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The 40 Greatest Villains Of Literature

The ultimate bad guys

The 40 Greatest Villains Of Literature
Marc Chacksfield
28 November 2012

To have a hero, you need a villain. And in the annals of literary history, there have been some downright scoundrels, to put it mildly.

No deed is too dark, no action too despicable for this list of utter reprobates. We've selected 40 of the very worst (or best, depending on how you look at it); you should feel very very glad that these dastardly characters are confined to the pages of the books that contain them.

If we've missed any vile villains, let us know in the comments below.

Also see or list of the 30 scariest books ever written

Satan (Paradise Lost)

Author: John Milton

Year: 1667

The ultimate villain in literature, Milton's continuation of the Biblical figure is a depiction of maleficence at its darkest. The self-indulgent fallen angel aims to destroy, embarking on a vendetta against his creator. He's the basis of evil upon which we have founded our opinion of villainy on so is fully deserving of a place on this list.

Iago (Othello)

Author: William Shakespeare

Year: 1603

Iago, the scoundrel, hates Othello so much that he tricks him into believing that his wife is having an affair with his Lieutenant. The sneaky devil plans a vendetta against him, driving Othello to kill his own wife. Noted as one of Shakespeare's most sinister villains, Iago possesses carefully nurtured qualities of deception and manipulation. You might not shake in terror if you met him in a dark alley, but if you've wronged him, you'd pay.

Alec D'Urberville (Tess of the D'Urbervilles)

Author: Thomas Hardy

Year: 1891

“I was born bad, and I have lived bad, and I shall die bad, in all probability.” Evidence: he takes a liking to innocent, country bumpkin Tess, entices her into his home and forcibly steals her virginity in the mist, branding her impure. He then manipulates her into thinking her one true love isn't returning to her. But it's fine because Tess gets her own back in the end. Doesn't make him any less of a bastard though.

Svidrigailov (Crime and Punishment)

Author: Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Year: 1866

This guy is an evil force to be reckoned with. The protagonist's theory of the ubermensch is realised in Svidrigailov; he is the epitome of selfishness. Aside from adultery, he's also revealed to be a child molester, and even attempts to rape Dounia. He incites the suicide of a fifteen year old deaf girl as well as one of his servants, and is thought to have poisoned his own wife. Bad man.

Professor Moriarty (The Final Problem)

Author: Arthur Conan Doyle

Year: 1893

The good detective's arch-nemesis ruled the criminal underground of London and this evil mastermind was one of the few who actually rivaled Sherlock's intellectual capacity. Ruthless, vindictive and remorseless, he will stop at nothing to destroy Sherlock. One critic has epitomised Moriarty as "crime itself", whilst Sherlock himself describes him as the "Napoleon of Crime."

The White Witch (The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe)

Author: CS Lewis

Year: 1950

Well, she actually killed Christmas. In the land of Narnia, where the snow always falls, The White Witch prevents Christmas from coming. Strike one. She banished all sense of happiness and hope. Strike two. She turns her enemies into stone. Strike three. On top of that, she's generally quite dispassionate, cruel and uses her magic to terrorise her enemies. Cold and heartless; most definitely one of the most fearsome "children's" baddies ever.

Long John Silver (Treasure Island)

Author: Robert Louis Stevenson

Year: 1883

One legged pirate Long John Silver was the first man to instil fear in Captain Flint. A manipulative and fearful pirate, Silver gains the trust of protagonist Jim Hawkins, only to reveal himself to be the leader of a mutiny, planning to murder the ship's officers once the treasure is found. Jim catches Silver murdering Tom, one of the crew's loyal seaman. Gives pirates a bad, if not rather fitting, name.

Kevin (We Need To Talk About Kevin)

Author: Lionel Shriver

Year: 2003

That Kevin is the sociopath behind a school massacre should be evidence enough for his villainy. He also hates his mother, manipulates a girl into gouging her eczema affected skin, and it's implied that he is behind an accident in which his sister loses an eye. Not exactly the makings of a President. His remorselessness is eerie as his mother visits him in prison, trying to understand why he killed all those children. His lack of justification is chilling - a testament to his truly villainous qualities.

Randall Flagg (The Stand)

Author: Stephen King

Year: 1978

Any character whose face would "make small children crash their trikes into board fences and then run wailing to their mommies with stake-shaped splinters sticking out of their knees", surely deserves credit as one of the greatest villains. Following a plague that has killed most of the population, Flagg tries to reinstate a certain civilisation run on tyranny and brute force, using crucifixion, dismemberment and other instruments of terror to punish those who are disloyal.

Nils Bjurman (The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo)

Author: Stieg Larsson

Year: 2005

This guy could possibly be one of the worst (or best) modern super villains. After the guardian of Lisbeth Sander becomes seriously ill, Nils Bjurman is assigned as her new guardian. He is a sexual sadist who manipulates Lisbeth, only allowing her access to her funds if she performs sexual acts. After a horrific rape scene (which Lisbeth tapes as collateral), Lisbeth gets her own back by tattooing "I'm a sadistic rapist pig" on his stomach. A loathsome villain at his best.

Simon Legree (Uncle Tom's Cabin)

Author: Harriet Beacher Stowe

Year: 1852

Vicious slave owner Simon Legree exhibits a remorseless, inhuman cruelty, as he brutally beats Tom after he refuses to whip a fellow slave. He despises Tom for his religious faith and tries his best to break him, although Tom refuses to succumb to his terror. He sexually manipulates slaves Cassey and Emmeline, and eventually orders Tom to be whipped to death because of his religion.

Cathy Ames (East of Eden)

Author: John Steinbeck

Year: 1952

Described in the novel as a "psychic monster", and having a "malformed soul", it's safe to say that Cathy Ames is a high-ranking villain. From a young age, it is clear that Cathy is sexually depraved, causing harm to anyone she holds a relationship with. She manipulates men by using her promiscuity and sexual identity against them; she accuses two young boys of raping her as well as leading her Latin professor to suicide with her wily ways. Perhaps one of the worst events is Cathy's attempt at a primitive abortion using knitting needles. When she fails and gives birth to two sons, she feels nothing for them. She poisons her beneficiary and turns her brothel into a sadistic sex den.

Norman Bates (Psycho)

Author: Robert Bloch

Year: 1959

A woman is found dead in Bates' apartment. Bates is convinced it is his mother, but it is revealed that Mrs Bates committed suicide years earlier, taking her lover with her. In actual fact, Bates' villainy is revealed in a dark secret: he was the one who killed his mother and her lover. His dissociative personality disorder causes him to assume the identity of his mother, Norma, who was the one who murdered Mary. Here's the kicker: he stole and preserved her corpse, dressed up in her clothes and spoke to himself in her voice. Psycho indeed.

Napoleon (Animal Farm)

Author: George Orwell

Year: 1945

Just to start things off, this little piggy's character is based on Joseph Stalin. Ruling with an iron trotter, Napoleon ousts fellow pig leader Snowball and subsequently takes over the animal's uprising as the President of Animal Farm, eventually turning his leadership into a dictatorship. His tyranny knows no bounds, as he initiates a wave of terror, in which he orders the deaths of several animals on the farm after coercing them into 'confessions' of wrongdoing.

Hannibal Lecter (Red Dragon)

Author: Thomas Harris

Year: 1981

Not only a psychotic murderer, Hannibal Lecter took it one more step too far by sinking his teeth into cannibalism. Having been consulted as a psychiatrist by the FBI on a series of murders, Lecter helps agent Will Graham through the case before revealing that it was him who committed the crimes. Following a lengthy incarceration in a mental facility, Lecter is approached by Graham to catch another culprit by the name of the Tooth Fairy; Lecter finds him and leads the murderer to Graham's home, with an order to kill him and his family.

Captain Hook (Peter Pan And Wendy)

Author: JM Barrie

Year: 1904

He's got a hook for a hand, he's a pirate, and he hates Peter Pan, the boy who never grew up. There you go. Apparently, he's also apparently the only man who Long John Silver ever feared. He loathes Peter Pan for hacking off his hand and feeding it to a crocodile, as well as for Peter and the Lost Boy's innate moral goodness. He captures Wendy, challenging Peter Pan to a final duel. He gets an ending that is well and truly deserved.

Count Dracula (Dracula)

Author: Bram Stoker

Year: 1897

Vampire lovers of late might contest this one, but Count Dracula is the ultimate blood-sucking villain. Different from traditional Eastern European vampires, Dracula's charm is what makes him all the more villainous; enticing victims by seducing them, only to inflict a fatal bite.

Richard III (Richard III)

Author: William Shakespeare

Year: 1591

In his opening speech, Richard III says it himself: "I am determined to prove a villain //And hate the idle pleasures of these days." And a villain he does prove. The hunchback whose jealousy of his brother's accession to the throne leads to a plot to have his brother, Clarence, conducted to the Tower of London; he orders two murderers to kill Clarence in the tower. Throughout the play he openly outlines his evil intentions and shows no remorse.

Annie Wilkes (Misery)

Author: Stephen King

Year: 1987

Mentally unstable Annie takes Paul Sheldon in after he breaks both his legs in an accident. As the writer of her favourite novels, Wilkes' reveals a psychotic obsession for him and his books, taking him hostage, subjecting him to psychological and physical torture and forcing him to write his latest novel how she wants it. It's also revealed that she's an infamous serial killer. She stabs a state trooper with a wooden cross and runs him over with a lawnmower, after having chopped Sheldon's foot off with an axe, setting it alight with a blowtorch.

Bill Sykes (Oliver Twist)

Author: Charles Dickens

Year: 1838

A cruel and vicious man, a criminal and murderer, Sykes' lawless behaviour leads him into a life of destitution and immorality, taking up with a prostitute and carrying out petty crimes. Despite Nancy's love for him, Sykes brutally murders her when he thinks she has betrayed him. The murder is especially graphic and gruesome, especially for a Dickens novel.

Cruella de Vil (The Hundred and One Dalmations)

Author: Dodie Smith

Year: 1956

We'll cut straight to the chase here: Ms de Vil kidnaps puppies in order to skin them and use their fur. And not just any puppies: really cute spotty puppies. And if that's not enough for the internet to implode, she also abuses her Persian cat and drowns kittens. Do you need any more evidence? No. Case closed.

Sauron (Lord of the Rings)

Author: JRR Tolkien

Year: 1954

Tyrannical ring bearer Sauron's insatiable lust for power provides the foundation for his villainy in the Lord of The Rings trilogy. Desperately seeking the tenth ring in order to bind the magical power that surrounds it, Sauron will stop at nothing to achieve his evil goal, including torturing the little critter Gollum to find the missing ring's whereabouts. He's the all-seeing eye and a source of true evil and villainy to the arbiters of good.

Judge Holden (Blood Meridian)

Author: Cormac McCarthy

Year: 1985

Judge Holden is, apparently, a real, historical figure, though evidence is minimal. After reading Blood Meridian, we'd suggest that we hope he was entirely made-up, seeing as Holden is the devil incarnate, leading a pack of criminals into robbery, rape and murder, throwing in a touch of paedophilia along the way. A seven-foot monster, with pale white skin, McCarthy paints him as almost supernatural in ability, but also in badness. A true villain of the peace in every way.

Mephistopholes (Doctor Faustus)

Author: Christopher Marlowe

Year: 1592

A demonic figure from German folklore, put into literature by Marlowe, Mephistopholes is a servant of Lucifer, charged with collecting the souls of the damned. When Faustus decides to sell his soul to the devil in exchange for Mephistopoles' supernatural powers, he does initially try to dissuade him from making the trade; however, he doesn't try too hard to change Faustus' mind and, is thoroughly useless to him once the trade has been made. Evil, untrustworthy, Lucifer's mate: he definitely deserves his place in the villainous hall of fame.

Agatha Trunchbull (Matilda)

Author: Roald Dahl

Year: 1988

Children's books get all the best villains, and Roald Dahl created more than most. The worst of a despicable bunch is Mrs Agatha Trunchbull, headmistress of Crunchem Hall Elementary School. A cruel sadist who hates children (ideal for a teacher), tortures them in a glass-and-nail-filled cupboard known as "The Chokey" and torments her nicest member of staff, Ms Honey, Trunchbull is a true bully, and a fantastic villain.

Patrick Bateman (American Psycho)

Author: Bret Easton Ellis

Year: 1991

To call Patrick Bateman a villain is probably underplaying it a little. A wealthy and successful investment banker yes - but also a violent psychopath, whose hobbies include drug addiction, murder, rape, cannibalism, mutilation and necrophilism. Of course, whether or not any of the violent acts described actually happen or are just figments of his own imagination is open to debate, but this is his story and he is the undisputed villain of it, so in he goes to the list.

He (Bambi, A Life in the Woods)

Author: Felix Salten

Year: 1923

Oh yes, we haven't forgotten. The single, saddest event of everyone's childhood (bar not getting that Lego Pirate Ship for Christmas) was the moment when Bambi's mother got shot. Therefore, the un-named 'He' who committed the most unforgivable crime in literary history, must rank as one of the greatest villains of all time. No, we're not crying; it's just been raining on our faces.

Blofeld (Thunderball)

Author: Ian Fleming

Year: 1961

Break Bond down into its constituent elements and what have you got? The girls, the gadgets, the Martinis and most importantly, the villains. Fleming created so many fantastic rogues that it's hard to pick one, but we're going with the devilish Ernst Stavro Blofeld, an evil genius, "number 1" and head of SPECTRE. The, erm, poster boy for all supervillains since - yes, including Dr. Evil - and he comes with his own cat to manically stroke.

Humbert Humbert (Lolita)

Author: Vladimir Nabokov

Year: 1955

Humbert, the narrator of Lolita, uses wordplay and humour in his writing, whilst also seemingly expressing regret for many of his actions, but the fact remains that he is a paedophile, taking the young 12-year-old Dolores, aka Lolita, and leading her into a life of abuse at his hands. Nabokov's genius lies in making us almost sympathise with him - but he remains a undisputed villain.

The Wicked Witch of the West (The Wonderful Wizard of Oz)

Author: L. Frank Baum

Year: 1900

No-one knows the backstory of The Wicked Witch of the West, or her co-conspirators, The Wicked Witch of the South and the Wicked Witch of the East - maybe they were all bullied at school - but they were definitely witches, and definitely wicked. Old, dry, and wizened, she tries to thwart our heroes with plagues of wolves, crows, bees and soldiers, but to no avail. And she even hits Toto the dog with her umbrella. Now that's unforgivable.

Grendel (Beowulf)

Author: Unknown

Year: 1815

The mythical villain of the Anglo-Saxon epic poem Beowulf, Grendel is commonly regarded as a monster, and a descendent of the first Biblical murderer, Cain. He is feared by all except the hero Beowulf - and quite right too, seemingly being a big fan of killing and eating anyone he finds in the mead-hall of Heorot. For that reason alone, he must be ranked as one of the greatest villains of all: if you can't feel safe in a mead-hall, then you can't feel safe anywhere. I'm sure he blames his genes, but it's no excuse Mr. Grendel.

Lord Voldemort (Harry Potter)

Author: J.K. Rowling

Years: 1997-2007

A foe so fearsome that people are scared to say his name out loud. 'You-Know-Who', 'The Dark Lord' and 'He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named' are some of his more snappy nicknames, but we shouldn't joke, for Rowling herself described him as "the most evil wizard for hundreds and hundreds of years" - that's pretty evil. Harry Potter's nemesis and a psychopath with a skull-like face, red eyes and snake-like slits for nostrils, he's unlikely to win any beauty contests: a vile and villainous creature all round.

Mr Dark (Something Wicked This Way Comes)

Author: Ray Bradbury

Year: 1962

The dark and evil villain of Ray Bradbury's fantastical classic, Mr Dark specialises in luring vulnerable souls into joining the carnival - something which is nowhere near as fun as it sounds. He bears tattoos on his body, one for every victim, and cannot abide positivity or affection. To be honest, we really should have guessed that he wasn't a good guy from the name.

Pinkie Brown (Brighton Rock)

Author: Graham Greene

Year: 1938

Pinkie is a character that believes himself to be "pure evil", and we're probably not going to dispute that with him. A violent sociopath, who carries out horrific acts of murder and abuse with seemingly no remorse. Feared by members of his own gang -and all this at the age of 17. He hates women and has no friends. Anyone going to say he's not a great villain? We thought not.

Shere Khan (The Jungle Book)

Author: Rudyard Kipling

Year: 1894

He had a tough start in life, being born with a crippled leg, and given a derogatory nickname by his own mother ("Lungri - the lame one"), but that doesn't excuse Shere Khan becoming the villainous creature that he did. Scheming to disrupt the Wolf Pack and claim the life of young Mowgli, this evil tiger will stop at nothing to obtain his prey. A tough upbringing is no excuse you know (his Dad was probably quite nice).

Milo Minderbinder (Catch-22)

Artist: Joseph Heller

Year: 1961

An unashamed mercenary, who cares only for himself, and his own profit, Milo Minderbinder is a tremendous literary villain. He will stop at nothing to achieve monetary gain, playing the black market, and working on both sides during the Second World War; even when it involves actions that will kill his own countrymen. Utterly immoral, and utterly committed to pure capitalism, Minderbender only answers to himself and his god: money.

Nurse Ratched (One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest)

Author: Ken Kesey

Year: 1962

A true monster of a woman, Nurse Ratched is every hospital nightmare rolled into one ultra-villanous character. Ruling over a mental institution with absolute power, she uses fear, humiliation and brutality to abuse her vulnerable patients - at least, until Randle McMurphy arrives. Next time you have a slightly cold, unfriendly nurse remember - it could be a whole lot worse.

Medea (Medea)

Author: Euripides

Year: 431BC

Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. Despite leaving her own barbarian people in order to marry Jason, a Greek, then saving him from a dragon, he has decided to leave her to marry a royal princess. Typical man - leave when a better offer comes along. She then proceeds to go on a truly murderous rampage, with Jason's new spouse, together with his new father-in-law being poisoned. The coup de gras comes when, in order to hurt Jason even more, she kills their own children. Think twice before cheating people. Think twice.

Uriah Heep (David Copperfield)

Author: Charles Dickens

Year: 1850

Another of Dickens' dastardly villains, Uriah Heep is perhaps the most cloying of all of them, being patronising and insincere whilst using manipulation to hide his true motivation: pure greed. Employing blackmail, fraud and treachery to gain control of the Wickfield Fortune, Heep's character is so ubiquitous that paragons of virtue such as Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson have been compared to him. A vile villain from the master of vile villains.

Henry Crawford (Mansfield Park)

Author: Jane Austen

Year: 1814

The list would not be complete without a true love rat, and they come no finer than Henry Crawford. Wealthy and flamboyant, he cuts a swathe through the women of Mansfield Park and, just when it seems that he might be a decent man, loses patience and attempts to elope with a married woman - certainly not the done thing in Austen's world. A rogue and a cad and a beastly villain.

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