It’s easy to write a passable hero. No, not an interesting hero or a complex one, but if all you need is someone to stand shining in the radiance of his righteousness with a sword in his hand, a journeyman writer can whip one of those out with her eyes closed. A great story doesn’t always need a great hero, or even an especially memorable one. It needs a fantastic villain.
A fantastic villain — a villain you love to hate, a villain that you almost, just a little bit, want to root for, a villain whose very name makes your skin crawl — is incredibly difficult to write, which is why fantastic villains are very rare. It’s often the villain who makes an adventure especially delicious and suspenseful; it’s the villain who elevates an interpersonal drama into an epic. A great villain makes a great story — and a great story makes great summer reading. Follow the villains to your summer reading list — and start with these if you want to know what a good villain looks like.
5) Hatsumomo, Memoirs of a Geisha
I’m only about halfway through this one, but already Hatsumomo has made the book for me. A vicious beauty, Hatsumomo is the working geisha at the okiya where Chiyo, the narrator, works as a maid and trains to become a geisha herself. From the instant Hatsumomo sets eyes on a nine-year-old Chiyo, she smells a potential rival and sets out to destroy Chiyo’s life. Hatsumomo’s main competitor, Mameha, takes Chiyo under her tutelage when she learns how much Hatsumomo hates her, and the young girl becomes a pawn in the established geishas’ social war.
There are no depths Hatsumomo won’t sink to to try to prevent Chiyo’s rise to prominence, or damage Mameha’s reputation. Planting stolen goods, spreading disgusting rumors, and driving up the debt Chiyo must repay before she can become a free and independent woman — Hatsumomo practically crackles with insane energy every time she enters a scene, and I find myself turning the pages not just to cheer Chiyo on, but in a sick fascination to find out what Hatsumomo will do to her next.
4) Petyr Baelish, A Song of Ice and Fire
I know everyone’s favorite villain in A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones is Joffrey Baratheon. And it’s true Joffrey embodies a level of thorough evilness that only a very talented or depraved author could deliver on page. But that’s actually what made me take him out of the running and replace him with a more ambiguous figure, Petyr Baelish. It’s not hard to hate Joffrey. But in Baelish, author George R. R. Martin gave us a villain to love.
Petyr Baelish is an ambitious schemer who, in one of the best conversations written for the TV show, described chaos as a ladder. There’s little question whom he expects to climb it. Baelish is a delicious villain because you have to fight the urge to start cheering for him every step of the way. His motives range from distasteful to despicable, but sometimes they lead him to accomplish things you’ve been longing to happen. His pragmatism begs you to examine your own — how long are you willing to stay on his side as long as he’s getting you what you want? And come on. Admit it, you love his attitude.
3) Mrs. Danvers, Rebecca
When the unnamed narrator of Rebecca moves into the home of her new husband, she’s haunted by the tales of the first Mrs. de Winter, the glamorous Rebecca whose possessions still litter the home, as if she’d just left yesterday. Rebecca’s devoted housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, has remained, as well — and she’s not pleased at all with the master’s new wife. Mrs. Danvers is the true villain of Rebecca and it’s difficult to imagine a more malicious and subtle enemy. An artist of psychological torture, Mrs. Danvers executes her duties flawlessly while exploiting every opportunity to remind the new Mrs. de Winter of her predecessor’s superiority. In one of the book’s most chilling scenes, she stands in a window with the narrator, and urges her to jump to her death. It’s hard to get more evil than that.
2) Fernand, Count de Morcerf, The Count of Monte Cristo
He threw a guy in jail so he could marry that man’s fiance. Need I say more? But it’s also a great illustration of how a villain makes a story. Dumas was a masterful adventure-weaver because he had the rare talent to create memorable heroes and villains. Stand him next to an author who only knows how to write one of the two, and you see why his racy wild adventure tales made it into literary history.
1) Reader’s Choice
I asked my Facebook followers who they thought the best literary villain was, expecting to discover a clear forerunner. Instead, I got a boggling array of choices. People jump all over the opportunity to talk about a character they hate — especially one so exquisitely awful that just typing their name makes them a little bit angry. I realized this is why I’d had such a hard time picking a number one most hateable villain in literature — it would be a disservice to all the other extraordinarily despicable characters that we’ve grown to love hating.
A few standouts from the crowd:
Dolores Umbridge, Harry Potter
My friend Tiffany hit the nail on the head — many readers hate Professor Umbridge more than they hate Voldemort. Why? Well, because Voldemort is like Sauron — he’s just the evil that’s out there. Umbridge is a person with a diverse array of utterly infuriating traits, who spends one entire book practicing near-constant torture on our heroes. J. K. Rowling plays that character like a harp.
Miss Trunchbull, Matilda
Like the previous character, Miss Trunchbull is a hater of children who’s been given near-absolute power over them. What could go right? But also like Umbridge, Trunchbull illustrates how rich children’s literature is in larger-than-life villains. It isn’t a sign of simpler writing; it’s a sign of bigger imaginations.
Another friend summed that up neatly: “Pretty much any V. C. Andrews villain.”
Adult literature has a few shining examples of hard, glittering hatefulness, though. Among those suggestions were Isabelle Borge, This Side of Paradise; Madam Merle, Portrait of a Lady; and even The White Whale, Moby Dick.
So, the jury’s still out. Cast your votes in the comments below. Who do you think is the most despicable (but fascinating) villain in literature?