Literature’s bad guys

The Torygraph has done a top 50 list of fictional villains. There’s O’Brien, Lecter, Patrick Bateman, and a nice para on the elusive motives of Iago (‘behind the smiles and jokes, Iago’s mind is seething white noise’). But as with any such list, there are significant omissions – fair enough, considering the bad characters are so much more fun to write about.

No Carl Hiaasen villains make the cut, bizarre considering his imaginative power: Hiaasen’s bad guys tend to have a deformity or injury from the start (Snapper’s misaligned jaw or Tool’s ass-lodged bullet) or to gradually degenerate throughout the novel in which they appear. ‘I always try to burden even the villains with some weird predilection they have to cope with,’ he explains. ‘It helps make them memorable, and gives them a human side.’

Also, there’s no Franco Begbie. Christopher Brookmyre’s relative newcomer Simon Darcourt makes no appearance. And where is Flashman’s sociopathic, Ovid-quoting nemesis, John Charity Spring?

Another psychopath who didn’t make the cut is Terry Pratchett’s Vorbis, head of the Omnian quisition and the embodiment of religious fundamentalism. ‘A murderer, and a creator of murderers,’ Vorbis has ‘a mind like a steel ball… nothing gets in, nothing gets out.’ Although he professes belief in Om and is hailed as the next Prophet, ‘the only voice Vorbis has been listening to is his own.’

When he died, Vorbis awoke in a vast, empty desert with the Death of the Discworld beside him:


‘Yes. Yes, of course.’

Death nodded. IN TIME, he said, YOU WILL LEARN THAT IT IS WRONG.

Considering that he brought the entire world to ruin, you would think that Randall Flagg merited a place on the Telegraph‘s list. Many of King’s antagonists are root-cause sociopaths, more to be pitied than hated – think of Henry Bowers, the ‘tired and bewildered child sent down a poison path for some unknown purpose’ – but Flagg is a genuine monster who revels in cruelty and destruction entirely for its own sake.

Quasi-immortal and supernatural, he first appeares in Stephen King’s The Stand, where he heads a fascist state in post-apocalypse Vegas. Travelling dozens of different worlds under dozens of different names (Marten, Walter o’ Dim, Richard Fannin, Robert Fry), involved in chaotic and violent events from the Patty Hearst kidnapping to the Kennedy assassination, Flagg is feared to be the devil by characters in The Stand but the Dark Tower books reveal him as just another hustler:

He had belonged to none of the cliques and cults and faiths and factions that had arisen in the confused years since the Tower began to totter, although he wore their siguls when it suited him.

Just before his death, we learn that he started out as a farm boy:

He who had run away at thirteen, been raped in the ass by another wanderer a year later and yet had somehow withstood the temptation to go crawling back home. Instead he had moved on towards his destiny.

Stephen King says that the character was based on Donald DeFreeze, who masterminded the Hearst kidnapping, but I always saw Flagg as looking like Jim Morrison.

I think the Torygraph‘s compilers had better listen out for the click of dusty bootheels when they walk home.



2 Responses to “Literature’s bad guys”

  1. Greg Says:

    Is Begbie a villain though? I think “root-cause sociopath, more to be pitied than hated” would suit him as much as anyone, hate him though I do, but mostly cos he scares me. I think you shouldn’t be able to pity a villain. Can’t believe Satan was in there and not God, damn it.

  2. maxdunbar Says:

    Perhaps, but there are lots of Irvine Welsh characters who’ve had hard times but aren’t psychotically violent. Begbie himself ridicules the ‘root-cause’ argument for violence in Porno.

    You’re right about Satan – Milton was of the devil’s party really…

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