8 Shocking Heel Turns in Fiction

What happens when good characters go bad

Photo by temaki on Wikimedia Commons

In the penultimate episode of HBO’s wildly popular fantasy epic “Game of Thrones,” teenage queen Daenerys went from one of television’s most beloved female characters to a woman hell bent on revenge and willing to slaughter innocents to get it. Dany’s heel turn—a borrowed pro wrestling term referring to when the hero turns villain—left fans in uproar, especially the ones who named their kids after her. Though the TV series might not have nailed the ending, when done well, this device can complicate a character’s narrative, subverting reader expectations to show there’s more to a person than meets the eye. These eight novels reveal just how dark a character can become down the path to heeldom.

Girls on Fire by Robin Wasserman

It is 1991, in Girls on Fire, when high schooler Hannah Dexter is befriended by Lacey Champlain, a girl who just moved into town during the midst of the local basketball star’s apparent suicide. They form a fast friendship that leads Dex away from stability toward rebellion and danger. When Lacey’s past catches up to them, Dex must decide who to trust and what she is willing to do to protect herself.

If We Were Villains by M.L. Rio

If We Were Villains tells the story of seven Shakespearean actors at the Dellecher Classical Conservatory, who act their roles as much off the stage as on it. When one of the players becomes obsessed with Julius Caesar, the group begins to crumble, leading to someone’s death during a reenactment of Macbeth on Halloween night.

What Was She Thinking?: Notes on a Scandal by Zoë Heller

Shortlisted for the Man Booker, What Was She Thinking? describes the burgeoning friendship between lonely schoolteacher Barbara Covett and the new art teacher, Sheba Hart. Jealousy ensues when Sheba incites a torrid affair with her underage student. In the public fallout, Barbara writes an account in defense of Sheba, and secrets are revealed—from more than one person.

The Golden Mean by Annabel Lyon

The Golden Mean reinvents philosopher Aristotle and his most famous pupil, Alexander the Great. After promising to teach Alexander, his childhood friend’s son, Aristotle faces his own culpability as he watches this charming and shocking boy grow into an unstoppable force who would conquer the known world, for better or worse.

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

This book-turned-movie is a bestseller for a reason. It is Nick and Amy Dunne’s fifth marriage anniversary when Amy disappears. As the police investigation continues, Nick and Amy’s seemingly perfect marriage unravels, exposing dark truths from both sides. No spoilers, but it turns out the bad guy is someone you probably didn’t expect.

The Secret History by Donna Tartt

In Donna Tartt’s first novel, The Secret History, a group of six Classics students at an elite Vermont college pull away from normality as they get wrapped in a spiral of deceit, obsession, and evil. Growing more isolated from their peers, the group becomes obsessed with the ancient Greeks, and in their attempt to perform a Bacchanalian rite, one boy is murdered. This novel explores the circumstances and isolation that forever changed these friends.

Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood’s historical fiction begins with Grace Marks, a young, overworked servant convicted of murdering a household in 1843. Serving a life sentence, Grace claims to have no recollection of what happened. When a psychiatrist is solicited to interview her, more questions arise as she evades his questions. She instead tells the story of her life, and by the end, we are left asking who is really guilty in all of this.

The Girls by Emma Cline

Set in northern California during the 1960s, The Girls follows Evie Boyd, a lonely teenager who longs for acceptance. Soon enthralled by a group of girls devoted to Russell, the leader of a commune based on the Manson family, Evie gets involved with a series of murders committed by the group. The closer she gets to these girls, the harder it becomes to find herself.

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