Bullies have been throwing their weight around since the dawn of time, and they can be found in every part of the animal kingdom. Though they’re a headache to deal with in real life, bullies are a godsend in storytelling. Their nastiness inspires immediate sympathy for the protagonist, moves the plot forward, and gets the reader’s pulse rate up. Here are our picks for the most memorable aggressors, who wouldn’t know empathy if it punched them in the face. Bully for them!
Lucy van Pelt, from Charles M. Schulz’s Peanuts
Lucy van Pelt is a serious pill. Even her own mother knows it, and frequently calls her “the world’s greatest fussbudget.” Lucy brutally eviscerates anyone who crosses her, which is practically everyone. Her bullying tactics are immortalized by the word “blockhead” and by her football gag with Charlie Brown. But Schulz’s genius lies in exposing the vulnerability behind such a hurricane-force jerk. Exhibit A: Lucy’s unrequited crush on Schroeder. Sigh…never gonna happen, girl.
Moe, from Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes
Peanuts and Calvin and Hobbes explore many of the same themes, and share a similar sense of humor. But the rendering of childhood bullies is quite different in each. Unlike the calculating Lucy, Moe is a a straight-up thug. Indeed, Watterson described Moe as “every jerk I’ve ever known.” Whenever he shows up in a strip, it’s to terrorize Calvin, who doesn’t have much of a defense mechanism outside of surrender. He’s learned the hard way that you should “Never argue with a six-year-old who shaves.”
Curley in John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men
This dude has the textbook definition of a Napoleon complex. He’s also a classic bully in that he projects his own insecurities—about his stature and his wife’s seedy reputation—onto people who have nothing to do with either situation. When Lennie makes a fatal error at the end of the book, Curley is thrilled to hunt him down, but George prevents the bully from having the satisfaction…in the saddest way humanly possible.
Draco Malfoy in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series
Talk about an elitist scumbag. Draco Malfoy is obsessed with genetic lineage over merit, which is never good news for a character. He develops a tense rivalry with Harry throughout the series, and clearly spends a lot of time thinking of new verbal barbs to throw at the central trio. But like all bullies, he ends up victimizing himself more than any of his targets, and becomes disillusioned with his life. Not even budding Death Eaters are immune to the axiom, “You reap what you sow.”
Carrie’s mother and schoolmates, in Stephen King’s Carrie
A remake of Carrie was released last year, and the timing was just right. School bullying has been such a huge topic in recent years that everyone was primed to watch the iconic social outcast unleash her telekinetic fury in the middle of prom. Chucking cars at bullies is not how you should handle them, but nevertheless, the schadenfreude of Carrie’s revenge—in both the films and the book—never gets old.
Creon in Sophocles’ Antigone
Ancient Greek literature is packed to the brim with bullies of every stripe—just look at the pantheon of self-obsessed gods! But perhaps no Greek aggressor is more obstinate than the pigheaded Creon in Antigone, the last play in Sophocles’ heartbreaking Oedipus Cycle. Creon insists on leaving the corpse of Antigone’s traitorous brother to the elements, while her loyal brother is buried with full rites. This play is the rare example of a bully being thwarted by the protagonist throughout the entire story. Antigone calls Creon out right at the beginning, and she never backs down. She buries her brother in full view of Thebes, and Creon’s many threats and insults only seem to empower her more. The finale is brutal, proving once again that there’s truly nothing in literature as excruciating as a Sophoclean comeuppance.
What literary bullies have stuck with you?