Top 10 female villains (2023)

I love a good female villain, because they shock or frighten a reader by violently bucking the gender stereotypes of women as fragile, maternal or compliant. A kick-ass female villain often has intense desires, a searing intellect and an intriguing glamour or mesmerising repulsiveness.

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I knew before I started writing Beetle Boy, that my power-hungry scientist and super-villain would be a woman. I named her Lucretia after the infamous Lucrezia Borgia who’s inspired many fictional villainous incarnations and Cutter for the tailoring job it describes, as well as the literal meaning of the word. There is nothing soft about Lucretia Cutter, she’s all malicious intent and sharp edges. I hope Lucretia Cutter will earn herself a place in the villainess hall of fame by the end of The Beetle Trilogy, but until then, to celebrate these extraordinary fictional women, here in no particular order, are my top 10 female villains in children’s books.

Louis Sachar: 'I make up the story as I go along, but a lot of it is really bad'Read more
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1. Warden in Holes by Louis Sachar

When we first hear of the Warden we only know what Mr Pendanski says, “The person you’ve got to worry about is the Warden. There’s really only one rule at Camp Green Lake: Don’t upset the Warden.” The Warden is behind the unusual punishment metered out to the boys at Camp Green Lake, that they must dig holes in the sweltering sun every day. We don’t discover that the Warden is a woman until chapter 14. The shortness of her patience and the hotness of her temper are suddenly and shockingly exposed when she attacks one of the children with a pitchfork. This is a villain who makes her own nail-polish from rattlesnake venom to scratch the faces of those who disobey her.

2. The Other Mother in Coraline by Neil Gaiman

The Other Mother is a nightmare-ish villain. She looks like Coraline’s real mother, but with black buttons for eyes. She’s a mother doppleganger who spoils Coraline with all the food, attention and toys she’s ever wanted, trying to make her to stay and accept button eyes. When Coraline refuses and returns home, she finds her parents have disappeared. The ghosts of children trapped behind a magic mirror tell her that the Other Mother, “the Bedlam”, steals the hearts, and souls of children.

3. Mrs Wormwood in Matilda by Roald Dahl

Miss Trunchball is the favoured villain in Matilda, but I’d like to make the case for Mrs Wormwood, Matilda’s wretched, television obsessed mother. It is not Miss Trunchbull that Matilda struggles to contend with, but her own parents. In the first chapter Dahl writes, “the parents looked upon Matilda in particular as nothing more than a scab. A scab is something you have to put up with until the time comes when you can pick it off and flick it away.” Every time I read this book I’m shocked and outraged by the callous disinterest in Matilda her mother exhibits. A genius at the age of five and all her mother can say is, “A girl should think about making herself look attractive so she can get a good husband later on. Looks is more important than books…” It is wonderful to see Miss Trunchbull get her comeuppance, but it’s Mrs Wormwood who’s the real villain in Matilda, happily abandoning her five-year-old daughter to a life with a teacher she’s met once because, “It’ll be one less to look after.”

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4. The Queen in Little Snow White by the Brothers Grimm

In the original fairy tale the jealous queen is Snow White’s mother, not her stepmother. Driven by her jealousy of Snow White’s beauty, the Queen attempts to murder Snow White four times. But, it is for this short speech that I consider her the ultimate fairy tale villain: “Take the child out into the forest to a spot far from here. Then stab her to death and bring me back her lungs and liver as proof of your feed. After that I’ll cook them with salt and eat them.” This villain is a cannibal!

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5. Bellatrix Lestrange in the Harry Potter series by JK Rowling

In the “who’s the ultimate villainess in the Harry Potter series” debate, Bellatrix Lestrange wins hands down. Dolores Umbridge is vile, but little more than a malicious, power-hungry, busy-body. Whereas Bellatrix Lestrange, driven by her love for Voldemort, her extremist pure-blood beliefs, her disregard for life, her unhinged mental state and the pleasure she takes in hurting and killing other people, is terrifying. There are two points in the series where my fear and loathing for Bellatrix escalates to a frenzied peak, the first is when she kills Sirius Black, the only family Harry Potter has left in the world, and the second is when she tortures Hermione with the Cruciatus Curse and a knife, carving “mudblood” into her arm. My final comment on Umbridge vs Lestrange, is that if they were to duel, Bellatrix Lestrange would win, and she’d enjoy making Dolores Umbridge’s death last a long time.

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6. Cruella de Vil in The Hundred And One Dalmatians by Dodie Smith

Even if you’ve never read the book, you’ll know who Cruella de Vil is and what she looks like. Her name an amalgamation of Cruel and Devil, she is a rich, glamourous, heiress, married to a furrier, with no children. Cruella is portrayed as tyrannical, and her husband a silent man who does as he’s told. She wears bold contrasting colours, has a zebra-striped car and the dinner at her flat could easily be a dinner in hades, and for these things, I like her. But, a person can be judged on their treatment of animals, and Cruella drowns kittens and puppies without remorse and desires the pelts of the Dalmatians for a coat.

7. Miss Slighcarp in The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken

Letitia Slighcarp is a greedy con-artist after Sir Willoughby’s money. She takes control of the house, fires the staff, dresses in Bonnie’s mother’s rich clothes, and goes through Sir Willoughby’s papers. She treats the girls appallingly and when they get in the way of her schemes she sends them off to a workhouse as orphans. Slighcarp is an A grade criminal.

8) Jadis, The White Witch in The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe by CS Lewis

Jadis is the witch who casts Narnia in the Hundred Years Winter with no Christmas. She redefines the word tyrant, is addressed as Her Imperial Majesty Jadis, Queen of Narnia, Chatelaine of Cair Paravel, Empress of the Lone Islands, and her palace is full of statues of Narnians turned into stone for betraying her. Fearing a prophecy that says her downfall will be caused by two sons of Adam and two daughters of Eve, she ensnares Edward with Turkish delight and promises of making him a prince, all he has to do is bring his brother and sisters to her. With a flavour of the Snow Queen, Jadis is a truly murderous and terrifying villain.

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9. The Grand High Witch in The Witches by Roald Dahl

Not only is The Grand High Witch “the most evil and appalling woman in the world” but she shoots lasers from her eyes and fries people when she gets angry. Her violent hatred of children eclipses all other witches. Like them, The Grand High Witch has no toes or hair, and has clawed hands, but during the witches convention she removes a mask to reveal a face that looks like “something rotten” and “worm-eaten”. Her supreme villainy is in her plan to kill all the children in the world with Formula 86: Delayed Action Mouse Maker, and when you hear what the plan is you realize she’s an evil genius who must be stopped!

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10) Mrs Coulter in His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman

Philip Pullman creates a formidable villain in Mrs Coulter, who, when examined by the angel Metatron in The Amber Spyglass is described as “corruption and envy and lust for power. Cruelty and coldness. A vicious probing curiosity. Pure, poisonous, toxic malice. You have never from your earliest years shown a shred of compassion or sympathy or kindness without calculating how it would return to your advantage. You have tortured and killed without regret or hesitation; you have betrayed and intrigued and gloried in your treachery. You are a cess-pit of moral filth.” And yet, Mrs Coulter struggles with her feelings for her daughter. She enforces “intercision” on other children, separating them from their daemons, however, when Lyra, faces this terrible operation, Mrs Coulter rescues her. Mrs Coulter is a complex fully-fleshed out character, with vulnerabilities and doubt, as well as being a brilliant, beautiful, ambitious woman, driven by an insatiable appetite for power. What’s not to love?

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MG Leonard’s debut children’s book Beetle Boy is published by Chicken House in paperback at £6.99 and is out now. Buy it at the Guardian bookshop. MG will be taking part in the Great Stag Hunt for endangered stag beetles this spring. Find out more at


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