Fantasy may be one of the few genres in which a true arch-villain is possible, someone who is purely evil and bent on the destruction of the world. Political thrillers aside, not many other types of fiction can pull this off. It’s one reason why I think fantasy remains popular: it’s comforting to step into a world where the bad guy is easy to identify. There’s no grey area or nuance: Sauron is evil incarnate, and we’d better find a way to stop him.
That said, I’ve never been a fan of the “serial killer villain.” You know the type, the villain with no motivation other than destruction and pain for its own sake. It can be done well (Iago?), but more often than not, this kind of bad guy is just boring. Far more interesting is the villain who wants something, whether it’s a candy bar or eternal life, and even more powerful is when that villain wants something I might want myself. In other words, what makes a great villain is also what makes a great hero: relatability.
In Harry Potter, Voldemort is a compelling villain because even though he’s as evil as it gets, his desires are the dark side of our own. He fears death—who doesn’t? He wants power and control, the same thing every politician strives for. Of course, unlike us normal folks, Voldemort has let his fears and desires control him, and he’s developed the resources to act on those desires. He’s a rare and stunning example of a truly evil villain who maintains believable motivations.
I don’t think the series would work half so well, though, if it didn’t include such a rich array of sub-villains. Rowling weaves in a ton of them, and not all of them want the same thing as the arch-villain. They aren’t quite as evil, but they are more accessible. If heroes exemplify what we most admire in ourselves, villains are reflections of the qualities we detest, and Rowling’s sub-villains do this beautifully, even going so far as to reflect the flaws of the heroes we’ve grown to love.
For example, Dolores Umbrige’s controlling authoritarianism is Hermoine’s respect for rules gone terribly, horribly wrong. Lockheart’s childish avarice for recognition echoes Ron’s dissatisfaction living in shadow of Harry and his brothers. And the disrespectful Mundungus, who's not quite a villain, is a sad shadow of the rebellious Sirius Black, who's not quite a hero. In the heroes, these character traits are mixed with courage and goodness, and so they lead to good things: Hermoine’s sense of justice, Ron’s loyalty, Sirius’s fearlessness in the face of danger. In the villains, they become coldness, vanity, and selfishness. Part of what makes these villains so powerful is that they reflect the ways we could go wrong, just like the heroes show us how to go right.
What do you think makes a good villain?