From the headstrong, relatable protagonists of Jane Austen’s novels, up to the clever Hermione and fierce Katniss of today’s literature, strong and well-written heroines abound. They stand up for what’s right, solve problems, and learn lessons in self-love along the way. These are characters we should – and do! – celebrate. And while Jane Eyre may be my favorite character ever written, I’ve always been deeply fascinated by women in books who aren’t the heroines of their stories. They are unconventional and unruly, sometimes morally ambiguous, sometimes downright wicked. Here you’ll find both good old-fashioned villains as well as complex, nuanced, characters who don’t always take the moral high-ground. Spoilers ahead – proceed with caution!
Cersei Lannister – A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin
A very unpopular opinion right off the bat: Cersei Lannister is my favorite character in the A Song of Ice and Fire series. To be fair, I’ve never watched the TV adaptation and have only read the first four books in the series, but at this point, I hold on tightly to this opinion. Most are familiar with Cersei’s flaws (she is manipulative, conniving, etc.) but she’s also headstrong, fierce, and deeply devoted to her family (all jokes aside). She’s well aware she was born into a man’s world and therefore must create her own rules in order to make it out on top. And in the game of thrones, you win or you die, right?
Agatha Trunchbull – Matilda by Roald Dahl
Miss Trunchbull is the perfectly vile and villainous principal to contrast the sweet and smart characters of student Matilda and teacher Ms. Honey is Roald Dahl’s book for children. While some of the characters on this list are much more nuanced and complex in their motives and interactions with other characters, coming up with something positive to say about The Trunchbull is a fool’s errand. Dolores Umbridge from the Harry Potter books runs a close second, but the Trunchbull with her Chokey just might be the last person I’d want running things at my school.
Annie Wilkes – Misery by Stephen King
It’s hard to believe anyone could look at an axe the same way after reading or watching Stephen King’s Misery. Annie is an incredibly intense and extremely intimidating character, and it makes her the highlight of both the book and the movie (not that I don’t feel completely sympathetic toward Paul Sheldon and his horrific plight– he’s just not as interesting. Sorry, Paul). And hey– at least she’s a bookworm!
Lady Macbeth – Macbeth by William Shakespeare
We’ve nearly all heard of her, and I’m not sure there’s anything that could be said at this point about Lady Macbeth that hasn’t already been said a hundred times over, but that doesn’t make her an any less interesting character. I highly recommend giving Macbeth a read or watching a performance of it if this isn’t a story you’ve checked out before, for Lady Macbeth if nothing else.
The Other Mother – Coraline by Neil Gaiman
The Other Mother is definitely one of the creepiest villains out there, with her spider-like hands, unblinking eyes, and insistence that Coraline sew buttons over her own eyes to stay with this creepy copy of her mother forever. She’s frequently referred to as the Beldam throughout the story, a word which means “a malicious and ugly woman, especially an old one; a witch.” The animation of the movie makes for a very creepy version of the Other Mother, but for those who haven’t had a chance to read the book, its illustrations make make her all the more terrifying and really drive home that she’s not human.
Amy Dunne – Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
All I can say is I hope you didn’t miss that spoiler disclaimer at the beginning of this post– or that you’ve already read Gone Girl for yourself! Without giving absolutely everything way, Amy is a fascinating and sinister character who manages to manipulate not only the other characters in the novel, but also its readers. She borders on ruthless in her pursuit of what she wants and she’s nothing if not thorough. She is also easily one of the most intriguing characters I’ve ever read.
Esme Squalor – A Series of Unfortunate Events – The Bad Beginning by Lemony Snicket
Esme is a polished, fashionable, and merciless villain, and just like all the other crooks (and adults in general, honestly) in this book series for children, she is both zany and downright frustrating in her insistence on ruining the lives of the Baudelaire’s. Esme’s desire to do all things that are “in” make her a stylish force to be reckoned with– one with stilettos made with actual knives and a harpoon gun.
Abigail Williams – The Crucible by Arthur Miller
Let me begin by saying the real Abigail Williams was just 12 years old when she began making accusations that led to the Salem Witch Trials in the 1690s and there’s plenty of material out there describing the real person for those interested in the actual history. Here, however, I’m referring to the character from Arthur Miller’s 1953 play The Crucible. The play served as an allegory for the Red Scare of the 50s, and as such Abigail is portrayed as using her power in the community to make false accusations, ruin lives, and increase her own influence ruthlessly.
Adora Crellin – Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn
Gillian Flynn knows how to write sinister women, and how to write them well. Maybe that’s the reason she’s one of my favorite authors, and the reason she’s appearing on this list twice. From almost the first page of Sharp Objects, we know something is not right with the narrator’s mother, Adora; she borders on obsessed with her reputation and is clearly emotionally abusive towards her oldest daughter. It’s not until the end of the book that we understand the full extent of her crimes. What makes this novel especially interesting is she isn’t even the most complex female antagonist of the story, but I’ll leave it at that for those who may not have finished the book or mini-series.
Bertha Mason – Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
Lastly, we come full circle back to my favorite novel: Jane Eyre. The character Bertha is the OG “mad woman in the attic” who does things like set fires, bite guests, and rip wedding veils. Jane Eyre is a book that has its fair share of characters we might consider antagonistic, and I chose to highlight Bertha because she deserves it least. We’d be better off examining why Mr. Rochester has a human being with mental illness locked away in a room, or the dynamics behind Bertha’s parents essentially selling her off. Bertha’s actions may often be dangerous and sometimes interfere with the romance of the plot, but her intent isn’t cruel. Jean Rhys does a great job of reimagining Bertha in her novel Wide Sargasso Sea, and I’d highly recommend it for anyone who read Jane Eyre, whether they enjoyed the book or not.