Heroes and heroines in literature stand out with the help of those we love to hate—villains. The best villains challenge, anger, and terrify us. They keep us reading as much as the protagonists.
Who are your favorite antagonists? Here are mine:
#1 Hannibal Lecter, “The Silence of the Lambs” by Thomas Harris: Dr. Lecter is brilliant, evil, and one of the darkest characters ever written. He literally eats people “with some fava beans and a nice chianti.” Anthony Hopkins helped immortalize the character, thanks to his Oscar-winning portrayal in the 1991 movie by Jonathan Demme.
#2 Mr. Hilditch, “Felicia’s Journey” by William Trevor: Felicia, a young and pregnant Irish woman, travels to England in search of the lover who has abandoned her. She meets Mr. Hilditch who is kindness himself, at least at first glance. The slow unraveling of his sinister plan makes for a compelling and thrilling read.
#3 Charles Bruno, “Strangers on a Train” by Patricia Highsmith: Guy Haines meets Charles Bruno, a wealthy sociopath, on a train ride and his life is turned upside down. Charles proposes a mind-blowing exchange of murders, which Guy dismisses but Charles pursues in this suspenseful novel.
#4 Amy Dunne, “Gone Girl” by Gillian Flynn: Amazing Amy plays a mean mind game. If you’re one of the few people in America who hasn’t read the book or watched the film, you’ll have to discover for yourself what makes her perhaps the greatest female antagonist of all time.
#5 Anton Chigurh, “No Country for Old Men” by Cormac McCarthy: Anton Chigurh is a professional hunter of men, single-minded and brutal. In other words, he’s a psycho. His weapon of choice— a cattle bolt gun—makes him memorable.
#6 Theo Wolkoviak, “The GoodLife” by Keith Scribner: Theo, who fails repeatedly at various business schemes, kidnaps an oil-industry executive and demands an $18 million ransom. This is his twisted American Dream. His unwavering belief that he’s going to succeed makes him a villain you won’t soon forget.
#7 Brigid O’Shaughnessy aka Miss Wonderly, “The Maltese Falcon” by Dashiell Hammett: Brigid is beautiful and duplicitous, the quintessential femme fatale who has no qualms using her sexuality to get what she wants.
#8 Alec d’Urberville, “Tess of the d’Urbervilles” by Thomas Hardy: Alec seduces and manipulates the innocent Tess, who ultimately gives him his comeuppance.
#9 Daisy Buchanan, “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald: For me, it’s Daisy Buchanan, not her husband, Tom, who’s the villain in this novel. She’s a stereotypical rich girl: beautiful but shallow and selfish. I never understood Gatsby’s love and devotion for Daisy, other than the possibility that he’s in love with love.
#10, Lila and Svetlana,“Gone Tomorrow” by Lee Child: I no longer possess my copy of this book, but I still remember the two Afghan women who fight Jack Reacher mano-a-mano in this book. Anyone (man or woman) who dares to confront Reacher is kick-ass and these two women are among the toughest fighters Reacher ever encounters.
Want to read more about literary villains? Read ShortList’s “40 Greatest Villains of Literature.”
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