Thursday, 25 April 2013

Why No One Loves Harry Potter

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


  1. This is brilliant and needed to be written and YES.

    I like Harry even when he's annoying. He's a good character because he's realistic. People aren't perfect; sometimes they scream and throw their headmaster's possessions across the room. xD And I think people who don't like Harry (*cough* LIAM *cough*) are irritated by how he reminds them of human faults in general.

    I think Harry is a pretty decent guy not just as a character but as a person, anyway. He's much better in the books than in the movies.

    I've been working on an essay-thingie about Katniss lately and this was really helpful. :)

    1. I'm glad! Personally I won't admit to any great fondness for Harry - he's just not the sort of person I engage with on the whole - but, as my post says, I think his flaws are considered a little too harshly in light of the things that happen to him, and his reactions to them. Yes, he is violent and daft, but he is also human and therefore viable to these faults.


    Harry, as I have told you, is a colossal jerk, and not remotely justified by anything in the seven books or this post. Though I like and agree with most of what you said, I don't understand how I could love to death hundreds of other flawed protagonists and can't stand Harry, one of the most "beloved" characters in children's literature today.

    Let's look at a couple other tight third-person, single-narrator stories, shall we? The last one I read, I think, was The Familiars, which I recently reviewed. The main character is a cat. (This is middle-grade fantasy, so yes, he's a cat.) He not only belongs to no one, but he steals to live, lies so he can have a good life, and has a very high opinion of himself and his skills. In that light, he's just as much of a jerk as Harry is. The difference, however, is character development. While Harry goes through all seven books saving the day again and again and again, he never changes for the better or for the worse. In The Familiars, the protagonist immediately forms an attachment with a human, something he didn't believe himself capable of, and though he continues to lie and be conceited, he has a good quality that we can latch onto. As the story progresses, he is forced to do all sorts of things he never would have thought of doing-- acting out of loyalty to friends, eventually admitting the truth when his lies spun him into a corner, and overcoming his own faults. In fact, there are quite a few enormous turning points where he shows his good points in ways we adore. Matt Myklusch labels these moments as great moments, "You can't handle the truth" moments, where we suddenly believe that yes, we like these characters and yes, we want them to succeed. Harry, nah.

    Pixar does this with every single movie they make: they create a character with a certain flaw, then spin a story in which the character must overcome that flaw or fail. By the end of the movie, we love every protagonist to bits. Harry Potter had flaws, but he was never forced to overcome them.

    I could go on, but I won't. I find myself writing novel-length comments to all your posts, so good job.

  3. *cackles*

    Liam, how closely did you even read HP? DH-Harry is quite different from GoF- or OtP-Harry. In the earlier books he's impulsive and not very bright; by the end of #7 he's willing to sacrifice himself.

    1. Probably because he's tired of sitting in a tent all day, every day. I'd be willing to sacrifice myself by then too-- if Ron won't, maybe I should! That sacrifice at the end of DH felt like a halfhearted last-ditch effort to make up for Harry's failings.

    2. I have to confess I do agree with you, Liam, to some extent. Harry doesn't ostensibly grow out of quite a few of his flaws, though he is more familiar with them by the end of the series (at least, that was the impression I got).

      I think a lot of the issues with Harry are the fact that, as you said, the development happens late - possibly due to the earlier books being more like childrens' books, thus leaving more developmental work for the later books in the series. "The Order of the Phoenix" also marked a major upsurge in ANGST that really didn't help Harry's case, too. It wasn't properly worked out or resolved, and it rather came out of nowhere. Much like that stage in life, you might say, but it didn't quite translate as well to the character and the story as a narrative might demand.

    3. That's my big example whenever I say that Rowling is a little too good at lifelike characterization: the angsty Order of the Phoenix. Several people have reviewed that book badly simply because of that. We've all gone through it-- no need to relive it.

  4. This is why I like my system. Get five different people to narrative it from a 1st person POV -- not only does that mean you get to avoid staying in the same person's head for too long, but it also means you can see aspects of the story that a single 1st person narrator wouldn't be capable of seeing, while still maintaining the close emotional attachment of a 1st person narrator. I like it very much :)

    My last two first drafts were 1st person single narrator though, and this one is third person from Ani's POV (much like Harry Potter is third person but from Harry's viewpoint), so I guess I do have to watch out for this....

    1. Heh heh, I wish I was better at handing multiple narrative viewpoints - perhaps I ought to practice, sometime.

      It's worth keeping an eye on, but to be honest there's not a lot that can be done about it. You just have to be careful of the pitfalls of the narrator, and maybe be less afraid to put some more interesting facets into them rather than keeping them the sort of staid likeable persona, because that's a bit dull, let's face it.

      Besides, everyone loves to adopt the side characters as personal favourites, because the love of the main character is usually taken for granted by readers because, hey, they've read the book, and one rather internalises the engagement with the narrator and views it as a given. Side characters often require a bit more discussion, as they don't get that same level of exposure, and different people can thus form different opinions more readily.

  5. I'm very behind on all this HP. (I've read book 1! That counts, right?!) But I do feel sorry for the numerous literary characters that get a bashing. I always go for the underdog, which usually (weirdly enough) happens to be the protagonist. While Sam is my favourite in LOTR, I really admire Frodo. I do NOT think he was a mammoth sook. I liked Harry well enough in the first book. I think, give a kid huge power, and he's bound to develop some nasty characteristics. ;) Katniss also gets a royal bashing (it's okay! I won't bring up Bella Swan!), but I LOVE Katniss. She wasn't a hundred percent self-less or considerate. Gosh, she played Peeta as a piece in the game. But I still love her because she didn't lie down and die in the cornocopia. She played for Prim! Sniff. And Rue. And...okay, I'm totally on a rabbit trail. Leaving.

    Mind you, I thought you'd stopped blogging, because blogger chewed your feed out of my blog-roll. I am SO annoyed. But I followed by email! So hopefully I will not miss any more awesomeness.

    1. Unfortunately, there have been several problems with email subscriptions. I give you fair warning: if yours works, you will have armies of envious would-be subscribers following in your wake.

    2. Grah, this is getting ridiculous - I thought you were all just ignoring me, but it looks like Blogger is up to mischief again.

      Hmm. This WordPress move might be taking place after all. I don't think I can put up with this wretched thing for much longer if it's going to keep neglecting to tell you all when I have a new piece of nonsense to confront you with!