If you’re like me, you enjoy reading books (or watching movies or TV shows) with strong villain characters. There’s something so complex, so delightfully devious about them. But, why stop with villains? What about antiheroes or those who are morally grey? These characters add a nice layer of complexity to any story, as they make it hard to know who the hero (and the reader) can really trust. But, we’re going to take this one step further. What happens when the hero of your story is the villain? What do you do when you’re investing time and interest into a character who will eventually come to an evil end?
This list contains just a small smattering of characters of this ilk. In each of these, you can expect to find a protagonist who you know you should hate, but can’t help being fascinated by. Revenge plots, usurpers, and dueling magicians, this list has a little bit of everything!
We’re starting this list off with a character who might not immediately spring to mind as a villain, but whose behavior is certainly villainous. As a young man, Edmond Dantès is falsely accused of treason and thrown into the notorious prison, Château d’If, to rot away. But, after six years, he manages to escape and acquires a great treasure. He uses his newfound wealth to take on a new name and invent a new identity for himself, the mysterious Count of Monte Cristo. What follows is a page-turning tale of revenge, as Dantès tracks down and destroys all those who ruined his life, possibly losing his own humanity in the process.
Victor and Eli started off as friends–college roommates who recognized the same dangerous hunger and ambition in each other. Their relationship culminates during their senior year, when experiments on adrenaline, near death experiences, and the supernatural lead them to a shocking conclusion: under the right circumstances, one can gain extraordinary abilities. But, when they decide to actually test their theories, something goes horribly wrong. Ten years have passed and Victor escapes from prison, determined to find his former friend. Eli for his part, is also on a mission: to eradicate anyone else who has supernatural power. As their destinies continue to entwine, the pair will find themselves drawn deeper and deeper into a tale of revenge that can only leave one of them standing in the end. Vicious is a chilling tale that leaves you unsure of who to side with, and makes for fascinating reading.
The most dangerous villain is the one who believes he is justified. And that’s the issue that arises with Light Yagami, the hero(?) of Death Note. On the surface, Light is your average high school student. His grades are excellent and he’s well-respected by his peers. Then, one day, he discovers a mysterious black notebook. Instructions on the inside cover inform him that if he writes someone’s name in the notebook (called a Death Note) that person whose name is written will die. Initially, Light thinks its a joke, until he writes the name of a criminal he sees on TV, and the man drops dead. Suddenly aware of the devastating power in his hands, Light decides to make the most of the opportunity, and begins to purge the world of crime, in order to create his own ideal society.
I would be completely remiss if I did not include Macbeth on this list. This is the first book that made me realize that that hero of a story did not have to be good. And there are few characters are delightfully wicked as Macbeth. After a group of prophetic witches inform the Thane of Glamis that he will not only become Thane of Cawdor, but also king, the power and corruption goes to his head. Pressured by his wife, but also filled with his own twisted ambition, Macbeth goes from loyal subject to king-killer, just within a few scenes. His descent is both horrible and fascinating, and there is a reason that this dark tale is still so popular today.
We’re going to wrap up this list with another classic. Crime and Punishment is a tough pill to swallow. It’s the story of a young man who decides to commit the perfect crime–killing an old woman who nobody loves or will mourn once she’s gone. He’s able to pull it off, without guilt or remorse. However, he’s pursued by a relentless police inspector and tormented by his own conscience, and soon the pressure from both within and without threaten to crush him under their weight.
As a closing aside, I also wanted to recommend three movies that also make great use of this theme: Rope is the story of two college students who kill a classmate and host a party with his body hidden in the room (to prove they could pull off a perfect crime); and Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog turns the idea of hero and villain on its head, when a misguided villain with a soft heart falls in love at the laundromat (only to have his crush stolen away by the arrogant hero, Captain Hammer). And finally, Sweeney Todd is a darkly fascinating tale of revenge, about barber who is wrongfully imprisoned and loses everything, only to return years later, deeply changed, and with a wicked thirst for revenge.