Monday, June 13, 2011

Characterization in The Boy Who Lived

In my prior post, Time-Turning Back Seven Books, I set out to analyze the first chapter of Philosopher's/Sorcerer's Stone to uncover any secrets which can be gleaned regarding the catalyst that started the Harry Potter series on its initial rise.

This series of posts will break apart this first chapter according to:

1) characterization
2) world building
3) mystery
4) stakes/conflict
5) backstory, and
6) voice

So, let's start the ball *rowling* with characterization!

For an overview -- this beginning chapter is constructed in such a way that the reader is first introduced to the slightly-exaggerated and repulsive Muggle family, the Dursleys. Although a couple of magical people or groups are sprinkled in through Mr. Dursley's work day, it is not until he turns the lights out at night that the three main wizarding characters step onto the scene -- McGonagall, Dumbledore, and Hagrid. By setting it up this way, JKR juxtaposes the characteristics of small-minded Muggles against the exciting wizards. And, as discussed in the first post of this series, by describing the Muggles with an intimate note of disdain, JKR prepares the young reader to identify strongly among the way cooler wizards.

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Of course, the primary ingredient for JKR's remarkable character development is her strong, vivid imagination.  She could not have conveyed the wizards and Muggles so vividly onto the page if she had not first imagined them in her head so vibrant in personality and so colorful in detail. But, as writers, we all know that it's one thing to see (and hear) people in your head, it's totally another to get them down clearly on paper in black and white so that your reader can magically tune into your vision as if expertly skilled in legilimancy. So, what specific techniques does JKR use to convey these characters?  Here's a few I've discovered:

  1. hooks
  2. weaving
  3. action tags
  4. words of others
  5. action and responses

1) Hooks:

I have a whole post on hooking your character, so I will only cover it briefly here. Hooks are an interesting detail that helps the reader visualize that character and distinguish him from others when first being introduced.

  • Mrs. Dursley -- long neck -- which hints at her snooping on neighbors, which also hints at her concern over keeping up appearances
  • Dumbledore -- sparkling eyes behind half-moon spectacles -- hints at his goodness of character and his wisdom
  • Hagrid -- giant size and emotional -- hints at his wild side and his good heart

Hooks are somewhat simple because they are most effective in the beginning, before the deeper character development has truly taken off.

2) Weaving:

Notice how references to the characters of the Dursleys are woven throughout here and there -- Mrs. Dursley spying on neighbors, then later, her fear of anyone learning about the Potters.  Mr. Dursley ignoring, in fact almost praising, Dudley's temper tantrum, then later his anger at the funny-dressed people. These examples of Mr. and Mrs. Dursley's character are woven in throughout the first half of this first chapter, with each example giving the reader a bit more understanding of who these people are.

When introducing a character to your reader, it is very tempting to tell the reader ALL from the first page. As writers, we've generally spent a very long time creating and getting to know these figments of our imagination, and we want our reader to love them as much as we do. So, we oftentimes flood our story with all we know as soon as possible. But, this tendency leads to telling rather than showing. As actions speak much louder than words, the reader will get to know your character much better as they see her in action. So, while some initial description is necessary by way of introduction, try to keep it to a minimum, and be as creative as possible with it. By far, the most effective way to let your reader and your characters get acquainted is by weaving in all those wonderful tidbits you've thought up naturally through the course of the story. And the most interesting techniques for weaving in character is through bits of action or dialogue.

3) Action Tags:

I don't know if there's another way of naming these things, but action tags are the brief narrative descriptions between dialogue that inform the reader as to who is talking now. Unlike the standard dialogue tags (he said, she whispered), an action tag shows action, but because of its location right before or after dialogue, also informs the reader that the person acting is also the person speaking.

Action tags are a great way to weave more action into your story as well as to develop character.

"My dear Professor, surely a sensible person like yourself can call him by his name? All of this 'You-Kow-Who' nonsense -- for eleven years I have been trying to persuade people to call him by his proper name: Voldemort." Professor McGonagall flinched, but Dumbledore, who was unsticking two lemond drops, seemed not to notice. (p. 11)

Word counts are decreasing. Now, more than ever, you want to get the most bang out of every word you choose. Optimize your tags by making them pull double (or triple) duty. Action tags that build character do this.

4) Words of Others:

If you post a review of your own novel, not many people are going to pay attention. But if someone else posts, readers will notice.

Likewise, readers will be much more interested in what characters have to say about each other rather than how the author chooses to describe her babies.

For JKR, McGonagall's role in this first chapter is largely to give voice to a lot of character description (as well as backstory) that otherwise could not be written as dialogue without her presence. Thus, McGonagall's interrogation of Dumbledore puts so much of the necessary narrative info into interesting dialogue.

Think of how much more effective it is to have McGonagall voice her reaction to Harry being left in the care of his aunt and uncle. Her disdain for this Muggle family immediately helps the reader to sympathise with Harry better than a narrative lay-down would have done. Plus, she verbalizes a great, active example of Dudley kicking his mother for sweets.

Before Hagrid roars onto the scene, the reader is given a heads-up through McGonagall concerning his character. First, he's late. Then, McGonagall's voices her dismay that Dumbledore trusted him with Harry's care. Dumbledore's assertion that he would trust Hagrid with his life lets the reader know Hagrid is a complex man viewed in a contrary manner by differing POVs. Thus, we are put on high alert for the appearance of the flying motorcycle and the giant, wild man himself, whose "feet in the leather boots were like baby dolphins." Really! I would never have thought to describe feet as dolphins!

Finally, this argument between McGonagall and Dumbledore about Hagrid's trustworthiness and Harry's placement with his aunt sets Dumbledore up as someone who thinks differently, more deeper, than the normal person. JKR did not have to TELL the reader any of this; she showed it through the words of McGonagall.

5) Action and Response:

This concept is very simple. How characters act and how they respond to the situations around them should contribute toward their character development. In other words, a character should always act and respond in character (unless so provoked that it forces them outside their comfort zone).

Mr. Dursley, when spying people on the street wearing robes, gets angry.  Mrs. Dursley sips her tea through pursed lips.  Dumbledore, in the midst of a very serious conversation, offers McGonagall a lemon drop.

In scenes with multiple characters, you can differentiate characters from each other and build their personalities by comparing and contrasting their actions and responses. For example:

McGonagall arrives on Privet Drive in the early morning as a cat. She sits on the Dursley gate all day, spying on them, waiting for Dumbledore's arrival.

Dumbledore arrives in the dark of night, appearing suddenly in a darkened corner. He uses a curious silver instrument to extinguish the lights, and instantly sees through McGonagall's disguise.

Hagrid arrives on top of a flying motorbike, cradling baby Harry in his arms.

Now, look near the end of the first chapter, after Dumbledore has left Harry on his aunt's doorstep and tucked the letter into his bundle of blankets:

For a full minute the three of them stood and looked at the little bundle; Hagrid's shoulders shook, Professor McGonagall blinked furiously, and the twinkling lights that usually shone from Dumbledore's eyes seemed to have gone out. p. 16

JKR uses one action to show us three varying responses from her characters, which help the reader understand their differing personalities.

This post is not meant to be a comprehensive listing of all the techniques JKR uses in this first chapter for character development, but it gets us started. What other techniques have you spotted?

** As a side note, look at the initial description of Dumbledore when he arrives on Privet Drive -- notice those "high-heeled, buckled boots." After JKR announced that she'd always thought of Dumbledore as gay, I often wondered if she truly had from the get-go. Why would she not have included it (upfront) in the story, I wondered. But these boots are a strong hint that maybe she really did. :-)

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


  1. I never saw Dumbledore as gay. That's weird.

    I loved her first chapter. The telling and the voice hooked me and drew me in. I recently read an anazlyzation of the first chapter from someone who thought it was terrible esp. b/c of the telling. But I liked it. To tell well is the hardest thing to do. :)

  2. Laura, I didn't see him that way as I read either, though I started wondering why she was making him seem gay in Deathly Hallows when it wasn't part of the story. Then, she announced it at a huge event in response to a reader's question after the release of DH.

  3. You know you never cease to amaze me. I absolutely love this analysis. And these are strong points everyone can use when introducing our own characters. <33

  4. I love this post!! Printed and added to my ever-growing reference notebook!!
    I agree with Laura, to tell well is a very hard thing to do!

  5. Great analysis here! These are really good tips. And I like that you changed your blog's colors! I can read it a lot better now. :)

  6. Lisa, you're so kind! Thanks. :-)

  7. Thanks so much Melinda and Laura for your feedback. And thanks too, Laura, about the colors. I've been wanting to change the colors for a while, but one of those things I couldn't do while life was so busy. Still playing with the exact look and layout.

  8. Really great post - thank you! I think it's also going to be the key that unlocks a troublesome paragraph in my current story, so double-thanks! :)

  9. This is a really useful post where you have the writing theory, and then show solid examples to back it up.

    Nicely done, and very entertaining.

  10. Kat - so glad it could be of some help! Good luck!

    Thanks Ebony, I appreciate your comment. And I enjoyed #writersroad chat on Twitter last night!

  11. An extremely thorough and insightful analysis - thank you! I got some really good tips from it - including that one that we are more interested in hearing what other characters have to say about each other than the author telling us!

  12. Thanks Margo! So glad it was helpful to you. And welcome to the blog! :-)

  13. Great post. I just discoved your blog and suspect I'll be visiting often.

    Some years ago I started wondering how Rowling might go about writing another book, and in the process of coming up with ideas, I discovered that I love writing fiction (even though I hate writing technical articles at work). So now I'm writing my own Hogwarts story to develop my writing skills. Naturally, I've been studying the HP books to learn her techniques, but it's great to find someone else who is analyzing her techniques too.

    Thanks again.