There’s something about a great villain that can engage an audience, energize a book, and provide a satisfying source of conflict.
The Harry Potter series gave us one of the greatest villains in literary and cinematic history. A character who fills us with unbridled rage. I don’t mean Voldemort. I mean Dolores Umbridge. I have never experienced such a visceral reaction to any character as I have towards Umbridge, and I’m not alone. She is the single most hated character in a series packed with despicable villains. In a recent survey asking “Who do you hate more?” Umbridge beat Voldemort 89% to 11%.
Stephen King, who knows a thing or two about creating villains, wrote in Entertainment Weekly, “the gently smiling Dolores Umbridge, with her girlish voice, toadlike face, and clutching, stubby fingers, is the greatest make-believe villain to come along since Hannibal Lecter.” So, let’s dive in and see what makes Umbridge so abhorrent and how can we use that to fuel our own writing.
I don’t generally like books or movies with heroes and villains. I prefer works like TV’s The Wire, in which you have flawed people with competing agendas. That’s more like real life. Good vs. evil is too simple, and frankly kind of boring.
But there’s something about a great villain that can really engage an audience and energize a book or film. Stories are about conflict, after all, and villains can provide a fantastic source of conflict.
Villains also make our heroes more likeable. As the saying goes, “A hero is only as good as his/her villain.” The more we despise a villain, the more we tend to like our hero and the more we want to see him or her succeed.
Villains vs. antagonists
These two terms are often conflated, but they are in fact different. A villain is a character with evil intentions and who commits evil actions. An antagonist is simply a character who opposes the protagonist. Usually in fiction, villains are antagonists and vice versa. But not always. Marshall Gerard, Tommy Lee Jones’ character in The Fugitive, is a great example of an antagonist who is not a villain. Tom Ripley from The Talented Mr. Ripley, Alex DeLarge from A Clockwork Orange, Salieri from Amadeus, and Dexter from the eponymous TV show are villains who are not only not antagonists, they are protagonists.
Some of the most famous villains of page and screen are fantastic antagonists, but they’re not especially hated by readers or audiences. Some villains are so interesting people love to root for them. Professor Moriarty, Darth Vader, Lex Luther, and The Joker are powerful adversaries who force our heroes to do heroic things. Some of them are truly evil by every definition of the word. They often commit heinous crimes and/or are hell-bent on conquering the world/galaxy/universe/tri-state area. But we don’t hate any of them. Hans Gruber is easily the most fascinating and beloved character in Die Hard.
Voldemort is a better antagonist than Umbridge. As much as I hate her, Umbridge is a petty little troll in comparison with Voldemort, who is the wizarding version of Hitler. There’s no way you could build a seven-novel fantasy epic with Dolores Umbridge as your central antagonist. But you can with Voldemort. He is the most powerful wizard in the world. He kills and tortures people without a moment’s thought or sense of regret. He wants to conquer the world and crush all the muggles and mudbloods. He is pure evil with immense power and enormous ambition. He is a great antagonist.
But he doesn’t fill us with rage. People didn’t cheer in theaters when Voldemort was defeated. But they sure did when Umbridge was.
Given Voldemort’s transgressions, it’s hard at first to see why it’s Umbridge who makes readers’ blood boil. After all, compared to Voldemort, Umbridge’s evil crimes aren’t really all that evil. She calls Harry a liar and refuses to allow students to practice magic in her class. She fires one teacher and tries to kick her out of Hogwarts. She creates all sorts of ridiculous and paranoid rules and creates a goon squad to enforce them. More cruelly, she uses a magical quill that, instead of writing on paper, carves words out on students’ hands as they write.
But again, compared to the crimes committed by Voldemort, Bellatrix LeStrange, and others, Umbridge is a fairly middle-grade villain. After all, it’s Voldemort who, in the most surprising moment of the series, (spoiler alert) actually murders a student. And yet readers and audiences hate Umbridge more.
Part of what makes all those famous villains (Voldemort, Darth Vader, etc.) so hard to hate is that they are hard to relate to. They are so evil and their goals are so over the top, they strike us as more theoretically evil than realistically evil. It’s true that monsters like this exist in the world, but most of us don’t come face to face with them. Their crimes are so atrocious they’re hard to comprehend.
Comedian Eddie Izzard had a great bit that gets to the heart of this: “Pol Pot killed 1.7 million people. We can’t even deal with that…. If somebody kills [one person], that’s murder, you go to prison…. If you kill 20 people, you go to a hospital and they look at you through a small window forever. And over that, we can’t deal with it…. If someone has killed 100,000 people we’re almost going: ‘Well done! Well done. You killed 100,000 people? You must get up very early in the morning!’”
Umbridge’s list of crimes, on the other hand, are very realistic. We know people who do this stuff in real life. She intimidates. She condescends. She’s petty. She’s morally superior. She interrupts people. She’s heartless, remorseless, and cruel. And above all she’s convinced she’s doing all of this for our own good. We see this kind of behavior all the time.
The scene below offers our first glimpse at the twisted sensibility Umbridge brings to the classroom. In the scene, she doesn’t attack anyone. Instead, she abuses her power, patronizes her students, and represents a perversion of how a professor is supposed to behave. And it is amazingly effective at making us dislike her. (Note: I don’t normally suggest looking at the comments on any web page, but on this particular video they’re worth looking at, if only to see how much people loathe this character.)
Another much-hated villain in the same mold as Umbridge is Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Like Umbridge, she uses her power and authority to cruelly destroy those below her. There’s nothing over-the-top about her. She’s not trying to conquer the world. She’s merely maintaining order in her tiny little domain. And yet it’s that very pettiness that makes her actions so hateful, as we see here, in which she coldly manipulates a vulnerable patient by pushing his biggest button just to maintain order and to strike a blow against McMurphy. We hate her for this even before we know that her actions here will (spoiler alert) drive Billy to commit suicide.
When it comes to creating truly despicable villains, less really is more.
The devil truly is in the details
One thing I notice about all these hated villains is how much the writers and directors put into character details. In a recent article, “The Drama is in the Details,” I discussed how details are important for bringing out the horror, humor, and drama in your scenes. Similarly, attention to character detail is important in bringing out the rage in your readers.
In the clip below, notice the attention to all of Umbridge’s quirks. How many teaspoons of sugar she puts in her tea. Her love of cats. Her obsession with pink. The beautiful moment when she adjusts the pen on her desk. In the previous video clip, note her high pitched voice and annoying laugh, and the way actress Imelda Staunton revels in saying “severe” in the line at 0:45: “Fail to do so, and the consequences may be… severe.” In the book, Rowling gives us Umbridge’s annoying little “hem, hem” cough, which she uses to interrupt Professor McGonagall.
None of these details suggest evil. She doesn’t have a rumbling evil laugh. She doesn’t wear a frightening costume like Darth Vader. She doesn’t have an imposing presence. She doesn’t yell, threaten, or spit like many screen villains. Those kinds of grand gestures and mannerisms that we see so often in “classic” villains are not only clichés, they are meaningless to us. We don’t know people who behave like that. But we do know people who behave like Umbridge. We have Umbridge teachers, Umbridge bosses, and Umbridge politicians.
Rowling wrote about how she mined ordinary details from a real life teacher whom Rowling did not care for in order create Umbridge.
What sticks in my mind is her pronounced taste for twee accessories. I particularly recall a tiny little plastic bow slide, pale lemon in colour that she wore in her short curly hair. I used to stare at that little slide, which would have been appropriate to a girl of three, as though it was some kind of repellant physical growth. She was quite a stocky woman, and not in the first flush of youth, and her tendency to wear frills where (I felt) frills had no business to be, and to carry undersized handbags, again as though they had been borrowed from a child’s dressing-up box, jarred, I felt, with a personality that I found the reverse of sweet, innocent and ingenuous.
Great novelists have a gift for paying attention to little real-life, but not-obvious details like these and using them to fuel our dislike for a character even before that character has committed any crimes. Couple those sickly-sweet details with Umbridge’s cruel punishment of Harry in the scene above, and it makes us fume.
(Interestingly, many of the same annoying details – interrupting people, patronizing them, ignoring them, abusing authority – are used to humorous effect in the character of Office Space’s Bill Lumbergh. He’s an interesting character, especially as I think he embodies the thin line between hilarity and hatred. It’s only because of context and the beautifully subtle level of absurdity actor Gary Cole brings to his performance that we can laugh instead of fume.)
There’s another villain in the Potter series people thoroughly dislike, and that’s Bellatrix LeStrange. She’s worthy of our disdain for she kills two of our favorite characters. But there’s one thing that keeps us from truly hating her: she’s insane. As much as I enjoy Helena Bonham Carter’s performances in the films, the book version of Bellatrix is actually more detestable, because in the films, Bonham Carter accentuates LeStrange’s “crazy” mannerisms.
It’s hard to hate insane characters, because their insanity kind of gives them an excuse. It also can take us out of the realm of the weird, since a lot of insane screen villains are very unlike insane people we may know in the real world. We may fear an insane character, but we don’t hate them. It’s Dolores Umbridge’s and Nurse Ratched’s sanity that adds to our hatred of them.
The fear factor
Speaking of fear, as much as I hate Umbridge, she’s not especially frightening. I hate her for who she is, what she represents, and how she behaves, but she doesn’t fill me with dread. (That’s fine. Hating her is satisfying enough.)
But there are a few characters I wanted to touch on who are despicable and terrifying.
I’m not talking about horror villains like Dracula or Freddy Kruger. Not only are they hard to hate for many of the same reasons as those other villains, they’re also more theoretically scary than actually frightening.
But there is one trait that can make a character both loathsome and terrifying, and that trait is a penchant for unpredictable outbursts of brutal violence.
Unpredictability is key. Not knowing what a character is liable to do at any moment fills that character’s every scene with energy. Not the kind of unpredictability that comes with a jump scare, but the kind when you feel that the slightest thing can set your villain off.
You have to be careful with your acts of violence, however. If you overdo it, readers/audiences will have trouble believing it. But violence does exist in the real world, and when we read about or see realistic violence, especially when coldly and brutally inflicted upon helpless people, it can fill us with fear and disgust. Most often we see this kind of violence in scenes of domestic abuse. These scenes can be powerful and can trigger strong emotions in readers and audiences. Villains like Dwight Hansen, the stepfather in Tobias Wolfe’s memoir This Boy’s Life, and Dwight Yokham’s character in Sling Blade, are always on the verge of exploding, and their violent outbursts are frightening, realistic, and petty.
One of the most terrifying and despicable villains I’ve ever seen was Captain Vidal in Guillermo del Toro’s film, Pan’s Labyrinth. Like Umbridge, Vidal is an authority figure who insists on petty displays of order, as you can see in the scene (linked below), in which he insists on the one prisoner taking off his hat. Another great character detail, though it’s not in this scene, is how the filmmakers paid special attention to the creaking of his leather gloves, which helps to give him a cruel authoritarian air.
But what struck me most about this character, which we see on display in this scene, is how calm he is, even saying “shh” to the prisoner as though he has all the patience in the world and that this is a mere formality. There’s nothing in Vidal’s behavior to hint at the violence to come. The violence that does come is abhorrent, visceral, and coldblooded; but it’s also realistic, making it that much more ugly and unforgiveable. This scene effectively sets up Vidal’s unpredictability. After watching this, there’s no telling what he might do.
[Trigger warning: this scene is very violent, so don’t watch it if that upsets you.]
To sum up
If you’re looking to create a truly vile villain, your best bet, with regards to your character’s details, intentions, mannerisms, and possible violent behavior, is to keep it real.
One last note: If you are able to create a villain people loathe, and if you plan on having them be defeated at the end, be sure to finish him or her off in a satisfying way, because your readers will be clamoring to see your villain get their just desserts, and they will be disappointed if they don’t. So make sure those desserts are memorably delicious.
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How much physical description is enough when you create characters?
The Drama Is In The Details (the humor, horror, and suspense are too)
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