Gini Dietrich

Fourteen Greatest Villains in Literature

By: Gini Dietrich | December 16, 2013 | 

Fourteen Greatest Villains in LiteratureBy Gini Dietrich

Because this is my last week of blogging until 2014 (my team is taking over the last two weeks of the year), I thought we’d have some fun.

No trends, no leadership lessons, no new tools or technologies, no education.

Just some fun, crowdsourced topics that will be a nice diversion from our hectic schedules this week.

Villains in Literature

Today we’re going to talk about the greatest villains in literature.

I crowdsourced this on my personal Facebook page. If you’d like to participate in tomorrow’s post, please follow me there and the topic will soon be unveiled.

Now, without further ado.

Earlier this year, Jason Konopinski laid down the law and said Randall Flagg (originally from Stephen King’s The Stand and then appearing in eight more of his books) was the greatest villain of all time. Erika Napoletano +1’d that nomination.T

Then, during wine:thirty last week, we had the conversation internally and it was fun to hear what everyone else thought (I also learned I’m a really big book nerd…like more than I thought).

We discussed Randall Flagg, Voldemort (and I learned NO ONE on my team has read Harry Potter, which should be a fireable offense), Count Dracula, and Professor Moriarty.

In fact, Clay Morgan wrote a top 10 list, which you can find at the very bottom of this post (clearly he’s a big nerd, too).

14 Greatest Villains of All Time

I added Cruella deVille, Satan in Paradise Lost, Norman Bates, and Hannibal Lecter. And then I turned it over to you.

So here they are. The 14 greatest villains in literature.

  1. Roger Chillingworth in The Scarlet Letter. His psychology is so richly layered. Hawthorne shows Roger is inherently good, but the temptation of revenge consumes him completely. He is smart, eerily calm, and deeply manipulative. Like a leech depending on its host for sustenance, Chillingworth drains vitality from his enemy, Arthur, and depends on the pursuit of vengeance to fulfill him. Totally creepy, but sad, too. – Jono Smith
  2. Professor James Moriarty in Sherlock Holmes. Just because he was so good. A burr under Sherlock Holmes’ saddle. – Chris Reimer
  3. Patrick Bateman in American Psycho. I choose Patrick Bateman because any one of us could be him (and please–from the book, not the movie). Bateman is completely banal, and represents what could happen to any of us, really, if we cannot make meaning in our lives. – Tom Webster
  4. Lord Walder Frey in Game of Thrones. My money is on Walder Frey because his list of crimes is most impressive…incest, violation of the “guest” rule, murder, treason, regicide, need I go on? He’s so well written, you literally feel like you need a shower just reading about him. – Rosemary O’Neill
  5. Man in Bambi. Every villainous act is an act of man. Bambi just exemplifies it. The villain doesn’t need to be a character per se. When you break down any work, the antagonist is a human with human flaws and failings that we can all identify within ourselves, only magnified to the unthinkable point of no return. So in this way, we are all the villain by human nature. – Raymond Konkoleski
  6. The Firemen in Fahrenheit 451. First they can destroy all other literary villains just by burning them, and second, they destroy knowledge forever which I think is the most evil thing one can do. – Pascale Bishop
  7. O’Brien in 1984. He is someone who believes to seek freedom of thought and opinion is insane. He is willing to torture Winston Smith and we never learn enough about him to have our questions answered. – Bob LeDrew
  8. Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men. A ruthless emotionless hitman who occasionally flips a coin to determine someone’s fate. – Darryl Robinson-Keys
  9. Fernand Mondego in The Count of Monte Cristo. Mondego used a fairly complex series of lies, collusions, etc, to achieve his goals. And was without any semblance of remorse. In fact, he reveled in his cleverness. – Marty Thompson
  10. Count Olaf in the Series of Unfortunate Events. He is cruel, lazy, and works through subterfuge to turn others against the orphans. He takes away all sense of comfort, leaving them forever on the run with no place to call home. Each time they think they’ve achieved it, he swoops in and takes it away. – Mickey Gomez
  11. Big Nurse in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Granted, much of her characterization comes through the eyes of a paranoid Chief Bromden, but she represents absolute and unwavering authority to the patients. Her battle of wills with McMurphy is about controlling joy — and snuffing it out. She’s cold, calculating, and domineering. McMurphy’s rebellion against the Combine can’t stand, and she puts an end to all he is — and more. – Jason Konopinski
  12. Professor Umbridge in Harry Potter. She is the worst kind of person: Small-minded, cruel, cat-lover, and effective–very scary. – Keena Kincaid. And Mickey adds, “Umbridge is far more evil than Voldemort. She revels in petty cruelties and is willing to cross any number of lines in her thirst for power over others. Umbridge is everything evil about the facelessness and heartlessness of bureaucracy. Think about how delighted she was to turn Professor Trelawney out of Hogwarts, or how she immediately punished Harry in a way far beyond that of acceptable discipline, or her willingness to use an Unforgiveable Curse out of “necessity” (illegal for others but not her). Her subsequent rise to lead an office created solely to eradicate Half-Bloods smacked of genocide. And she loved it.”
  13. President Snow in The Hunger Games. Cold, calculating, cowardly. perfect. – Rusty Speidel
  14. Time. Time is a betty big villain in most stories. There is never enough (just ask Jack Bauer), and when you really need more what does time do? That’s right, abandon you. – Brian Tudor

There were quite a number of other nominations, but I included only those that told me why…not just a list of villains.

If you’d like to review the entire list, you can find it by clicking here.

Add Your Villain

And now it’s your turn.

If you don’t see your villain listed here, tell us in the comments who it is and why.

The only rules are the villain has to be from literature (not a movie or comic books) and there has to be a reason why.

We’ll add to the list and keep a big tally of the greatest villains of all time.

And – don’t forget – if you want to participate in tomorrow’s post, follow me on Facebook by clicking here.

Bonus: Clay’s Top 10 List

10. Count Dracula, Dracula by Bram Stroker
9. The Judge, Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy
8. Iago, Othello by William Shakespeare
7. The Deaf Man, six different 87th Precinct novels by Ed McBain
6. Mr. Dark, Something Wicked This Way Comes, Ray Bradbury
5. Pazuzu, The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty
4. Diogenes Dagrepont Bernoulli Pendergast, various “Agent Pendergast” books by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child
3. Randall Flagg, The Stand by Stephen King
2. Croup and Vandemar, Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman
1. Professor Moriarty, Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

About Gini Dietrich

Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She is the author of Spin Sucks, co-author of Marketing in the Round, and co-host of Inside PR. She also is the lead blogger at Spin Sucks and is the founder of Spin Sucks Pro.

  • The Snowman, in Jo Nesbo’s Detective Harry Hole series. Brrrrrrrrr.

  • belllindsay Tell me WHY, please.

  • ginidietrich He is a twisted, insane serial killer – who sets out to destroy the detective by killing his conscience through killing people. Every death – until he’s caught – is Harry’s ‘fault’. It’s a crazy, psychological torture game he plays.

  • I’m sticking with Moriarty. Brilliant. Calculating. Evil. To be honest, Voldemort would wind up as Moriarty’s butler by the time he was done.

    The Firemen…I’d forgotten about them…

  • Love the fun posts.

    Baby Kochamma – The God of Small Things

  • Nick Harrison

    Bell 200 X 200 :o)

  • You guys took most of the good ones already, so I had to really think, and do so some wiki research on a book I read a long time ago: Memoirs of a Geisha. The villain there was Hatsumomo, who managed to thwart the main character and make her life miserable at every turn.

    Also, how about Vito Corleone? (Yes, I read the book, which was not as good as the movies.) But here’s a villain so wonderful that we actually respect and have affection for him, because he as a code of justice of his own and defends his family. Yet he’s a ruthless criminal nonetheless.

  • I think you could make the argument that Satan in Paradise Lost functions as a hero in the epic, though Milton wouldn’t have seen it that way.

  • rdopping

    The CIA in Ludum’s Bourne novels. Evil, manipulative, sociopathtic behaviour bent on destroying opposition thereby ruining the lives of otherwise normal human beings. Basically, treating humanity as a disposable weapon. 

    Ahhh, such a Christmas-y thought.

  • Um, I was serious when I said the Grinch!

  • And I gave a reason!

  • Yay, fun! (Not that your regular posts aren’t fun.)

    A great list. I would add Javert from Les Miserables. I first read the book in high school, and it remains one of my top 10. Javert is really anyman, driven by hate for Valjean because he wouldn’t ever face the sin in himself. His inability, or refusal, to forgive reminds me what a destructive force that can be in any person’s life. The best villains are the ones that once had the capacity to be something better.

  • jonmikelbailey The Grinch gets a bad rap, if you ask me. Then again, I’ve been accused of being Grinch-like myself from time to time. I mean, honestly. What’s the point of putting up decorations just to take them down in a few weeks?

  • I’ve always liked The Teacher from The Da Vinci Code. Frighteningly cruel, calculating, and absolutely convinced he’s morally and ethically motivated, and right.

  • You guys missed Sauron from Lord of the Rings.

  • MattLaCasse jonmikelbailey Our Christmas tree isn’t up yet. And won’t be until Friday. In fact, we haven’t even *bought* a tree yet. Sigh.

  • RobBiesenbach (as an aside) I loved Memoirs of a Geisha!

  • On a side note, what’s up with these random people who keep popping in to different posts and crapping all over the bed? It’s so jarring since this is such a respectful community and not, say, a typical YouTube comment thread. And at the holidays, no less! People have issues …

    I admire the way you and Lindsay handle these, Gini.

  • Harry Brumleve

    Hmm, the thing I can’t get comfortable with is that a lot of these characters are subjectively evil, from our point of view. To me a lot of what these characters do is probably what they think is good, what they think needs to be done, and that makes them want to strive to achieve their goals. All from their perspective and independent of how perverse or evil we deem them to be.

    If you play along with the above premise, then Dante’s Inferno makes sense. Within the 9 layers of Hell, each becoming more intense in relation to the crime committed by the soul residing there, you find that “Traitors” land in the worst spot: the 9th circle. They furthest away from the light of God and tormented endlessly.

    It is with that in mind that I submit to you all “Brutus” from Julius Caesar by Shakespeare.

  • Goldilocks, Red Riding Hood and Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz should be on there.

  • Harry Brumleve I was going to say Brutus yesterday, good one!

  • Where’s Hannibal Lecter!? 

    Let’s recap: Eats people? Check. Can force people to swallow their own tongue by the power of suggestion? Check. Is certifiably insane? Check.

    I saw him on your Facebook list, but I’m surprised he didn’t make the final cut. 

    Other than that, great post, Gini!

  • bhas I thought hard about Sauron on my list. I’m one of those who reads The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings annually.  Unlike some villains, we don’t see things from Sauron’s point of view.  Also, while I think he is awesomely evil, I personally think those villains with just a touch of humanity (or are faking it) are the best.

  • Word Ninja Javert is great because in a way you begin to have some sympathy toward him and his obsession.

  • LynnMcConaughey

    Veda Pierce, Mildred Pierce’s ungrateful, manipulative, scheming, hateful daughter, who demeans and then bankrupts her mother with demands for lavish attention, sleeps with Mildred’s husband, and then after financially and emotionally ruining her mother, sneers in victory as she leaves for New York and the acclaim she craves.

  • RobBiesenbach I have my theory on who some of them are…it is jarring, particularly because they’re people who don’t hang out here. Ever. And they’re not in the industry, either.

  • jonmikelbailey You’re right. I totally missed him. Please forgive me.

  • biggreenpen I feel positively Oprahfied for bringing it up, but it is a good book, isn’t it?

  • jonmikelbailey Harry Brumleve Cassius > Brutus.

  • ClayMorgan Like you echoed in another comment…the villains with some bit of humanity left are the best ones. Those beyond saving, Lecter (oh, and Heath Ledger’s Joker!) for example, can be terrifying, but not quite as interesting.

  • Oh what a fun post!! My additions would be the following:

    1. Rasheed. Mariam’s husband from “A Thousand Splendid Suns” by Khaled Hosseini. What he puts Mariam and Laila through is despicable! 
    2. Mr. Celie’s husband from “The Color Purple” by Alice Walker. Again another despicable husband.
    3. Lord Voldemort from “Harry Potter”.  I agree with Umbridge, but how can it not be Voldemort as well? 
    4. Annie Wilkes from Stephen Kings “Misery”.  OMG, reading that scared the bejesus out of me. And don’t even get me started on Kathy Bates portrayal!! YIKES!

    I think you have a spectacular list. There are some books I need to reread off that list or experience for the first time. But, in all seriousness you hired employees who have NEVER read Harry Potter?!?!? How do such people exist?  I think those people should be getting the boxed set for Christmas with a required reading mandate!

  • ginidietrich jonmikelbailey That you are willing to admit your mistake is enough for me.

  • When I think VILLAIN,  I automatically think Darth Vader but even though there are Star Wars books, I guess he doesn’t qualify as a literary villain?

  • RentpingMedia

    ginidietrich Heath Ledger’s Joker. Every bit as terrifying as Anton Chigurh in my book.

  • LSSocialEngage That’s a great one, but I didn’t read the books, although I suppose he’s in there…I can hear him breathing.

  • sydcon_mktg I was going to suggest the same Christmas present. 🙂

  • LynnMcConaughey Oh yes! Very good one!

  • bradmarley I put him up there in my list, but didn’t think it was fair to add to the big list.

  • Joshua Wilner/A Writer Writes SHOULD NOT!

  • Harry Brumleve Brutus is a great entry!

  • MattLaCasse Super good one! I didn’t even think about that book.

  • Word Ninja Love it!

  • rdopping Ohhhhh. I like this one. A lot.

  • jasonkonopinski I think you should zip it.

  • RobBiesenbach Both very good adds. I also loved Memoirs of a Geisha.

  • LSSocialEngage Tell me why!

  • ginidietrich Sigh.

  • ClayMorgan Yeah, leave it to my brainiac friend Pascale to come up with the Firemen.

  • ginidietrich Do you disagree?

  • ginidietrich Yes they should. Dorothy murdered two people, Goldilocks is guilty of breaking and entering and theft and the hood chick placed a hit on the wolf.

  • ginidietrich She is a lonely and frustrated, vindictive,  and classist woman responsible for the murder of an innocent and for destroying the lives of several others (including 7 year-old twins boy and girl) in a span of a few dozen hours.

  • Word Ninja Yes, I didn’t read the books either. I have no idea even if they are any good.

  • jasonkonopinski I do. But I’m busy so cannot argue with you right now.

  • aimeelwest

    What a fun list! I also cannot believe that NO ONE on your team has read Harry Potter! I’ve read them more times that I should admit too. 

    Evil comes in many forms and some you even feel sorry for crazily enough. (which I think makes a really great evil person for a story)

    I always thought the pig Napolean from Animal Farm was pretty evil. He encourages all the other animals to riot and then abuses his power over them.

  • aimeelwest RIGHT? I told them they are all fired!

  • aimeelwest

    RobBiesenbach Memoirs of a Geisha was such a great book – excellent choice. 

    Yes! Vito makes such a great evil character but you feel for him because it is all justified to him. I mean when you have rules you have rules. You say your gonna cut finger off – ya gotta cut a finger off!

  • aimeelwest Right. He dispenses real justice, unlike all those bigshot politicians and pesoventi (sp?).

  • aimeelwest

    RobBiesenbach Exactly!  When you say you are going to do something you have to do it or risk losing respect.

  • ihsaan

    ginidietrich There should b some qualifiers/criteria-is this English literature only or do foreign writings (including translations) count?

  • AmyAlex63

    ginidietrich > “Mister” in Walker’s “The Color Purple.”

  • aimeelwest I am not kidding when I say the Godfather got me through one of the most difficult times of my professional life. Excellent lessons in, as you indicate, integrity, consequences, responsibility, and taking emotion out of the equation.

  • RobBiesenbach aimeelwest Rob, my husband would wholeheartedly agree with those sentiments as well.

  • Hello? What about the infamous Lord of the Rings himself — Sauron? Or Smaug — the treasure-hoarding dragon from The Hobbit?

  • OR… (not much a villain but still pretty f**king cool) the Balrog? (The demon beast in the Fellowship of the Ring.)

  • ginidietrichaimeelwestI can’t believe they never read Harry Potter either. Being an English major in college often meant you were left out of jokes during class if you didn’t read them. 
    Maybe you should start a Harry Potter day at your office?

  • What about Daniel Plainview from There Will Be Blood? Or Bob the Butcher from The Gangs of New York?
    Obviously Daniel Day Lewis did great job playing both of these psychopaths. I often argue they’re the same character just in two different movies.

  • JRHalloran Good, good!

  • JRHalloran LOL!! We went back and forth on that one.

  • JRHalloran aimeelwest I may make it required reading. They read a book, they get their paycheck.

  • LSSocialEngage Darth Vader is a good one! He scared the crap out of me when I was a kid.

  • sydcon_mktg Annie Wilkes is a good one! And you’re right about Kathy Bates. Holy moley.

  • Joshua Wilner/A Writer Writes The wolf was a bad guy!

  • ginidietrich

    AmyAlex63 Good one!

  • ginidietrich

    ihsaan Sure, they can count. It’s just a fun post. I’m cool with foreign writings.

  • ginidietrich He wasn’t bad, he was must misunderstood.

  • ginidietrich

    RentpingMedia OMG! Yes. He was TERRIFYING.

  • ginidietrichJRHalloranaimeelwestI like that idea! I solemnly swear… if they don’t know how to access the Maurader’s Map, they shouldn’t get paid.  😛

  • Joshua Wilner/A Writer Writes He tried to eat pigs. Bad wolf!

  • ginidietrich me. That James Earl Jones voice, O my!

  • ginidietrich That is not bad, that is normal. Wolves eat pigs. It is the natural order.

  • Can we add the Von Trapp family to the villains list. Horrible people singing horrible songs, polluting the airwaves and corrupting children.

  • Joshua Wilner/A Writer Writes No!

  • ginidietrich
    Millions of people worldwide have had their hopes dashed. Down with those silly singers.

  • Would be remiss if I didn’t mention how much of a villain Your Mom has been in the history of literature..

  • JoeCardillo But my mom rocks!

  • aimeelwest

    Or if they don’t know how to access the egg for the next challenge.

  • aimeelwest

    Have either of you read ‘The True Story of the Big Bad Wolf’ by A. Wolf? My children loved this book when they were litte.

  • This discussion has only served to multiple my reading list by gazillion million billions cubed

  • Joshua Wilner/A Writer Writes ginidietrich Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens, bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens. Brown paper packages, tied up with string. THESE ARE A FEW OF MY FAVORITE THINGS! 

    When the dog bites (ruff, ruff), when the bee stings (buzz, buzz), when I’m feeling sad. I simply remember my favorite thiiiiinnnnnnnngs, and then I don’t feeeeeel sooooo baaaad

  • JRHalloran ginidietrich aimeelwest I’ve been to Harry Potter World though! So I think I should only be half fired

  • aimeelwest I love this book Aimee!

  • ginidietrich Yeah, the Balrog’s a toughy, but he’s ultimately more a pest than a villain. He serves no critical purpose as an antagonist. (He’s a cool encounter, though. I would love to have a Balrog as a pet. Wouldn’t you?)

  • LauraPetrolinoJRHalloranginidietrichaimeelwestGini, hire me! Come on! I’m everything you want!  🙂

  • aimeelwest  My boys (and I)  love this book too. In fact I did a blog post on it a few months ago.

  • aimeelwestOh, man! I remember reading that in Kindergarten. Ah!

  • aimeelwest

    I just went to read it. I always loved that book and I didn’t mind reading it over and over and over either.

  • aimeelwest

    Laura that is like using cliff notes for a report.

  • RentpingMedia

    ginidietrich More obscure movie, but DDL’s Daniel Plainview from There Will Be Blood was also fantastic.

  • LauraPetrolino Welcome to Arment Dietrich.

  • JRHalloran I’d rather have a monkey.

  • ginidietrich

    RentpingMedia Yes! Very, very good one!

  • LauraPetrolinoJoshua Wilner/A Writer Writesginidietrichyou have to visit us in Von Trapp Land Laura! In the spring. When the hills really come alive. After mud season of course.

  • ginidietrichJRHalloranI actually agree with keeping Sauron off. He really wasn’t a villian with a major part. He was there but Tolkien focused on developing the good side characters. Makes you feel icky if you have to personify a cute innocent hobbit and the darkest evil to ever exist outside of Dallas Cowboy Stadium.

  • Lindsay Bell-Wheeler

    CC Jason Konopinski!!!!

  • ginidietrichJRHalloranbtw JR if you even think for just a second of asking how Harry Potter made it because childrens books should be omitted. And maybe we can take Golem as a replacement…Gini will ban you to the doghouse where I got sent.

  • Howie Goldfarbginidietrich The funny thing about Harry Potter being labeled a “children’s book” is actually false. It was originally intended to be a regular novel for adults. 
    It only took on the children’s book spin because it was picked up and marketed by a publishing house that made books for kids. 
    So, that kind of defeats your argument there, Howie.

  • rustyspeidel

    Umbridge and Olaf were two great ones also. I could also add Humbert Humbert from Lolita–the vile, artificially empathetic scumbag who preyed on that young girl Delores, destroying her innocence one small bit at a time. Eeewwww.

  • rustyspeidel

    JRHalloran They felt more like characters making the most of their circumstances than true, calculating villians. Discuss.

  • AmyVernon

    ImTheQ nooooooo. Nevar. ProjectFandom

  • EricPudalov

    Great lists, and there are almost too many great villains to name.  But I would definitely add Pennywise the Dancing Clown (a.k.a. “It”) from Stephen King’s “It.”  Not only are clowns creepy, but he is essentially a villain who knows what your greatest fear is, and will use that to destroy you; he also can take any shape.  

    Add to that the fact that he preys primarily on children, and you have one terrifying villain, IMHO.

  • EricPudalov

    LauraPetrolino Joshua Wilner/A Writer Writes ginidietrich You will give me nightmares.

  • EricPudalov

    One more suggestion: the Queen of Hearts from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.  She enjoys beheading, of course, but beyond that, she’s utterly insane, and there seems to be no rhyme or reason to most of her actions.  She just does these things because she can…scared me as a child!!

  • EricPudalov

    LauraPetrolino This is a good thing, yes??

  • CommProSuzi

    How about James Taggart or Mr. Thompson from Atlas Shrugged?
    And as far as “Voice of James Earl Jones”… I think the greater villains are the creative team that dreamed up the Sprint ads of Jones and McDowell interpreting text messages from teenage girls. (The humanity!)

  • LSSocialEngageWord NinjaI have read some of them. They are not that great. Passable if you sitting in an airport waiting for your delayed flight

  • Howie Goldfarb LauraPetrolino Joshua Wilner/A Writer Writes ginidietrich Howie!!! Yes, yes, yes I do!!! This most definitely needs to happen.

  • EricPudalov LauraPetrolino Joshua Wilner/A Writer Writes ginidietrich You’re welcome Eric!

  • CommProSuzi Oh yes! I forgot all about Ayn Rand. For sure Taggart is a villain.

  • EricPudalov What? You don’t enjoy beheading?

  • EricPudalov And he’s SCARY!

  • rustyspeidel Very good one! If only because you used the word scumbag.

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  • Millabrain

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