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Dirty Coward / Literature

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  • A Series of Unfortunate Events: It isn't Aunt Josephine's numerous, crippling, irrational phobias that qualify her for this title, but rather the way she instantly and shamelessly promises not to reveal Olaf's disguise and offers for him to take the children when she is threatened. The narrator and the Beaudelaires agree that she was a horrible guardian.
  • 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. To everyone's surprise, he does show a bit of conscience by refusing to abandon one of said burly cronies in a room filled with magical fire, in spite of the guy having just stabbed him in the back. Given the later books in the series made it clear he was a coward, this is surprisingly noble of the guy.
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    • Peter "Wormtail" Pettigrew 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 to bring 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.
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    • Gilderoy Lockhart, who attempted to flee Hogwarts when the Chamber of Secrets was opened because he realized that his allegedly fantastic skills at combating the Dark Arts would force him to be put in a position where everyone would rely on him to save the school and would be exposed as a fraud due to his incompetence.
    • Cornelius Fudge, definitely. He refuses to acknowledge that Voldermort has returned, and thinks Dumbledore is just making it up to take over the Ministry (despite Dumbledore's repeated refusal to become Minister). He puts Dolores Umbridge in Hogwarts, who abuses all of the students, especially Harry. Though when he retires, he becomes a feeble, rather kindly old man once more.
    • Dolores Umbridge, who is nearly as heinous and vile as 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, won't even stand up for her own superiors during their respective downfalls.
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    • After he killed Dumbledore, everyone views Severus Snape as an evil coward. Until as it turns out, Snape was actually the bravest hero of them all, even if he’s still not a nice guy. In fact Harry, who once loathed Snape intensely, remembers him as the bravest man he ever knew even naming one of his sons after him.
    • Mundungus Fletcher; he panicked during the "Battle of the Seven Potters", which was the reason why Mad-Eye died.
    • 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.
    • Horace Slughorn appears this way at first. Before the final battle, he leaves Hogwarts with the students who are not fighting, the only teacher to do so. It then turns out that he only left to make sure all the students got to safety and so he could gather up reinforcements, whom he leads into the fight when the battle seems lost. He then proceeds to personally duel Voldemort along with McGonagall and Kingsley.
  • Greg Stillson in The Dead Zone proves to be this when he grabs up a small child to use as a human shield during an assassination attempt.
  • 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.
    • In Interesting Times, Rincewind also gets to use all his knowledge of cowardice and panic in one magnificent Moment of Awesome when he starts a rumor among the soldiers of the Agatean Empire that Cohen's Silver Horde is most certainly not backed up by an army of 2,300,009 invisible bloodsucking vampire ghosts.
      • Also in Interesting Times, Rincewind ponders running away from the rebel army and letting them fight without his aid. He argues with one of the rebels about this, and the exchange goes like this:
    Rebel: But there are ideals worth dying for!
    Rincewind: No there aren't! Because you can pick up five new ideals at any street corner, but you only get one life!
    Rebel: By the gods, how can you live with a philosophy like that?!
    Rincewind: (deep breath) Continously!
  • The title character of The Bartimaeus Trilogy is a shameless example... or so he claims.
    • A straighter example is Arthur Underwood. He may seem like a formidable Wizard Classic at first glance, but in reality, he's a craven bootlicker trying to make himself appear more impressive than he actually is. This trait eventually reaches its nadir when he tries to sell out his apprentice Nathaniel to save his sorry hide. Even Simon Lovelace is disgusted.
  • Grima 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 Théoden 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.
  • The Rifter: Fikiri — Mama's Boy, spy and informer, liar, traitor; attacks children out of the Grey Space (where he moves invisibly) but runs away from hand-to-hand fights.
  • 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.)
  • Inverted with Repairman Jack, who often deliberately acts like one when the shit hits the fan. Cringing, crying, begging people to please leave him alone and not hurt him... it's all just an act, designed to get opponents to both underestimate him and get close enough for him to go to work. In one scene, he played this to a tee, a gangster stepped close to him in order to slap his face and call him a coward... and Jack kicked the guy in the knee so hard, the mook on the other side of the room heard the ligaments pop.
  • 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, and the 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, when O-Tar 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 backstab 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's 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 version hands 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.
  • In Gene Stratton-Porter's Freckles, the villains fled on the prospect of capture. Wessner in particular — Freckles can beat him, free, and so he torments him when Bound and Gagged.
  • Flashman: Harry Flashman, eponymous Anti-Hero of his series (actually a Public Domain Character from Tom Brown's Schooldays); his three self-admitted talents are horse-riding, languages, and women — to which we can add credit-stealing, the ability to live through and run from anything, and total, cutting honesty in his memoirs. Interestingly, he does subvert the bit about cowards being short-sighted, which is part of the reason he lived through all the interesting historical events that he did.
  • Scrape and Peck from The Book of the Dun Cow, who attempt to desert Chauntecleer's army but are dealt with before they carry their plan out.
  • Trapped on Draconica: Like Ben Ritchie shies away from danger despite being equipped with 'the perfect hunting tool', i.e. his own body.
  • Joffrey Baratheon in George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire reveals himself as this in his Establishing Character Moment, apart from being a Royal Brat to the Stark family. Whereas his father is a widely known Boisterous Bruiser noted for his bravado and strength, Joffrey is a weakling (while still being boisterous) who can only bully others and get away with it because of his status. He claims to be both vicious and manly, but is often put in place by his dwarf uncle Tyrion when he steps out of line. Unfortunately, he's also The Caligula, and uses his power as King to drive King's Landing into the ground.
  • To Kill a Mockingbird has Bob Ewell, who tried to kill Scout and Jem in an attempt to get even with Atticus for dirtying his already filthy reputation. The reason he didn't go after Atticus himself is because Atticus is the best shot in the county.
  • Morgoth Bauglir from The Silmarillion shows signs of this, being very hesitant to risk his own life and fleeing from lesser enemies. He alone among the Valar knew fear, putting him at great disadvantage to the other Valar. It's probably because he knows that unlike other Valar, he won't be resurrected if he dies. The fact that the injuries he suffers no longer heal is probably also a factor.
  • One-Eye, one of the handful of wizards employed by The Black Company. His exploits include selling bread at a 20 times the normal price several months into a siege, buying an Imp that was an obvious plant by an Evil Sorceror, arguing so strenuously with fellow wizard Goblin that he gives the Company's position away (more than once), turning an anti-siege granary into an impromptu brewery (because the local religions forbade imbibing alcohol), abandoning his post to look for the spear he threw earlier in the battle, cheating at cards so poorly that everyone in the Company beats him anyway. Despite being a mercenary, his favorite tactics are sleep spells, illusions, and other unfair advantages.
    • Goblin is nearly as bad, but it's noted that One-Eye almost always starts the trouble in the first place.
  • The Slotter Key government in Vatta's War qualifies. Instead of attempting to rally a defense against the Space Pirates after an attack on planets biggest merchant family instead turns against them to protect themselves. In addition the President plans to scrap what little protection it has in it's small number of Privateers in order to keep the pirates happy.
  • Seaman Grimes, Horatio's steward in Hornblower and the Hotspur, is a coward who begs not to be included in a dangerous mission ashore. He's shown as more sad and pathetic, not evil; Horatio himself fears physical pain and death. Grimes is Driven to Suicide when he realizes he won't be able to live with the crew.
  • At the end of Nineteen Eighty-Four, Winston and Julia both are broken down into this after being tortured in Room 101, where the last name they cling onto for hope is the one that they demand be subjected to the torture instead — each other. It's unknown whether this was permanent, though, as like everything else, it was all part of Big Brother's carefully designed Mind Rape games.
  • This is the origin story of Joseph Conrad's Lord Jim. The title character's youthful cowardice defines his life, and is what turns him into The Atoner who watches over the outpost of Patusan and, eventually, lays down his life when duty seems to call.
  • The fireflies in The Underland Chronicles.
  • Prince Jalan in The Red Queen's War. A little unusual in that his acts of cowardice are usually misinterpreted by onlookers as attempts at heroism. (e.g. him fleeing enemy soldiers only to run headfirst into a different group of enemy soldiers and cutting a bloody swath through them in his attempt to escape winds up being portrayed as his attempt at a one-man-rescue.)
  • Female example in Lady Dewanne from Kyell Gold's Argaea series, specifically Shadow of the Father. Lady Dewanne considers herself this, due to her decision to secretly abort at least one cub for fear that her husband's illegitimate son would murder them.
  • Subverted by Captain Queeg in The Caine Mutiny. While he flees the battlefield twice and completely freezes during a typhoon, it's implied that his problem is mental illness. After all, he served with distinction in the Atlantic escorting convoys earlier in the war.
  • Gaunt's Ghosts: Captain Flyn Meryn has developed into this as of Salvation's Reach. He has a shot at Sirkle when the assassin is using Yoncy as a human shield, but doesn't take it, and near the end of the operation at Salvation's Reach, he gets in cover with his squad and doesn't budge. When the order to return to his ship is given, he just up and runs with his squad instead of falling back in an orderly manner.
  • Ciaphas Cain (HERO OF THE IMPERIUM!!) claims to be this, scrambling for cover whenever the shooting starts and only doing his job when it makes things more comfortable for him. Many people (including his editor) think that he really doesn't give himself much credit and that at least some of his heroic deeds are genuine, and even if they're not, his unerring instinct for heading towards the area least likely to see combat is always rewarded by uncovering a hitherto-undiscovered ambush, unexplored backdoor into the base (and Necron tomb), and daemon prince summonings.
  • In Divergent, Al is accused of being this after he almost kills Tris because he felt intimidated by her.
  • Karlax in the Doctor Who novel "Engines of War". After he gleefully forces the mind probe on Cinder, the Doctor attacks him, and he doesn't fight back at all, instead begging Rassilon for help.
  • Alexis Carew: Mutineer: In addition to being horrifically sexist and free with the lash, Alexis realizes Captain Neals is also a coward after he deliberately misidentifies a Hanoverese frigate challenging his own frigate HMS Hermione as a merchantman too far away for Hermione to catch, justifying him sailing on rather than attacking.
  • The Silerian Trilogy: Josarian, after becoming the Firebringer, is betrayed by his closest relative and then eaten alive by a monster. Also, his soul cannot move to the afterlife until the monster's maker is killed.
  • Leonardo Fortunato, the False Prophet to Nicolae Carpathia as The Antichrist in the Left Behind series, is shown to be this when he and Nicolae are brought before Jesus Christ to confess Him as Lord, with Leonardo instantly renouncing his allegiance to Nicolae and Satan and pathetically begging for the Lord's forgiveness, all to no avail as both he and Nicolae are sentenced to eternity in the Lake of Fire.
  • Those too cowardly to pick good or evil, according to The Divine Comedy, aren't allowed into Hell, but are still punished for it anyway. Unlike the rest of the damned, Dante's guide refuses to acknowledge them and insists they get to the First Circle to talk to some sinners with backbone.
  • Neville from Tom Holt's Nothing But Blue Skies is quite unabashed about being this trope, since he considers it to make sound evolutionary sense.
    Neville: Thousands of generations of cowards have run like buggary at the first sign of danger and thus survived to breed. Soon the gene pool will be completely surrounded by our deckchairs, and there'll be nobody here except us chickens. It's how nature gauges success.
  • King Taranis is speculated to be this in Merry Gentry. He's known as being The Berserker, but several characters note that he somehow never actually winds up fighting someone who might be strong enough to actually pose a threat to him. The king of the goblins turns out to be one as well: he refuses a call to battle, violating his oath with Merry at the time. However, the only consequence he seems to suffer for it is the defection of a small number of his soldiers.
  • Gurgi from The Chronicles of Prydain starts out this way. With Character Development, he grows braver and less self-centered, becoming more of a Cowardly Lion.
  • Oliver Twist has Noah Claypole, a bully who picks on anybody weaker than him, but shies away from more serious crimes because he thinks they're "too dangerous", even balking at stealing old ladies' bags. He torments Oliver, but is terrified when Oliver attacks him after he insults the boy's mother. He ends up selling out Fagin in order to save himself from prison, and becomes a police informer because it's the safest and easiest job he can think of.
  • I Am Mordred: Mordred is repeatedly accused of this for not fighting every knight who challenges him.

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