Well, that has to be the most provocative title I believe I've ever written.
Harry Potter, as a character, has to be one of the most famous of our era, and may arguably go on to become a children's classic for its powerful combination of compelling story, emotional engagement, and its handling of heavy issues of discrimination, orphanhood, and the value of love and endurance in the face of seemingly overwhelming evil. We've seen these traits before, many times, but Rowling's saga arguably made them, for the first time, truly accessible to young readers.
When taken out of this context, though, Harry himself is often talked about more in light of his failings. Most of these criticisms, too, are rightly founded - Harry is simply the newest face of the archetypal 'Hero with a Thousand Faces', the orphan boy with a great destiny which he is fated to fulfil via his inextricable link with the dark power which he alone has defied. Tell me you've not seen this character a thousand times before and since, and I'll still think you're pulling my leg.
That said, I do not think all the criticism levelled at Harry is entirely deserved. Yes, he is a flawed character - and it shows. Look at his conflict with Ron in Deathly Hallows, when he launches into a vicious diatribe over Ron's concern for his family when they're supposed to be hunting horcruxes. Provoked by the horcrux or no, this complete lack of regard for other peoples' needs serves to highlight a chronic selfishness in Harry that has, if you squint, been present throughout the entire series. In the earlier books, Ron and Hermione join him in his escapades of their own volition, but in the later books . . . they're just there. Harry never thinks to ask why, or what for, they just are, and they always will be - or so he thinks. Ron and Hermoine, of course, do have proper motives for coming with him, but they are never seen truly through Harry's perspective, and the fact that Harry takes them for granted so often that the reader can genuinely find his complacency repugnant.
Of course, I'm not saying that Rowling should have made Harry a paragon of eternal virtue and selfless heroics - that would have been bad writing. Harry, just like the other characters, needs flaws and failings in order to make him realistic, engaging, and compelling.
But why do we pick up on Harry's flaws more than those of the other characters?
Because he's the protagonist.
Any character with a narrative perspective, in any context, automatically puts themselves under a lot more pressure. However, in a story with multiple narrators, the pressure is somewhat alleviated, as different characters take turns in explaining their side of the story, and give the others some outside perspective and breathing space. Single-narrator stories do not have this advantage. Even in books like the Harry Potter series, which take occasional detours into omniscient narrative for prologues and short moments of foreshadowing, the majority of the narrative is focussed on and funneled through a single perspective. By spending so much time inside a character's head, we see so much more of them and experience so much more of their thought process and actions.
This closeness is a two-edged sword. On one hand, it can form an incredibly strong empathetic bond between reader and character. On the other, we will also be more closely attuned to their failings and weaknesses, and may criticise them more for it than we would for non-narrative characters, whose inner workings are more ambiguous.
Furthermore, out of a simple need to help engage the reader, the author may take less risks in the construction of the main character than they might with side characters. Although this is not always true, particularly in mainstream fiction, the author is always aware of the risks of a story that hinges so much on engagement with the protagonist. If the reader cannot engage with or like this character, they are going to struggle to read the book, and may find it so offputting that they put it aside. However, characters who are too bland would achieve a similar effect, so the author tries to balance this out by using side characters to exhibit these potentially controversial traits.
The problem that arises here is that, sometimes, these side characters become a lot more interesting than the narrative protagonist. I've had just this issue with Ikarus, insofar as I need my protagonist to be able to balance the story and involvement of a pretty wide variety of other characters and their viewpoints, where they, as narrators, would not. Because of this, though, I have had to separate him from a more pivotal role in the story (where, arguably, he would lose sight of many other neccessary viewpoints and events) in order to give the reader the fuller experience of the story.
In short, the job of the narrative character is not an easy one; they have to not only contend with having to balance likeability with realistic failings and contrasts, but also have to try and compete with other characters whose degree of removal from the reader can make them a lot more interesting. It's very hard for a character who essentially serves as a vessel for the reader's viewpoint to retain the same intriguing ambiguities as a side character who does not have all these pressures upon them.
So, next time you think about Harry Potter, Frodo Baggins, Percy Jackson, or any other single-narrative protagonist, cut them a little slack. Their job is not an easy one, but it is, arguably, the most important job in the fictional world. Without them, we wouldn't have a story at all.
~ Charley R