What makes a great villain? We tallied up the scariest, most ruthless bad guys to find out! From killer sharks to cannibals, we present a rogue’s gallery of the greatest literary villains ever. Who would you add to the list?
30. The Shark, Jaws by Peter Benchley
Starting off our list of literary villains is our only non-humanoid bad guy. The great white shark from Jaws is even more terrifying in Benchley’s book than the Steven Spielberg adaptation. I never did trust the ocean, and thanks to this book, I’ll never go swimming in it again.
29. Humbert Humbert, Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
Those who haven’t read Nabokov’s novel might not realize that the narrator, Humbert Humbert, is very much the villain of the story. The middle-aged man who forms a twisted relationship with a young girl (after first marrying her mother to get closer to Lolita) is a seriously disturbing read. Humbert’s mind is not a pleasant place to be.
28. Judge Holden, Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy
Cormac McCarthy’s brutal 1985 masterpiece introduced readers to Judge Holden, one of the most vicious of all literary villains. Described as a pale-skinned giant, Holden leads a gang of criminals to commit unspeakable acts. McCarthy is a genius at writing spare, haunting prose that sticks in your mind, so you’ll never forget Blood Meridian once you read it.
27. Satan, Paradise Lost by John Milton
The OG villain has to be Satan himself, as depicted in Milton’s 17th century classic. Although there have been countless version of the fallen angel—including the recent TV show where Lucifer owns a bar in Los Angeles—Milton’s Satan is the original rebel. It’s hard not to feel just a tiny bit sympathetic for this devil!
26. Mr. Hyde, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson
Stevenson’s Victorian novella captured the imaginations of readers as it told the tale of mild-mannered Dr. Jekyll who turns himself into the monstrous Mr. Hyde. The contrast between the civil, intelligent doctor and the brutish, violent Hyde questions our own innate capacity for evil.
25. Professor Moriarty, The Final Problem by Arthur Conan Doyle
The so-called “Napoleon of Crime” was just as brilliant as his arch-nemesis, Sherlock Holmes, but Moriarty chose to use his powers to run a crime syndicate that controlled most of England. He also, you know, killed Sherlock at one point—though he got better when Doyle’s fans protested. Although many actors have played Moriarty onscreen, Andrew Scott’s version brings an unhinged energy to the role in Sherlock that makes him even more terrifying.
24. Count Olaf, A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket
Count Olaf is, let’s face, the main selling point for this outlandish children’s series. His delightfully unhinged villainy drives the story. Neil Patrick Harris is the second actor to play Olaf onscreen, taking over the role in the Netflix series after Jim Carrey’s disappointing film adaptation.
23. The White Witch/Jadis, The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis
The White Witch—she who tempts English schoolboys with Turkish Delight and turns her enemies into stone in The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe—was first introduced in The Magician’s Nephew, when she was known as Jadis. In her original world, all of society was destroyed when Jadis spoke a single, terrible word, and when she arrives in Narnia, she becomes determined to destroy the beautiful land and rule in eternal winter. No matter what you call her, she’s remained one of the great villains in children’s literature.
22. Javert, Les Miserables by Victor Hugo
Inspector Javert is a fascinating villain because, technically, he’s not wrong. Jean Valjean did actually steal (even though it was for a good reason) and tried to escape prison multiple times. Javert is really into law and order, and he sees everything in black and white—which ends up ruining the lives of sympathetic characters like Valjean and Fantine.
21. Rufus Weylin, Kindred by Octavia Butler
If you’re not familiar with Octavia Butler’s work, you should definitely check her out. In Kindred, one of her best-known works, Rufus Weylin grows up to become a slave-owning tyrant. He’s a spoiled, possessive, vicious character, and that’s why he earned a spot on our list of the greatest literary villains.
20. Count Dracula, Dracula by Bram Stoker
It’s a little strange to think that there was a time before Dracula existed in our imaginations. He seems eternal, but in truth the character first appeared in 1897. Vampire lore had existed before that, of course, but Stoker turned the immortal bloodsucker into something seductive, complicated, and terrifying. Dracula is directly responsible for inspiring the mythology that led to Twilight…making him perhaps the greatest literary villain of all time.
19. Patrick Bateman, American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis
Wall Street investment bankers are already shady characters, but Ellis took things to the extreme with Patrick Bateman, a psychopath who hides his penchant for drugs, rape, murder, and even cannibalism behind a veneer of perfect hair and expensive suits.
Fun fact: Christian Bale confessed that he watched interviews with Tom Cruise to inspire his performance as Bateman–Bale claimed that Cruise was always smiling, but that it never reached his eyes.
18. Tom Ripley, The Talented Mr. Ripley by Victoria Highsmith
Tom Ripley appears in 5 novels by prolific novelist Patricia Highsmith. He’s a charming con artist with a tortured past…but he’s also completely without a conscience. He murders Dickie Greenleaf, a rich playboy, and takes over his life. Then he murders Greenleaf’s best friend for good measure and forges a will leaving himself a fortune. Part of what makes him such a great villain is that’s he’s both likeable and monstrous at the same time.
17. Uriah Heep, David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
Uriah Heep has the distinction of being the only character on this list to have a rock band named after him. He’s also one of Dickens’ best villains. While he might not be a cold-blooded killer, he’s one of the oiliest characters in all of literature, masking his lies with false humility.
Have you ever met someone who manages to insult you and take advantage of you while still pretending to have the moral high ground? That’s Uriah Heep.
16. Big Brother, 1984 by George Orwell
In Orwell’s classic dystopian novel, Big Brother represents the totalitarian government—a face for the fascist regime. He’s always watching…and if you commit a crime, you will be punished. It makes the reality show Big Brother seem really disturbing, if you think about it. Constant surveillance by a sinister organization is bad enough without turning it into entertainment.
15. Nurse Ratched, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey
Hospitals are scary. Nurse Ratched is scarier. She rules a mental institution with an iron fist, using the vulnerable patients as targets for her vicious nature. She also—spoiler alert—orders the charming, carefree hero of the book to be lobotomized.
Ryan Murphy is teaming up again with his muse Sarah Paulson to create a new series based on the character of Nurse Ratched. Knowing Murphy, it’ll probably be campy and terrifying at the same time!
14. Lord Voldemort
He Who Must Not Be Named is arguable the greatest literary villain in books written for children (although some of Roald Dahl’s characters might give him a run for his money.) Voldemort craves power and has no hesitation to use any means necessary to reach his goals. But, when we actually encounter him on the page or screen, he seems almost reasonable and persuasive. That’s the scariest thing about him—how easily Voldemort drew followers to his dark crusade.
13. Norman Bates, Psycho by Robert Bloch
Talk about mommy issues. Norman Bates is one of the most psychologically messed up characters to ever appear. His obsession with, and eventual murder of, his mother led him to have a complete break with reality. Let’s just say that after reading Psycho, I’m a lot more suspicious about dudes who live with their mothers.
12. Iago, Othello by William Shakespeare
Let’s get one thing clear first: I’m talking about the Shakespearean villain, not the talking parrot from Aladdin. Iago manipulates events so that Othello, whom he hates, ends up murdering his beloved wife, Desdemona, by convincing everyone that she’s sleeping around. His villainy is subtle and based on insinuation instead of brute strength, but that doesn’t make him any less of a monster.
11. Long John Silver, Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson
Before he loaned his name to a fried fish fast food franchise (say that three times real fast!), Long John Silver was the villain of Treasure Island. The OG pirate turns out to be a greedy murderer and mutineer, determined to seize the treasure for himself no matter the cost.
He’s actually kind of a weird mascot for a restaurant, if you think about it. Maybe they didn’t read the book?
10. Mrs. Danvers, Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
In the classic novel Rebecca, the young unnamed narrator marries a brooding aristocrat…only to discover that the shadow of his first wife dominates their home. The housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, was fanatically loyal to Rebecca…to the point that she tries to convince the heroine to kill herself.
9. Captain Ahab, Moby-Dick by Herman Melville
Did you think the whale was the villain? Nope, it’s the single-minded, revenge-obsessed Captain Ahab, who doesn’t care if his whole crew dies as long as he gets the white whale. If these great literary villains teach us anything, it’s not to become so obsessed with our goals that we lose sight of everything else.
8. Randall Flagg, The Stand by Stephen King
Stephen King created some of the most horrifying villains ever in his books, from Pennywise the Clown to Jack Torrance, but Randall Flagg stands out as one of the worst. After the plague that sweeps through civilization, Flagg decides to take over using the most brutal and violent of methods.
If power corrupts, then Flagg was as twisted as they come. Although honesty the denim-on-denim ensemble combined with that mullet is the real villain.
7. Hannibal Lecter, Red Dragon by Thomas Harris
Although his most famous appearance was in The Silence of the Lambs, the earlier novel Red Dragon establishes the character of Hannibal Lecter—a manipulative genius with a penchant for eating people. His relationship with the FBI agent Will Graham inspired the TV show Hannibal, which takes their queasy codependency to some very dark places.
6. Lady MacBeth, MacBeth by William Shakespeare
All she wanted was to be the queen of Scotland. Is that so much to ask? Lady MacBeth manipulates her husband into killing the king, but her guilt over it drives her crazy. She becomes convinced that her hands are permanently stained with blood in one of the most famous scenes in all of Shakespeare’s plays.
5. Dr. Frankenstein, Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Once more for the people in the back: Frankenstein is the doctor, not the monster. Okay, now that we have that out of the way, let’s talk about Dr. Frankenstein. Another obsessive, power-mad literary villain, he was determined to discover the secret of life—even if it meant grave robbing and unleashing a tortured abomination on the world.
4. Amy Dunne, Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
Gillian Flynn pulled off one of the most staggering twists in recent memory when she revealed that Amy—far from being a sweet and innocent victim—was actually a cold-blooded mastermind who framed her good-for-nothing husband for her own murder.
3. Annie Wilkes, Misery by Stephen King
Annie Wilkes is a fascinating villain. Although she has no problem with torture and murder, she’s also strangely prudish and unremarkable looking. She represents every writer’s worst nightmare—an obsessive fan who demands that her favorite author write the book exactly the way she wants it.
2. Mr. Rochester, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
Oh, what? You thought Mr. Rochester was the hero while his crazy wife was the villain? Not only is he a grumpy, brooding jerk, but he also treated the women in his life very badly. After his first wife went mad (possibly from syphilis!), fathered a daughter with his mistress, and then tries to marry Jane even though he knows it’s bigamy.
1. Sauron, Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
Like Lord Voldemort, Big Brother, and Randall Flagg, Sauron’s great evil is his lust for power and control. He wants to rule all of Middle-Earth, and he does not care whether it ends up a smoldering wasteland full of corpses. Plus the all-seeing eye is just plain creepy!