All it takes is to hear the word ‘villain’ and it will immediately conjure up in the mind of one who hears it a plethora of characters from both the silver screen and the written page. Upon closer inspection, this word, whilst specific in its meaning, is only really used in this context and has a pantomime or fictional quality which would not be severe enough to use in the real world.
Whether it is Darth Vader, Hans Landa or Agent Smith, there are a number of consistent traits and characteristics that villains seem to possess, regardless of the worlds they inhabit, whether that is a depiction based on real life or something as transparently fictional as the outer depths of a science fiction universe.
Today however, we will be focusing on one particular series that has a cascade of villains within its pages; Harry Potter. This article would provide a run down of 14 of the most villainous characters from the Harry Potter universe, whilst also taking a look at what writing lessons can be gleaned from the characters and the way that they are portrayed.
Let’s ease into this process with perhaps the most benignly evil characters and the ones that most readers will be able to relate to on a personal level. The Dursleys are Harry Potter’s semi adopted family members, with Mother Petunia being Harry’s aunt from his Mothers side of the family. The Father, Vernon and the Son, Dudley make up this triumvirat of low level tyranny. Taking Harry into their house out of obligation not desire, they treat him at best with outright contempt and at worst neglect. The reader at first glance may not see this as outside appearances present a respectable and conventional family. This shows that a more subtle approach, with a slow burn reveal of the depths this family sink to in their treatment of Harry, can be just as impactful as a more obtuse display of wickedness.
Crabbe and Goyle
The names themselves perhaps give away the type of people this troublesome pair are, as it is hard to imagine ‘Crabbe’ and ‘Goyle’ being the names of two wholesome and charitable individuals. Alas, they are not, as they exist within Harry Potter as the archetypal school bullies, roaming the corridors with little interest in learning and maximum interest in picking on their fellow students. Cleverly, they also provide a distinct mirror image for the virtue of some of the heroes within the story, allowing the reader to directly contrast two distinct sets of behavior.
The previous pair, leads us nicely onto Draco Malfoy who is a rather more complex persona. Crabbe and Goyle can be considered henchmen, as much as schoolchildren can be, to Draco Malfoy’s role as the leader. However, his snarky comments and malevolence in the early stages of the story begin to peel away as the reader learns of his role within the family and at times reluctance to carry out evil deeds. Draco is depicted at various points wrestling with his conscience, which taps into the age-old question of whether or not people who commit wrongdoing do so through something inherent within them or if this behavior is learned through environmental circumstances and upbringing.
Lucius and Narcissa Malfoy
Draco’s parents, Lucius and Narcissa, are the characters that exemplify the above point. As the story progresses, the reader can see that their behavior and dedication to Voldemort, is unquestionably impacting Draco’s life and therefore the decisions he makes. Lucius eventually becomes the leader of the deatheaters, but their devotion to the Dark Lord is shown to be dispensable, with the moral being that dedication to evil will not be rewarded and is ultimately setting oneself up for failure and personal loss.
A trademark of villains is their complete self regard and loyalty, albeit only temporary, to anyone who can further their own wellbeing or cause. Peter Pettigrew is the perfect example of this, as he quite literally scuttles around various characters, saying and doing anything in order to save face. This craven behavior can provide good plot development as its means they are entirely untrustworthy, casting doubt in the reader’s mind as well causing them to second guess themselves about what might happen next.
Once again, the clue is in the name. The dementors are probably the worst of the magical creatures in the world of Harry Potter, existing purely to suck the soul and happiness out of anyone they stumble across. They can be considered as the personification of evil, with no redeeming qualities, but play in nicely to the ongoing battle of good vs evil within the story. The fact that they are both nameless and faceless, existing as mysterious entities, is a lesson that can be learnt, as writers of similar genre may be able to create a similar group that allows them to personify any negative emotion that they wish to depict.
Snape, who is Harry’s first Potions Master at school, has perhaps one of the most complex and fascinating character arcs within the story. He is at first transparently evil, before slowly transitioning to a rather more opaque and unknowable figure. By the end of the books, Harry declares him ‘one of the bravest men i’ve ever met’, as his actions take on a different meaning as the reader receives more backstory and context as to why he acted the way he did. This shows that individual characters, as well as plot points, can act as red herrings and carry double meanings, with what appears to be evil actually being well intentioned acts.
Dolores Umbridge is perhaps the most hated of all the characters within Harry Potter by its readership, not because what she does is the most severe, but because it is truly wicked and unnecessarily cruel for seemingly no reason other than to inflict misery and pain. Starting out as Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher and eventually progressing to Headmistress, Dolores seizes upon every waking moment to make the lives of her students and those around her as miserable as possible, even going insofar as creating new magical devices whose only purpose is to physically and emotionally abuse those unfortunate souls on the receiving end. Hiding behind a sickly sweet dress sense and impossibly high pitched voice, she represents the worst type of teacher that every reader will have come across. Only in Harry Potter, her behavior is notched upon to the nth degree.
The last two characters in this last, are perhaps the most evil of them all. Starting with Bellatrix Lestrange whose character is akin to a wicked witch, even down to her appearence. Acting as Voldemort’s right hand man, Bellatrix manicaly and consistently wreaks havoc throughout the whole series, the nadir of which is when she murders Sirius Black. There is seemingly no complexity to her, which is not a flaw, as when telling a story of good vs evil not every character can have good qualities. Some stories simply need representation of pure evil and Bellatrix plays the part in Harry Potter to perfection.
Truthfully, this list could have been distilled down to just this one character, as Voldemort contains enough evil as a villain to write an entire essay about. He acts as a direct nemesis to Harry Potter and the utterance of his name is taboo due to the fear he instills. His mix of desperation to destroy and achieve power, combined with a deep knowledge of the dark arts, makes his character a pure representation of all that is bad in the world. The way he acts in dictator-like fashion, allows the reader to draw comparisons to real life, despite the Harry Potter series existing in a magical world. His appearance is at first glance conventionally villainous, but the fact he is in part recognisably human portrays the corruption on a physical level of the human spirit and soul.
So what conclusions can be drawn from this motley crew of villains. Writers will note the use of physical descriptions to exemplify the moral attitudes of the characters, as well as how the naming of the protagonists can also provide the reader with clear clues as to what role they will play within the story.
But perhaps the most notable lesson to be learnt is how villains can be portrayed on a sliding scale of severity to add layers and depth to the story. If all of the villains existed on one plane, or with consistently predictability, the reader would likely grow tiresome and their actions would end up landing with insufficient impact. By keeping the reader guessing, and allowing them to decipher for themselves what type of character the villain will end up being, will ultimately make for a far more enjoyable and developed story.