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Villians in Fantasy Fiction Part 1

I read that villains should be the most interesting character that you create. Unfortunately, this is not always, or even often, the case.  In the types of fiction that I read, like science fiction, fantasy and mysteries, the villains tend to be rather boring. Most villains suffer from very little character development, predictable motive for their actions, and a flair for melodrama which is all out of proportion to their actual actions. They're cheap plot devices to move the action forward, instead of the antagonist that drives the conflict and action in any book. Granted, there are some exceptions. These tend to wind up the narrators or point-of-view characters, or the driving force behind a lot of politics and intrigue rather than attempts at straight-out conquest, murder or torture. Occasionally you get a really creepy villain in horror-fantasy stories, or but for the most part they're very, very dull.  I had to really think back about some really memorable villains. So today's entry is the beginning of a three part series explaining whom my favorites are. 

We are covering Dolores Umbridge today, one of the minor villains in the Harry Potter novels. For those living under a complete rock for the last ten years, she made her appearance in the fifth book of the series as a government official at the Ministry of Magic. She later turns up as the Defense of Dark Arts at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, then becomes a High Inquisitor of Hogwarts to oversee the school's competency at educating young wizards (a new position created for her by the Minister of Magic) and later deposes Albus Dumbledore as Headmaster and takes over that position. We see her again in the seventh book as the head of a department in charge of ensuring that only pureblood wizards practice magic, and everyone else is jailed or executed.

She's not a nice woman, but neither does she seem like an overtly evil one. In fact, despite the fact that she probably didn't have what most might consider a correctly-aligned morality, it could be argued that she was a product of a certain subculture in the Potterverse and truly embodied the phrase "the banality of evil." Hanna Arendt proposed that the great evils in history generally were not executed by fanatics or sociopaths, but rather by ordinary people who accepted the premises of their state and therefore participated with the view that their actions were normal. To me, Umbridge really embodies this well.

Firstly, doesn't look evil. She is unobtrusive and probably wouldn't evoke a second glance from anyone if you passed her on the street. She fits the ideal of the spinster aunt, actually. She wears tweed suits under a favorite pink cardigan; she's Caucasian with brown hair, brown eyes and a "toadish" face and body; she collects cat bric-a-brac; has a predisposition towards gaudy jewelry and she's had a lifelong career as a government bureaucrat. She doesn't really know how to deal with children, so we can presume she never had any of her own and it's not a far stretch to say that she probably never married either.

In fact, she seems to be a careerist. Loyalty to the party line, being able to go with the tide and deference to superiors are all things that determine Umbridge's actions. For instance, one character points out that she had drafted legislature that made it difficult for part-humans to obtain and keep jobs, and the party line at the time was that part-humans aren't people. After the fourth book, the party line was definitely anti-Potter, as the Minister of Magic wanted to deny that Voldemort had returned. Her actions throughout the fifth book reflects this, as she was the one who was the architect behind the Dementor (nasty, soul-eating ghoulies) attack on Potter and his non-wizard cousin and Potter's subsequent trial for illegal use of magic for an underage wizard -- an unsuccessful effort to get him to shut up. Once that failed, she was assigned in a position to keep an eye on influential people in Hogwarts toting the "Voldemort is back" line and did everything in her power to shut them up, from sadistic detention methods to actually taking over the position of Headmaster at Hogwarts. Her motivations here are clear -- back the right people, using whatever resources are at her disposal, and she will be promoted into more powerful positions. In fact, backing Voldemort after he takes over the Ministry helps her become the head of her own department in the seventh book. 

Umbridge is also a consummate manipulator. As I mentioned before, she was the one who orchestrated the Dementor attack and Harry's trial.  She also wrote propaganda tracts for a Voldemort-run Ministry on the menace the witches and wizards from non-pureblood families presented to the rest of the wizarding community. She verbally aligned her heritage with that of a prominent Voldemort supporter, in an effort to bolster her own pureblood credentials. She also affixed an artificial "all-seeing" eye that had been used by a former Potter supporter to her office door at the Ministry in the seventh book, presumably to quash any subversive talk or actions amongst her underlings. Frankly, that would scare the crap out of me -- knowing my boss was watching me all  the time using an eye that was from the body of a murdered man. She was also perfectly willing to lie to her superiors about using dark magic against a student while she was Headmistress at Hogwarts. 

Her ability to manipulate could be compensating for being a weak magician herself. It has been implied several times throughout the fifth book that she isn't talented at counter-jinxes, instead relying on defensive and attack spells. She has little knowledge of the brewing process for a common truth-telling potion, and was unable to remove a Portable Swamp planted in her office by mischievous students). It should be noted that Swamp Removal was something that the other staff found easily to do once Umbridge had removed herself from Hogwarts.  In the seventh book, it was implied that without outside help from a magical artifact, she would be unable to summon a strong protective spell when she was attacked in her own office. However, it doesn't stop her from rising to power and may have some bearing on why she needed to be in positions of influence.

Lastly, she isn't a likable person. She rudely and constantly interrupts other people when they are talking, she makes passive-aggressive comments, she singles out those who disagree with her for punishment, she forces her own prejudices down the throats of innocent bystanders and she has a nasty temper. During the fifth book, she is almost universally despised by both students and Staff at Hogwarts. It could even be postulated that she cultivated (deliberately or inadvertedly) the unpleasant personality to make up for her drab appearance and poor magical abilities. Better to be a bitch than be a nobody, right?

These things make Umbridge a great villain. She demonstrates the banality of evil admirably in writing and is a genuinely interesting character to dissect. She isn't likable, but she has some complex motivations behind her actions and fits with how the banality of evil should be written. This is why she is one of my favorite villains in fantasy fiction to date. 




punk starts early

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