Though the Dirty Coward may be a sociopath, they're certainly not heroicor comedic. And if they're a bastard, they're certainly not magnificent. The Dirty Coward is the slime of the earth, working exclusively for themselves and shamelessly retreating from harm's way even if that harm is about to hit The Messiah that just saved his or her life two seconds ago. They'll take every advantage and are not above using dishonorable tactics and dirty tricks, but they'll cry and moan every time the tables are turned or someone asks for a volunteer. Often full of vicious plans for anyone they dislike, as long as they aren't in need of that person's skills at the moment.
Even the cleverest Dirty Coward tends to be short-sighted. Even when they know that breaking ranks will leave a hole in the defenses that will let the enemy in, leading to far more danger for him or her in the long term, they will generally run for it anyway (and get shot In the Back). Their allegiance almost always lies with whoever can cause them the most immediate harm, even if that threat isn't likely to last. They'll be happy to badmouth people to their faces when they can not immediately hurt them, only to attempt to curry favor when the roles reverse. Dirty Cowards are especially prone to suffering a Karmic Death, usually at the hands of whatever they were trying to run from.
Usually a villain unless used comically, although they may sometimes be a certain type of civilian that gets in the way. When used as a villain, this is a cheap way to make the heroes look good in comparison, even if they're not everything they should be. Villainous Dirty Cowards tend to fall squarely into Neutral Evil, since they are first and foremost out for their own hides at the expense of others.
It's tough to make a main character into one of these without them coming off as more slimy and irritating than funny. Unlike most villains, the dirty coward doesn't even have finesse, which can make them extremely annoying. The dirty coward may or may not have a horrific past to explain their actions, but it doesn't usually redeem them, at least not in the minds of the audience. When their backstory doesn't seem all that convincing, but convinces The Hero, it can be seen as a major cop-out.
The best way to make this character tolerable is to make him or her at least clever. Some enlightened self-interest can occasionally be mixed in, although too much of any trait other than cravenness tends to change the character into something else.
May Level Grind in courage if they realize What Have I Done.
The Dirty Coward is pretty much Always Male, for the dubious reason that women aren't expected to be brave in the first place, and are allowed to sacrifice others to save themselves. As Action Girls become increasingly unremarkable, this may start to change in the near future.
May be the Miles Gloriosus, and even believe his own brags when out of danger. The Fearless Fool may invoke this to persuade his companions to act like idiots. The Bully is often a Dirty Coward, brave enough when tormenting those weaker than they are, but showing their true colors in the face of those equal to or stronger than they are. Not to be confused with the Combat Pragmatist, who may employ tactics that can be considered dirty and cowardly but does so out of cold calculation rather than fear. Contrast the Lovable Coward, who numbers among the good guys and has foibles portrayed far more sympathetically. The So-Called Coward is by definition mistaken for one of these.
open/close all folders
Anime and Manga
Takehiko Inoue's Vagabond features Hon'iden Matahachi, whose usual "flight instead of fight" response) fuels his inferiority complex compared to his childhood friend Shinmen Takezou; after he didn't have the bravery (or whatever) to follow Takezou into a shed they're physically separated, and over the next four years he only catches fleeting glimpses of his former friend now called Miyamoto Musashi. It doesn't help that Matahachi had become a con artist passing himself off as Sasaki Kojirou, and is very self-conscious of his self-preservation instinct and inferiority complex both conflicting with his desire to exceed Musashi (if only in name, pinning his hopes and idolation on the real Kojirou as being the one who could overcome Musashi in fact).
Shinji Ikari of Neon Genesis Evangelion fervently believes himself to be a Dirty Coward, even though he's saved the world quite a few times despite being terrified while doing so. This is partially because his life just sucks that much. His infamous mantra, "I mustn't run away! I mustn't run away!" is him chiding himself for being frightened when he has absolutely every reason to be terrified of the giant monsters trying to kill him.
Magnifico from Berserk is a good example and has yet to grow out of this.
Nina in the Conviction Arc was even worse. She repeatedly considers abandoning other characters to save her own skin, including Casca, who is mentally ill and incapable of looking after herself. However, she's still somewhat sympathetic, because her inner monologues show that her cowardice isn't really a conscious decision that everyone else is expendable; she does want to be brave but panics and can't bring herself to actually follow through with it. Also, the reason for her getting cold feet is often perfectly understandable, best illustrated by the arrival into the torture chambers, as can be seen here.
Defied by Big Bad Phantom from MÄR, who regularly kills any and every mook that runs from battle. He only does this a few times onscreen, but it is clearly established that he despises cowards. He even denies his mooks the death of the protagonist Ginta, saying that, since he's a worthy opponent, there's no reason to kill him until he's strong enough to put up a proper fight.
Akito Tenkawa spends much of the early part of Martian Successor Nadesico trying to flee from combat, though to be fair he's got some fairly serious psychological problems considering it's a comedy series. Unlike a certain other pilot of whom he is partly a parody, he gets over it. Eventually.
However, this does make his downfall much more entertaining when we see him begging for his life as ShineGreymon Burst Mode gives him exactly what he had coming.
Zofis from Zatch Bell, who is revealed to be afraid of Brago and anyone with more power than him.
Jackal, a minor arc villain from Fist of the North Star, is the practitioner of a martial art called "Nanto Bakusatsu-ken" — South Star Exploding Kill Fist. Despite the grandiose name, the style consists mainly of throwing sticks of dynamite at enemies while at a remove. Kenshiro calls him on this by snidely asking him if it's even truly a martial art.
Jagi, in addition to being a heartless and cruel monster, is also the most cowardly of Kenshiro's major villains in the series, and the only one who does notFace Death with Dignity — in fact, he has the ignominy of being the only Hokuto Shinken practitioner to beg and grovel for his life in the tradition's entire 2000 year history.
Also applies to almost all minor thugs in the series who live long enough to realize that they're screwed. A lot of them end up completely breaking down and begging for their lives. Doesn't help that Kenshiro's primary fighting style has a penchant for rather gruesome delayed death attacks.
Chaka from Black Lagoon is a sociopathic asshole whose specialty seems to be Kicking the Dog and who sees nothing wrong with beating a noncombatant just to provoke his colleague into a gunfight, then running away while toting a human shield when things go badly for him and shooting several of his henchmen just because he's pissed. He fancies himself a Wild West gunman, but he's nothing more than a stupid, incompetent prick who thinks himself something far more than what he actually is.
Kishin Asura from Soul Eater became a physical font of insanity and evil because he was scared of everything — which led to paranoia and the desire to become so powerful that no one could harm him, at any cost.
Yoki from Fullmetal Alchemist constantly suffers the consequences of his scumbag actions, mostly because he keeps lying and backstabbing so he can bribe his way into a higher military rank. Every nasty scheme backfires, landing him in nastier and nastier situations to the point that he's the manga's resident Chew Toy. One of the characters even points out it's entirely his own fault how he gets into these messes.
Let's clarify here. Yoki, the coward, who up to this point has been all about saving his own skin, rams the embodiment of shadows with a car, which could very well get him killed. Aw yeah.
This was the accusation of Kimblee against Pride. On realizing he was near death, Pride tried to take over Ed's body as a new host, just moments after explaining his hatred of humans. Kimblee couldn't stand the cowardice and hypocrisy.
Tower Of God gives you Parakewl, a tall, haughty jerkass with a green fish face, who in general calls everybody scum, is the first to abandon somebody, demands that people should be sacrificed for his ends or in his stead, sticks up for nobody, openly switches sides to gain the majority's favor and has neither skill nor intelligence to back his behaviour up. He is known in fandom as the ass. Why he survives is a mystery to all.
Yukiteru's father from Mirai Nikki is this, all the way. He even kills his ex-wife because he's terrified that she'll tell the police he just left his son to die on a collapsing tower.
Hol Horse from JoJo's Bizarre Adventure manages to be the only recurring villain in Part Three...by running for his life whenever things go wrong. He also refuses to ever work alone, despite being an assassin; he knows how weak his Stand is against most other Stands, after all. The incident that finally dispatches him even comes about because of his cowardice: told by a fortune-telling book that he'll kill Jotaro at noon, he takes the shot from a far distance and from cover... which allows for a Prophecy Twist to send the bullets back into his head. To be fair, Thoth was prescribing that shoot-from-cover bit. The only thing Hol did wrong was use his own watch, which was fast, rather than a perfectly accurate clock. Had he done that, the bullets would have hit Jotaro along with the water burst from the pipe. Also, he didn't die — like with Enya, he disengaged Emperor before the wounds could become fatal.
A much better example of the Dirty Coward in the series is Alessi, whose Stand allows him to de-age anyone who touches his shadow. This is the only way he's willing to fight anyone (unlike Hol, who just adheres to the creed "run away to fight another day"). He has to use an axe to fight them. And to think he keeps calling himself a "good boy"...
Which make his defeat all the sweeter when he runs into Jotaro. He manages to use his powers on him but Jotaro simply lays him out with an uppercut. Talk about irony.
Genma Saotome, father of the titular character of Ranma ½, falls somewhere between this and Lovable Coward. Despite being one of the more formidable martial artists in the locale, whenever trouble arises (and it's often his fault that it does), his plan of action invariably boils down to some variant of "run away" or "make Ranma deal with it". Whether it's pinning the blame on Ranma, telling Ranma that it's his "duty" to handle things, or simply vanishing into the woodwork and leaving Ranma with no choice but to try and handle something he hasn't the faintest idea about, Genma virtually never lifts a finger to help.
He also has a bad habit of grabbing the nearest bucket of water as soon as it seems like he might have to answer some pointed questions.
Goku's brother Raditz is a more unlikeable example. For a sapient race of blood knights who would actually prefer death when defeated in battle than living with the shame of losing, he has the nerve to beg his younger, weaker (at the time) brother to let him go, only to backstab him when freed. Goku wasn't fooled again when he tried the same trick twice.
Frieza is proven to be one of these once he's no longer inaccessibly stronger than everyone around him.
Deep down, this is Frieza's ultimate motivation for killing the Sayians-he's afraid that they'll produce a Super Sayian, which will be his undoing.
Daemon Spade from Katekyo Hitman Reborn! turns out to be one of these when facing someone who can actually defeat him. His "special move" is to bravely, bravely, run away to another dimension.
Marshall D. Teach, better known as Blackbeard, is a notable example in that despite having the D. initial, he started begging for his life the moment it was in immediate danger.
Yuna Roma Seiran of Gundam SEED Destiny was a snivelling coward and wannabe Manipulative Bastard who got Orb into the war on the Earth Forces' side, takes command of the army at the front...and then proceeds to spend the campaign having one panic attack after another. He's incapable of standing up to Earth Forces Captain Neo Roanoke, who more or less takes over the campaign and uses the Orb forces as cannon fodder, and is ultimately killed when trying to escape from a losing battle. Lord Djibril, Blue Cosmos leader, is a much more dangerous example, as he combines this trope with Diabolical Mastermind. When things go south for him, Djibril always bails, leaving his allies in the lurch...only to return soon after with his latest Weapon Of Mass Destruction primed for combat. A slimy, cowardly bully who nevertheless manages to cause hundreds of thousands of deaths through pure malice.
Subverted with Taikobo in Houshin Engi. He pretends to be this early on but is actually a Chessmaster, using how people see him to his advantage.
Captain Knowles of of the Goliath in Last Exile ordered his ship to flee battle before the retreat was sounded. Later, he was too cowardly to face Alex in a duel he himself demanded and so decided on a ship-to-ship duel, figuring his battleship would be superior. When he saw his opponent was the Silvana, he ordered his gunners to fire before the fight started.
Masao from Shiki is a bit of a downplayed version. Notably, his cowardice makes him less of a threat than many other vampires because he's too scared to routinely kill and eat humans. He plays the trope somewhat straighter in the manga than he does in the anime.
Mr. Heartland, The Dragon to the Big Bad in Yu Gi Oh Zexal. He usually uses a hologram when he has to talk to someone who might be angry at him (a good idea once, because Kaito tied to slug him) and when the heroes stormed the Faker's compound right before the Final Battle of the first season, he hid behind a army of robots, doing nothing but taunting them. (He did get his in the end when he fell through a portal to the Barian World, where he was turned into a bug-like creature.
Isao from Bokurano. When it's his turn to pilot, he just runs away.
Doomsday, the monster that once killed Superman, is normally a mindless bundle of rage and power. When he was granted intelligence, he was revealed to be this trope in the end. All his new intelligence did was make Doomsday painfully aware of his own crippling fear of death — deep down, he's terrified of anything that could possibly be a threat to his life- which in his mind is everything. (The entire reason he's so powerful is because he was repeatedly cloned and let loose on a Death World until some bizarre process of Lamarckian evolution made him capable of surviving the worst it had to offer. It took a LOT of clone generations.)
Dr. Venom from the early run of Marvel's G.I. Joe comics was a damn near epitome of this. Any chance he could back stab someone else he could and if he got caught would plead for mercy on his hands and knees.
Subverted by Roderick Kingsley, AKA the Hobgoblin and enemy of Spider-Man. While his twin brother Daniel really was a spineless wimp who lived up to this trope, Roderick merely made himself look like a Dirty Coward to get people to underestimate him. This usually led to him sabotaging his competitors' companies and destroying their reputations before buying them up cheap, or to keep anyone from thinking that he could be a cold-blooded Magnificent Bastard like the Hobgoblin.
Manchester Black, a member of the Elite is a cocky, arrogant and cheerfully murderous antihero who lectures Superman on how his brand of heroism is outdated... As long as he has his ludicrously powerful teammates and Phoenix-level psychic powers backing him up; the moment he's isolated, Brought Down to Normal and facing a vengeful Supes, he immedialy breaks down and cries like a scared little girl, on live TV. When he comes back to trouble Supes again, he hides behind waves of Mooks and psychically tortures a helpless, powerless mortal woman. The second incident turns out to be a subversion: Black isn't afraid of death — he actually wants Superman to kill him under false pretenses to "prove" that Supes isn't a true hero. When Supes refrains from killing Black even in the face of such extreme provocation — up to and including the apparent murder of his wife Lois — Black immediately fixes everything and then commits suicide because he can't live with the truth: rather than being an antihero, he had become just another supervillain.
Yellow Bastard in Sin City has a bit of a Meaningful Name. Not only is his yellow-skinned, but he is also more than willing to run away from a fight and whine about it. If he makes an attack, expect it to be a sneaky one.
Near ALL Naruto focused fics have the Civilian Council of Konoha as this to the point that they are either described: Wetting themselves, blabbering like babies, sweating like mad, knocked out, crapping themselves, or all the above by the tiniest amount of Killing Intent from Naruto or other characters. This also comes in most every Sakura Bashing fic concerning her.
Gilda in Ace Combat: The Equestrian War. When torturing Medley and threatening to rip her wings off, she uses her as a living shield, much to Rainbow Dash's disgust.
Beni from The Mummy fits squarely into this role, betraying every member of the cast and joining with the villain in order to save his own skin. His comeuppance is suitably horrible.
Pirates of the Caribbean: One of the glaring personality flaws of Captain Jack Sparrow is his tendency toward dirty cowardice, especially in the face of certain death, and escape from death becomes his major motivation in Dead Man's Chest and At World's End.
Carter Burke in Aliens. His meddling directly causes the deaths of everyone in the colony. When called on this he tries to bribe Ripley, then attempts to get Ripley and Newt infected so he can sneak them past quarantine. And to top it off, in order to sell a convincing story to the authorities he was going to kill the rest of the team in their sleep on the way home. Slime ball doesn't even begin to describe him. In fact, being such a Dirty Coward is what leads to his death. When the Aliens attack, he tries to escape on his own, shutting a security door behind him as he does, which seemingly prevents Ripley and the Marines from getting out as well. He then runs straight into a single Alien, which kills him.
Which is a kindness compared to the original script, where he ended up another victim of the Alien's parasite-based birthing process until Ripley gives him a grenade for a Mercy Kill.
Burke was so bad that when Paul Reiser, the actor portraying him, took his parents to the film's premiere, his mother NODDED IN APPROVAL when the character died.
Starscream: Not to call you a coward, Master, but... sometimes, cowards do survive.
Simon, Elaine's fiancee from Airplane! 2: The Sequel. He lied and said that Stryker was wrong about the Mayflower shuttle being defective, and later abandons the shuttle rather than help save its passengers from the disaster.
In 'Attack', Captain Cooney continually puts his men in jeopardy by being too cowardly to send reinforcements. At the end, when they're trapped in a basement in a town overrun by SS and other Nazis, he becomes a full-on dirty coward when he grabs a gun and threatens anyone that would keep him from surrendering. This is despite the fact that one of his men is Jewish and the others tell Cooney the SS won't honor his POW rights. The others shoot him before he can surrender and reveal their position.
Ike Clanton in Tombstone. He always talks trash when he has fellow gang members to back him up, but instantly turns into a cowering dog when the tables are turned on him. He backs down in fear or runs for his life no less than four times in the film.
Sgt. Watson in The Flight Of The Phoenix 1965. At first he fakes an injury to avoid going with his Captain into the desert, then he refuses to go with him to look for help. Both prove wise decisions, but Watson is clearly a coward made worse by the fact that he lives and never gets his comeuppance whereas more heroic characters do die.
Mark in the British horror film Storage 24. Not only does he bail on his best friend when they are attacked by an alien (the friend, who is the protagonist manages to survive anyway) he later tries to bar an exit to keep the alien from reaching him, even though it means locking his friends in with it.
Johnny in the I Spit on Your Grave remake. He pees himself when faced with Jennifer 's revenge. She reacts with extreme disgust, commenting even the others didn't do that.
Prince Humperdink from The Princess Bride. So much that, at the end of the movie, Westley says that simply letting him live the rest of his life as a coward is enough of a punishment.
Count Rugen as well. When Inigo Montoya finally confronts him, Rugen raises his sword as if to fight, then turns and sprints away. (And then, on top of it, ambushes Indigo when he finally does catch up to him. But what do you expect from a guy who's idea of a "hobby" was Cold-Blooded Torture?)
Sebulba, Anakin's pod-racing rival from The Phantom Menace; althought the movie does not suggest it, one Expanded Universe source said that the reason he had it out so badly for Anakin was because secretly, he was afraid of him. If Anakin were to actually win a race, even accidentally, Sebulba would have been humiliated beyond belief (which is exactly what happened).
Many villains from Harry Potter both minor and major qualify for this trope.
Draco Malfoy is one, to an extent, especially in the first few books, where he only trash-talks about the main characters as long as he has his two burly cronies at his heels.
Wormtail sold out Harry's parents to Voldemort to save his own life. When Sirius Black tried to confront him about this, he loudly announces that Sirius committed the murder, uses a blasting charm, then transforms into a rat. This makes it seem that Sirius Black was the one who sold out Harry's parents and killed the muggles. Which kind of leads one to wonder why Wormtail was sorted into Gryffindor of all places. Although his inner Gryffindor qualities show when he ultimately remembers the debt he owes Harry and hesitates bringing Harry and his friends up to Bellatrix. This causes his hand, which only lets him obey Voldemort, to turn on him and kill him.
Igor Karkaroff. A loyal Death Eater until the moment he was captured, at which point he sold all the information he had in order to reduce his sentence. When Voldemort returns, he flees, but the Dark Lord makes a point of hunting him down.
Cornelius Fudge, definitely. He refuses to acknowledge that Voldermort has returned, and thinks Dumbledore is just making it up to take over the Ministry. He puts Dolores Umbribge in Hogwarts who abuses all of the students, especially Harry. Though when he retires, he becomes a feeble, rather kindly old man once more.
Professor Umbridge, whose vile and disgusting actions nearly exceed Lord Voldermort himself. Won't hesitate to insult a herd of centaurs, yet will cry and whimper in terror when they drag her away, or as Senior Undersecretary of the Minister for Magic even stand up for her own superiors during their respective downfalls.
Mundungus Fletcher, he panicked during the "Battle of the Seven Potters" which was the reason why Mad-Eye died. He then gives away one of the Hocruxes to ensure some one he doesn't like an unfair trial.
Zacharias Smith, who during his last appearance in the series is bowling over first years to save his own ass just before the final battle.
Pansy Parkinson, who suggests that they just turn Harry in to Voldemort to make the Death Eaters leave Hogwarts.
Rincewind from Terry Pratchett's Discworld series tries to play it straight (all he wants is to stay out of danger and doesn't particularly care what happens to anyone else) but subverts this because he's both The Chew Toy (which means the world really is out to get him) and a Cosmic Plaything of Lady Luck, doomed to repeatedly save the world by performing absurdly dangerous heroics.
It also doesn't help that his conscience is practically an intelligent entity in its own right-several times when he's saved the world, it's because his conscience told him to. In form of a conversation.
Wormtongue from The Lord of the Rings fits this trope pretty well. He was a soldier from Rohan once who betrayed his king and country, to curry favor with Saruman. Though some may say he helped redeem himself in the end by killing Saruman, though that may not have been courage, but rather extreme hatred.
Wormtongue started out as an ordinary villain. His original idea was, after Théodred was killed, to get Éomer disinherited, then have Théoded get Éowyn to marry him so that he could take the throne as her consort. A nasty bit of political dynastic maneuvering, but not really out of the way. But to do it he had to get Saruman's help, and by the time he realized what Saruman was really up to he was in over his head.
The Pierson's Puppeteers from Larry Niven's Known Space 'Verse seem to fit this quite well. (When they can be found, that is.)
They actually consider bravery to be a form of insanity and their word for "leader" (Hindmost) translates as "he who leads from behind". Although this is apparently a misremembered instinct, not to turn around and run, but to turn around and attack with their powerful hind leg.
It's pretty much explicitly stated that no human or kzin has ever met a sane puppeteer, because space travel is dangerous and no sane puppeteer would ever leave Homeworld. (Sum total of kzin and humans that have ever been on Homeworld: 1 and 2, respectively. And the puppeteers evacuated an island about the size of Madagascar ... on a world where every square inch is city ... so that no puppeteers would accidentally run into them.)
Every Redwall bad guy ever. (And it actually works for many of the Mooks, though never for the Big Bad.)
A few Big Bads have some guts, but there are maybe a half-dozen of them over 20+ books.
Thenardier and his wife of Les Misérables are described as the worst sort of scoundrels, to the extent that the Break-o'Day Boys (thieves and murderers, but not hypocrites!) are more sympathetic than them.
Paris in The Iliad might qualify seeing as he was such a bratty little wuss.
In C. S. Lewis's The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, when invisible beings threaten to massacre them unless Lucy goes into the magician's tower and casts a spell, Caspian declares that they are trying to make her do something they are too afraid to let their own daughters do. They agree that he has put it quite nicely. (One reason why Lucy agrees is that she thinks it may not be as bad as they say, as they are obviously great cowards.)
In Edgar Rice Burroughs's John Carter of Mars series, cowardice is pretty much the defining trait of villainy, to the extent that it's almost possible to believe they're synonymous. Any antagonist who is actually brave is fairly likely to pull a Heel Face Turn by the end of the story (there are a couple of exceptions, generally of the "overconfident to the point of insanity" variety). The heroes, conversely, may be prudent but they're never cowardly. Basically everyone on Mars is either a warrior, a Dirty Coward, or a noble maiden, which last is the same as warrior except that their ability to take care of themselves is purely hypothetical.
In A Princess of Mars, John Carter describes Tal Hajus as a Dirty Coward to force him into battle.
You are a brave people and you love bravery, but where was your mighty jeddak during the fighting today? I did not see him in the thick of battle; he was not there. He rends defenseless women and little children in his lair, but how recently has one of you seen him fight with men?
In Thuvia, Maid of Mars, Jav exults when he thinks Tario dead, and instantly cowers when he realizes he's alive. It does not save him, and he whimpers through the following ordeal.
In Chessmen Of Mars, O-Tar. When he berates his followers for cowardice, one of them declares:
The jeddak knows that in the annals of Manator her jeddaks have ever been accounted the bravest of her warriors. Where my jeddak leads I will follow, nor may any jeddak call me a coward or a craven unless I refuse to go where he dares to go. I have spoken.
Bishop Sansum from The Warlord Chronicles is a great example. Unfortunately he's also a Smug Snake who always manages to get an advantage out of his betrayals and slimy political power grabs. Also, very unusually, there's Lancelot who contrary to his Knight in Shining Armor image in most of the Arthurian Legend, here gets his reputation by paying off minstrels and bards to tell of his deeds and taking the credit for other people's work. However, Lancelot is the Arch-Enemy of Derfel, (the story's protagonist) and Derfel does admit that Lancelot was a surprisingly good fighter when the two actually fought and that it's possible that his hatred for Lancelot is coloring the tale.
Nom Anor from the New Jedi Order series is a self-proclaimed coward- indeed, everything he does is to ensure his own safety, power, and comfort. He's an exception to the rule that a Dirty Coward cannot be a Magnificent Bastard, however, because he often comes off as the only one of his people with any common sense whatsoever.
Alfred Builder in The Pillars of the Earth does everything he can to be cruel to Jack Jackson out of jealousy and contempt. When he falls on hard luck, though, he meekly returns and begs Jack's mercy to grant him a job, only to use the position to back stab Jack shortly thereafter.
Maltsev becomes or turns out to be this in the end of The Death of the Vazir Mukhtar, revealing a willingness to sink as low as necessary to get out of Persia alive.
In Robert E. Howard's Conan the Barbarian story "The Phoenix On The Sword," Dion turns out to be one of these, which is exploited by Thoth-Amon in order to get him on his side against his master Ascalante, whom he knows will have Dion killed when Conan is assassinated. Unfortunately, Dion makes the mistake of telling Thoth-Amon about a "ring of good fortune" that he bought from a Shemitish thief who stole it from a sorcerer of Stygia. When Thoth-Amon recognizes his lost Ring of Power, he promptly stabs Dion to death and reclaims it.
In Tad Williams' Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn, the Hernystyri monk Cadrach is portrayed as an unrepentant thief, liar, and coward who will sell out his trust for wine or convenience. At least until Princess Miriamele, in a fit of sympathy over Cadrach's self-loathing, manages to pry out his backstory in bits and pieces, revealing a once-brilliant scholar who unearthed Things Man Was Not Meant to Know and fell into an insanity born of despair. She struggles to reform him and is rewarded at the end.
In Jasper Fforde's Well of Lost Plots, Heathcliff of Wuthering Heights cowers in the face of an attack by "ProCath" forces, and Havisham gets him to behave after by threatening to shoot him and claim the forces did it, making him cower again.
In Jurassic Park, Ed Regis, the Public Relations manager from InGen, proves himself to be one when the power goes down and the T-Rex shows up. He abandons Lex and Tim, John Hammond's grandchildren, in the car with the door open in order to save his own ass and hides in a group of nearby boulders. Grant and the children later find him after they regroup...just in time to see him dispatched by the juvenile T-Rex who came along after the adult.
The film versionhands this role off to Donald Gennaro, the lawyer sent to inspect the title park, who hides in a nearby outhouse after ditching the kids, only to suffer the ignominious honor of being nommed on the can when the T-Rex knocks the outhouse building down and finds him.
To Kill A Mockingbird has Bob Ewell, who tried to kill Scout and Gem in an attempt to get even with Atticus for smearing his already filthy reputation. The reason he didn't go after Atticus himself is because Atticus is the best sharpshooter in the county.
Arnold J. Rimmer from Red Dwarf. He slowly gets better over the course of the series. The recreated one in Series 8 is "Rimmer how he used to be", lacking all of the development of the previous series, so he also fits.
Though both Rimmers subvert this trope at least once. Hologram Rimmer willingly becomes the next iteration of Ace Rimmer, his heroic alternate dimensional counterpart, and Series VIII Rimmer actually comes back to save his crewmates in the final episode when he could have stayed in the perfectly safe mirror world.
Mark Corrigan of Peepshow. Some of his more memorable acts of cowardice include hiding from his fiancee on their wedding day (in the actual church) rather than call it off, and using a past girlfriend as a human shield against a man who he tried to frame.
Gibbis, from the Doctor Who episode "The God Complex". At first it's Played for Laughs ("All I want is to go home and be conquered and oppressed, is that too much to ask?"), but ultimately his actions directly result in the death of a sympathetic character. Worse, Gibbis survives the episode completely unscathed.
Chang in the penultimate episode of Community Season 2. At one point he runs through the paintball wasteland screaming "Does anyone have an alliance I can join?!", having betrayed at least 3 other groups already (The Study Group, Math Club, and The Cheerleader Alliance).
Lailoken, the soothsayer of King Vortigern in the 1998 Merlin series. He is motivated entirely to keep himself out of danger (makes sense, considering he's around Vortigern of all people) and preserve his own life. After Vortigern tasks him to try to find out why his tower is collapsing, Lailoken makes a perfect dirty coward quote while at his religious rituals.
I've been a follower of the Old Ways all my life. Now, that life is in danger, and it's a precious life . . . it's mine!
Angel Martin of The Rockford Files fits quite well. He frequently refuses to do his part in plans that put him in the slightest amount of danger, and he sells out his friends immediately when things go south and he ends up in jail, or in the hands of organized crime.
On the sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond, the main character's wife fits this trope. Whenever Debra is in conflict with another person, she will usually bully her husband Ray into confronting the other person for her, almost always growling "You need to back me up on this!", to the point where that line is almost her catch phrase (and even if the other person has a perfectly valid point, they will still be treated as being horrible simply for opposing Debra). Then when Ray inevitably caves in to her demands and starts doing the verbal battling on her behalf, Debra always finds a way to sneak into the back and hide behind Ray while he takes all the heat from the other person. Then when Ray gives her a chance to speak her mind and join in, Debra always says something like "hey, it wasn't me, this was your idea," and goes back to cowering behind Ray's back and letting him be the target of the other person's anger. What's really infuriating about this pattern of behavior is the fact that Ray himself is usually in favor of making peace with the other person and wants everyone to get along, but he gets dragged into the argument anyway because his wife wanted him to, and yet she herself is totally unwilling to actually take responsibility for it, even when the fight is her idea. And yet she still treats him as if he's an unworthy husband, even though he always ends up doing her dirty work for her.
The victim of the Cold Case episode Justice is a serial date rapist who exploited the lax laws regarding date rape to repeatedly perpetuate the crimes, peed himself when several of his former victims confronted him at gunpoint, and then acted unapologetic and unrepentant about his actions once they left. The detectives become so repulsed by what they learned of him that they actually tell the killer what to say in court to defend himself.
The killer in the episode Blood On The Tracks was fearful of whatever punishment would be meted out for a crime she, her husband, and their friends were involved in a decade earlier—which the guilt-ridden husband was planning to confess to the cops about. So she enticed her ex-lover—who clearly still had feelings for her—to help her murder her husband in order to keep his mouth shut, with the promise of them running away together. Instead, she killed her husband and a friend of theirs whom she bore a strong resemblance to, assumed the other woman's life, and allowed her ex to suffer for 20-something years thinking that he had killed her, while she lived the ideal life of a suburban housewife. When confronted by Lily, she feebly denied being a monster, but outright admitted being "a coward".
Dicky Bennett of Justified. No other words come close.
George Costanza from Seinfeld exemplifies this Trope perfectly in one scene- he's willing to push women and children out of his way and knock them to the floor to get to out of a burning building. The episode's writer said that such an act was, "George stripped down to his essentials."
A sympathetic example is found in Jack Hammond, who panicked during his first battle when someone else's blood splattered on him, and ends up stranding his captain during a mission. Unlike Simpson, he's not a bad man, just a normal person out of his depth in a Naval career he didn't want and is completely unsuited to in the first place.
It's rare to find an Evil Overlord that fits a Trope like this, but Master Vile from Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers likely does. He wasn't the only major villain who gave up and quit, but actually threw a childish tantrum and ran off to his home galaxy after the Alien Rangers defeated his army. (If you didn't see it, trust me, it was a rather pathetic display.) Sure, maybe it was a big setback, but a lot of villains in the series had experienced worse, and it didn't make them run away crying.
Ares from Classical Mythology. He reveled in the bloodshed and chaos of war, but he actually wasn't that good a warrior and had low pain tolerance. His response to being wounded in the Trojan War was to cry and run back to Olympus.
Mime from Richard Wagner's opera Siegfried is a Dirty Coward to the core, but is often inappropriately played as The Woobie.
Edge is very good at portraying this type of heel, though sometimes it's subverted somewhat when it is shown that the women who are in love with him actually want to risk their necks to save his, and do so without his prompting (see Lita and Vickie Guerrero). CM Punk is currently (January 2010) milking this trope as part of his Charles Manson-like cult-leader character, with his skin-headed moll Serena smiling as he uses her as a human shield. (Depending on your attitude toward such relationships, I guess, this is either terrifying or Fetish Fuel.)
Edge was such a coward as a heel that it wasn't unusual for him on house shows to spend up to ten minutes stalling outside of the ring before eventually locking up with his opponent.
In the late 90's following his infamous Face Heel Turn, Hulk Hogan had the bizarre distinction of being both a Villain Sue AND a Dirty Coward at the same time. While he might squash any challenger that came his way at a PPV, Hogan would often spend at a least a month hiding behind members of the New World Order talking trash as his future opponent would rip apart the jobbers in the nWo a few feet away.
Kurt Angle was famous for this in early WWE run (1999-2002)
Subverted by John Cena, who acted this way until his full-blown Heel Face Turn in 2005. Despite being very strong and tough in his own right, he would use a steel chain wrapped around his knuckles to knock out larger opponents and gain victories over them - and he still got cheered.
Michael Cole IS this trope following his Face Heel Turn. To put it in perspective, he's put himself in a bulletproof glass case for his protection and constantly backs down when someone challenges him to a match.
Averting this trope is one of the reasons Kane is so popular, even as a Monster Heel. He will never back down and has gotten into the ring with guys far bigger than him. In the Royal Rumble match, he will always stare down the biggest guy in the ring, nod, and when it is returned the two will ignore everyone else until one of them is eliminated.
Bryan Danielson's heel run in WWE is borderline comical in this respect. It's a Running Gag that, if things get hectic while he's at ringside, he'll disappear from the action, but the camera will soon cut to a shot of him leaving up the entrance ramp huddling his World Title with AJ following close behind.
Major Bloodnok (Peter Sellers) in The Goon Show is a coward through-and-through, and there's not a thing he won't do for money.
Also, everyone else. While deciding who gets volunteered for a dangerous mission:
Seagoon: I'm terribly sorry, but I have a wife and 63 children! Bloodnok: I too have a wife and children. That only leaves dear old - [rattle of telephone] Eccles: Hello, hello, operator? Get me the marriage bureau! [later] Bloodnok: Flatten me cronkler with spinach mallets. So, both of you have turned cowards, eh. That only leaves me. Two cowards, and me. You know what this means? Seagoon: Three cowards.
The Ebon Dragon may be one of the Titans who created the world, and one of the most overwhelmingly powerful beings in existence, but his pitiful Virtues (especially Valor), the easily exploitable holes in his defenses and the personality constraints of his Excellency make him an utterly rank coward. He will very rarely engage in a straight fight against anything capable of hurting him (which can be everything) and will never do so against something that has the slightest chance of killing him. Fortunately for him, being the Principle of Villainy makes one really good at talking your way out of trouble, or just plain running away.
The Skaven from the fantasy Warhammer are this. Sneaky, conniving, selfish, cowardly and backstabbing, each of these ratmen would gladly sacrifice their entire race for their own hides if not for their innate fear and paranoia. However, this does not make the Skaven race weak, as their disease-resistant qualities, large numbers, and dedication to keeping themselves hidden from mankind and the other races (to the point that they are regarded as a myth even when presented with irrefutable evidence of their existence) would make them a formidable foe that could potentially overtake the world if they could just put aside their in-fighting and distrust for each other for one millisecond.
The mayor in Advance Wars: Days of Ruin. A non-humorous example who gets a well-deserved Karmic Death near the end by trying to bargain with Big Bad Caulder to save himself after selling out the heroes to him.
From the same game, Waylon, whose own men desert him en masse after his first appearance because he would throw their lives away to cover his own. His theme song is even called "Flight of the Coward".
More than a few of Altair's targets in Assassin's Creed would flee from him (though him being Altair might have something to do with it), city guards may quit the field if you show off your prowess as well.
And in Assassins Creed II Borgia captains and couriers are more than likely to flee Ezio's grasp, though then again the same applies for Ezio, who's arguably deadlier than Altair.
Also from Demon's, Long Bow Oolan, who choose to wield a bow so she could avoid the frontlines, defended by her legionaries. When she was turned into a demon by the colorless fog, she became the helpless Phalanx, relying on the Hoplites to defend her.
There's also the man in the tent in Threed, who abandoned his wife and children to the zombies. He doesn't seem to understand why they're angry with him.
In Fallout New Vegas, Caesar's Legion are like this. Despite painting themselves as loyal, strong, and adherent to The Spartan Way, their confidence seems to come from arrogance rather than genuine courage. While they enjoy torturing prisoners, sacking poorly defended towns, and brutalizing disorganized tribals, they're inept at actually fighting a war with the NCR, and retreat whenever the NCR attacks. Adding to this, the Legion only attacks using underhanded methods, such as child suicide bombers, dirty bombs, and attacking tiny outposts with overwhelming numbers. In actual battles, they fail miserably, as indicated by Hoover Dam. Finally, the leaders of the faction will rant about courage, strength, and survival of the fittest... while they are massacring and raping civilians. But if you actually stand up to them, then they run away and throw mooks at you. This includes Caesar himself.
Shinji Matou from Fate/stay night is an arrogant Jerkass who likes talking about how much better he is than everyone, but quickly loses his superior facade once he is confronted and shows what a pathetic and sniveling coward he really is.
In Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn, the boss of the Part 3 Prologue, Septimus, is shown to be immensely paranoid about laguz attacks and runs off as soon as the player or allied armies get close, leaving his second-in-command to guard the seize point. He later shows up in 3-8, assigned to enter the lava-filled caves and bring back the bodies of the enemies that no doubt perished there as proof that they were dead—and is quite dismayed to find them (that's the player's army, again) very much alive.
Goblins, the weakest unit of the Stronghold Faction in Heroes of Might and Magic V: Tribes of the East. In game play, their cowardice causes them to run away from their attackers instead of retaliating. If enough of the stack is killed, they actually defect to the other side. Storywise, this attitude earns them a great deal of contempt from the rest of the faction, which primarily consists of Proud Warrior Race Guys. As a result, their "comrades" have no problem with letting their Shamans sacrifice Goblins for mana replenishing rituals or with letting the Cyclops treat Goblins as snacks and ammo.
She returns in the following game as the new Big Bad, even taunting Kyle Katarn that he was stupid to spare her.
Kai Leng of Mass Effect 3 is a particularly unlikable case. He's not above playing dirty tricks on his enemies, and pulls several on Shepard, including calling in a gunship to provide fire support while his shields recharge and using the salarian councilor as a shield. Even worse, he endlessly taunts Shepard when he's out of danger, including sending him an email mocking him about the events on Thessia. In the final battle, Shepard points out that Kai Leng has always ran from him/her, which the latter responds rather ungracefully. When Shepard shatters/dodges his sword and guts him like a fish, it's not easy not to cheer.
Tela Vasir from the Lair Of The Shadow Broker DLC for the second game is another example. Not only does she use human shields, indiscriminately bomb civilian vehicles, and throw her own soldiers at Shepard while she runs away, just to save herself, but she has the gall to attempt a What the Hell, Hero? on Shepard after all of that.
To be fair, running from Shepard wasn't entirely unjustified, and while her use of force on civilians is terrible, it more closely follows the Knight Templar behaviour Spectres are sometimes known for than actual cowardice. She actually dies quite bravely, and her speech to Shepard is more of a Shut Up, Kirk!, since Shepard was calling her out on working for the Shadow Broker despite having been working for a known terrorist organisation.
The original Metal Gear features a boss fight against "Coward Duck" (later renamed "Dirty Duck") who, although a nearly a non-entity as far as characterization goes, lives up to both his codenames in his fighting style. He strikes at Snake from the relatively safe position of being surrounded by three hostages, and killing any of them makes the game Un Winnable by virtue of being unable to get the Rocket Launcher.
Brad Vickers, S.T.A.R.S Alpha Team helicopter pilot from the Resident Evil franchise, who immediately turns tail and runs off, abandoning his teammates during the events of the first game when the Cerebuses attack. When Chief of Police Irons dismisses the rest of the team's claims about the mansion, Vickers goes along with them to keep his job. To the satisfaction of the player, he eventually is Killed Off for Real.
Alfonso in Skies of Arcadia is established as this in the game's opening sequence: once his ship is attacked by the Blue Rogues, he is more concerned with escaping than fighting and once he secures the means to do so he murders his vice captain in cold blood and tosses the corpse overboard in order to frame the vice captain as a traitor and cover his own ass. Luckily, Galcian gets a wind of this and Antonio is immediately Reassigned to Antarctica.
The Spathi from Star Control are a Planet of Hats devoted to craven cowardice and borderline paranoia as a way of life. A traditional Spathi prayer goes "Oh God, please don't let me die today! Tomorrow would be so much better", and the entire race lives in fear of a nebulous alien race they refer to (always in the same ominous tone) as "The Ultimate Evil". However, they can and will fight if backed into a corner (and they can fight quite well; the Spathi Eluder is one of the best ships in the game). However, this doesn't stop the Spathi from backing out of their alliance with the "hunams" and sealing their home world beneath an impenetrable force field the first chance they get.
Yes, the Spathi can fight quite well — mostly because their ships are so fast no one can catch them, and because they pelt anything that tries to catch them with a hailstorm of Backward Utilizing Tracking Torpedoes fired out of the back of the ship as it flees. Which means, fittingly, that they fight best when they're running away.
A memorable quote comes from the Spathi High Council, about a Spathi (named Fwiffo) who has been "captured" by the protagonists: "If you held a weapon to Fwiffo's head, he would say anything you wanted him to say. In fact, if you held a vegetable to his head he would probably say anything you wanted him to say."
Yuber from Suikoden is a perfect example of this trope: Once he realizes he's in danger, he will flee, be it in a one-on-one duel or in a big scale battle as commander of his troops. On the other hand if he's feeling superior he will destory a village out of boredom or summon a huge monster to deal with the hero. What a dick.
Snowe from Suikoden IV is a particularly sickening example. Late in the game after everything he has done, you are given the chance of either adding him to your team or killing him, and it is very easy to make the second choice. Although if you kill him, you won't get the True Ending. And the main character will die. And if you do forgive him he gets better and becomes more humble and respectable. It could be said, though, that only the sudden escape from marauding pirates at the beginning of the game is cowardice. Everything else, he faces with at least a modicum of courage, including the three times he's captured by the player and threatened with death.
Alduin in The Elder Scrolls V Skyrim turns out to be one of these when faced by someone who can actually hurt him. It's one of the reasons Odahviing agrees to help you pursue him — the other Dragons are no longer certain that Alduin deserves to be their leader.
The Mean Emcee from Wario World is this. He is absolutely terrified of Wario and will hide under a cup after he punches him enough.
Anub'Arak in the Old Kingdom dungeon in World of Warcraft is widely regarded as a despicable coward due to his fight mechanics, where he constantly burrows underground becoming untargetable and sends minions after the players. Far from being a challenge it is merely an annoyance and prolongs the fight unnecessarily. Although that's probably more due to a Scrappy Mechanic more than anything else. In The Frozen Throne, when he is first introduced, he is pretty brave, serving as Arthas' dragon, accompanying him through Azjol-Nerub and fighting at the front. In one mission, the duo meet a forgotten one (an Old God-lite), and Anub'Arak's first response is to charge the thing.
Anub'Arak:It cannot be... Look to your defences, Death Knight! Fight as you have never fought before!
Many generic enemies in World of Warcraft have a cowardly streak, upon depleting most of their health they will attempt to flee and the message "[enemy] is trying to run away in fear." is displayed. If not controlled or killed they could potentially reach other enemy groups for help resulting in a wipe.
Mumkhar from Xenoblade Chronicles should get some sort of award for this, because he left his friends to die in the middle of a battlefield just to save his own skin... 5 minutes into the game.
Ben from The Walking Dead could be viewed as a deconstruction. Ben is in the unenviable position of being too old to have resilience and trust of authority to protect him (like Clementine and Duck), but too young to have developed self-sufficiency or determination (like Lee and the others in their thirties and forties). He's old enough to comprehend the full horror of the Zombie Apocalypse and be terrified of it, but not old enough to have a decade or so of adult life experience to strengthen his character and resolve. He's likely watched a lot of his young and vital peers die right in front of him, as well as teachers he thought could protect them. It's hard to say who Ben might have become if he'd had the chance to age a decade more before all this happened. This is likely why characters like Lee sympathize with him. Ben can be viewed as a masterful deconstruction of a lot of tropes, including this one.
Dr. Schlock, from Sluggy Freelance, is played for laughs in this manner: He helps the cast out more often than not, but that's only because Riff has a gun to his head. When he eventually gets into a situation he can't run away from, he's revealed to be more dangerous than he looks.
Daffy Duck of Looney Tunes is a self-admitted one of these characters. He'll sell out his friends in an instant to save his own hide and/or claim wealth for himself. As he puts it, "Sure I'm a louse, but I'm a live louse!" During the "Hunter Trilogy" of cartoons, he freely admits he's only sending Elmer after Bugs because it's "Really duck season".
Inverted slightly in the Hunter's Trilogy, while he is out for "thelf-prethervation", he also seems very set on his rival getting his head blown off. The numerous instances Elmer actually turns his attention on Bugs, and naturally screws up, Daffy will actually go up to Elmer and berate him to his face to "Shoot him! SHOOT HIM!". On one occasion he actually snatched the gun from Elmer and attempted to do the job himself, the latter just walked off bewildered.
His greed can overcome this, though: in "Ducking the Devil" (1957) he beats up the Tasmanian Devil when Taz takes some money from him!
Daffy: I may be a coward, but I'm a greeeedy little coward!
When the chips are down, Zapp Brannigan is a coward. This quote from him sums it up.
"I surrender and volunteer for treason!"
Bender. In one of the movies, he, Amy and one other character are trapped by a bunch of orcs in a castle. Bender tells the two ladies he has a plan, The next scene shows him holding them up in the and tells the orcs to take his friends first, just to give him one more second of sweet sweet life. In "Bendin' in the Wind," the crew is plunging off a cliff. Bender grabs a nearby cable, loudly declaring, "I'll save ME!" The rest of the crew is only saved by grabbing his legs just in time.
Fry is also this. In "The Series Has Landed" Fry gets a moon rover caught in a lunar dust pool. He declares "It's every man for himself!" and bails out, only to sink up to his neck in the very same dust. He immediately calls for Leela to save him. He gets called this in "War is the H-Word" when he, wielding the only charged phaser, blasts himself a hole to hide in. Though at the end of that episode, he does ride a bouncing ball to the peace meeting to save the life of his best friend.
Zapp Brannigan: Look at him, Kiff. Wallowing in a pool of his own cowardice.
Fry: It's not cowardice!
Throughout Transformers, Starscream is and always has been a dirty coward, instinctively fleeing as soon as any fight starts even leaning in the enemy's favour. He will also fight like a coward, with cheap shots and ambushes, even if he probably had the advantage anyway.
The Fairly Oddparents: King Grippulon, supposedly a fearsome king, frequently uses his wife as a shield when his life is in danger, and is willing to put his son on the throne after there are several assassination attempts.
Iago of Disney's Aladdin. For much of the second movie onward, he spent a lot of time looking out for himself almost exclusively although unlike many of the examples here, he can be courageous and selfless. Two examples come up in the second film.
The Delightful Children from Down the Lane in Codename Kids Next Door. Apparently, the term "fair fight" is unknown to them, and they rarely confront even one member of Sector V without at least one Dumb Muscle, an army of mooks, or a Humongous Mecha supporting them. And if they lose their edge, their quick to run for it. Of course, you can hardly blame them; the few times they have tried to stand up to them have been Curb Stomp Battles (with them hitting the curb) and in the Series Finale, Numbuh One defeated all five of them alone.
Ironically, they were once KND Operatives before being Brainwashed by Father, and they were far braver originally, as proven when the effect was reversed. (Sadly, Numbuh Zero knew of no way to reverse it permanently.)
Another example from the show Negative Numbuh Four. Given the fact that everyone in his world is an Evil Counterpart (or a good counterpart, if the character is evil) and a polar opposite of someone in the "real" world, he is Numbuh Four's opposite in every way, and is thus a coward in every sense of the word. (Amazingly, Numbuh Four is the first one to realize this, a rare case of him holding the Smart Ball.)
Flash Thompsonwasn't one in the original Spider Man comic, where he usually is portrayed as hot-headed and brave enough to face villains, but Ultimate Spider-Man made him one; in this version, he has no scrupples trying to offer Peter as a snack to save his skin when confronted to Venom, and even left Harry Osborn behind to escape Taskmaster.