Villains appeal to the basic desires we cultivate from our earliest bedtime stories. They taught us right from wrong, good from bad, and continue to impact the decisions we make into adulthood; that is, if whoever read to you used the voices, otherwise you’re on your own. Antagonists, as we get older, become infinitely more complex than the simple archetypes for jealousy or wrath. Good antagonists, even more so. But they’re what we remember long after the book has been renegaded to the shelf. They’re the characters that truly frighten us, that we hate, or even that we understand the most. I’ll go through these categories and find you the perfect book for those of you who secretly wish for world-domination, or even just to give you an excuse to throw your book against the wall. Apologise to your book bindings, and please don’t break your kindle. Here we go.
Professor Dolores Umbridge.
Harry Potter, J.K. Rowling.
“Let us move forward, then, into a new era of openness, effectiveness and accountability, intent on preserving what ought to be preserved, perfecting what needs to be perfected, and pruning wherever we find practices that ought to be prohibited.”
Voldemort is, of course, the true dark evil that scours the wizarding world in this well-loved saga; but try to deny that would have been okay with him winning if only this woman would die a fiery death. Rowling’s finest talents as an author are centered on Umbridge, with her pink bows, kitten plates and a penchant for torturing children. She is as sadistic as You-Know-Who, but with a self-deception and horrifyingly twee image that dresses her downright evil self in pink doilies and delicately feminine ‘he hems.’ The devil probably has Umbridge’s pink office. The bitch.
‘A Song of Ice and Fire’, George R.R. Martin.
“I have dreamed of giving up the crown… You know what stops me? The thought of Joffrey on the throne, with Cersei standing behind him whispering in his ear. My son. How could I have made a son like that, Ned?”
Whether you’ve read the books or watched the increasingly popular HBO version, you’ve almost certainly watched Tyrion slap this little bastard repeatedly on YouTube. George R.R. Martin is the master of characterisation, and Joffrey is a shining example of this. He is the spoilt golden-boy we all hated at school. He’s the kid who’s mother complained when he wasn’t made head boy. Except this one was given a kingdom at twelve years old. Power-mad and little more than a bully, Joffrey with his casual cruelty incites an incredible hatred in characters and readers alike.
‘Atonement’, Ian McEwan.
“…was everyone else really as alive as she was? Did her sister also have a real self concealed behind a breaking wave… if the answer was no, then Briony was surrounded by machines, intelligent and pleasant enough on the outside, but lacking the bright and private inside feeling she had.”
This one is a little unusual, but when thinking of antagonists I hated, she sprung immediately to mind. A young, selfish child as we all were, but in her own little world in which she is the constant protagonist. She destroys the life of her sister one fateful night before the war, leading to a domino effect from which nothing good comes. She may have then spent the rest of her life atoning for her mistake, but, Briony, we all hate you. Sorry.
‘American Psycho’, Bret Easton Ellis.
“All it comes down to is this: I look like shit, but I feel great.”
Mr Bateman. The rich, aloof, disturbingly methodical business man. The man who discusses his brand of shampoo with equal interest as torturing his prostitutes. His daily routine includes waking up, getting dressed, dismembering a puppy and eating toast. He is the product of an unfeeling society with so little humanity, as described in horrifying detail by Ellis, that he will make you feel dirty for just touching this book when you’re done.
“I’m right and you’re wrong, I’m big and you’re small, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”
If this woman didn’t make you thank God for your perfectly boring headteacher then you have clearly never really thought about the Trunchbull’s chokey. The perfectly believable terror of a figure in charge exploiting their power is only heightened by the thought of that little room filled with nails and broken glass. Matilda is so unbelievably brave in the face of such horror that the film had to give her magical powers. That’s how scary the Trunchbull is.
‘We Need to Talk about Kevin’, Lionel Shriver.
“That boy hardly needed a mask when his naked face was already impenetrable.”
Kevin’s own mother was frightened of him from birth. The child who is too clever and always underestimated, the child so concealed in a guileless innocence that no one can suspect anything else. His mother is the only one who has an inkling of the dark events that will unfold, but who would believe a ‘bad mother’ when the child is so precocious? Kevin is truly chilling, constantly leading the reader to second-guess and cringe until it’s too late.
His Dark Materials, Philip Pullman.
“The Christian religion is a very powerful and convincing mistake.”
I couldn’t let this one slide without the traditional all-powerful overlord. Pullman’s antagonist is genius. A fallen angel who takes over God’s job as God ages towards death, he keeps him in a crystal cage to ensure his longevity. He is horrifyingly powerful, as well as a religious persecutor, a murderer and a rapist. Both disturbingly real and ethereal, he blends being an unstoppable deity with human fallibilities for envy, lust and greed. A perfectly evil villain for a perfect trilogy. (My bias may have taken over this one. But read them.)
Captain James Hook.
‘Peter and Wendy’, J.M. Barrie.
“He was so full of wrath against grown-ups, who as usual, were spoiling everything, that as soon as he got inside his tree he breathed intentionally quick short breaths at the rate of about five to a second. He did this because there is a saying in the Neverland, that everytime you breathe, a grown-up dies; and Peter was killing them of vindictively as fast as possible.”
Don’t laugh. Leave your thoughts of Disney Hook at the door and imagine instead the debonair pirate, the ex-Eton schoolboy whose blue eyes turn red with murder, and shoots his followers for daring to laugh. Cold and brutal, he is single-minded in his determination to exact revenge on Pan. However, he has clear ideas of right and wrong, or good and bad form, that he adheres to until his death. He is eternally afraid of his loneliness and dies to the sound of the little shits he hates chanting that he is ‘old, alone and done for.’ Anyway, you kind of want Hook to shoot Pan, the little bastard.
‘Lolita’, Vladimir Nobakov.
“She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.”
The antagonist, but also the narrating protagonist. But he simply can’t be the hero, this sick old man who marries a woman simply to be with a twelve year old child. Nobakov ensures that the reader is enmeshed in Humbert’s fantasies and delusions so that the reader can’t help but support him, but with the natural disgust and aversion that we should feel. You leave this book feeling ashamed. You become the villain just as much as Humbert.
Great Expectations, Charles Dickens.
‘Love her, love her, love her! If she favours you, love her. If she wounds you, love her. If she tears your heart to pieces- and as it gets older and stronger, it will tear deeper- love her, love her, love her!’
Dear God, this character is a work of art. A woman rotting in a room still ready for the wedding she never had; scorned, with dust in her veil and a putrid wedding cake. She trains her adopted daughter to be a weapon, to hurt the world that hurt her with which she was so disappointed. How many of us wish we had that dedication? Poor Pip.
Paradise Lost, Jonathan Milton.
“Tis better to reign in hell than serve in heaven!”
Last, but not least: Satan. I have read many articles outlining the impossibility that Milton intended Satan to be anything but the villain, but if you ask me it’s impossible. It is not possible to write a character as seductive as his Satan without intent. The tormented anti-hero fights against a dictator God, lashing out to hurt out of pain, only to be quashed with a snap of the Son’s fingers. His villainy is inspired, with such moments of humanity and desire for justice that God is rendered tedious in comparison. Perhaps it is to show our own capacity for sin, perhaps it was a mistake, but bravo Milton. All hail Satan.
All images sourced from Pinterest.