Villains are the best. We may not love them in our lives, but they’re often the best part of our literature—on account of their clear power, their refusal of social norms, and most importantly, their ability to make stories happen. After all, if everyone was always nice and good and honest all the time, literature probably wouldn’t even exist.
To that end, below are a few of my favorites from the wide world of literary villainy. But what exactly does “best” mean when it comes to bad guys (and gals)? Well, it might mean any number of things here: most actually terrifying, or most compelling, or most well-written, or most secretly beloved by readers who know they are supposed to be rooting for the white hats but just can’t help it. It simply depends on the villain. Think of these as noteworthy villains, if it clarifies things.
This is not an exhaustive list, of course, and you are more than invited to nominate your own favorite evildoers in the comments section. By the way, for those of you who think that great books can be spoiled—some of them might be below. After all, the most villainous often take quite a few pages to fully reveal themselves.
1. Mitsuko, Quicksand, Junichiro Tanizaki
The brilliance of Mitsuko (and the brilliance of this novel) is such that, even by the end, you’re not sure how much to despise her. She is such an expert manipulator, such a re-threader of the truth, that she is able to seduce everyone in her path (read: not only Sonoko but Sonoko’s husband) and get them to like it. Including the reader, of course. In the end, Sonoko is still so devoted to her that the grand tragedy of her life is the fact that Mitsu did not allow her to die alongside her.
2. Mr. Hyde, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson
Because the very worst villain is . . . get this . . . actually inside you. Also, you just fell asleep one time and when you woke up it was your evil id and not you? We’ve heard that one before. (So has Buffy.)
3. Infertility, The Children of Men, P. D. James
Sure, Xan is also a villain in this novel. But the real, big-picture villain, the thing that causes everything to dissolve, and people to start christening their kittens and pushing them around in prams, has to be the global disease that left all the men on earth infertile.
4. The shark, Jaws, Peter Benchley
A villain so villainous that (with the help of Steven Spielberg) it spawned a wave of shark paranoia among beach-goers. In fact, Benchley, who also wrote the screenplay for the film, was so horrified at the cultural response to his work that he became a shark conservationist later in life.
5. Professor Moriarty, “The Final Problem,” Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
A criminal mastermind— “the Napoleon of Crime,” as Holmes puts it—and the only person to ever give the good consulting detective any real trouble (other than himself). Though after countless adaptations, we now think of Moriarty as Holmes’s main enemy, Doyle really only invented him as a means to kill his hero, and he isn’t otherwise prominent in the series. Moriarty has become bigger than Moriarty.