Books Where The Villain Is Actually The Hero

R. Nassor

Senior Contributor

R. Nassor may spend more time with books, tea, and ceramic mugs than recommended by professionals but it hasn’t failed her so far. Nassor has a MA in English Literature from Georgetown University, where she looked at the way medieval and early modern literature reappear in fantasy books today. She’s been writing about romance, fantasy, science fiction, and pop culture for quite a while, starting at Book Riot in 2020. She’s also written for You can follow her on Tiktok and contact her through her website.

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Manipulating morality is a fine thing. It might be why books where the villain is actually the hero just hit right.

This inversion of the hero-versus-villain dynamic plays with our ideas of the public perception of good versus bad. Oftentimes, systems of power are not inherently just, but they establish a set of rules and laws that govern goodness and badness on a large scale.

It is much easier to see wealthy, powerful people as good because, if you follow the just world fallacy, they have worked hard to deserve it. On the flip side, if things are going wrong, by the same principle, it is their fault. Just like many psychological principles, it is just one of those things that often feels intuitively correct but is not.

However, the underlying idea makes a “the villain is actually the hero” setup compelling. It disproves the just world fallacy and reveals a darker truth about the broken systems of justice. “The villain is actually the hero” also sets out to correct historic antisemitic, racist, ableist, and homophobic villainous tropes.

Sometimes, the histories and social structures we are taught growing up misidentify goodness and heroism. The only way to correct it is to go through the difficult process of discovering the truth that the hero was the bad guy all along. “The villain is actually the hero” is always satisfying because even when no one else notices the hero is the problem, the villain is there to thwart them.

Below you’ll find a mix of adult fantasy, romantasy, and YA fantasy with one necessary graphic novel. “The villain is actually the hero” can appear anywhere really. These are just some of my favorites.

Shockingly Heroic Adult Fantasy

Hench by Natalie Zina Walschots Book Cover

Hench by Natalie Zina Walschots

Anna thought light was hard being stuck in the villain-hench gig economy doing office work, but when she gets pulled into a villainous reveal, the hero who breaks up the event also breaks her. Injured without sick pay or insurance, Anna has nothing to do but slowly rehab and begin creating a spreadsheet tallying the harm heroes have done to the city. Her viral campaign gets her hired full-time by the worst villain in town, but with heroism like that, who wouldn’t root for the villain?

Vicious by V. E. Schwab Book Cover

Vicious by V. E. Schwab

It’s impossible to write a “the villain is actually the hero” book list without asexual darling, Victor. At college, Victor and Eli were just brilliant roommates researching how to create extraordinary abilities through near-death experiences. Ten years later, Eli is a lauded hero, celebrated for killing anyone with extraordinary abilities he can find, and Victor is a recently-escaped-from-prison villain whose one goal is to take Eli down. In two timelines, their complicated relationship to their sense of justice reveals the real villain was the hero all along.

A Feather So Black by Lyra Selene Book Cover

A Feather So Black by Lyra Selene

In the human kingdom, changelings like Fia are rare. When the war between the Fair Folk and the humans ended, they retreated to Tír na nÓg and stole the High Queen’s daughter, leaving Fia in her place. Raised as the Queen’s spy, her affinity with plants has been molded to be the perfect poisonous tool against the evil Fair Folk. So when the Queen tells her she must go through the gate to retrieve her stolen daughter, Fia says yes, even though she will be accompanied by her first friend, lover, and the man who broke her heart. As they go to Tír na nÓg one night a month to retrieve the princess, Fia discovers that the evil Fair Folk might not be as wicked as she was led to believe.

Romantasy Where The Villain Is Actually The Hero

That Time I Got Drunk and Saved a Demon by Kimberly Lemming Book Cover

That Time I Got Drunk and Saved a Demon by Kimberly Lemming

Everyone is excited when the goddess selects her chosen ones to go on a quest. Everyone except Cinnamon, who would prefer to stay home. When she drunkenly encounters a dragon-shifting demon on her walk home and protects herself with cinnamon, Cinn’s worldview changes. It turns out the Goddess is a witch enslaving demons with mind control, and the awoken demon, Fallon, wants Cinn’s help taking her down. Reluctantly, Cinn embarks on a quest to save all demons with Fallon, a shifter intent on wooing her before their journey is over.

King of Battle and Blood by Scarlett St. Clair Book Cover

King of Battle and Blood by Scarlett St. Clair

All her life, Isolde was told that even among the evil vampires, there was no one as villainous as Adrian, the vampire king. At the end of a difficult conflict, the only way to save her people is to marry Adrian. Isolde plans to kill him while she can, but when her assassination attempt on their wedding night fails, she begins to uncover the truth behind the vampire court. With the wickedness of her home kingdom and the charity of the vampire court revealed Isolde will have to reorient her goals to stay on the right side.

The Hero is the Villain In YA SFF

Legendborn by Tracy Deonn Book Cover

Legendborn by Tracy Deonn

Bree thought the most dangerous thing at a party in the woods would be the risk of getting kicked out of the residential high school program at UNC–Chapel Hill. When demons appear, students either start running away or hunting the creatures down. She discovers there is a secret group of supposed heroes, the descendants of King Arthur’s knights, tasked with defeating the unseen threat to the world who might have had something to do with her mother’s death. Bree is willing to risk her life to discover who the true villains are.

Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao Book Cover

Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao

Living in a world where aliens are fought by teen boys psychically linked with girls to pilot mech suits, Zetian is desperate to be chosen for the program—not to save the world, but to avenge the death of her sister. When she is finally selected, she unexpectedly overpowers and kills the pilot responsible for her sister’s death. She’s gotten her revenge, but now she has to face what’s next. Zetian is too powerful to imprison, but in an effort to control her, they pair her up with the strongest male pilot, and she will have to work much harder to survive their partnership.

A Not-So-Villainous Graphic Novel

Nimona by N.D. Stevenson Book Cover

Nimona by N.D. Stevenson

Young shapeshifter, Nimona wants nothing more than to be supervillain Lord Blackheart’s sidekick. They are determined to reveal that law enforcement heroes like Sir Goldenloin aren’t nearly as good as they would like everyone to believe. But will Nimona’s impulsiveness and mysterious past get in the way of their revenge? This is a deeply sincere, award-winning graphic novel that questions everything from the government to the gender binary in elegant and hilarious ways.

There will never be too many books where the villain is actually the hero. Every time, authors explore new ideas of villainy and goodness by unpacking cultural stereotypes and historic wrongs. If you are interested in other hyper-specific book recommendations that make you think, might I recommend the best sentient houses in literature, YA books for fans of Greek mythology, and must-read historical fantasy books.