This month we’re talking about villains; we’ve already had posts about some excellent bad guys, but I thought I’d talk a little about four less tangible villains that I’d argue are even more threatening than your Voldemorts and Levanas by virtue of the fact that they often can’t be beaten, no matter what. They also aren’t always a solo act — they might combine forces with a more-traditional bad guy to deliver a one-two punch to our hero.
While in some books there might be a villain behind the war, someone that can be found and beaten, quite often they remain a mysterious background force rather than a real person. For example, in Tomorrow, When the War Began by John Marsden, the characters never fight the unseen general presumably directing the invasion of Australia. Even the individual invading soldiers that they encounter aren’t dastardly criminals in their own right, they’re (mostly) guys doing a job. Alien invasions are another example where the war is bigger than one villainous person.
This list is starting to read a little bit like the four Horsemen of the Apocalypse! But disease (and its unkind sidekick, death) is a pretty common bad guy in YA fiction — you need look no further than cancer in The Fault in Our Stars by John Green or any number of other books where one of the characters struggles with illness. You could also argue that disease is the bad guy in certain types of zombie fiction — the types where zombification is contagious.
You often see time as the bad guy in the sorts of books that have blurbs that include phrases such as “in a race against time”. In YA, time is also present in the looming end of high school for characters who don’t want to face that their life is about to change and their friends are going to move away. A great example is The Incredible Adventures of Cinnamon Girl by Melissa Keil.
I love survival fiction. Loooooove it. The sort of books that do environment as villain well include These Broken Stars by Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner — with the characters’ trek across the surface of an uninhabited planet — and the first two Hunger Games books by Suzanne Collins. The latter take the environment-as-villain concept to a new level by having it actually respond to thwart the characters … albeit at the direction of some more-traditional bad guys. (Natural disasters are an obvious sub-category here, though they aren’t my usual genre so I can’t think of any examples off the top of my head.)
These are my top four, but there are other candidates, such as famine (the last of the Horsemen!) and poverty. What are your favourite books where the things the characters struggle against most aren’t each other?
Cassandra Page is a speculative fiction author who has just revealed the cover for her fifth novel, False Awakening. You can see it here and read an excerpt. You know, if you want to.