I think every novelist can learn something from The Most Successful Book Series of All Time.
Oh, yeah! It’s a blog about Harry Potter. So I should say this now:
SPOILER ALERT! IF (FOR HEAVEN KNOWS WHAT REASON) YOU HAVE NOT READ THE ENTIRE HARRY POTTER SERIES, DO NOT READ THIS POST!
In my own writing, I have a tendency to make everything sunshine and rainbows. I love all these characters, so I want them all to love each other. But that’s a mistake.
One of the best things about the Harry Potter series is the variety of bad guys Harry has to face. All is not sunshine and rainbows. Everyone does not love him. He does not love everyone else. Kind of like us, right? Though very few of us have faced a Voldemort, we’ve all got Draco Malfoys, Argus Filches, and (to some extent) Dolores Umbridges.
It’s like chiaroscuro in writing: Harry’s dark, negative relationships cast his good, loving relationships into even greater light. Readers experience added layers of depth and realism. J.K. Rowling invented an awesome cast of antagonistic characters. Love them or hate them, I think they are one of the reasons Harry Potter is a phenomenon.
It’s easy to include the Peter Pettigrews, Bellatrix LeStranges, and Voldemorts in any story. But how much more like life, how much more depth will there be if we also remember the Mundungus Fletchers, Filches, and Rita Skeeters?
So, here’s a rundown of some of Harry’s opposition, big and small. Heck, I’m even going to include the Whomping Willow, because when I first wrote this, the pollen from the tree next door was making my life hell.
Note: I’m using the term ‘antagonist’ in this post to mean ‘a character or force that makes Harry’s life difficult,’ which may be playing it a bit fast and loose with the definition.
I’m a linguist and I do what I want.
The Whomping Willow
Not all antagonistic forces are human, or even sentient. The Volcano in Pompeii and the tornadoes in Twister were definitely antagonists, terrifying because they cannot change their minds, show mercy, or care. They aren’t evil, they just are, and so is the Whomping Willow. It isn’t whomping Harry because it supports You Know Who, it’s whomping him because that’s what Whomping Willows do.
Still, it manages to punch Harry in the face and contribute to Ron’s broken leg and drive that poor Ford Anglia feral, so it makes the list. Populate your world with intentional bad guys, but don’t forget the unintentional ones. Nature can be scary.
People who should love us, but don’t
If you want to produce a really messed up character, give them an awful childhood. In fact, I think Harry is surprisingly well-adjusted, considering he grew up with these people.
There’s so much writers can do with horribly dysfunctional families and tragic pasts. Not only to motivate your character, but to show growth. Think of Hagrid giving Dudley a pig tail in the first book and how awesomely hilarious it was. Now think of the scene in book seven where Harry and Dudley shake hands and say goodbye. There’s so much in that scene. We all have families, in one form or another, and we’ve all fought with them or felt unloved (even if the unloved feeling was just us).
And how much more do we love the Weasleys because the Dursleys are THE WORST? Chiaroscuro, my friends.
The power-crazed middle-management antagonist
Oh, Filch. By the end I took the same gleeful delight he did in catching students out of bed after hours. Though he’s more of an annoyance to Harry and co. than a true antagonist, he deserves to be included because we all know him. Give a Filch a teeny bit of authority and he’ll use it to make all of his underlings miserable while simultaneously sucking up to anyone more powerful. You probably know several Filches.
But notice what Rowing did. We (at least I) don’t hate Filch. Why? Because she made him sympathetic. It’s hard to hate an ineffective buffoon who dotes on his cat, even a malicious one. We don’t have to dislike or hate someone just because our protagonist does.
Also notice that Filch isn’t against Harry. He’s against hooliganism and shenanigans in general. I think that’s important. Not all of our antagonists should be pitted directly against our hero. Someone who hates the class/family/category they belong to can be just as troublesome as someone who carries a personal grudge.
The chaotic. . .uh. . .neutral?
Can you believe Peeves wasn’t in the movies? Rude.
One of the fun things about Peeves is that he isn’t with or against anyone, his ultimate motivation seems to be his own entertainment. When it comes down to it, he does fight on the side of Hogwarts. But he also makes life hard for Harry by constantly threatening to discover him out of bed and chucking the occasional chair at him.
And don’t forget that your antagonists can also antagonize each other! Seriously. Who doesn’t love a good rivalry? Observe:
Peeves: “STUDENTS OUT OF BED! STUDENTS OUT OF BED DOWN THE CHARMS CORRIDOR!”
Argus Filch: “Which way did they go, Peeves? Quick, tell me.”
Peeves: “Say ‘please’.”
Argus Filch: “Don’t mess with me, Peeves, now where did they go?’“
Peeves: “Shan’t say nothing if you don’t say please.”
Argus Filch: “All right — please.”
Peeves: “NOTHING! Ha haaa! Told you I wouldn’t say nothing if you didn’t say please! Ha ha! Haaaaaa!”
– Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
He’s constantly around, doing selfish, annoying things that seem small but work directly against what Harry and the others are trying to achieve. Like when he stole Slytheryn’s locket from 14 Grimauld Place, or when he disapparated away from Mad Eye Moody in the seventh book, which directly resulted in the auror’s death. Mundungus isn’t an important, developed character, but his selfishness and general lack of morals lead to important things.
It’s probably safe to say we all know a Rita Skeeter, too. He/she may not write our secrets in a newspaper, but they spread stories all the same. The damage Skeeter does in The Goblet of Fire can’t be overlooked. She doesn’t work for Voldemort, she’s just a crappy human being. She’s dangerous not because of her magic, but because she’s seeking infamy and is willing to take anyone down for another fifteen minutes of fame.
The hatred of society
Often, especially in the second, fourth, and fifth books, Harry faces a lot of opposition by the student body at Hogwarts. They don’t exactly thwart him, but they do make his life miserable. Again, this throws those who stay true to Harry into sharp relief. When everyone around Harry vacillates between hero-worship and ostracism, we love Ron, Hermione, Neville, Luna, and Hagrid even more because they are loyal.
Sometimes the people we love act like idiots
Okay, so I just talked about how loyal these guys are. But we can’t forget how often Ron acted like a moron. I mean, I understand, because I get that whole living-in-the-shadow-of-greatness-is-hard thing, but no matter how understandable his reasons, Ron was a buttface from time to time, which forced Harry to be independent enough to do things on his own (with Hermione. . . does she ever turn against Harry? I can’t remember).
I’d classify Pettigrew as a henchman. He’s not really driving the bad stuff (though his actions in the past did lead directly to the Potters’ deaths, so he’s definitely important). Unlike Flich, Pettigrew manages to be bumbling and inept without being at all likable because he’s such a spineless suck up. Not all of your antagonists have to march around twirling their moustaches and threatening your hero with dire deaths. Pettigrew just wants to be one of the cool kids. He’s an illustration of how even harmless desires, taken to extremes, can lead to all sorts of evil.
Probably the actual devil
Oh my dear freaking fish on a cracker. There is no one I hate more in this series than Dolores Umbridge, and she doesn’t even work (to her knowledge) for Voldemort, though her natural cruelty lends itself nicely to his purpose when he takes over the Ministry.
She represents, IMO, the relentless desire to be better than other people. Any people. All people. This woman is a bureaucrat, but she rivals Bellatrix LeStrange for straight-up crazy evil in my book. And look how different they are.
I hate her.
The crazy-devoted henchman
This is the character who will stop at nothing to fulfill the desires of the #1 antagonist. In some ways, Bellatrix feels more dangerous than Voldemort because she’s nuts. She fears nothing, not even death, as much as she fears displeasing the Dark Lord. She’s so far gone that she actually wants to kill people she’s related to because they oppose Voldemort. Which is scary and insane and sad. But a Bellatrix is such a dramatic character that I think most of us have written a character like her at one time or another.
The bullying peer
In the earlier books, Draco poses more of a true threat to Harry, because Harry is focused on smaller things, like making the Quidditch team and being accepted by the other students and not getting expelled. He makes fun of Harry and constantly tries to jinx him and makes fun of him in front of other kids. And yet, he’s not so overpowering as a bully that Harry never gets him back. As the series goes on, Harry outgrows Draco, and yet Draco also grows.
Does anyone not feel bad for him by the end? I do. And that’s another part of Rowling’s brilliance. Though Draco is an antagonist, she allowed him to grow. She didn’t force him to be friends with Harry–they still don’t like each other at the end–but Draco is allowed a character arc, and that’s awesome (the same-ish things can be said about Dudley Dursley).
Honestly, I don’t know that there’s a ton to say about Voldemort. I think most writers get him. We’ve all got a Big Bad Guy. What I liked about his story was that I very much believed him. He always acted with purpose, and he never did anything out of character. He was dramatic, but never completely ridiculous. He was intelligent and talented, and he followed through on his threats.
If Voldemort had been less, so would Harry.
The one who sincerely hates the protagonist but loved the protagonist’s mother and so is not entirely evil and was actually attempting to keep the protagonist safe all along and went from the person everyone loved to hate to the person whose death made us weep
I don’t know that you can really classify Snape. I’m sure there are people out there who don’t love him, but these are not people I understand. When he’s being an antagonist, he’s just deliciously horrid to Harry and his friends. He’s unapologetically biased toward Slytherins and Malfoy at all times, even though he secretly hates the guy most of their parents work for. He genuinely dislikes Harry. He never once stops loathing James Potter or Sirius.
But he sacrifices everything to save Harry and Hogwarts. He loved Dumbledore, he loved the school, and he loved Lily.
That is how you write a character.
That’s all for now. I hope this can serve as a starting place for a bit of pondering. I’m tired of seeing cliched villians, or stories with only one kind of bad guy. Chances are most of us will not have a seven-book series, so of course you shouldn’t attempt to include all of these in one book. But think about them. See if you can add a Filch, a Malfoy, or a Rita Skeeter.
Chiaroscuro, guys. Drama and depth are achieved through contrast, and that means things shouldn’t always be sunshine and rainbows. Don’t forget variety in your villains.
Edit: Apparently this is timely, as J.K. Rowling released a short story about Harry the day after I posted.