Schoolteacher putting together her summer reading list found her way to an old post of mine, Bring me the broomstick of Harry Potter, and altered to me to a link that had rotted since I wrote the post four years ago. Setting out to fix it I slipped up and did something I don’t like to do---I re-read one of my old posts.
Reason I don’t like to do this is I usually have the same reaction as I had this time.
How could I have been so wrong?
The post was written in response to some speculation that J.K. Rowling might kill off her hero in the soon to be published concluding volume of her Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. I didn’t think that likely.
If you’re the type of person who went to Return of the Jedi expecting that it would end with Luke impaled on Darth Vader’s light saber or turning to the Dark Side and walking off arm in arm with the Emperor, then you’re likely to believe that there’s a real possibility that J.K. Rowling is going to end her next book by killing off Harry Potter.
Rowling has been cagily telling people that at least two important characters die. Only two? That seems like a very low body count, considering the dark and violent way her story has been developing. Voldemort will very likely get his at last. But only one other character’s going to bite the dust?
Frankly, I don't think Rowling will kill off Harry, for reasons of good storytelling and sound business practices…
I’d have been fine if I’d stopped there. But, no, I had to do some speculating of my own on what characters she might zap with an authorial avada kedavra.
Spoilers coming, in case you’re one of the lucky ones who are still working your way through the books and have much to look forward to.
I was wrong about Hagrid. Wrong about Neville Longbottom. Wrong about Snape. Way wrong about Fred and George.
I shouldn’t say I was wrong, because I wasn’t actually attempting to predict anything. I was describing how I saw that story shaping up and shaking out so far and where I hoped Rowling would take it in her final installment. Rowling, naturally, had her own ideas.
But Rowling had announced that two main characters were doomed. I thought that seemed like an awfully low body count for a book that was going to be about a war.
Turned out I was right about the level of casualties, although it does depend on who’s to be regarded as a main character. If you limit the definition in a certain way, then only two main characters did die and if you limit it in another, none did.
My definition isn’t limited in either way. You might want to argue that it’s barely limited at all if includes Neville Longbottom or that it’s crazy because it comes close to excluding Hagrid.
Basically, my definition is that a main character is one who by virtue of being a very specific person changes the hero and helps determine the direction of his story and its outcome. A main character acts for himself or herself and on his or her own behalf.
Minor characters, who aren’t necessarily minor in that they are unimportant or don’t spend a lot of time on stage, are characters who are extensions of the hero…or the villain. They act in their place or at their command. In short, they are there to be used by the main characters in order for the main characters to complete their tasks and achieve their ends, they have no ends---or endings---of their own.
Hagrid is on stage a lot and he is quite the character. But when he acts it is usually as Dumbledore’s or Harry’s servant.
Read on and you’ll see that I don’t think Hagrid is a minor character. I think that his author failed him in not developing his story to a fitting conclusion.
I think Rowling failed Lucius Malfoy in the same way.
Identifying the hero of a story is easy. The hero is the character the story is about, obviously. But he or she is also the character whose actions drive the story to its conclusion. The story exists as a story and as the story it is because of what the hero does or fails to do.
Most stories are fairly simple and have only the one main character, the hero. All the other, secondary, characters appear only as needed to help or thwart the hero in her pursuit of her goal or the fulfillment of his task.
But there are more complex stories in which there are secondary characters with interests, needs, desires, and goals of their own, apart from the hero’s, that are bound up in the resolution of the hero’s adventure to the point that those characters can rival the hero for the focus of the narrative (and the reader) and who in pursuit of their own goals or in a quest to fulfill tasks of their own break away from the main storyline to develop adventures of their own.
After Ron and Hermione, the list of characters who have important subplots of their own and whose stories and actions have significant impact on the hero’s story apart from the what the hero is doing for himself, has included from the beginning Dumbledore, Tom Riddle/Voldemort, and Snape.
But several other characters made their way onto that list as the series progressed, Draco Malfoy, for example, and Neville who emerged from the comedic background to become a hero in the way Beaumains or Percival would emerge in a story about the Knights of the Round Table that kept us in the dark about their royal heritage and their noble natures and had us seeing them the way the knights and noble ladies of Camelot would have seen them until their true destinies were revealed.
That Rowling snatched the Grail from Neville’s hands and pushed him back into the kitchen as soon as his heroic deed was done is another issue that I’ll get to later.
To my surprise, Hagrid never made this jump. He was always more than comic relief but he never completed the transition to tragic hero I expected him to make. He remained an interrupted character and his heroic role in the final battle didn’t change anything for him. If Rowling ever decides to write the series of books she set up with Harry and Ginny’s adopting Lupin and Tonks’ son, Hagrid will reappear as the same shambling, good-natured sentimental comic servant’s role he played throughout the original book.
This is why I thought Hagrid would be one of the main characters who’d die. He deserved a better and nobler end.
Still, he’s a main character, the most important and sympathetic of the many supporting characters.
The list of supporting characters who I think qualify as main characters begins with Ginny Weasley. She is after all the hero’s love interest but that alone isn’t enough to make a character important. Love interests are often there to comfort, inspire, aid, and reward the hero, and Ginny certainly does all that. But Ginny aids her hero by being heroic in her own right and taking an active part in Harry’s struggles and in that role who she is matters as much as what she is. The outcome of the hero’s adventure is helped determined by the kind of person the love interest turns out to be.
Having interesting personalities of their own and even intriguing backstories isn’t enough to lift a character out of the ranks of minor players. The Harry Potter books are crowded with eccentrics, grotesques, caricatures, and the occasional realistically rendered human being who, for all their personalities matter to shaping the outcome or direction of the story, might as well be nameless and labeled as in Shakespeare with their function in the plot at that point---messenger, servant, chorus, soothsayer, friend, henchman, fool.
This is why Guilderoy Lockhart, the vain and fraudulent professor of Defense Against the Dark Arts in Chamber of Secrets is not a main character, despite all the pages he takes up, while Hugo Slughorn, the vain and in his own way fraudulent professor of Potions in The Half-Blood Prince is.
Both men’s vanity provides comic relief and presents an obstacle to Harry in his quest. But with Lockhart that ends up defining him. He is comic relief and an obstacle, and afterwards a tool, and in the end is just there to be used by the author to move Harry’s story along. Slughorn, on the other hand, refuses to be used, either by Harry or by Rowling. He insists on being himself. He pushes back against his creator and the hero. Harry is forced to react to him. Slughorn presents Harry with an obstacle, but he is not an obstacle, he’s a person whom Harry must deal with by changing his own thinking and, to a degree, character. Slughorn reshapes and redirects the story by being who he is.
The same could be said of Delores Umbridge, but I’m not sure I would say it. Would you? Is she a person in her own right or defined by her role as an obstacle in the plot of The Order of the Phoenix?
Sirius Black should have been a main character, but Rowling apparently lost interest in him, and in the end he’s pretty much reduced to a plot device, a reason for Harry to hate Voldemort even more. Sirius is Harry’s protector and Harry’s father’s friend and in both roles his personality almost doesn’t matter. His brother, Regulas, however, even though he never actually appears in the books, affects the outcome by who he was. Which doesn’t make Regulas a main character, it only highlights how Sirius fails to become one.
Lupin, however, and Tonks do matter for the types of people they are and so I’d list them as main characters, but they aren’t as important or as influential in who they are as Harry’s three fairy godmothers, Professor McGonagall, Mrs Weasley, and Luna Lovegood.
When I was talking my ideas for this post over with sixteen year old Ken Mannion last night, it occurred to me that McGonagall, Mrs Weasley, and Luna match up with the three witches who are the heroines of several of the books in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg, and Magrat Garlick. In both sets of witches you have the Crone, the Mother, and the Maiden. Ken liked this and wondered who had been influencing whom, whether Pratchett had been studying Rowling or Rowling studying Pratchett. I pointed out that Pratchett had got there first, but it didn’t mean Rowling had borrowed from him, since they were both working from the same folkloric sources. The main point is that Harry’s three godmothers each shapes Harry’s story and Harry’s character in their own distinct ways, according to their personalities, and not just by acting in their roles as his protectors and bestowers of wisdom. McGonagall gives Harry the benefit of a certain kind of grouchy but pragmatic wisdom born of long experience. Mrs Weasley gives Harry the benefit of a mother’s love and comfort and a mother’s wisdom that comes from a studied understanding of her children’s hearts. And Luna gives Harry the benefit of her particular and peculiar wisdom that comes from her having a totally non-judgmental nature that she leaves wide open to every new experience and human being. And at key moments each one helps Harry not simply by being wise but by being wise in her unique way.
I’m going to leave it to you to fill out the lists of major and minor characters. If you feel like it, slot some of the minor characters into the traditionally anonymous roles of messenger, servant, henchman, etc.
I’m also leaving you to solve the problem of Fred and George.
Illustrations by Mary GrandPre.
FYIATFOI (For Your Information and the Fun of It): The Witches of Discworld have their main adventures in Equal Rites , Wyrd Sisters , Witches Abroad , Lords and Ladies , Carpe Jugulum , and Maskerade.