The other day, I asked readers to vote for their favorite villains of children’s literature. We received some great responses. There were a slew of witches from various stories, included witches of the sea, the West, the Waste. Harry Potter’s foes received several nods, although no one picked Voldemort, the big bad guy himself. A surprising vote was cast for Nellie Oleson from the Little House books…I mean, sure, she always had those nice dresses, but she wasn’t exactly killing people, was she? And it simply wouldn’t be an Upstart Crow poll without some tongue-in-cheek replies, with the top two wise guy choice going to the fish from The Cat in the Hat for his “nagging, whining, threatening” and “joy-killing negativity.”
Roald Dahl’s Mr. and Mrs. Twit each received multiple votes, as did the sadistic Jack from Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book. When your first act in a story is murdering the protagonist’s entire family, I guess that counts for something, right?
Two great characters who finished just outside the winner’s circle were Count Olaf from A Series of Unfortunate Events and The Trunchbull from Matilda. I always personally loved Count Olaf. To me, he’s a quintessential middle grade villain–somewhat menacing without ever feeling truly dangerous, a funny, ridiculous caricature, and with a depth to his character that reveals itself over the course of the entire series. And The Trunchbull is just deliciously awful, and rightly gets what is coming for her.
But the villain you most found putrid and compelling, awful and engaging, horrid and fascinating was…
That’s right! Readers couldn’t decide between Mrs. Coulter from Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy and Professor Dolores Umbridge from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. One beautiful and one described as looking like a toad, both are dark, sadistic women with a fondness for animals (a daemon monkey for Mrs. Coulter and kittens for Umbridge) and torture.
Mrs. Coulter exemplified evil in the early part of the trilogy–she and her monkey both enjoying toying with their victims before killing them–but does have a soft spot for Lyra and proves to maybe not be completely evil by the end. But jeez, anyone involved in kidnapping and experimenting on children receives points on the villain chart.
Professor Umbridge, whom Stephen King once described as the, “greatest make-believe villain to come along since Hannibal Lecter,” is great on a few different levels. On the surface, she seems like the teacher we’ve all had before, the one whose frilly exterior hides a darker nature underneath. The twisted pleasure she experiences by forcing her students to injure themselves echoed with an eerie plausibility, as it was the first time Rowling ventured beyond the overblown evil of the earlier villains in the series and into a deeper, more sophisticated type of creepy that unsettles adult readers just as much as the children.
So there you have it! We wound up with some great answers. Thanks for participating, and good luck creating your own twisted villains.