I originally had a different blog post planned for today. Planned and written, in fact. But sometimes, plans change. Sometimes, you come across an idea that grabs your brain and won’t let go. Sometimes, inspiration strikes, and one big piece of writing advice I will always, always give is that when you get bitten by the inspiration bug, you should absolutely run with it. We’ll discuss inspiration in more detail at a later date, I promise. For right now, though, I want to talk about a post I came across on Facebook.
Dolores Umbridge, the primary antagonist of book five of the Harry Potter series, is without question the most reviled character in the entire series, yet she is not one of the series many, many dark wizards. A series that brought us Voldemort, who killed hundreds, Bellatrix Lestrange, who tortured people into madness, and Draco Malfoy, the archetype of every bully we’ve ever dealt with, and its most hated character is the petty school administrator.
She is why I’m calling this the Umbridge effect.
When crafting a villain, sometimes you want to make someone who is relatable. Other times, you want to create someone who chews the scenery. But sometimes, you just to want to create a character who is completely, utterly hated. Here’s what Harry Potter can teach us about creating a character that your readers are sure to hate.
Over the Top Evil has no Frame of Reference
Let’s talk about Voldemort and Bellatrix Lestrange. Two of the biggest villains in the series, these two are unabashed monsters. Both are racist against mortals and ‘mudbloods’, wizards with human parentage. Both do things that are undeniably awful. Voldemort kills capriciously. I said “hundreds” earlier, but his total body count is never confirmed in the books. There were, based on my memory of the books, eighteen confirmed kills, when talking about people both on and off camera. Meanwhile, Bellatrix Lestrange killed Sirius Black and tortured Neville Longbottom’s parents to the point where their minds broke.
…I really liked Harry Potter.
Anyway, the point of this is these things are undeniably awful, but for the vast majority of people there’s no real frame of reference here. Most people don’t know killers. Most people don’t know sadistic torturers. We know these things are wrong, and we can intellectually hate characters that engage in these actions, but it doesn’t hit on a gut level because there’s no real comparison here. Without that gut level reaction, it’s hard to have a visceral level of hatred that a truly despicable character can invoke.
Relatable Evil has too much Sympathy.
Now we should talk about Draco Malfoy and Severus Snape. These are, without a doubt, the most liked villains in the entire series. Whether or not Severus Snape is a misunderstood hero or an overly obsessed “Nice Guy” that let his pathetic need for a woman who wasn’t interested in him turn him to evil is an ongoing debate among the Harry Potter fandom (I’ll let you guess that which side of the debate I fall on). Draco Malfoy, on the other hand, has a truly disturbing amount of fanfiction written about him being romantically paired with pretty much every conceivable character in the series, which indicates some people really, really like him.
The thing that prevents both these characters from being universally hated is that we understand what made them go bad. Draco Malfoy went bad because of his abusive and controlling father, a character that falls firmly into the above “over the top evil” from before. Snape went to the dark side because, he was lonely and was trying to impress Harry’s mother. Regardless of what you think of these motivations, we can easily sympathize with a child with a terrible parent – even if we had good parents, we all know someone who had parents that…could have been better – and we’ve all been lonely at one time for another. These characters aren’t universally hated because we can empathize with them.
Everyone Hates a Character that is Petty Evil.
This gets us to Dolores Umbridge, the one character that every Harry Potter fan absolutely reviles. (Okay, I can’t actually speak for everyone, but I’ve yet to encounter an Umbridge apologist). Seriously, test it. If you know a Harry Potter fan, ask them which character they hate most. If they’re a big fan, ask them if they hate any fictional character more than Dolores Umbridge. So, what makes her unique in a universe with murderers, sadists, and literal monsters?
She’s the kind of evil we’ve all encountered.
At some point, every single one of us has come across the person with petty power that abuses that power. Maybe it was a boss that took every opportunity to undermine you just because they had power over you. Perhaps it was a teacher that should have never been given power over children. But it could be literally anyone – a lifeguard that singled you out for any mistake at the pool, a cop that gave you a ticket you didn’t deserve, or a pissed off customer insisting they were right just because “the customer is always right.” It means that Umbridge inspires hatred because we can relate to the character’s struggles to deal with her. That’s the kind of evil the reader can understand, and because we’ve all personally experienced this kind of injustice, we hate it all the more.
That’s the secret to creating a character that everyone will hate. Take some injustice everyone has encountered, and magnify it. It doesn’t have to be petty abuse of authority. It could be callous disregard for a stranger in need. It could be the minor greed of the selfish business person. It could even be something as simple as twisting the rules to their own ends. As long as it’s an act of evil that has a real-world analogy that is universally experienced, the readers are guaranteed to hate the character.
Have other characters you hate more than Umbridge? Agree with me that Snape is a whiny man child? Let me know in the comments below! And if you want to see how I handle villains, check out Weird Theology on Amazon and Audible, or click here for a free copy of Rumors!