What Makes A Villain Essay

What makes a villain? Part 3: Hero in villain's clothing

Posted by Laurel Garver on Thursday, July 14, 2011 21 comments

This week, I've been looking at Rowling's complex characterizations over the series, focusing especially on the villainous characters. In PART 1, I examined the Dursely and Malfoy families. In PART 2, I delved into the faces of evil we see in Umbridge and Voldemort. Today, I want to look at the complex, misunderstood character Severus Snape.

Snape: the hero in villain's clothing

Harry and Snape first encounter one another during the opening banquet and sorting ceremony. Snape seems to be studying him carefully, and Harry initially reads it as sinister intent. Snape looks dangerous--he's all in black, lean and hungry-looking, dark eyes glittering with what Harry reads as pure malice. Harry's accustomed to being judged by his fearful, approval-hungry relatives. But this look? Not fearful. Something else. Something Harry can't name or understand, and it unnerves him.

But from what we learn of Snape over the course of the series, Snape's initial reaction is likely exceedingly complex. Here is the "boy who lived" while his beloved died to save this child. He resembles Snape's childhood rival, James Potter. The whole school is abuzz with this child's celebrity. And yet...the kid is completely clueless. The celebrity is totally lost on him. And while Snape fully expects Harry to be James's arrogant, bullying clone, he finds a confused, scared little boy who had an upbringing a whole lot like, well, his own! Harry, too, bears the marks of adult neglect, stuck wearing ill-fitting hand-me-downs and having bad hair. While seeing himself in Harry ought to stir Snape's sympathy, it does the opposite. It stirs up his own self-loathing. These ugly characteristics, after all, are what he believes kept him from winning Lily.

I find it highly ironic that the student Snape favors is the real heir of James Potter: Draco Malfoy. Does that shock you? Seriously, Draco is far, far more like James that Harry is. He's from a rich, pureblood family and lords it over others. He's arrogant and a bully. In place of Crabbe and Goyle, James had Remus and Sirius, who helped him torment the throwaway kid of his generation, Snape. Draco and James even play the same Quidditch position--Seeker. In currying Draco's goodwill, Snape is unwittingly still trying to be accepted by James Potter.

Beyond seeing his hated rival and the hated throwaway-child part of himself in Harry, Snape also sees his beloved. Lily died so this child could live. Snape wants to honor her memory and prove himself her truest of loves. He will protect Lily's child and avenge her death, even if it tears him up inside to do it, even if he has to grit his teeth all the while.

Now there's some complex characterization for you!

Surely Snape's inner conflicts appear on the surface as villainy. He singles Harry out for ridicule and uses his position of power to put Harry down. And yet...Snape guards Harry's life in book after book with no concern for his own personal safety. The only times we ever see Snape being remotely fearful is when he thinks Lily's son might be in mortal danger. Snape knows that Harry is pivotal in bringing down Lily's killer. He does all he can to aid Harry's success, acting as a spy among the Death Eaters in order to track their movements and plans, biding his time until he can avenge Lily.

It isn't until the final moments of Snape's life that Harry begins to put together all the pieces. But when he does, it's like the scales fall off his hate-blinded eyes. He realizes that true heroes act on behalf of those they love with no thought for themselves. Snape cared only about Lily and Lily's legacy. He didn't care if people misunderstood and hated him for it. His own reputation mattered not at all. He is the anti-Dursleys in this way. He wants only to empower Harry, not grasp power for himself. He is the anti-Voldemort.

In the end, Harry realizes the extent to which his life has been entwined with Snape's. How Snape has been a true father to him. As Harry faces Voldemort in their final battle, it is Snape's example he follows. Motivated by love for Lily (and James) as well as Ginny, Harry sacrifices himself and finds final redemption.

What do you think of this complex interplay of the past and present in Snape's characterization?

Categories: antagonists, characterization, Harry Potter, heroes

For other uses, see Villain (disambiguation).

"Villainous" redirects here. For the miniseries, see Villainous (miniseries).

"Villainy" redirects here. For the band, see Villainy (band). For the song, see Villainy (song).

"Bad guy" and "Bad guys" redirect here. For other uses, see Bad Guy.

"Bad man" redirects here. For other uses, see The Bad Man.

A villain (also known as, "baddie", "bad guy", "evil guy", "heavy" or "black hat") is an "evil" character in a story, whether a historical narrative or, especially, a work of fiction.

The villain usually is the antagonist (though can be the protagonist), the character who tends to have a negative effect on other characters. A female villain is occasionally called a villainess. Random House Unabridged Dictionary defines villain as "a cruelly malicious person who is involved in or devoted to wickedness or crime; scoundrel; or a character in a play, novel, or the like, who constitutes an important evil agency in the plot".[1]


Villain comes from the Anglo-French and Old Frenchvilain, which itself descends from the Late Latin word villanus, meaning "farmhand",[2] in the sense of someone who is bound to the soil of a villa, which is to say, worked on the equivalent of a plantation in Late Antiquity, in Italy or Gaul.[3] The same etymology produced villein.[4] It referred to a person of less than knightly status and so came to mean a person who was not chivalrous and polite. As a result of many unchivalrous and impolite acts, such as treachery or rape, being considered villainous in the modern sense of the word, it became used as a term of abuse and eventually took on its modern meaning.[5] The Germanic word "churl", originally meaning "a non-servile peasant" and denoting the lowest rank of freemen in Saxon society, had gone through a similar degradation, as did the word "boor" which originally meant "farmer".

Folk and fairy tales[edit]

Vladimir Propp, in his analysis of Russian fairy tales, concluded that a fairy tale had only eight dramatis personae, of which one was the villain,[6] and his analysis has been widely applied to non-Russian tales. The actions that fell into a villain's sphere were:

  • a story-initiating villainy, where the villain caused harm to the hero or his family
  • a conflict between the hero and the villain, either a fight or other competition
  • pursuing the hero after he has succeeded in winning the fight or obtaining something from the villain

None of these acts necessarily occurs in a fairy tale, but when any of them do, the character that performs the act is the villain. The villain therefore could appear twice: once in the opening of the story, and a second time as the person sought out by the hero.[7]

When a character performed only these acts, the character was a pure villain. Various villains also perform other functions in a fairy tale; a witch who fought the hero and ran away, and who lets the hero follow her, is also performing the task of "guidance" and thus acting as a helper.[8]

The functions could also be spread out among several characters. If a dragon acted as the villain, but was killed by the hero, another character (such as the dragon's sisters) might take on the role of the villain and pursue the hero.[8]

Two other characters could appear in roles that are villainous in the more general sense. One is the false hero: this character is always villainous, presenting a false claim to be the hero that must be rebutted for the happy ending.[9] Among these characters are Cinderella's stepsisters, chopping off parts of their feet to fit on the shoe.[10] Another character, the dispatcher, sends a hero on his quest. This might be an innocent request, to fulfil a legitimate need, but the dispatcher might also, villainously, lie to send a character on a quest in hopes of being rid of him.[11]

Villainous foil[edit]

In fiction, villains commonly function in the dual role of adversary and foil to the story's heroes. In their role as adversary, the villain serves as an obstacle the hero must struggle to overcome. In their role as foil, the villain exemplifies characteristics that are diametrically opposed to those of the hero, creating a contrast distinguishing heroic traits from villainous ones.[citation needed]

Others point out that many acts of villains have a hint of wish-fulfillment,[12] which makes some people identify with them as characters more strongly than with the heroes. Because of this, a convincing villain must be given a characterization that provides a motive for doing wrong, as well as being a worthy adversary to the hero. As put by film critic Roger Ebert:

"Each film is only as good as its villain. Since the heroes and the gimmicks tend to repeat from film to film, only a great villain can transform a good try into a triumph."[13]

Portraying and employing villains in fiction[edit]

Tod Slaughter always portrayed villainous characters on both stage and screen in a melodramatic manner, with mustache-twirling, eye-rolling, leering, cackling, and hand-rubbing (however, this often failed to translate well from stage to screen).[14][15]Brad Warner states that "only cartoon villains cackle with glee while rubbing their hands together and dream of ruling the world in the name of all that is wicked and bad".[16]Ben Bova recommends to authors that their works not contain villains. He states, in his Tips for writers:

"In the real world there are no villains. No one actually sets out to do evil... Fiction mirrors life. Or, more accurately, fiction serves as a lens to focus of what they know in life and bring its realities into sharper, clearer understanding for us. There are no villains cackling and rubbing their hands in glee as they contemplate their evil deeds. There are only people with problems, struggling to solve them."[17]

David Lubar adds:

"This is a brilliant observation that has served me well in all my writing. (The bad guy isn't doing bad stuff so he can rub his hands together and snarl.) He may be driven by greed, neuroses, or the conviction that his cause is just, but he's driven by something not unlike the things that drive a hero."[18]

Sympathetic villain[edit]

In an attempt to add realism to their stories, many writers will try to create "sympathetic" villains, the antithesis to an antihero called an anti-villain. These villains come in just as many shapes and sizes as anti-heroes do. Some may wish to make the world a better place but go to antagonistic lengths to do so (such as Doctor Octopus in Spider-Man 2, who commits various crimes in an attempt to complete his goal of creating a cheap, renewable source of energy, and Dr. Horrible in Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog, who wants to rule the world so that he can solve all of its problems), or may employ a code of honor in fighting his enemies, even if it is to achieve antagonistic goals (examples include Murdock, a secondary villain in the game Fire Emblem: Fūin no Tsurugi, who is honorable, but fights the player's army due to loyalty to his country). Other sympathetic villains may be pushed to antagonistic lifestyles by society's mistreatment of him due to prejudice against something he is a part of (such as racism, as is the case in American History X), but goes to absurd lengths to achieve the equality he desires. Others may include those manipulated by malevolent and opprobrious forces (such as Jack Torrance being manipulated by the Overlook Hotel in The Shining).

See also[edit]

Wikiquote has quotations related to: Villain


  1. ^"Villain - Define Villain at Dictionary.com". Dictionary.com. Archived from the original on 2014-04-02. 
  2. ^Robert K. Barnhart, ed. (1988). Chambers Dictionary of Etymology. New York: Chambers Harrap Publishers. p. 1204. ISBN 0-550-14230-4. 
  3. ^David B. Guralnik, ed. (1984). Webster's New World Dictionary. New York: Simon & Schuster. 
  4. ^"Villain". Oxford English Dictionary (3rd ed.). Oxford University Press. September 2005.  (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  5. ^C. S. Lewis (1960). Studies in Words. Cambridge University Press. 
  6. ^Vladimir Propp, Morphology of the Folk Tale, p 79 ISBN 0-292-78376-0
  7. ^Vladimir Propp, Morphology of the Folk Tale, p 84 ISBN 0-292-78376-0
  8. ^ abVladimir Propp, Morphology of the Folk Tale, p 81 ISBN 0-292-78376-0
  9. ^Vladimir Propp, Morphology of the Folktale, p60, ISBN 0-292-78376-0
  10. ^Maria Tatar, The Annotated Brothers Grimm, p 136 ISBN 0-393-05848-4
  11. ^Vladimir Propp, Morphology of the Folktale, p77, ISBN 0-292-78376-0
  12. ^Das, Sisir Kumar (1995). "A History of Indian Literature: 1911-1956,". p. 416. 
  13. ^Review of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan by Roger Ebert.
  14. ^Bryan Senn (1996). Golden Horrors: An Illustrated Critical Filmography of Terror Cinema, 1931–1939. McFarland. p. 481. ISBN 978-0-7864-0175-8. 
  15. ^Jeffrey Richards (2001). The Unknown 1930s. I.B.Tauris. p. 150. ISBN 978-1-86064-628-7. 
  16. ^Brad Warner (2007). Sit Down and Shut Up. New World Library. p. 119. ISBN 978-1-57731-559-9. 
  17. ^Ben Bova (2008-01-28). "Tips for writers". benbova.com. p. 2. Archived from the original on 2009-08-21. Retrieved 2008-12-05. 
  18. ^"Villains Don't Always Wear Black". Revision Notes. Darcy Pattison. 2008-01-28. Archived from the original on 2009-01-22. 
French villeins in the 15th century before going to work, receiving their Lord's Orders.


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