13 books with villain protagonists who steal the spotlight

13 books with villain protagonists who steal the spotlight

In Reading Lists by Lanie Pemberton

13 books with villain protagonists who steal the spotlight

Heroes are great and all, but let's be real — sometimes it's the villains who steal the show. If you often find yourself rooting for the antihero, or thinking the most interesting characters are the ones who walk on the dark side, you aren’t alone. 

In that vein, let’s celebrate deliciously devious protagonists who make being bad look oh-so-good by reading books with villain main characters. Some are morally gray, while others are downright dastardly, but they’re all fascinating in their own right.

Get started with a 1990s classic in Wicked by Gregory Maguire (just in time for the upcoming film adaptation) or a dark academia fantasy like Vicious by V.E. Schwab. 

Better yet, read all of the villain protagonist books on this list — because “evil” is in the eye of the beholder.

1. Yellowface by R. F. Kuang

Kuang continuously makes waves across Bookstagram and BookTok. Here, she delivers a sharp satire that skewers white entitlement and cultural appropriation in the publishing industry and beyond. It’s one of the best books with a villain main character I’ve read in quite some time, especially since the narrator continually refuses to admit — or even believe — she’s done wrong.

June, a white writer, steals a manuscript from her recently deceased Chinese American rival, then publishes it under a racially ambiguous persona. But June’s choices soon haunt her in more ways than one. 

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2. The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

“I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces.” So begins Nguyen’s breakthrough novel, The Sympathizer, the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction winner (among other notable awards) that’s an incredibly compelling tale of espionage and identity. 

It follows “the Captain,” a part Vietnamese, part French man who becomes an American refugee at the height of the Vietnam War, but who’s secretly a spy sending information back to the Viet Cong.

The HBO Max series adaptation stars Hoa Xuande, Robert Downey Jr., and Sandra Oh. Nguyen’s long-awaited sequel, The Committed, came out in 2021.

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3. Wicked by Gregory Maguire

We know Dorothy’s account of the Land of Oz, but follow along as the Wicked Witch of the West explains her side of the story amid a backdrop of sex, drugs, politics, and magic. 

The Broadway musical is fun, but the source text is genius — and now we can look forward to two live action films based on the book. Wicked: Part One is set to arrive in theaters this November.

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4. Vicious by V.E. Schwab

In college, Victor Vale and Eliot Cardale discovered how to access previously untapped supernatural powers. Years later, the friends become archnemeses as one goes on a murderous rampage. 

A realistic — if not pessimistic — look at the evolution of superheroes, Schwab’s novel explores desperation, power, and pride.

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5. Assistant to the Villain by Hannah Nicole Maehrer

This romantic fantasy has been making waves thanks to the author’s viral TikTok series where she pretends to be the titular villain and his assistant, Evie Sage. The villain may be grumpy and evil, but he’s also strikingly handsome. When a saboteur threatens the villain’s dominion, it’s up to Evie to root him out.

Assistant to the Villain is a funny, cozy read that’s filled with offbeat side characters, proving that books with antiheroes don’t have to be dark and scary.

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6. All of Us Villains by Amanda Foody and C. L. Herman

Although everyone thinks high magick is gone for good, the city of Ilvernath is hiding a wellspring of it — controlled by one lucky family, chosen every two decades through a brutal fight to the death amongst their teens. This year’s tournament is especially high stakes, since Ilvernath’s secret is out and people are flocking to watch the competition.

Foody and Herman’s work is the perfect combination of Harry Potter and The Hunger Games, with Kirkus saying, “the competitors teeter wildly between heroism and villainy, especially once the tournament starts and their preconceived ideas of themselves and each other are challenged in lethal combat.”

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7. Heartless by Marissa Meyer

“Off with their heads!” You may know her as the ruthless Queen of Hearts from Lewis Carroll’s classic Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, but in Meyer’s YA fantasy, she’s just Catherine — a young woman caught between duty and desire.

Her mother is determined to see her married to the king, but Catherine dreams of opening a bakery. She also finds herself drawn more to the court jester than the king himself, making her dilemma all the more complicated.

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8. The Shadows Between Us by Tricia Levenseller

Every character in The Shadows Between Us knows what they want and will murder to get it, including Alessandra. She plans to steal the heart of the evil Shadow King, then kill him to become queen. But first, she must protect him from all other attempts on his life — and try not to fall in love in the process. 

This is a dastardly good fantasy romance between villains who discover they have more than murderous intent in common. 

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9. You by Caroline Kepnes

Joe Goldberg will do whatever it takes to win (or worm) his way into Guinevere Beck’s heart — even murder. What’s even creepier, he truly believes he’s doing it all for love.

Gone Girl meets Gossip Girl in this extremely unnerving novel about how easy it is to become prey to stalking (or, to become a stalker yourself) in our hyper-connected digital age. It’s been adapted into a hit Netflix series starring Penn Badgley in a role that’s essentially a grown up and much-creepier Dan Humphrey.

Joe’s creepy antics continue in Hidden Bodies (the basis for the show’s second season). 

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10. Apt Pupil by Stephen King

Few compare to King when it comes to spinning up terrifying tales, so it’s no surprise his repertoire includes a sinister novella starring a villain protagonist. Stephen Graham Jones, another horror master, was inspired by Apt Pupil when writing his Everand Original, The Clown Brigade.

What would you do if you encountered a Nazi war criminal? Probably not what Todd Bowden does. You see, Todd isn’t interested in justice. He’d rather learn how to commit his own atrocities. Much blood will be spilled as this young psychopath spirals further and further into madness. The 1998 film adaptation stars Sir Ian McKellan.

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11. Unraveling Oliver by Liz Nugent

Most crime novels are focused on the “who” in whodunnit, but this is one all about the why. Seemingly out of nowhere, Oliver brutally attacks his wife, putting her into a coma. Backtracking from this shocking opener, Nugent takes readers through Oliver’s life in a steady, spellbinding exploration of humanity’s capacity for evil and whether nature or nurture is to blame. 

A series of small mysteries surround the larger one (Oliver’s motive), making this an engrossing psychological thriller. 

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12. A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess

As much a high school curriculum staple as it is the subject of attempted book bans, Burgess’ brutal satire persists as one of the most influential novels to come out of the 20th century. (Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 film adaptation is a classic as well.) 

In a dystopian future where brutal gangs hope to overthrow the government, Alex and his cronies routinely wreak havoc on innocent people. When one is left dead, Alex winds up in jail, eventually agreeing to undergo conversion therapy that could cure his evil proclivities. Unfortunately for Alex, his own horrors are just beginning (though it’s hard to feel any empathy for this villain).

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13. The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

Wilde wrote volumes of stories, poems, and plays, but published only one novel: the gothic masterpiece The Picture of Dorian Gray

Innocence and naivety give way to hedonism when Dorian Gray sells his soul to stay young and beautiful forever, letting a picture grow old in his place. As Dorian sinks further into a life of depravity, his portrait begins to reflect the cruel and immoral nature of his actions. 

Eternal beauty doesn’t seem worth the price Dorian ends up paying in this classic book about immortality

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About the Author: Lanie Pemberton

Lanie is a San Diego-based freelance writer who loves reading crime thrillers and nonfiction about animals and the natural world. When not writing and reading (or writing about what to read), Lanie spends as much time as possible at the beach with her husband and pampered pittie, Peach.