Nov 4 2013 6:00pm

Literary Bastards of Magnificence

Moriarity Sherlock

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.


Moriarity Conan Doyle Sherlock HolmesProfessor Moriarty
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.


Kushiel's Dart Jacqueline CareyMelisande Shahrizai
Kushiel’s Dart 
by Jacqueline Carey

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?


Randall Flagg The Stand Stephen KingRandall Flagg
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.


Mystique XMen First ClassMystique
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 Joan AikenLetitia Slighcarp
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.


The Alchemyst Michael Scott Nicholas FlamelDr. 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.


Count Olaf Series of Unfortunate Events Lemony SnicketCount Olaf
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.


Bitter Seeds Ian TregellisGretel
Milkweed Triptych by Ian Tregillis

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.


Neil Gaiman American GodsOdin/Wednesday
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.


White Witch Tilda Swinton Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe CS LewisThe 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.


Tad Williams The Dragonbone Chair Memory Sorry and ThornIneluki, 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?


Vicious V E SchwabVictor Vale
by V.E. Schwab

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.


Shadow and Bone Leigh BardugoThe Darkling
Grisha Trilogy
by Leigh Bardugo

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 Mike CareyLucifer
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?

Magnificent Bastards on ‹ previous | index | next ›
1. brandiv87
On the Moriarty front, Honey you should see him in a crown.
2. Missed a trick
Lord Vetinari surely...
3. Missed a trick
Lord Vetinari surely...
Drew Holton
4. Dholton
What about Tywin Lannister from A Song of Ice and Fire? Or for that matter, George RR Martin himself, whom my friend and I called "BASTARD!" for all the characters he's killed...
John C. Bunnell
6. JohnCBunnell
This list is woefully short on classics. Surely we should not ignore:

From Shakespeare: Richard III and Iago (from Othello), arguably the Bard's most finely developed villains -- and oh, how well they know their place.

From Sax Rohmer: Dr. Fu Manchu. Granted, Rohmer's novels have not dated well considering their treatment of Asian characters, but the character is nonetheless one of the founding fathers of the "evil mastermind" school of villainy.

From Robert Louis Stevenson: Long John Silver. Again, a touchstone and origin point for a whole villainous subgenre going forward; Stevenson more or less sets the template for pirates in fiction with this character and his cohorts.

From Charles Dickens: Ebenezer Scrooge. Never mind that he reforms by the end of A Christmas Carol; the reason that that reform is so dramatically compelling is that Dickens does such a superb job at making him despicable in the early part of the story.

From L. Frank Baum: Old Mombi. While she's not necessarily Baum's best-remembered villain, she is very much his most compelling and dangerous -- not least because she actually gets away with her villainy for an extended period, having successfully plunged the whole of Oz into decline via her enchantment. The Land of Oz is in many ways a singularly dark book, and Mombi's influence is one of the prime reasons for that darkness.

And from Dodie Smith: Cruella de Vil. Granted, Ms. de Vil's ongoing reputation owes a great deal to the Disney empire's enthusiastic promotion, but the original Hundred and One Dalmatians is what gives us a villainess who takes the merely mean aspects of kicking puppies to a whole new level.
7. Jan the Alan Fan
Marc Remillard from the Saga of the Exiles by Julian May. A charismatic, powerful telepath who would like to dominate the galaxy, thanks. Also known as the Angel of the Abyss.
Matt Stoumbaugh
8. LazerWulf
From the Dresden Files, we have 'Gentleman' Johnnie Marcone and Nicodemus Archeleon.

The latter is on equal footing with a literal demon inside his head, and the former is the Baron of Chicago (though, officially, only the supernatural community knows him by this title. To the cops, he's just a kingpin).

Now that I think about it, the two are two different types of Magnificent Bastard. Nicodemus is Magnificent because he's a bastard, while Marcone is Magnificent in spite of also being a bastard.

Marcone is a crime lord with a conscience. He runs Chicago's underworld (that is, criminal underworld) with an iron fist, but he has rules set up to avoid collateral damage to innocent civilians. He's ruthless in all his dealings, but he takes care of his own. We meet him in the first book, and several times over the course of the series, where he has used his encounter(s) with Dresden to gain even more power, and though Dresden is wont to admit it, Marcone has pulled his bacon out of the fire more than once. (Of course, the reverse is certainly true as well.)

Nic is the leader of the Denariians, someone who shares his body with a fallen angel bound to one of thirty cursed coins. The fact that we know his name is telling, because most of the time we only know the Denariians by the name of the fallen angel, who has completely overtaken the personality of its host. The other two whose names we know, Dierdre and Tessa, are his daughter and wife, respectively, and are dangerous in their own right, but they seem to spend equal time in their human form and their demon form. I don't think we've ever seen Nic go full-demon, because he's never had to. He's a plotter and a schemer, and the two times we've seen him, he's been up to some nasty stuff. The first time, he tried to release a plague on the midwest. The second time, he tried to possess a little girl with one of his demons. (Granted, that little girl is arguably the most powerful being in the Dresdenverse, and by possessing her, he would possess her power, but still...)

So, yeah, these are definitely two of my favorite characters in the series.

P.S. Now that I think about it, Lara Raith would also probably qualify, but to explain how would spoil the sixth book.
9. a1ay
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.

Her backstory is explained in detail in "The Magician's Nephew", in which she is a major character.
10. Hedgehog Dan
Not to nitpick, but Utuk'ku, the Ice Queen was Ineluki's great-grandmother, and Amaterasu was his mother. :)
Shelly wb
11. shellywb
CS Friedman writes my favorites: Gerald Tarrant from the Coldfire trilogy, and Zatar from In Conquest Born.
Colleen Palmer
12. arianrose
I don't know that I could even remotely narrow this down. Melisande, surely, for a villian that leaves you just a little bit in love with her.

For George R.R. Martin, I think Littlefinger would be my pick, just for sheer smarminess. I always had the impression that he walked around with this smug little smile all the time, just promising he knew something you didn't. (I've not seen the show.)

Probably forefront in my mind because I just reread it, there's Arienrhod from The Snow Queen. You're about to be deposed from power in a centuries old ritual. What do you do? Sow 10 clones, hoping one of them will grow up to be your replacement. And if she doesn't, seduce her boyfriend.

From Tigana, there's Brendan, who rips away a country's name because they kill his son in battle.

From The Keltaid (which I would be surprised if many had read), there Juan Akhera, the Emperor from a rival star-kingdom. His aims are pretty plebian, but his characterization is nice.

From Dune, there's Feyd-Rautha, who will always be Sting in my headcannon.

Does Raistlin count? I know most of the characters aren't exactly scintillating prisms of characterization, but Raistlin rather comes into his own, then finds out he wishes he hadn't.
13. JoeNotCharles
Um, the White Witch's backstory is given in The Magician's Nephew, along with the origin of the wardrobe. Which kind of spoils the mystery, unfortunately.
alastair chadwin
14. a-j
The dark secret at the heart of Sherlock Holmes is that Moriarty is a rather dull character in Doyle's stories. It is with the subsequent adaptations that he achieves magnificance. His latest outings in Sherlock and A Game of Shadows are particularly fine incarnations.

Howabout Commander Vimes from the Discworld books? Although a hero, he is fully aware of how much of a bastard he is and uses that for good.

From the Bond films, Auric Goldfinger and from the books Hugo Drax. The latter a good host and entertaining company when he's not cheating at cards and trying to kill you.
z drake cupsford
15. zdrakec
Oooh - how about, from Abercrombie's The First Law, two: Logen Ninefingers, and Bayaz...

John C. Bunnell
16. JohnCBunnell
@a-j: Where Moriarty is concerned, I admit to being partial to Michael Kurland's series of novels, beginning with The Infernal Device. In those, he's not precisely a Magnificent Bastard, but he's a remarkably entertaining criminal consultant.

@arianrose: I have, in fact, read and quite enjoyed the Keltiad, and would call it among the most underrated SF/F series I've read -- I hope that one way or another, we eventually get the wrapup novel Patricia Kennealy Morrison has hinted at from time to time. Edeyrn in some of the later books strikes me as a more capital-V villain, but Jaun Akhera does play a decent game. (In the initial books, I might actually give Arianeira more "magnificent" points than Jaun.)

And yes, I think mentioning Raistlin (from the original Dragonlance saga out of TSR, for those not familiar with the character) in this context is justified. He's a singularly complicated character, and it's worth noting that after the first trilogy took off, he got what was essentially the starring role in the second.
alastair chadwin
17. a-j
I'll look those up. In return, I recommend Kim Newman's Professor Moriarty: The Hound of the d'Urbervilles.
18. j_lyman
I will always consider Ianthe from the Dragon Prince Series as one of the most dastardly bastards ever.
19. Jemidon
I would like to point out that Saruman from the Lord of the Rings is pretty dastardly. Being that he was supposedly the head of one of the great forces for good in Middle-Earth and all that. The last scene when he's taken on the name of Sharkey and keeps kicking poor Grima is one of my favorite scenes in the whole Tolkien world. I will never forgive Peter Jackson for not filming it. Also, Smaug is a runner up. We don't get too much of a history on him but his "casual" conversation with Bilbo, inviting him to take some of the treasure while talking about the smell and taste of dwarf-ridden ponies and such, was great.
"Well, thief! I smell you and I feel your air. I hear your breath. Come
along! Help yourself again, there is plenty and to spare!"
20. Omegasamurai
I'm pretty sure the list of excellent villains could go as long or longer than any list of excellent heros.

I don't even know how many I could list If I just started spitting out names, but here's a few that initially come to mind:

Many of the Forsaken in Wheel of Time, and Padan Fain (also from wot). A more distinct and vile collection of superpowerful pyschopaths is difficult to find.

Admiral Thrawn from T. Zahn's Star Wars novel. A strategic genius so undefeatable that they needed him to be betrayed to finally defeat him; reversing the usual trend.

and, last, and probably my personal favorite (since it's from my favorite book OF ALL TIME): Typhon, from Gene Wolfe's solar cycle (specifically Book/New Sun, Urth of the New Sun, and Book of the Long Sun)
The confrontation between him and Severian is so ridiculously tense, and he's yet another villain that really outmatched the hero and was only defeated by a type of betrayal.

Props to the guys who mentioned Dune, and the Dresden files; there are some really evil people in those too. =D
22. Mhg
Seconding Hound of the D'Urbervilles (in which pretty much everyone is or aspires to be a Magnificent Bastard).

For me, the interesting thing about most depictions of Moriarty is how resolutely normal, even boring he is on the surface. He tutors people for exams and writes books no one can understand--and at least one inspector at Scotland Yard (the only other person besides Holmes who actually meets him in person) finds him to be a nice, fatherly sort. He's the last person in the world (well, depending on your opinion of mathematics) that you'd expect to be a criminal mastermind.
21. MedievalLit
My favorite literary magnificient bastard is Raistlin Majere from the Dragonlance series!
Drew Holton
23. Dholton
Ok, here's a few more: Lord Foul from Chronicles of Thomas Covenant; Cardinal Richelieau in multiple series; The Astronomer from Wild Cards series, Evil Magician (soon to be king) Trent, Xanth series; Avshar, Videssos Cycle; Jack Brennan, Pak Protector from Niven's Known Space
Elizabeth Barnett
24. denelian

there's a certain king's step-brother, in the Keltiad, who also should be here...

not to mention, her take on the Author myths had... *G*
25. Emmyllou
Sauron, anyone???

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