Name your least favourite character in any popular book series and they’re unlikely to also be the ‘worst’ character in the canon. As readers, we tend to reserve our dislike for characters we don’t identify with or who simply make choices we wouldn’t make. Meanwhile, conventionally bad characters can even be hailed as favourites. The reader’s disdain for Jane Austen’s silly Lydia Bennett will rarely be felt for Luke Jennings’ Villanelle, the latter a surprisingly likeable serial assassin.
From my own reading, one of my least favourite characters is Dorothea Brooke from George Eliot’s Middlemarch. Eliot’s empathetic provincial study is clearly desperate for the reader to fall in love with its principle heroine. But I found myself increasingly frustrated by her self-enforced lack of agency, her constant desire to defer all purpose to the men in her life and to complain about her overabundance of money. My frustration built up to breaking point so that by the time she achieved her happily ever after (spoiler alert!) I actually resented her for it.
It’s often the curse of the main character to never become a fan favourite. They’re under greater scrutiny through having more words devoted to their character and choices. This can mean they’re at greater risk of gaining the rank of the least favourite person in the book. After all, how many people would say that their favourite character in Harry Potter is the hero himself, despite him being the eponymous role?
These faceless collectives are every bit in contention for the worst character as any single antagonist
Being the ‘worst’ character in a book, however, is different to being the least favourite. Sticking with the theme, Harry Potter is rife with characters we would conventionally consider to be evil. Think of universally hated figures such as Voldemort, Umbridge and Snape (although, admittedly, the latter is a controversial one). In the Potter canon characters are, for the most part, split down a benign/evil divide. You’re either a good guy or a bad guy, and the bad guys are really bad.
Voldemort is surely a contender for the worst character in literature. He kills and tortures for power and is prepared even to murder his own family to extend his own life. The evil murderer is a common literary trope, covering some well-known villains like Cersei Lannister, Professor Moriarty and Hannibal Lecter to name a few.
Murderous villains come in groups as well as individuals: consider the Republic of Gilead in The Handmaid’s Tale, or George Orwell’s Big Brother in 1984. These faceless collectives are every bit in contention for the worst character as any single antagonist.
There’s a case to be made against Gawain, Achilles, and many other so-called ‘heroes’ who simply don’t deserve the title by today’s standard
Villainy is a slippery force, however, and even characters once hailed as heroes in a bygone era can be shamefully immoral when exposed to a 21st century reading. Arthurian knights, considered the embodiment of chivalric values, are rapists, thieves and thugs when re-read through a 2019 lens. Epic demi-gods are misogynistic narcissists. Regency gentlemen are fat cats with class prejudice and more money than sense. There’s a case to be made against Gawain, Achilles, and many other so-called ‘heroes’ who simply don’t deserve the title by today’s standard.
The worst characters are a mixed group of modern-day antagonists and historical protagonists. The most formidable character of them all would be a mash-up between the two combining the psychological realism of the tortured villain with the worrying self-confidence and manipulative abilities of villains written pre-1900.
The title of ‘worst character in literature’ could be awarded to anyone from President Snow to Hector of Troy. The question is highly subjective, and vice is timeless. True villains are often found where you least expect them, so keep your eyes peeled as you never know who’s lurking on the next page.