Greatest Literary Villian
Who is the greatest literary villain in history?
Before I answer that question, let me explain my methods of determination. Employing a (highly-scientific) poll of my Facebook friends, I compounded a list of probable candidates. The question was, “Who are the top ten literary villains of all time?” The response was overwhelming. My criteria included a specification that any movie villain must have first originated in a book. Despite these instructions, a number of folks nominated Darth Vader. Many suggested villains from comic books, and I decided to include these in the list, rather than be thought a literary snob. The following is the list, in no particular order. I don’t claim to have read every book on the list, so I don’t have personal knowledge of every villain’s qualifications. And I apologize if your favorite wretched fiend has been excluded, but I will be glad to add them in.
What makes a good literary villain?
Villainous characters are plentiful, found in most literary genres. Some are simply selfish or mean-spirited people. Some have supernatural strength and inhuman power. Some are terrifying to behold. Some hide their evil behind an eerily beautiful façade. The White Witch’s enticing beauty, for example, conflicts with her evil intent.
Stephen King was nominated multiple times for his bone-chilling villains, but Randall Flagg stands out above the others, appearing in multiple books with multiple names. In Flagg, we find a villain who is the embodiment of evil. Pitted against average humans, his supernatural powers allow him to spread evil and destruction, continuing the fear and horror, seemingly impossible to kill.
Cruella De Vil ranks with these other villains simply because she wants to kill puppies. We can always find some reason a man deserves to die, but someone who kills innocent puppies and skins them to make a fur coat is truly villainous. In Oliver Twist, Bill Sikes beats his dog and bludgeons his girlfriend to death, while Fagan uses and abuses children, another intolerable act to solidify status as a villain.
Every villain crosses an unwritten line separating acceptable and unacceptable social behavior. It is not the act of torture that makes the Grand Inquisitor Torquemada a villain… It is the torture of innocents. Telling a lie wouldn’t be a villainous act, but for Fagan’s plan to enrage Sikes to the point of murdering his faithful girlfriend. Dolores Umbridge takes after-school-detention to a new level. The more innocent the victim, the more villainous the act.
What motivates a villain?
Literary villains act from a variety of motivations. Commonly, human villains are selfish, greedy, and power-seeking. Often the author will show how life’s circumstances caused a normal person to transform into the evil character we love to hate. We can almost forgive the man who commits dreadful acts when we witness his horrific, torturous childhood.
But some of the most terrifying villains are those who seem to be evil without just cause. At the age of twenty-seven, Iago had no extenuating circumstances to justify his lust for evil. Demonic and supernatural villains, such as Randall Flagg and Count Dracula, and creatures, like Grendel and Dr. Frankenstein's monster, fall into this category.
And of course some of our villains are simply insane, Annie Wilkes being a prime example. Perhaps this mentally instable nurse from Misery is particularly disturbing to authors. The sadistic Nurse Ratched demonstrates borderline personality disorder, which would qualify her for admittance to the mental hospital she controlled.
What bothers us about villains?
The highly intelligent villain, such as Tom Riddle, will often commit heinous acts with anonymity. Dr. Moriarity is a criminal mastermind who readily kills innocents. Hannibal Lector’s murders and cannibalism are concealed for many years because of his brilliance - an intelligence quotient of two hundred. And the reader cannot help being fascinated with him, despite his horrific acts.
Iago’s ruthless evil is couched in devious subterfuge. His insinuations cause good people to commit vile acts, destroying the people they love along with themselves. Had Iago simply murdered Desdemona by his own hand, the act would have been tolerable. But the reader is horrified when his intimations cause Othello to murder his innocent wife.
Aaron the Moor commits vile acts without obvious motivation, while appearing to take pleasure in the suffering of others.
Mrs. Coulter is another character we hate for her despicable actions against children. And yet, she almost redeems herself in the end, leaving the reader feeling unsettled and unsure of her motives.
Some villains remind us of real-life. Voldemort’s effort to eliminate all but those with “pure blood” is all too reminiscent of Hitler. And the fictitious Grand Inquisitor Torquemada was, of course, based on the real inquisitor.
Who is the greatest villain in literary history?
I would never presume to have that answer. But I will give you the name of the villain at the top of my personal list… Simon Legree from Uncle Tom’s Cabin (Harriet Beecher Stowe).
Legree is thoroughly vile and without remorse. He treats his slaves as objects rather than people. Along with his henchmen, he beats his slaves, sometimes to the point of death. He also rapes women. He reminds us of the true horrors of slavery. He probably wouldn’t be the most terrifying character in a horror flick, but he epitomizes the real-life human villain. And one is further sickened by the fact his sadistic actions would have been perfectly acceptable during that time period.
I’ve taken a stand and given my opinion. (I hope that doesn’t make me a villain in your book!)
Tamie Dearen lives with her very romantic husband of thirty-two years. She has two beautiful daughters, two amazing son-in-laws, and one awesome grandson. She plays piano, flute, harmonica, keyboards, and guitar, and loves composing and art. And she hates housework. Tamie has been a dentist in private practice for thirty years. In her spare time, she writes books.
Tamie met her husband as a freshman in college when she acted out of character on a whim. One night in the library lobby, she spied a cute guy with his first name written on the back of his shirt. She called out his name. When he approached to talk to her, she pretended that she'd met him before, asking about his classes and how he liked college. To her surprise and delight, he also pretended that he knew her, but of course he didn't know her name. They continued this false relationship for two months. Each time they saw each other, an event that occurred three times per week at the cafeteria, he would pretend he knew her. Meanwhile, all of Tamie's friends were careful not to reveal her name to him. When he finally admitted his ignorance of her name, he was astonished to learn the truth. And the rest is history.
When Tamie is not placing the Bad Guys under close scrutiny, she can be found at:
Website: http://tamiedearen.weebly.com/Follow her on Twitter: https://twitter.com/TamieDearen
Thank you Tamie for such an interesting article. It's often the villains that make for outstanding novels, so take note of Tamie's observations when crafting your own.
Eric @ www.ericjgates.com