Most evil characters in non-genre fiction

Yes, I know that all fiction is in one genre or another. But we only have so much space in the subject line. Having more space here, I’ll define my terms: I’m looking for evil characters in what booksellers might call mainstream contemporary fiction (i.e., set no later than 1920). No detective novels, no fantasy epics, no science fiction, no comic books; Darkseid, Sauron, and the cast of the *Godfather * need not apply.

Here’s my first nomination: Tradd St. Croix from The Lords of Discipline, who

  1. Desperate to prove that he’s not not a homosexual (as many of his fellow military college cadets suspect him of being), knocks up a girl and then abandons her while describing her as his “friend” and pretending to be too delicate to describe their lovemaking to his roommates;

  2. Joins a secret society–“The Ten”–at his college that is dedicated to keeping boys like him from graduating, though he knows the only reason he was allowed to remain in school so long is because of his family connection;

  3. Betrays the trust of his best friend–Will McLean, the narrator–by spying on Will as he works to keep the Ten from running out the school’s first black cadet;

  4. Betrays his friend Dante Pignetti to the Ten and contributing to Pig’s expulsion on an honor violation and his subsequent suicide;

  5. Pretends throughout to be a good friend to his roommates though he is actually a craven, traitorous piece of shit.

Utter scum, he is.

Anybody else got a nominee?

Nothing written before 1920? I’m out.

Oh, fine. Pick any time period. But no crime fiction, no epic fantasy, no science fiction, no comic books. We’re looking for the banality of evil here; Hannibal Lecter need not apply.


The “hero” of Guy de Maupassant’s Bel-Ami; just about everyone in George Lippard’s delerious The Quaker City, or the Monks of Monk Hall; the hilariously evil heroine of Patrick Dennis’s Little Me . . .

I can think of several canadates in Robert Grave’s I, Claudius - particularly Livia, Tiberius and Caligula.

Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights. I have read few books that made me loathe a character as much as I loathe him.

I don’t remember all the details (it’s been a while since I’ve read the book), but ooooh, everything he did was cold and intentional. He wasn’t a guy who just did bad things because he couldn’t help it. It was all premeditated and heartless.

Heathcliff’s evil, I’ll agree, but I think Tradd from my OP is more reprehensible. While Heathcliff was pretty much a sociopath who likely didn’t even BELIEVE in good & evil, much less know the difference, Tradd knew what he was doing was wrong–and did it anyway. Hes practically “Oberleutenant Goldstein.”

I’d put Tamora and co. from Titus Andronicus in the fore-runner, with Macbeth in a close second and Regan, Goneril, and Edmund from King Lear in an even closer third. Shakespeare knew his villains.

What about Richard III, although based on a real person, maybe doesn’t count.

I have to admit that I never read the book, but if the character from the movie is a fair representation, then I nominate Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

I have to use movie versions because I mainly read non-fiction, or else genre fiction (mystery/detective, wacky Florida novels).

For once in our lives, the movie is a fair representation, yes.

I nominate Zenia in Margaret Atwood’s The Robber Bride.

Tom Ripley?

Me too. I was going to nominate the aunt who worked her niece to death in Zola’s The Earth.

Oops. I should have read the whole thread before responding.

I nominate the aunt in The Earth who worked her niece to death. :slight_smile:

Her evil definitely qualifies as banal. A wealthy woman with no children who could have had a positive influence on her family, changed their lives. If I remember right, she didn’t even give her niece a place to sleep.

Scarlett O’Hara. What a selfish, scheming bitch.

I nominate John Claggart, in Melville’s Billy Budd, “in whom was the mania of nature, not engendered by vicious training or corrupting books or licentious living, but born with him and innate, in short a depravity according to nature.”

The Lords of Discipline is an excellent book, and Tradd (what a name!) qualifies as a villain for all the reasons you state. I’d also nominate the title character of another Pat Conroy book, The Great Santini, who despite his patriotism and sense of duty is a monster in many other ways: alcoholic, physically and emotionally abusive, profoundly egotistical, neglectful of his children, bigoted, etc. But the Colonel makes for a hell of a read!

I know the OP said no fantasy, but I’ll nominate someone who’s evil is in no way predicated on their existence in a fantasy world: Delores Umbridge, from HP & The Order of the Phoenix. My mother tells me she had the misfortune to be a teacher under a principal who could have been the model for Umbridge. In fact I’m confident that anyone who has worked with enough people in a professional setting has eventually run into an Umbridge.

Roger, from Lord of the Flies. All the other characters are victims in some sense or another, corrupted by their surroundings and so forth, but Roger is just pure evil. If Simon is a Christ figure, Roger is the Devil.

In a similar note: Iago. Coleridge called him “motiveless malignancy”, and that’s what he is- he just takes incredible dark joy in the destruction of a great man, whose friend he always pretends to be (“I am yours forever.” Shudder.)

Francis Urquhart, from House of Cards series. Wins extra points for a fantastically vicious portrayal by Ian Richardson in the TV series of the same name.

The Jackal, from Day of the Jackal by Frederick Forsyth. He’s a man of wealth and taste, infinite skill and cool resolve. He might also have our sympathies, as a kind of dark James Bond- until he murders his lover in cold blood when she discovers who he is, then goes on to seduce a gay man in Paris just so he can kill him and hole up in his flat for a few days (“The Jackal decided that there was enough food in the fridge to sustain one man for three days…but not two.”).

Satan, from Paradise Lost. You can’t get much better, can you?

That’s still James Bond, IMHO.