throughout her childhood, he made her dig holes to find Kissin' Kate Barlow's lost treasure. But rather than letting this obsession die with him, The Warden perpetuates this greed-fuelled desire and continues the cycle. She is a force to be reckoned with; don't get too close or she might claw you with her rattlesnake nail varnish!

2. Mr Zamora from The Island at the End of Everything by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

When this cruel government worker arrives on the island of Culion and declares it to be a leper colony, Ami is separated from her mum and forced to live in an orphanage on another island. Mr Zamora's hatred of, and lack of compassion towards, the islanders afflicted with the illness seems too wildly cruel to feel possible. But awful conflicts have happened throughout history, and continue to do so. The worst type of villains are not monsters, but humans.

3. Count Olaf from A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket

An obvious selection, but this book series was catnip to me as a kid. So was the awful, self-obsessed Count Olaf who stops at nothing to get his hands on the Baudelaire fortune. Over the course of 13 books, he attempts to worm his way back into the children's lives through various disguises. Violet, Klaus and Sunny always see through them, unlike the adults, but Olaf is persistent. A desirable trait in a villain, I feel.

Count Olaf paints himself as a victim of life's cruelty and believes that he deserves so much more than the life he has. A sentiment that some of us might be able to relate to; after all, who hasn't experienced some of life's hard knocks? Yet very few of us would turn to stalking wealthy orphans and killing off their relatives one by one in order to get rich.

4. Lucretia Cutter from Beetle Boy by M.G. Leonard

Lucretia Cutter is a fashion designer diva and multi-millionaire who wants to destroy Earth's food supply by creating an army of genetically modified beetles. Why? Because she believes humans are destroying the world and that nature should be saved.

M.G. Leonard makes us understand Cutter's motivation; even though she is going about it in the most awful way, we can understand her desire to protect the planet.

5. Moreau from Amari and the Night Brothers by BB Alston

Moreau is one of the infamous Night Brothers, the first humans to ever acquire magic. Moreau, along with his partner Vladimir, once waged war upon the supernatural world in a bid to become immortal. When Amari finally enters the world of the Bureau, she discovers that her brother has captured Moreau and the powerful magician is finally behind bars. The scene where Amari goes to visit Moreau in prison is reminiscent of epic big-screen movie meetings, like James Bond and Blofeld or Batman and The Joker.

Without giving any spoilers away, I love the many twists and illusions that Moreau offers readers in the first book of this series. This is a villain at an epic, almost mythical level, and one that readers will love to hate.

6. Mr Curtain from The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart

Mr Curtain is the creator of the Whisperer, a machine that aims to control people's minds and take over their memories. He's also the founder of the Learning Institute for the Very Enlightened, where he trains children to transmit subliminal messages that will seep into other people's brains. An obsession for power doubled with genius mechanical skills is a recipe for disaster!

The Wanderdays: Journey to Fantome Island by Clare Povey is out now.

Topics: Features

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