Everybody loves a protagonist. Our heroes and heroines inspire us to face our fears, to strive for greatness, and to triumph in the face of evil. Which brings us to our point: a good story still needs some evil. There’s no getting around it, really. Besides, the bad guys and girls often provide the most fun! They allow us to play in realms of our consciousness that most of us don’t visit too often, giving us an outlet, a personification for our inner demons of greed, envy, rage, narcissism, and all those other deadly sins. The thing with villains is, they’re just not that scary if they’re not bright. The evil geniuses are the ones who keep us looking over our literary shoulders, allowing our heroes and heroines to truly prove their mettle. Here are six of the foulest and most favored foes in literature.
Professor Moriarty (The Sherlock Holmes series, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle)
Although Moriarty only appears in two Holmes tales, The Adventure of the Final Problem and The Valley of Fear, he’s mentioned in numerous stories as the lynchpin of the criminal empire that keeps Holmes’s detective skills in such top form. Aside from his devious brilliance, what makes this mastermind stand out is his respect for his enemy. Though gripped by a sinister hatred of the order and authority Holmes represents, Moriarty values Holmes’s shrewd intellect and views him as an equal. These two well-matched adversaries are simply destined to take one another down, and it is a most thrilling descent for readers.
Cersei Lannister (The A Song of Ice and Fire series, by George R.R. Martin)
A lust for power and a born talent for conniving are Cersei Lannister’s greatest assets. She’s cold, calculating, and Machiavellian in her tactics. Far from being a stock villain, the Lannister lioness has layers that draw the reader in like quicksand. Cersei loves her family (sometimes a bit, er, too much), but can hate them in equal measure, despising her younger brother and embittered by her father’s refusal to value her as much as her brother and sons. Cersei will use any weapon at her disposal to get her due, but perhaps her most formidable tool is her surgical intelligence.
Hannibal Lecter (The Silence of The Lambs and The Hannibal Lecter Series, by Thomas Harris)
If “evil genius” were a phrase in the dictionary, there’s a good chance the definition would include a picture of Hannibal Lecter. Part of what terrifies us so much about him is his grisly taste for human flesh (he even pairs it with fancy wines!), but this proclivity can be understood as merely the manifestation of Hannibal’s desire to dissect, possess, and consume his victims psychologically. We have no trouble believing that, had Dr. Lecter used his clinical cunning for good, he would have been a superb psychotherapist. Instead, it’s up to Agent Starling to get inside Lecter’s mind without letting him take control of her own.
The Dunnes (Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn)
Do you know evil when you see it? If you answered yes, Gone Girl will put you to the test. Fans of the book know just one Dunne is the mastermind here—but it takes you half the book to figure out which one. Is it Nick, the cavalier, potentially abusive, smarmy womanizer? Or is it Amy, the self-absorbed, spoiled, big-city rich girl? Both of their perspectives are so hauntingly earnest and genuine, it’s a slap in the reader’s face when the villain(-ess?) is finally unmasked. Clearly, hiding in plain sight is the hallmark of a true evil genius.
Griffin (The Invisible Man, by H.G. Wells)
No one can argue that Dr. Griffin is a brilliant scientist. After all, a certain amount of respect is due when a person uses his blinding intellect to alter the refractive properties of objects and make them invisible. But it is exactly Dr. Griffin’s high opinion of himself that clinches his descent into folly. When his greatest experiment goes haywire, Griffin adds theft, deceit, and murder to the stew of his hubris. At least he won’t have to look at himself in the mirror.
Who are your favorite manipulative masterminds?