Top Ten Tuesday is hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl with a new topic each week.
These days, literature as a whole seems slightly more oriented towards the in-betweens rather than black and white characters (a reductionist statement made by someone who hasn’t read enough, in all probability, but hey, if you study literature you’ll make a sweeping generalisation at some point or other), so it’s difficult perhaps to pinpoint the clear ‘villain’ in novels that aren’t strictly fantasy-based. With that in mind, I had to burrow through my goodreads list to try to recall some memorable villainous, or perhaps more ‘grey area’ characters, although I did intentionally go for the ones that are more out-and-out villainous. Three of these are characters are from books aimed at younger audiences, because I guess those usually do have memorable, larger-than-life villains. They’re also, coincidentally, all women (well, except for one, she’s a dragon).
1) Agatha Trunchbull from Matilda (Roald Dahl)
I recently had a reskim through this book because I’d been listening to some (lovely) songs from the musical. I know everyone’s read it, but in case you haven’t, Matilda is a little girl who is something of a prodigy, and the book is an exploration of her rather eccentric childhood. Miss Trunchbull, the headmistress of Matilda’s school, is (to put it mildly) an angry, remorseless and thoroughly evil child abuser. It’s easy to hate a character like her, although she gets her comeuppance in the end. I have my own issues with Dahl, but Trunchbull (despite being invested with ‘masculine’ attributes as a woman in the film – I’m not sure how they describe her in the book – thus suggesting that people who don’t solidly conform to gender norms are cruelty personified; perhaps not the best choice, or perhaps an overanalysis on my part) can really strike fear into the heart of the reader. Many viewers commented that the scene where Matilda enters her house and Trunchbull tries to hunt her down (in the film, that is) is excessively stressful to watch. No doubt. She’s horrible and inspires an instant repulsion.
2) Mrs Danvers, Rebecca from Rebecca (Daphne du Maurier)
I don’t want to give too much away in case someone hasn’t read it (If you haven’t, what are you waiting for? Read it asap!) but this Gothic novel was one of the first books I remember reading as a child that jolted me somehow. With one of the most memorable openers in the history of literature, the novel is narrated by an unnamed woman, Maxim de Winter’s second wife, as she struggles to find a place in the estate of Manderley, haunted by the suffocating presence of de Winter’s first wife, Rebecca, absent, but always lingering. Mrs Danvers, the housekeeper, is a cold and eerie figure, obsessed with the previous mistress of the house. Although Rebecca never makes an appearance in the present narrative and is only recalled in memory, she is somehow still there on every page. I wouldn’t go as far as to choose out and out villains here (although I have named two who come close) because quite possibly this text allows a more nuanced reading, but it’s a book I always recommend when asked about this genre, and I’m very glad I read it as a kid so I could be properly electrified by the climactic scene. I don’t think I’d be as much affected if I read it now.
3) China Sorrows from the Skulduggery Pleasant series (Derek Landy)
Derek Landy’s novels make for fun, interesting reading, with the series fronted by a skeleton (Skulduggery) and a teen girl (Stephanie/Valkyrie). Although I found that the further I went into the series (there are nine books, and I think he’s started another series with the same characters), it got a little too ‘full-speed ahead, the world’s really going to end’ in every book, it didn’t take away from the fact that the characters are all funny, vibrant and unusual. I read the series primarily for its comedic value really, and China Sorrows emerged as an interesting character. Although China, a collector of books and valuable objects, isn’t a villain per se when we meet her in the books (she’s often reluctantly on the side of the good guys, although she’s definitely not one herself), she’s very much motivated by selfish interests and has quite an unsavoury backstory. She’s done some pretty horrible things. She has the (difficult to believe, really) power to make anyone fall in love with her which she shamelessly exploits. Despite this somewhat untenable trait, she maintains a strict air of secrecy and is learned in magic. Like most of Landy’s characters, in spite of her characteristically bored, cool mannerisms, you often find yourself rooting for her.
“Isn’t it? This necklace has cost two very fine men their lives. At times, I wear it in tribute to their sacrifice. Other times, I wear it because it goes with this skirt. Would you like to come in?” – China Sorrows, Playing With Fire (Skulduggery Pleasant #2), Derek Landy
4) The Other Mother from Coraline (Neil Gaiman)
I’m not the biggest Gaiman fan (well, my blog currently has a quote up by him but forget that); I’ve only really loved two books by him – The Ocean at the End of the Lane and Coraline, as well as some assorted short stories. But Coraline is worth the read. An adventurous little girl, Coraline finds a passage in her new house that leads her to a far more exciting set of parents, her ‘other mother’ and her ‘other father’. Only, they’ve got buttons for eyes, and they’d love for her to stay forever. The other mother is a scheming, eerie figure who’s the brains behind the operation of this mirror world she’s created. It’s a wonderfully creepy, inventive story. The movie is a real piece of art as well (I don’t normally watch a lot of films, but I loved this one) and it actually does better with plot continuity, a bit, I think. A great book for all ages, although I think the other mother might freak kids out. She’s definitely quite the villain.
5) Lien from the Temeraire series (Naomi Novik)
Novik’s series is a historical fantasy set during the Napoleonic wars, where the aerial corps is dragon-based. Exciting. Lien is a red-eyed albino dragon largely regarded with fear (white is the colour of mourning in China) who sets herself against Laurence and Temeraire (our protagonists, human and dragon respectively). She’s a learned dragon with much more experience than Temeraire, and she soon comes to despise him, Although I haven’t kept up with the series as much as I’d like, and haven’t read the more recent ones, so I’m not entirely sure what happens to her, but I’ll keep reading till I find out. I have to restart the series to be able to follow though, I’m pretty sure.
I will see you bereft of all that you have, of home and happiness and beautiful things. I will see your nation cast down and your allies drawn away. I will see you as alone and friendless and wretched as am I; and then you may live as long as you like, in some dark and lonely corner of the earth, and I shall call myself content. – Lien, Black Powder War (Temeraire #3), Naomi Novik
I wanted to do a series of perhaps characters who are less ‘villain’ and more ‘grey’. Ah well, that’s not how this one turned out. Maybe sometime next week (…as if).
All quotes attributed to the respective work(s).