Thanks to Rukia for this topic suggestion!
It’s Saturday again, and time for another random alphabet post!
I absolutely adore a good villain. One of the best to come along in recent years is J.K. Rowling’s deliciously evil Ministry of Magic stooge, Dolores Umbridge.
Umbridge appears in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, the fifth book in Rowling’s uber-popular series. It’s easily the fattest book and one of the darkest. If you haven’t read the Harry Potter books, get your butt to the library now. For any writer who is thinking about a series, it’s worth taking a look at these books, one of the most successful of all time. Not only that, they are really enjoyable.
And yes, I just happen to be one of those annoying Potter-nerds.
Potter plug aside, Umbridge is a delightfully evil character. She is a Ministry of Magic official, the former Senior Undersecretary to the Minister himself, Cornelius Fudge. When Harry reports the return of the evil wizard Lord Voldemort in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Fudge begins a systematic campaign born out of fear to deny the whole thing.
He sends Umbridge to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry as the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher. There she is to teach theory only, without any practical defense skills, because the official Ministry line is that there is nothing to be afraid of. Umbridge soon takes over the school and Harry and friends must stop her.
Rowling presents Umbridge as a study in contradictions. She is small, round, toadlike and favors pink cardigans. She doesn’t look evil, only ridiculous, like the substitute you enjoyed tormenting in grade school. She has a high, overly-sweet voice and a polite cough (“Hem, hem!”) she employs when she absolutely must interrupt you. In truth, she is a sadist and her greatest joy is torturing students and gaining power by pushing the Ministry’s agenda.
Some of her most egregious crimes include:
- Getting Harry in trouble with the Ministry by sending Dementors after him and his cousin Dudley, thus forcing Harry to defend himself magically, a no-no outside of Hogwarts.
- Punishing students with things like the special line-writing quill, which inscribes the lines on the student’s flesh instead of the parchment.
- Appointing herself Hogwarts High Inquisitor.
- Attempting to control the teachers and even sacking Sybil Trelawney, the Divination instructor.
- Her horrible treatment of Hagrid, the half-giant caretaker of Hogwarts and a special friend of Harry, Ron and Hermione. Umbridge hates part-humans and in Book 7, she has become the head of the corrupted Ministry’s Muggle-Born Registration Commission.
- Effecting the removal of Albus Dumbledore as Headmaster of Hogwarts, and appointing herself Headmistress.
A successful villain has to have traits that trump the hero. If the villain is too easily defeated, the possibility of conflict is low and the story would be over in a few pages. What makes Umbridge a successful villain?
1. She’s a tremendous suck-up. While not a particularly effective witch, Umbridge is an opportunist who can spot an opening a mile away and immediately squeezes herself into it. So she makes up for her shortcomings by attaching herself to those more powerful than she.
2. She’s relentless. Umbridge never stops, no matter what the cost. She’s completely committed to the Ministry’s party line, but also to her own mad desire for power.
3. She isn’t afraid to defy the rules. While laws stop most of us from going too far, a true villain has little regard for them. Umbridge even threatens to use an Unforgiveable Curse on Harry to get him to tell her where Dumbledore’s secret weapon is. She justifies it as unavoidable to quash a dangerous rebellion, but we all know she enjoys it.
Eventually, our heroes have to triumph, so a villain has to have some weaknesses. These also make him/her a more rounded character. Umbridge does have her vulnerable points.
- Overextending herself. She is convinced that no one can oppose her, and as such, is committed to stamping out any rebellion. Unfortunately, that means she has to put out so many fires that she misses a few.
- Stupidity. While she is evil, she’s not very smart. She can’t figure out how to eradicate Fred and George Weasley’s messes in the Hogwarts corridors, and she believes Hermione’s bluff about a secret weapon.
- Her temper. A paragon of self-control in the beginning, she finally cracks and her mouth gets her into terrible trouble. It also makes her more fun, because the reader can enjoy watching her lose her cool.
The revenge Harry and friends take on Umbridge is terribly satisfying, but I won’t spoil it for you. Read the book!
If you have any other examples of a great literary villain, please share them in the comments.