To be sure, some of the best characters in literature are the so-called “good guys,” but let’s face it: these goody-goodies are rarely the most interesting characters in the story. Most of us, most of the time, want to see good triumph over evil in the end, but we’re really interested in what the villains are up to. Think about it: if not for Ursula in “The Little Mermaid,” Ariel would never have even had the chance to get some land-legs; she would’ve stayed a lady-fish and Eric would’ve married a human and had pretty babies.
In honor of these dynamic characters and their questionable motives, enjoy the following list of some of our favorite fictional criminals/murderers/psychopaths from literary history.
The White Witch from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis
Imagine a world where it’s always winter. And not just any winter—the coldest, snowiest, windiest, most miserable winter you’ve ever seen. Now imagine that this winter is never-ending and that three years and a few months from now you’ll wake up and it will still be the same winter. Now what could possibly make that worse? An evil witch stealing Christmas. That’s right, the White Witch did what the Grinch couldn’t. Add to that the fact that she had a tendency to turn her enemies into stone and that her lifelong ambition was to murder four unsuspecting children and you’ve got one bad witch.
Iago from Othello by William Shakespeare
Iago is one of Shakespeare’s most famous villains, and for good reason. Unlike Shakespeare’s other villains, who tend to be more discreet, Iago just goes for it.
For no reason other than a distinct dislike for Othello, Iago manipulates the man into believing that his wife is cheating on him with his Lieutenant. As if that isn’t enough, Iago somehow convinces Othello that he would be justified in killing his (completely innocent) wife.
To be fair, Othello really shouldn’t have taken the word of this guy he barely knew, no matter how stand-up a fellow everyone seemed to think he was. But regardless of Othello’s gullible little head, it’s pretty likely he wouldn’t have committed the murder of his beloved without Iago’s influence.
Lord Voldemort from the Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling
Like the previously mentioned White Witch, Voldemort (or He Who Must Not Be Named/The Dark Lord/You Know Who) is a villain geared toward children and young adults. But we don’t buy that. Voldemort’s plans were pretty nasty for a kids book.
In addition to being the most evil wizard of all time (which is really saying something, since there were a lot of other evil wizards before him and they did some pretty awful things), Voldemort creates an army of weaker but still evil witches and wizards, magical folk, and creatures that likely would’ve just minded their own business for the rest of their lives and turned into ghosties when the time came in not for Voldemort. In fact, he was so obsessed with gaining followers, Voldemort used dark curses to gather more followers to do his bidding.
As if committing countless murders wasn’t enough, Voldemort’s end goal really seemed geared towards the permanent misery of the people living under his charge. Not to mention that J.K. Rowling’s description of him as a monster with pale skin, red eyes, slit-like pupils, and basically no nose. That’s pretty nasty if you ask me.
Nils Bjurman from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
Just what we wanted: a more modern-day, relatable bad guy. That isn’t to say that we can all relate to this man, but we can all read about his character and be reminded of the horrendous stories we’ve heard on the news, whereas you’re not going to turn on FOX and hear about the witch who stole Christmas.
Nils is the man who eventually becomes Lisbeth’s guardian after her previous guardian falls seriously ill. Unfortunately for poor Lisbeth, Nils is a sexually depraved sadist who refuses her access to her own money without the act of various sexual favors.
To end on a positive note, Lisbeth does get a sweet taste of revenge: she manages to secretly film one of her brutal rapes to use as collateral against her abuser and is able to tattoo “I’m a sadistic rapist pig” onto his stomach. So at least there’s some karmic retribution.
Cruella de Vil from 101 Dalmations by Dodie Smith
First and foremost, there’s the character’s name (de Vil = deVil = devil). They say not to judge a book by its cover, but in this case, it’s probably okay: Cruella is tall, has two-tone hair, and skins puppies to make her fur coats.
It’s possible that this is a commentary about the nature of the fur industry, as in, why is it okay to skin some animals and not others? To some, it’s never okay, but everyone, regardless of whether or not they like mink coats, will adamantly agree that no one should make a garment out of puppy fur.
As if that isn’t bad enough, Cruella also drowns kittens and abuses her pet Persian kitty.
Maybe de Vil doesn’t stack up against some of the other villains on this list, what with all their murders and whatnot, but there’s really something about animal abusers…it just makes you seem like the most despicable kind of person. But maybe that’s just the animal lover’s opinion.
Ernst Stavro Blofeld from Thunderball by Ian Fleming
Mr. Blofeld is perhaps one of the most famous villains on this list. Even those of you who haven’t heard the name will be familiar with the trope of the bad guy with the bald head and a fluffy cat. It all started with this guy. He became the inspiration for the “bad guy” stereotype as we know it today, even inspiring the character of Dr. Evil.
Blofeld was the first “evil genius/criminal mastermind” to hit modern, mainstream media. As the head of SPECTRE, Blofeld was responsible for countless robberies, assaults, and manipulations of both individuals and political groups.
Like many successful villains, Blofeld has been portrayed time and time again in adaptations since his inception in 1961. His first big screen appearance coming just two years later in 1963. Most recently, in 2015, this classic evil mastermind was embodied by the magnificent Christoph Waltz in the latest Bond film, Spectre.
Professor James Moriarty from Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle
Every fan of the Sherlock Holmes franchise is familiar with Moriarty. Originally, Moriarty was not the most prevalent of Doyle’s villains. In fact, this genius was only portrayed in one or two books throughout the original series’s creation. Over time, though, his character has evolved, as many things do, with the interest of the audience. Much like the aforementioned Blofeld has been inserted into adaptation after adaptation of Bond works, Moriarty finds a way to sneak into a wide multitude of Sherlockian lore.
It’s easy to see why Moriarty quickly became a fan favorite: he’s brilliant, cunning, psychopathic, and the direct antithesis of Mr. Sherlock Holmes (a fine example of a dynamic and fascinating “good guy”). Moriarty as he was introduced by Doyle in “The Adventure of the Final Problem” was said to be a “crime lord,” in other words, he was owed allegiance by just about all of the criminals in England and was paid by them accordingly.
Ever since his creation, adapters have found ways to incorporate Moriarty into their Sherlock-based works. Perhaps most famously was the 2009 film, A Game of Shadows, with Moriarty attempting to spur on a World War in attempt to turn a profit.
Hannibal Lector from Red Dragon by Thomas Harris
“Hannibal the Cannibal,” a title as succinct as it is gross. Hannibal Lector is arguably one of the most famous and grotesquely wicked characters of the later 20th century. Not only was Lector a closeted murderer/cannibal, but he also worked for the FBI as a clinical psychologist, going so far as to assist Agent Graham in following a trail of murders that he, Hannibal, was guilty of. Now that’s bold.
Unfortunately for Lector, he was discovered as the murderer and locked away in a mental institution for a grueling, but deserved sentence. Everything changed when Agent Graham finds himself in need of Lector’s insight into the criminal mind of a yet-to-be-captured murderer. Not one to forgive and forget, Lector located the murderer and led him to the house of Agent Graham with the instruction of to kill whoever’s inside. That’s pretty twisted.
Already infamous from his appearances in the novels Red Dragon, Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal, and Hannibal Rising, Lector was catapulted into the mainstream eye by the Oscar-winning portrayal of Anthony Hopkins. Something about Hopkins’s deadpan eyes and chilling delivery brings Lector to life in a way that the world could have done without. Still, we’re glad he did it, because this is a stunning film.
Professor Dolores Umbridge from the Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling
And last but most certainly not least we have the worst person ever. Yes, worse than the manipulative, murderous cannibal, worse that the woman who skins puppies, and yes, still worse than the man who planned to start a world war with the intent of turning a profit.
Indeed, anyone who is familiar with Umbridge knows that on a scale from one to nasty, she’s nasty +1. Why is she so bad? She’s prim, she’s proper, she wears pink, and she loves cats. All that is potentially forgivable, but what really makes her a villain is that she’s the accidental servant of Voldemort, upholding the laws of Fudge (the Minister of Magic) which deny the re-emergence of the Dark Lord and make it easier for him to gain control. Not to mention that she terrorizes students with her meaningless but painfully enforced rules, refuses her students the opportunity to learn, and is just generally the kind of person that everyone knows and despises.
Let us not forget the time Harry attempted to stand up for himself and ended up having to write lines with his own blood. Seems a little extreme a punishment for talking out of turn, doesn’t it? We think so too. And remember when she attempted to have Dumbledore arrested? Dumbledore. Just as no one puts baby in the corner, no one better put Dumbledore in Azkaban.
Curious about these characters and their authors? Check out eNotes.com to find detailed biographies of your favorite authors alongside full summaries and study guides of their most popular literary works!