We might be rooting for our heroes and heroines (at least most of the time), but
we wouldn't have great literature without great villains. Where would Harry be without Voldemort? Othello without Iago? Frodo without all those orc guys? They'd all be much happier and more productive members of society, sure, but their stories would be far less interesting. Villains aren't always the most admirable characters, but boy are they having the most fun. And sometimes that fun is even somewhat justified. Here are a few literary "villains" who were actually the best.
After all, the best villains are usually just as complicated and highly motivated as the heroes. They just...have a little trouble expressing themselves. Sometimes we might even find ourselves siding
with the villains, because our heroes are not quite the great dudes that they think they are. Characters like Snape or Gollum or Mr. Darcy are more interesting than out-and-out evil villains, because they have layers and conflicting desires (seriously, re-read Pride and Prejudice, Darcy is a pretty solid villain for the first half).
From sea monsters to evil queens, here are a few literary villains that are maybe not so villainous, after all. Let's give these guys a second chance:
1 Lady Macbeth
Sure, Lady M advocates for straight up regicide...but she's just an ambitious gal trying to murder the patriarchy, one king at a time. Is that so much to ask? She also gets in
way above her head, and winds up going mad with guilt and regret over the deaths she's caused...but in the end, Scotland winds up with a way better monarch because of Lady Macbeth's meddling. And that new line of Scottish Kings gave us King James, and Shakespeare wrote Macbeth to appease King James, so essentially Lady M is the reason we have the play Macbeth at all. 2 Satan
Specifically, the Satan in Milton's
Paradise Lost. Despite being, y'know, Satan, he's actually more of an anti-hero figure in the poem than a villain. He's leading a rebellion against heaven in part because he's full of himself, but also in part because that's what was always fated to happen. He's a fallen angel who yearns for free will, yet knows that he'll never have it. Satan becomes a complex figure, courageous but flawed, who claims that it's "Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven." 3 Long John Silver
He's a pirate, but he's a
fun pirate. Long John Silver is the chief villain of Treasure Island, but he also genuinely cares about Jim, our snot-nosed protagonist. He might take over the ship in search of buried treasure, but he's also charismatic and fun and really livens up an otherwise boring boat trip. He also doesn't want to go pirating about, he just wants to pick up his treasure and peace out to retirement. 4 Grendel's Mother Beowulf is...a pretty weird poem. This hero, Beowulf, has to defeat a monster, Grendel, who's been eating people—fair enough. But then Beowulf has to defeat Grendel's Mother, who wants revenge for her son's death. She's some sort of combo sea monster and warrior woman, and it's hard to blame her for wanting to kill Beowulf, since he did kill her son. She's not evil so much as a loving mom (who maybe should have taught her son not to eat people). 5 Aaron the Moor
Aaron the Moor is one of the vilest villains in all of Shakespeare. I mean, his last words are: "If one good deed in all my life I did, I do repent it from my very soul." That's about as evil as it gets.
But everyone is pretty nasty to Aaron because of his race (I mean, they call him "Aaron the Moor," for starters, which is not very polite at all). And when Queen Tamora gives birth to Aaron's son, people immediately want to kill the baby because of its skin color. Aaron puts his own life on the line to save his infant son, which might not quite redeem every murder he's committed up to this point, but it does make him a whole lot more sympathetic. 6 Count Olaf
How can you not love Count Olaf? He's so much darn fun, what with his costumes and his orphan-seizing antics. Plus, as
A Series of Unfortunate Events becomes increasingly complicated, the orphans start to find themselves on the same side as Count Olaf more and more, until finally they learn that the world isn't split neatly into good and evil. Even someone as unpleasant and unhygienic as Olaf can nobly sacrifice his life to save his ex-girlfriend's baby in the end. 7 Amy Dunne
Unless you've somehow missed every conceivable spoiler for
Gone Girl, you already know that Amy Dunne takes the femme fatale trope and turns it on its head. She's a villain through and through, but she's also (SPOILER ALERT) framing her lousy husband for her own death in order to get back at decades of idiot men slowly eroding and/or controlling her body and/or sense of self. And I'm not saying that that justifies framing someone for murder...but she could have worse reasons. 8 Frankenstein’s Monster
Poor lil' Frankenstein's Monster. He's just a baby in a giant corpse body, and his dad's a huge jerk. The monster really doesn't act out of evil or even anger: he just doesn't know any better. Once the monster learns how to communicate, he stops hurting people and starts learning French. It's Vicky Frankenstein who's the real villain, because he literally moves to the North Pole to avoid talking to his sad corpse son.
9 Bertha Rochester
Also known as Bertha Mason, or the "Madwoman in the Attic." She's the chief villain of
Jane Eyre, but if you were locked in an attic by your husband, you'd probably make weird noises and set everything on fire, too. When Bertha had a mental breakdown, her loving husband Rochester just kinda went, "Eh, lock her in the attic forever, I guess," and made no attempt to help her get better. I mean, I know mental health services weren't great back in the day...but dang, Rochester, that's not a great solution. Set him on fire, Bertha. 10 Moby-Dick
Despite being the titular character, Moby-Dick is actually the villain of
Moby-Dick...even though he's 100% in the right. Moby's whole deal is that he just wants to be a whale. He doesn't want to get murdered and turned into a lamp. This infuriates Captain Ahab. Unfortunately for Ahab, though, nature wins out, and Moby utterly demolishes his entire ship. Very few literary villains get to be so clearly justified, and almost none of them get to win the day the way that Moby does.