SPOILERS FOR HARRY POTTER!
I’ve seen Voldemort appear on bloggers’ lists of the greatest kids’ book villains of all time. Personally, I don’t think he’s even the best villain of the series that he’s in.
The Harry Potter series does have great villains, but Voldemort is one of the least interesting. He’s the generic evil problem I talked about in my last post. The more interesting characters are the ones with internal conflict, or the ones who make us angry because they remind us of people we’ve met.
Before I continue: a shout out to the deviant artists whose work I’m using in today’s post. I didn’t want to use movie screenshots because I was sure that fans could capture the characters in interesting ways, and help me keep this about the books. Clicking on images will take you to the artists’ pages.
I find Grindelwald a more interesting character than Voldemort for a few reasons. His motivation is similarly generic, but there’s more mystery and detail around him.
Really though, it’s because of his relationship with Dumbledore. Rowling has said that the reason Albus didn’t take a strong enough stance against Grindelwald is that he was enamoured with him. I like to take this a step further. In Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, Harry asks Dumbledore what he sees in the Mirror of Erised. According to the mirror’s rules, it should be something that he longs for, but can’t have, and may actually cause him damage.
He tells Harry that he sees himself with a new pair of socks, an obvious lie. I like to think that he sees himself in a relationship with Grindelwald.*
4. Dudley Dursley
I love the Dursleys. From the opening description of the first book, they’re hilarious and on point. The fact that Uncle Dursley works with drills is the perfect detail for his character.
Dudley is the one who makes my list because he’s the one who changes most over the course of the series. There’s a tendency in the series for the overweight characters to be lazy and stereotypically stupid (Uncle Vernon, Slughorn, Umbridge, etc.) Dudley still hits that note.
But he also gets a redeeming scene after Harry saves him from the dementors. He gets a little respect for his cousin, and actually stands up to his dad.
3. Draco Malfoy
Like Dudley, Malfoy experiences internal conflict, and changes over the series. He also has to stand up to his dad. But for Malfoy, the struggle is a lot more intense. He gets dragged into a situation where he almost has to kill Dumbledore, and after he’s gone this far, it’s incredibly difficult for him to turn around.
He also works well on the level that a punk-brat villain should–he’s very easy to hate. When Hermione curses him, everybody is happy. The two-dimensional sneer isn’t that complex, but it’s highly effective.
In short: he’s a great rival when the series is acting as middle-grade, and he transitions well into a more tortured character when the series becomes young-adult.
2. Severus Snape
I don’t have Snape this high on my list for the reason that most HP fans adore him. I think his relationship with Lily is more creepy than heroic. I think it’s interesting, but I don’t think it redeems him, and I think it’s really weird that Harry names one of his kids after him.
I have him high on my list because I was never sure whether he was actually a good guy or a bad guy. I was so sure each way, and especially when he kills Dumbledore, I thought that was it.
For keeping me guessing, Snape is #2.
1. Dolores Umbridge
I hate her so much!
And that’s great. There’s the description as toad-like and dressed in pink that makes her instantly iconic. There’s her repeated phrase, “Hem-hem”, annoying and evocative of character. There’s her meanness.
What really sells it is her restraint. The fact that she’s in such a position of power, and that she’s so stubborn, and that she dials it up slowly until we can’t stand her any more without ever tipping over the edge.
I really don’t think I’ve ever hated a character more. She made me want to throw the book across the room. In a good way.
Honorable mention to Gilderoy Lockhart. He was very, very close to stealing #5.
Next week, it’s another list of Five Great Things! I’m going to expand my focus and look at villains across all of children’s literature. Will Umbridge stay at #1?
*EDIT: Apparently Rowling has said what Dumbledore saw in the mirror: “He saw his family alive, whole and happy – Ariana, Percival and Kendra all returned to him, and Aberforth reconciled to him.” So I guess #5 should be Lockhart.