If you read (or write!) YA, I’m sure by now you’re sick of hearing about “likable characters.” Because usually the requirement is explicitly pointed toward female characters, which, yeah, sexism. But also: villains are so much more interesting, am I right? (In fact, my coauthor Dhonielle and I love them so much, we made most of the characters pretty villainous in Tiny Pretty Things.) They’re dark, devious, and often downright demented, especially because they totally think they’re the hero of the story—and in these six awesome YA reads, they actually are. Trust me, you won’t be able to put these dastardly delicious books down.
Heartless, by Marissa Meyer
What makes a villain who they are? That’s the question Meyer, author of the Lunar Chronicles series, digs into in Heartless, an Alice in Wonderland retelling from the perspective of the Queen of Hearts. Young Catherine hardly has her sights set on the crown. Nope, she’s a simple girl with simple goals: to be a baker, and fall in love. And she does, with Jest, a court joker. But her mother and the royals have different plans for Cath, and the result will be a devastation that turns her into the heartless Queen of Wonderland we all love to hate.
The Winner’s Curse, by Marie Rutkoski
Some might argue that the posh and haughty Kestrel, with her pristine frocks and piano-primed fingers, is hardly evil. But come on, guys! As much as I love to get inside her head, the first major thing she does is (spoiler alert!) buy a slave. And yes, while she may at times redeem herself throughout Rutkoski’s stellar and swoonworthy trilogy, it’s the power plays between her and slave-turned-rebel Arin (who has a very dark side of his own) that make the both the romance and the politics of the book’s world so very fascinating. As always when I recommend The Winner’s Curse, I’d suggest you go ahead and buy the rest of the trilogy now. You won’t regret it.
The Young Elites, by Marie Lu
Marie Lu, smartypants that she is, decided to turn YA drama on its head by creating a character from the bones up that she knew would be the villain, complete with the traumas, neuroses, and devastations that come with finally claiming that role. “We all have a little darkness in us,” she has said about writing the character. “Villains are unbound by the burdens of being a hero. They’re much more unpredictable and fascinating to follow.” Adelina, the villainous protagonist of the Young Elites trilogy, is born of darkness, and lured to it continually, but that doesn’t make us root for her any less.
Wicked, by Gregory Maguire
Maguire’s classic, now a long-running Broadway hit, lives in that weird space between adult and YA, but its themes are decidedly teen. It centers on Elphaba, a green-skinned outcast, too smart and sassy for her own good. She’s soon to be labeled the Wicked Witch of the West, despite all her efforts to play against type by taking down the evil Wizard of Oz. She just can’t compete with her blonder, gigglier, and decidedly not-green roommate, Glinda the Good, who’s funny if exhaustingly perfect. Can you blame a girl for going, well, a little bit wicked?
And I Darken, by Kiersten White
Vlad the Impaler in a dress? That was the idea behind Kiersten White’s stunning (truly stunning!) And I Darken, although I doubt you could get a frock on her ruthless and riveting antihero Lada. “Beneath Lada’s armor is more armor, and beneath that is fire,” White has said of the character. “Her brutal nature isn’t a reaction to anything—it’s who she is. So often girls are told there are certain ways we are not allowed to be, certain things we are not allowed to feel. I wrote Lada to defy that.” Bring it on!
Tease, by Amanda Maciel
What happens when bullying goes too far? Sara Wharton, the main character in Maciel’s searing debut, isn’t the bullied one—she’s the bully. And now her victim is dead, having committed suicide. Does Sara accept the blame? Hell, no. But she and four classmates have been charged with bullying and harassment, and as she faces the trial, she recounts the circumstances that led to the tragedy, one that has irrevocably shifted the course of her life, making her guilty until proven otherwise.