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Who are your favourite literary villains?

Last updated 11:21 01/03/2013

What is a good story without a villain? For every Mr Darcy that has sparked our literary imaginations, there is an equal and opposing fictional villain who acts as their foil.

Sometimes these villains are so well realised, so wholly interesting and unique and so complex that they take on the cape of the antihero, and become even more well loved than the actual heroes.

This list of the 50 Greatest Villains in Literature from the UK Telegraph is a few years old now, and to be honest, I haven't read half the books on the list, but it's inspired me to think of who my favourite book villains are, and the qualities that attract me to each.

Faustus (Dr Faustus, Christopher Marlowe)
Based on the legend of Faust, a man who made a pact with the devil for knowledge and power, Faustus is a powerful and unnerving force. Like many villains, he strove to rise above his low-born status and unsavoury early background, but it is hinted that he wasted his end of the bargain anyway, doing little that was of note even though he had the devil's henchman (Mephistopheles), as his personal handservant. The play wraps up with Faustus taken to hell to meet Lucifer.

Severus Snape (Harry Potter, JK Rowling) Severus Snape
"So...the boy must die?" One of the most misunderstood and polarising characters through much of the first six Harry Potter books, it's not until the final few chapters that Snape, poor Professor Snape, was redeemed and transformed into the ultimate anti-hero. I have always had a soft spot for Snape, because he fits so well the stereotype of the brooding outcast - and you could tell from the start that something lay underneath his "broken man" exterior. He's one of my favourite literary villains, because of his ability to be cruel, and yet sympathetic at the same time.

Tom Ripley (The Talented Mr Ripley, Patricia Highsmith)
It probably helped that Tom's character was brought to life on screen by the Talented Mr Matt Damon. Make no mistake, Tom is a complete monster, but you can understand so well the path that led him there - his thirst to belong to a world he so admired and longed for (like Gatsby in The Great Gatsby), where membership could only be bought either with pots of money or by birthright, that you can't help but succumb to his villainous charms. Plus, he's literate and, in a way, is like a very dark Batman, one with absolutely no moral compass.

Heathcliff (Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte)
There is actually little that is redemptive about the character of Heathcliff. He's a sociopath, no two ways about it. Even his love for Catherine Earnshaw was portrayed as something that was as unnatural as his fractured soul, but there is something infinitely seductive about his ability to obsess over one woman for life. Perhaps something that is lacking in modern day romances? I'm joking! A little.

Rhett Butler (Gone With the Wind, Margaret Mitchell) Rhett
Rhett is either a villain or a hero, depending on your reading of the novel. Again, like many well-conceived characters, the heroine of the novel, Scarlett O'Hara (and thus by extension, also the reader), is never quite sure of the purity of his intentions. Rhett actually states on several occasions that he is not a noble person, but despite his scathing manner and rough words, his actions are often that of a hero. His love for Scarlett is obvious, and you find yourself aching for him in many instances, and wanting to cudgel Scarlett over the head because she's so blind to the man who is her actual soulmate due to her obsession with the milk-soppy southern gentleman Ashley. I mean, Ashley Wilkes...for realz, Scarlett??

 

Grenouille (Perfume, Patrick Suskind) Grenouille
This is one villain who will never be anything but repulsive, but it's that particular trait which makes him perfect for villainy. Grenouille was born in a fish market, slipping out among a sea of guts and heads, and his destructive tendencies cut a swathe through everyone he has ever met or known from infancy. The most disturbing thing about him? He's a perfumer by trade and a murderer by night, who is looking to bottle the essence of love and innocence. I won't spoil the story for you, but let's just say that it involves the sacrifice of virgins. Many of them.

Who are your favourite literary villains?

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