My anti-hero! Search begins for the leading literary villains

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The Independent Culture

It started as a hunt for literary heroes and villains. But it ended as a lively debate over bookish baddies after the organisers decided that they were so much more beguiling than the good guys.

From Jean-Baptiste Gren-ouille, the murderer with the exquisite sense of smell in Patrick Suskind's Perfume, to Alex, the vicious delinquent in Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange, the list of villains in literature is a long one. And by piling up hundreds of the most compelling villains - alongside a smattering of heroes and a significant roll-call of anti-heroes - in its network of bookstores, Waterstone's hopes to challenge the British public to discover more of them over coming weeks and discuss them at home, in schools or in book clubs.

Rodney Troubridge, a buyer for the bookstore chain, said organisers had come up with a shortlist after discussions with booksellers and whittled down a list of about 150 titles to a top 20 that included American Psycho by Brett Easton Ellis and Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov.

"We found the villains were more engaging in a way," Mr Troubridge said. "That was what came out of our discussions. The heroes are better served by non-fiction - people like Churchill who are for real rather than fictional characters that are the products of our imaginations."

Yet some of the more interesting characters were the anti-heroes - the central characters who lack traditional heroic virtues - from J D Salinger's Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye to D B C Pierre's Booker-winning Vernon God Little.

Waterstone's added F Scott Fitzgerald's Great Gatsby to that list. "Behind the chocolate-box exterior, we think Gatsby has all the signs of a real anti-hero. When it comes to consumerism run rife, he gives [American Psycho's] Patrick Bateman a run for his money," Mr Troubridge said.

Other titles, such as Schindler's Ark by Thomas Kenneally (later made into the film Schindler's List) and Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, exposed both the best and worst of human nature.

Children will get their own chance to choose their favourite heroes and villains in a separate promotion that will run alongside the adults' debate. John Webb, a children's buyer, conceded that some children's villains, such as Roald Dahl's Witches or Twits, were more figures of fun than anything else.

But he said: "Some of the villains in children's books are pretty nasty. There are some serious bad guys like Voldemort in Harry Potter. He's just an indiscriminate killer. He has no redeeming features." But, he added: "Children have some great heroes, too, like Captain Underpants [by Dav Pilkey]"

From today, visitors to Waterstone's will be confronted by a selection of novels within whose covers some of the biggest battles between good and evil have been fought. There will be some non-fiction, too, including a biography of Tony Blair, although Waterstone's declined to say whether the Prime Minister was a hero or villain. "At the end of the day, it's for our customers to decide," Mr Troubridge said.

Mr Webb said his own personal hero since he was 11 was Ged from Ursula Le Guin's Wizard of Earthsea. He was undecided on a bad guy but a current favourite was Marvin from Marvin Wanted More - he eats everything in sight.

Mr Troubridge had no such doubts; his literary villain was - Patrick Suskind's Jean-Baptiste Grenouille. "He left me with such a bad taste in my mouth," he said. "I don't even like the book, but it raises some serious questions. Why don't the people hang him in the end?"


Alexei Sayle - Mr Todd

The most sinister villain is Mr Todd in Waugh's Handful of Dust. He keeps the main character hostage, tying him to his hut in the Amazon and forcing him to read Dickens until his death. It's spectacularand a most sinister ending.

Jilly Cooper - Iago

He's the worst villain of all. That dreadful bullying, cruelty and mocking - Iago is copybook. He's so clever the way he plays everyone against each other yet at the same time he's terribly, insanely jealous of everyone. He's a fiend.

Julie Burchill - Marquise de Merteuil

The villain I like is the Marquise de Merteuil from Choderlos de Laclos's novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses. She's a right cow and she'd be a laugh to go out with. The one I hate is Mrs Coulter from His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman - because she embodies all the evil of the Catholic Church.

Kathy Lette - Bridget Jones

This dithering, maritally obsessed dimwit set feminism back 100 years. She suggests a woman must be saved by a Knight in Shining Armani. If we were to believe Bridget, the only thing supporting a woman is her Wonderbra.

J G Ballard - Macbeth

Macbeth is the most likeable murderer. He is aware of his faults and if he forgets, Lady Macbeth reminds him. Hamlet is the real villain of his play. He plans to kill his father-in-law with all the dubious charm of an unprincipled intellectual.