We took to the hive mind on Twitter to ask for the great Magnificent Bastards of literature, and you, also all Magnificent Bastards, created a fabulous list! So, imagine us, I don’t know, throwing glitter and confetti in the air as we ask some literary characters to take center stage. Below is a series of blindingly magnificent literary bastards—look upon them, ye readers, and despair! Or be really happy and excited that your favorite anti-heroes made the list, either way.
The Final Problem by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, many others
He is one of the greatest villains in all of literature. Rather than dedicate himself to being a brilliant mathematician, he chose to become the ‘Napoleon of Crime’ and sit “motionless, like a spider in the centre of its web, but that web has a thousand radiations, and he knows well every quiver of each of them.” Even though he only appeared in two Sherlock Holmes stories, one of them was The Final Problem, which features a heated exchange over the Reichenbach Falls that propelled him into literary infamy. Thanks to that, and some seriously deranged actors’ portrayals, Moriarty now looms as the only man who can match Sherlock, who’s no slouch at Magnificent Bastardry himself.
Melisande sets a pretty high bar in Kushiel’s Dart—upon meeting the heroine of the novel, Phedre, she identifies the apprentice holy prostitute as an anguissette—one who derives pleasure from pain—and shortly thereafter becomes the first person to inspire the girl to use her safeword. Having established herself as a badass, she spends the rest of the novel spying, betraying, and manipulating, until she’s in line to rule the kingdom of Skaldia. Will she be captured? Will it mater, since she can seemingly escape any trap? But, perhaps most important, will her feelings for Phedre win out over her need for power?
The Stand, The Dark Tower series, The Eyes of the Dragon, etc. by Stephen King
Randall Flagg turns up in a lot of Stephen King’s work, sometimes as himself, but sometimes under different names. The common thread to all these appearances, however, is his particular brand of evil cruelty. Flagg’s a little seedy, maybe, a bit of a potbelly, but always charming and genteel up until the moment he shows his true nature. And we can’t help but be a little enamored of the guy—particularly in The Stand, the section of the book set in his hellish Las Vegas made us want to switch allegiances from Mother Abigail and go hit some satanic slot machines.
Croup and Vandemar
Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman
They’re just so polite. And the utter willingness to kidnap an innocent child certainly sets a mood. And that’s before all the horrible things they do to all those poor little animals, or to the Marquis de Carabas, or to Richard Mayhew himself. They are relentless, merciless, and you can plead with them and offer them bargains, but there is no stopping them.
Various X-Men titles by Chris Claremont et al.
Mystique is a particularly interesting Magnificent Bastard—she started as a pure villain, but a quick look into her history reveals a much more complicated morality. Does she use those around her, act as a double agent, and occasionally betray people’s trust? Of course. Did she abandon two of her children? Certainly. But she didn’t leave Nightcrawler until after she got him away from the murderous mob, and she kept an eye on Graydon Creed from afar. And let’s not forget her love for Rogue—it leads to…questionable choices at times, but more often than not she proves that she loves her foster daughter. Most important to the whole magnificent aspect, however? As Nightcrawler points out in X2, she can be anything she wants, yet she chooses to remain in her natural, blue-skinned state. She refuses to hide who she is, and that alone makes her powerful.
The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken
Ugh this woman. So as if the setting of The Wolves of Willoughby Chase wasn’t sinister enough, what with packs of starving wolves invading England from Northern Europe, this bony, scheming “governess” shows up with a sweet façade and terrible machinations. When Sir Willoughby Green has to take his wife to the topics for her health, he leaves his daughter Bonnie and her poverty-stricken cousin Sylvia in the care of Miss Slighcarp. No sooner is the carriage clear of the driveway than the villainess starts trying on Lady Green’s dresses, sells off the furniture, and packs Bonnie and Sylvia away to an orphanage. Yes, she gets her come-uppance, but not until she’s nearly ruined a family, schemed with a grafter named Grimshaw, and generally displayed the theatrical cunning necessary to upstage the previously mentioned packs of starving wolves.
Dr. John Dee
The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel series by Michael Scott
The actual Dr. John Dee, mathematician, astronomer, and magician to Queen Elizabeth, was most likely not a Magnificent Bastard. Most sources say that he was a well-meaning guy who wanted to create a direct line to the Angelic Realm in order to heal the schism between Protestants and Catholics. The Dr. John Dee from The Secrets of Nicholas Flamel, however, is a twisted alchemist who turns his back on his friend Nicholas to seek power for himself. He dedicates himself to raising the Dark Elders, so the world can be destroyed and rebuilt.
A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket
Count Olaf is an actor, a master of disguise, a member of the mysteriously nefarious V.F.D., and, well, a mass-murderer. He kills dozens of people throughout the Series of Unfortunate Events, is implicated in arson about once per book, and, worst of all, makes for a really terrible surrogate parent. But his flair for the dramatic and numerous disguises make him far more interesting that a mere villain, and his last-minute delivery of Kit Snicket’s child—post-harpooning no less—made him a natural fit for our list.
Ian Tregillis already set the bar high with his Milkweed Triptych, simply by asking, What if the Nazis created their own X-Men in order to defeat Britain’s warlocks? And so the supermen are born, and begin to turn the tide of the war with Gretel as their most powerful member. Unlike her superpowered colleagues, however, she is not simply intent on winning the war and proving Germany’s might—she has her own game, and her own knowledge of what the future holds. Her willingness to play sides against each other and bide her time while the future catches up set her apart, and give her special power in a series filled with gut-wrenching emotion.
American Gods by Neil Gaiman
Wednesday fits in well in America. While the other Gods who have come to America flounder, Wednesday simply becomes a conman. From the moment we meet him we are charmed, and will Shadow to take his offer even against all our better judgment, because for all of his obvious menace, Wednesday promises adventure. As he shows more and more of his darker side, he offers Shadow a way to redefine himself—he doesn’t have to be his father’s son—and in the end Shadow is able to embark on a life with new promise precisely because of his father’s scheming.
The White Witch
The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis
Well, when you’re going up against Jesus, you’d better have some wit. The White Witch is the first Magnificent Bastard many of us encountered, tucked into the pages of a book your parents, grandparents, or librarian handed you. Who was this crazed woman who hated everything but the cold? Why does she hate Christmas? What kind of maniac thinks bribing people with Turkish Delight will work—has she ever tasted it? Why does she want to rule Narnia, anyway? We never learn her past, or hear her side, but I’m inclined to think that there was a more complex story than even CS Lewis could see.
Ineluki, The Storm King
Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn trilogy by Tad Williams
What does Ineluki truly want? This Storm King, the villain of Tad Williams’ Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn Trilogy, was once a prince of the Sithi, but the dark magic he used to forge the sword Sorrow twisted him, and he fled into oblivion. He is remorseless in his attempts to come back into the world, and allies with his mother the Ice Queen to seek the destruction of all mortal life. But he wouldn’t make it as a Magnificent Bastard if there wasn’t a tiny bit of complexity to his quest. Could it be that he seeks vengeance on the world only because of his pain at being cast out?
It’s always helpful to Magnificent Bastard-dom if the word “nemesis” pops up a few times in the biography. In Victor Vale’s case, the question remains, is he Eli’s nemesis, or is Eli his? The heartbreaking event at the center of V.E. Schwab’s turned Victor and Eli’s friendship into a dangerous rivalry, and as the book begins, Victor is out of prison and planning to seek his vengeance against someone he once loved as a brother.
The Darkling is the central villain in Leigh Bardugo’s Grisha books, and he lives up to his alluring title: He is the most powerful of the Grisha, an army of magician-soldiers who are fighting to save the land of Ravka from the darkness of Shadow Fold, and he certainly has the look of a magnificent bastard: “He had a sharp, beautiful face, a shock of thick black hair and clear gray eyes that shimmered like quartz.” Will he be the perfect match for the books’ heroine, Alina, or will he be her downfall?
Lucifer by Mike Carey
Lucifer is the original magnificent bastard. He did all the wrong things for all the right reasons, and he doesn’t have a single thought for those hurt by his actions. Lucifer as he is in The Sandman, playing the bon vivant while sensing, always, the void beneath all things, is more of a poet than a bastard. Carey transformed the character into a scrupulously honest antihero, determined to root out the sources of predeterminism. Rather than bow to his role of leading people to hell, he decides to create a new universe to rival his Father’s. There’s an old line, quoted in Sandman, about judging a man by his enemies. Lucifer’s enemy is God, so we guess he wins?