Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Shining Moments of Character Development

This is the fourth in a series of posts to analyze the final chapter, "The Flaw in the Plan," of Deathly Hallows.

(Spoiler Alert -- I truly feel this is not necessary as the books have been out for four years. However, if you're a fan of the movies who has not read the books, you have been warned!)

When finishing a story successfully, there is little (if anything) that ranks higher in importance than drawing your characters to a final, fulfilling conclusion. For JK Rowling, in capping off this epic, massive, seven-tome series, the pressure must have been weightier than Hagrid standing on Gawp's shoulders.

Not only did JK Rowling have impossibly high expectations from her fanbase, many of whom had written their own fan-fiction versions of the final battle, but she also had a humongous cast of characters to deal with, many of whom were competing with each other for most endearing role.

How well did she bring her characters to their final destination and how did she do it?

To successfully judge a character arc, we need to look at 1) where that character started, 2) what obstacles they had to overcome, 3) what changes occurred along the way, and 4) where they ended up. I'll cover the major secondaries below, but the primary characters will have to wait for their own post. Otherwise, this parchment would rival one of Hermione's.

Please note that even though these analyses seem rather long, I'm truly keeping them as short as possible, just hitting the highlights. It is not my goal to document every aspect of that characters growth…which would require a book rather than a blog post…but rather to point out what is most necessary to help us as writers see the techniques JK used to show (not tell) her characters' growth.

Neville -- started off a fumbling, forgetful, awkward, picked-on child. His character growth is startling. Throughout the series, Neville had to face not only the condescension from the other students, but his grandmother as well, all while living with the constant pain of seeing his parents as empty shells. But through his incredible skills in herbology, Neville began to believe in himself. He developed his own brand of bravery and strong convictions, obviously like his auror parents. When pressed to defend his friends, and to stand up against those he believed wrong, he became a true resistance leader and proved himself worthy of not only his parent's heritage, but his place as destroyer of the last, and only living and deadly, Horcrux.

Neville's shining moment is of course when he pulls Gryffindor's sword form the Sorting Hat and uses it to slay Nagini, the final Horcrux. Gryffindor's sword is like the badge of courage to the Cowardly Lion, a symbol of what was already abundantly clear -- that Neville was a brave leader of many.

Luna -- Luna started her place in the story as a rather flighty, imaginative, childlike teen, who, because of her unusual beliefs, was ostracized by many other students. But even through this, perhaps because of her earlier loss of her mother, she had the ability to see things and understand the mysteries of life others did not. This ability was put to the test as she joined in Dumbledore's Army and made true friends, but faced new adversaries, more merciless than her school chums. Forced into her own personal imprisonment and a certain loss of innocence, Luna maintained through it all her faith in human nature and her willingness to look at life differently. In the end, she was able to channel her belief in the fantastical and her extreme loyalty to her friends towards a great benefit, as she did when fighting in the Final Battle and when helping Harry escape from his admirers in the Great Hall at its end. Pointing out a Blibbering Humdinger she knew did not exist, Luna laughed at her own self in a way.

Luna's shining moment -- actually comes before the final chapter when she helps Harry find the diadem of Ravenclaw by getting him into Ravenclaw tower to view Rowena's bust. When confronted by Alecto Carrow, Luna successfully stuns the Death Eater.

Ginny -- To become our hero's love interest, Ginny had to prove herself worthy and strong. She goes from being a shy little sister to a very popular girl-about-campus to an understanding and comfortable companion for Harry. However, along the way, she faced her insecurities from knowing Harry barely noticed her, and certainly didn't look at her as anything other than his best friend's sister. She got along with her own life, becoming a prowess on the Quidditch field and a powerful witch capable of casting a Reductor Curse that even stopped a Death Eater during the Ministry of Magic battle in OotP. She also developed a strong note of compassion for those picked on by others, as shown when she goes with Neville to the Yule Ball and stops others from picking on Luna.

Ginny's shining moment is when she fights Bellatrix (along with Hermione and Luna), proving herself once again a valuable member of Dumbledore's Army, even though underage, and an opponent far stronger than her 16 years, a brave girl determined to stand up to her brother's murderers.

Draco -- Draco's character growth could be seen in what he does not do rather than what he does. It is the fact that in two critical moments he does not act upon the extreme prejudice and privilege to which he has been brought up and ingrained in him that makes his story compelling. Draco starts the series as a simple arrogant bully, determined to make anyone who does not align with him, as Harry chose not to, suffer. As the series progresses, and the reader meets Draco's father, we understand that he has been trained to hold the attitudes he possesses. Still, even when Draco is forced to kill to protect his family's position and his father's life, he is unable to do so. His hesitancy stems from the fact that he is not the black heart Voldemort, and sometimes Harry, would have him be. His mother's love has protected him from the depths of hell that has claimed Voldemort's lost soul.

It is in the Room of Hidden Things during the final battle where Draco has his shining moment. Unlike Crabbe, who shoots Avada Kedavra at Hermione, Draco stops him with yells to not kill. He then seeks to protect his stunned friend Goyle from the Fiendfyre, even to the point of risking his own ability to save his life by refusing to drop Goyle's hand to climb aboard Harry's broom. Draco has demonstrated that he cares about someone beyond himself and that, considering his upbringing, his inaction is a show of heroism.

Hagrid -- Hagrid started the story almost as the adult version of Neville -- rough and stumbling, made fun of by the pureblooded Draco, and forced by the actions of Tom Riddle to live his life literally on the periphery of wizarding society. Hagrid's road to growth begins with his journey to recruit the giants, a crucial role he fulfills along with headmistress and other half giant Madam Maxime. It is when Hagrid encounters the community of giants that he truly starts to stand up for himself and reclaim an aspect of his life that was once lost. Hagrid brings his midget-giant half-brother Grawp home to Hogwarts, putting himself in physical harm in the process. It is Hagrid's firm belief in the good in all living creatures, no matter how monstrous, that is his true strength and what brings him to his triumphant concluding arc. For it is largely because of Hagrid that centaurs, thestrals, and Grawp join the final battle. Their fierce attack upon the Death Eaters ushers the combatants into chaotic confusion into the Great Hall where Harry can take his final stand.

Hagrid's shining moment is when in a moment reminiscent of him bringing the sleeping baby Harry to Privet Drive at the beginning of the series, Hagrid carries the pseudo-dead body of Harry into the final battle. In alchemical terms, Hagrid symbolizes the Red Man who ushers the completely broken down body of the prima material into his golden moment of resurrection.

Mrs. Weasley -- Molly went from being the ultimate Mum to the fiercest Amazon on the battlefield, singlehandedly bringing down Voldemort's most loyal Death Eater. Along the way, we see Molly progress from a somewhat harried mother, not sure of which twin is which, giving Ron the sandwiches he doesn't like, to taking Harry in as one of her own, to standing up to Sirius when she believes he is in the wrong. Along the way she becomes the fierce motherly lioness, both capable of defending and attacking her own cubs when they do wrong, while battling her very real fears of the potential deaths of her beloved children.

Molly's shining moment was, of course, her slaying of Bellatrix to protect not only her daughter, but all the other children in the wizarding world as well. How many of us will ever forget -- "NOT MY DAUGHTER, YOU BITCH!"?

JKR deliberately choose this mother and housewife to be the killer of her most evil female counterpart. Jo said this was very important to her, to show the strength and ultimate veracity of maternal love.

McGonagall -- Contrasted with Mrs. Weasley, McGonagall, was introduced to the reader as a very stern, upright person, instantly recognized by Dumbledore, even as a cat, because of her rigid composure. She tolerated no shenanigans either inside or outside her class, and was even willing to deduct points from her own house for Harry's rule breaking. Even though awesome in powers herself, she seems to be always secondary in comparison to the wisdom of Dumbledore or the intrigue of Snape. However, throughout the series, her warm side began to seep through the cracks. Is it she who uttered the first and most horrible scream of denial at the sight of Harry's "dead" body.

It is in the Final Battle where Minerva McGonagall fulfills her latent potential in her shining moment. True to her name as the goddess of war, she took charge inside the castle to prepare for the battle of Hogwarts. She prepared the other professors to protect and enchant the castle, transfigured the suits of armor herself to do battle, then organized the younger student to leave and the older to stay and protect. She made a brilliantly capable, as well as warmhearted, commanding general.

So much of the strength of JK Rowling's series lies in the depth and quirkiness of her characters. I think she was able to bring these pen and paper creations to engaging life because they lived so fully in her head. This ability to visualize her creations in such detail must be because she's the kind of person who finds people an endless source of amusement and fascination. I imagine that JKR is a people watcher, constantly studying those around her and analyzing why they act the way they do. It is this fascination with human nature, with a benign sense of humor and understanding of their foibles, and yet a rapier-sharp anger at the needless bigotry and greed that causes others harm and loss, which she is able to so successfully embody in her characters.

Do you watch people? Do you study them, seeking below their superficial appearance to try to understand what motivates them? What unique characteristics, mannerisms, foibles make each person you meet on a daily basis completely unique, and in their own way interesting? How can you bring these characteristics to life on the paper?

Everyday people can be just as intriguing as Hagrid and Luna…if you find them so. If you're a person who likes to study and understand others, you can learn the techniques to make your own ink and paper creations breathe a full life as well.

While writing in an exotic, fantastic world does give JKR a certain edge in creating eccentric, memorable characters, her basic skills are still ones we can apply to our own writing, no matter the genre.  Draw your characters, even your secondaries, in engaging, intriguing, yet realistic detail.  Get at their hearts to understand what they are good at...and as with the boggart in the cupboard, what they most fear.  Give each character a goal and a reason to be motivated toward this goal.  Make each one face a stumbling block, a hardship or conflict they have to fight against toward attaining this goal. Make your characters conquer real challenges before achieving their triumphs. And through all this, show your characters' choices and development with action, not just with narrative words.

Note: The primary characters I will cover in a separate post include: Ron, Hermione, Dumbledore, Snape, Voldemort, and, of course, Harry.

What tools do you use to complete your character arcs? How do you show with action their overcoming of obstacles?

(Check Out JK Rowling's Newest Release -- Harry Potter and the Cursed Child here!) 


  1. I ADORE that Jo had such careful and true character arcs for so many. I think you did a fantastic job summarizing them. Neville's and Draco's are, I think, my favorite of the minor characters, but I think this is largely because those are the ones we got to see the WHY for how they began... it made the overcoming sweeter.

    My favorite McGonagall moment is asking Amycus (in the Ravenclaw tower) "Why would Potter be here? Potter belongs in my house!" (I loved everywhere, though, where she behaved unexpectedly--I always LIKED her, but I grew to love her in Order of the Phoenix with defying Umbridge and the glimpses of what is underneath the stern exterior.

  2. Wonderful post. As a rapid HP fan, you said it right.

  3. Thanks Hart and Donna!

    And Hart, I thought so hard about including that moment in Ravenclaw as well, but even though it doesn't look like it, I was trying to keep the post short! :-)

    I always loved how JKR would have McGonagall giving punishments with one hand and passing muffins with the other. Well done!

  4. I really like this post. The one thing that I wish I could do more of is people watch. But I'm always too busy to just sit somewhere and watch people--especially since I graduated college.

    I always thought Hagrid's most redeeming moment came in Order of the Phoenix when McGonagle got hit with multiple stunning curses by the Ministry wizards. Hagrid stormed the field in a blind rage, hexes bouncing off of him impotently because of his giant blood. Then? He scoops her up and hauls her to safety. It's one of the moments I was furious that they left out of the movie.

  5. I only just realized I misspelled McGonagall. *face palm* My bad.

  6. Great post! And you made me tear up at remembering all those characters' shining moments. *sigh*

  7. I sorry to be this slow to respond! I got distracted with the PotterChat stuff the last two days!

    J.M. -- I always worry about misspelling lots of Potter names and have to constantly look them up. So don't worry about it here! And I quite agree with you about the Hagrid/McGonagall moment. I loved that one as well.

    Thanks Jami! :-)

  8. You listed wonderful incidents as defining moments for each character..
    I've been looking for a harrypotter-fan blog for months. Today on a hunch I googled it, and it turned up your blog. I just wanted to follow you, then come back and browse tomorrow. But I gotta say, I'm hooked..
    Dumbledore, ofcourse.. we cried when he fell off the tower.. and laughed for Dobby when he said 'You shall not harm Harry Potter'.. and grinned when McGonagall whispered to Peeves 'It unscrews the other way'
    Your posts bring back memories of nosing through the books worse than a Sniffler.. thanks.. keep posting..

  9. Wow, Sunny! Thanks so much. I'm so glad you found my blog. I LOVED when McGonagall said that to Peeves.

    I hope you keep coming back this month as I'll be posting daily, but shorter, to inspire those doing NaNoWriMo.