Abstract: I was inspired to write this piece after reading too many fanfictions that start out great about the years right after the war, and then become unenjoyable as soon as they mention something about how Draco and the Malfoys are living terrible lives or plotting the rise of the next "Dark Lord." I feel like these people have completely missed Rowling's point in creating such a rich and deep antagonist in the Harry Potter series.
Personally, Harry, Ron, and Hermione are the least likable characters in the series, because they were the hardest to relate to. They were too simple. Sure, they had some decisions to make, but really, all along, we knew they were the "good" guys and there was never any doubt as to whether they could be "bad." The major decision of the series, whether to be for or against Voldemort, was already made for them. Hermione was Muggle-born, Ron was from a family of well-known "blood traitors," and Harry's parents had been killed by Voldemort. For them, the only decision was whether they should react actively or passively to the threat Voldemort posed. Since they were all in Gryffindor, the outcome was already obvious. In real life, decisions are rarely so simple. This is where Draco Malfoy comes in.
I'd like to think that if Harry hadn't so rudely rebuffed Malfoy's offer of friendship, perhaps Draco would never have become a Death Eater. Sure, Draco was very unpleasant because he sounded snobby and looked down on Hagrid that day in Madam Malkin's, but most of that was due to nurture. His parents brought him up to be elitist and look down on Hagrid. In reality though, Draco was extremely insecure and just wanted a friend. That was made abundantly clear when we later see him at Hogwarts with Crabbe and Goyle. People who surround themselves with lackeys instead of real friends are just covering for their lack of confidence and insecurities. I think Draco clung so tenaciously to his prejudices because he was insecure about having nothing to cling to otherwise.
I think we see that even more clearly when Draco makes a huge deal out of his injury from Buckbeak. First he tried to act "cool" by not listening to Hagrid's class. Then, he overplayed his injury in order to get attention from his peers. Harry, Ron, and Hermione's unwavering loyalty towards Hagrid and by extension Buckbeak made him spiteful. Because he didn't get the reaction he wanted from everyone (specifically Harry), he tried to hurt them by trying to get Buckbeak killed. Does this make him a bad person? Maybe in some people's eyes. In my eyes, it makes him very believable and very human. Harry's unswerving loyalty to Hagrid actually unnerved me because he did admit Hagrid was not a great teacher to himself, but refused to admit that even to Ron and Hermione. I had a lot of trouble connecting to Harry as a result.
Draco becomes part of Umbridge's Inquisitorial Squad. Things are getting serious, but really, Draco hasn't completely grown up yet. With Umbridge, Draco finally gets what he feels was his due. He gets recognition and attention from a teacher, and he gets to try to foil his nemesis. Harry's always known exactly what Voldemort is, but Draco has grown up hearing his father praise Voldemort's ideals, and at this point, he's still really sheltered from the Death Eater world, because his father's still in Voldemort's favor.
This is where it really gets interesting and I argue Draco did the best he could given the circumstances. His father was disgraced, Voldemort's angry, but gives him a chance to become a Death Eater to redeem his family. What's he possibly going to say? No? Obviously not. His family was a prominent pureblood family and known to be supporting Voldemort by this point. Could he really trust the other side to protect them? Could he trust Snape? He knows that he and his family could not be trusted to protect others in his situation, and he’s never known or understood people who could be trusted. Voldemort was closer and was suddenly a huge threat to his family's safety. It was better to trust no one and use his own abilities to try to save his family.
Throughout this book, we can really see him beginning to understand Voldemort's threat and the stress his task was bringing him. And in the end, he couldn't bring himself to kill Dumbledore after all. Harry, on the other hand, comes off as cold and unsympathetic, even more so than in Book I in Madam Malkin's. Malfoy was obviously suffering, and yet the only thing he could obsess over was what dark deeds he was plotting. Harry almost had it easy - he had no parents for Voldemort to hold over his head, and he even breaks up with Ginny - to him there was only what's right and what's wrong. Malfoy's loyalties clearly lay with his family. Was that evil? I think the answer is more nuanced than a resounding yes.
I loved the way Rowling portrayed Draco during the Battle of Hogwarts because it truly showed a complex and believable character. First, he corners Harry to try to stop him from doing whatever it was he wanted to do and/or bring Harry to Voldemort. At this point, he's still harboring hopes of redeeming his family's reputation in Voldemort and his supporters' eyes. He grew up with his parents speaking favorably of Voldemort and then living with Voldemort in his house for 2 years. I'd be surprised if he could even imagine a world where Voldemort didn't win. And if Voldemort won, then in order for his family to not experience hell, they needed their reputation back. However, after Crabbe's death, we see him next pleading with a Death Eater that he's on their side and then sneaking out of the battle with his family after Harry returns. Some people may condemn him for not fighting on either side, but what would he be fighting for?
Obviously, he actually hates Voldemort and didn't like seeing death, so he wouldn't want to actively fight on Voldemort's side. But if he fought on Harry's side, it wouldn't really make sense either. Sure, Harry saved his life, but he wasn't a friend. Harry was fighting for his friends and the ones he loved, and all the other people fighting were fighting for the same thing. If Draco fought against Voldemort, would he be fighting for those he loved? I think the answer is extremely unclear. When he found his parents/his parents found him, they knew they were all safe physically at least, but no matter which side won, they were possibly screwed anyway. At this point, Voldemort would be angry at his mother for lying to him, and the reception his family would get if the "good" side won would be uncertain no matter what they do. So he might as well escape.
I hope I managed to convey how real Rowling has made Malfoy and how sympathetic we as readers are meant to feel toward him. Harry, Ron, and Hermione were brave and Draco was cowardly. However, Harry, Ron, and Hermione’s decisions to be on the right side were simple and uncomplicated, while Draco’s decisions to be either good or evil or neither(?) were much more interesting.
I tell you, that dragon's the most horrible animal I've ever met, but the way Hagrid goes on about it, you'd think it was a fluffly little bunny rabbit. When it bit me, he told me off for frightening it. And when I left, he was singing it a lullaby.
Ron Weasley Sorcerer's Stone, Chapter 14, Page 237
If a muggle spotted Hogwarts, they would just see an old ruin with a sign "Keep out, dangerous building."