Understanding Literary Concepts Through Harry Potter: Flat and Round, Static and Dynamic

A flat character is like a pencil sketch of a person. You have some idea of what they look like, what their goals are, even their basic personality, but none of the detail that would make them feel real. A round character is the opposite. They do have those details, and they come across as real people even though the audience knows they are fictional.

There are a lot of round characters in Harry Potter, but there are also many who have only a small part to play and therefore minimal characterization. Pansy Parkinson is Draco Malfoy’s mean-spirited and frivolous girlfriend. Hepzibah Smith was a wealthy and easily-manipulated woman from whom Voldemort stole Slytherin’s locket and Hufflepuff’s cup. Sturgis Podmore is a member of the Order of the Phoenix who Voldemort tries to use to get the prophecy. That’s … pretty much all there is to those characters.

On the other hand, if I said, “Harry Potter is an orphan raised by his aunt and uncle who discovers he has magical powers and is the chosen one of a prophecy”, I have only scratched the surface of who Harry is. I’ve said nothing about his personality, his morals, his friendships, his goals, his hopes, his fears, his doubts, his strengths and weaknesses, or any of the myriad of other things that define who Harry is. And, unlike the characters I mentioned in the previous paragraph, Harry has all those things and more. Flat characters can be summed up in a few words or a sentence, while round characters would require an essay to do them justice.

Another way to classify characters is by their character development. A dynamic character changes over the course of the story, while a static character remains the same. These two concepts are often lumped together, with the assumption that round characters are dynamic and flat characters are static. Most examples fit this pattern. For example, I named Pansy Parkinson as a flat character. Aside from aging seven years over the course of the series, she does not change very much. She does not reconsider her actions, but nor does she go any further down the path that she’s on, (for instance by fighting for Voldemort in the Battle of Hogwarts). In Deathly Hallows, she’s still the same shallow, unpleasant schoolgirl she’s always been. On the flip side, Draco Malfoy looks very much like a flat/static character early in the series. Around the time of Half-Blood Prince, it becomes evident that he is neither. His development in the final two books both deepens his characterization beyond the one-dimensional playground bully and forces him into a situation where he can’t continue to be just the playground bully.

However, a static character (who does not change) can also be a round character whose personality is well developed but remains constant. For example, Hagrid is a major character with a fully-developed and lifelike personality, but he does not change over the course of the story. The Hagrid who delivers Harry to his aunt and uncle’s house in Sorcerer’s Stone is essentially the same Hagrid who carries him back to Hogwarts castle in Deathly Hallows. If he changes, it’s in very small ways. The same is true of many of the other adults in the series as well.

It’s harder to imagine a dynamic character (who changes) somehow not being a round character. In order to understand why someone would undergo a major change, their character would have to be complex. It’s not impossible, though: one example from Harry Potter that comes to mind is Regulus Black. We know he started out as a loyal Death Eater and later chose to betray Voldemort. We know what he discovered that made him reconsider. But his actual personality is extremely vague and is revealed entirely through other characters’ descriptions. Ariana Dumbledore is another such character, one who goes through a dramatic change but is never fully fleshed out as anything more than a plot device. Both are purely backstory characters and are dead before the main narrative begins, and both are defined almost entirely by the change they went through, with very little personality beyond that change.

However, it is true that the vast majority of round characters are also dynamic, and the vast majority of flat characters are also static. Complex characterization usually leads to character development and change over time, while shallower characters who exist only as a pencil sketch idea typically stay the same.

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The Five Stages of Obscurial Grief

In the Crimes of Grindelwald trailers, there are clips of Credence apparently pushing away his obscurus – but as I said before, I don’t buy that it’s going to be that easy. I would guess that in this scene, he’s not permanently getting rid of the obscurus; he might be trying to, but I can’t imagine it will just let him go.

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According to the first Fantastic Beasts movie, an obscurus is formed when a young witch or wizard tries to suppress their magic. Credence was brought up among fanatical witch-hunters, so he must have been terrified by the early signs of his powers. By the time of Fantastic Beasts, he’s bottled up his magic and no longer seems to be aware of it himself, except when it takes control and turns him into a dark cloud of anger. Obscurials become what they are out of self-preservation, but the obscurus is like a parasite that slowly destroys them.

How do you stop being an obscurial? It’s never been done before. Credence is the only one to even survive to adulthood. Clearly it’s not as easy as simply accepting your magic, because Credence spends most of Fantastic Beasts meeting with “Percival Graves” in secret and wanting to join the magical world. He asks “Graves” to teach him magic and doesn’t argue when “Graves” claims he’s “unteachable”. Simply deciding that Mary Lou is wrong about magic being evil does not get rid of the parasitic dark force inside of him. However, self-acceptance would have to be the first step, because if you’re still trying not to have magical powers, there’s no way you’re going to learn to control them.

By the end of Fantastic Beasts, Credence isn’t denying the existence of his powers. He’s embraced them, and he’s letting them control him. He’s overflowing with anger and not trying to reign it in at all – although I think it’s noteworthy that even in his obscurus form, he never harms Modesty and begins his transformation trying to protect her. The obscurus is all Credence’s anger and violent impulses running wild, but it’s not acting blindly or randomly.

Extreme denial followed by violent anger. That seems to be about as far as most obscurials get, but I wonder if we’re dealing with a Five Stages of Grief type of process. Credence, after the end of Fantastic Beasts, is clearly no longer a dark cloud of anger ripping up buildings and killing people, at least not at the moment. That potential is undoubtedly still inside of him, though. The feelings of fear and betrayal that led him to transform at the end of the movie would certainly not go away overnight. I don’t think a lifetime with the Second Salemers would either; he’s probably still not sure exactly how he feels about magic. There’s no one he can really trust or go to for support: Newt wanted to help him but now believes him to be dead, Percival Graves turned out to be Grindelwald, and his family drove him to become an obscurial in the first place. It looks from the trailers like he’s found a friend in Paris, but until they meet, he’s alone. In other words, he still has a lot of emotional trauma to work through.

The remaining stages of grief are bargaining, depression, and acceptance. It makes perfect sense that his storyline in Crimes of Grindelwald would explore these, especially the first two. He’s now aware of his place in the magical world and presumably doesn’t want to explode into an obscurus, but he won’t know how to go about learning to control his powers, and he may very well still have mixed feelings about doing so. “Please, don’t let me transform into that thing again, I’ll do anything to stay human …” “It feels so strange to hold a wand. What would my mother say if she knew?” “Can’t I just be normal? A normal muggle? A normal wizard? Anything but an obscurial?” That creeping realization that he might never be a normal wizard and will certainly never be a muggle, along with his extreme isolation, could make anyone feel depressed and hopeless. I wonder if the emotional struggle for him in this movie will be less about repressed anger lashing out and more about being tempted to just give up. To stop trying to control the obscurus, stop trying to find a place in magical society, and let the dark smoke loose again.

If I were going to come up with a “cure” for being an obscurial, I think I’d have it be casting a patronus. The patronus charm is powerful and difficult to cast, something that is not even usually taught at Hogwarts, so to be able to do it, from a purely technical standpoint, you would have to be in very good control of your magic. It’s rooted in your happiest memories, and one of its functions is as a magical protector. It can ward off dementors, which – much like obscuruses – are physical manifestations of people’s most dangerous and desperate negative emotions. There’s a difference, of course: an obscurus is a part of the person it’s formed in, while a dementor is an outside force. However, it doesn’t seem like too much of a stretch to say that an obscurial who gained enough control of both their magic and their emotions to cast a patronus would no longer be at risk of letting their obscurus control them, and that such a negative force would slowly fade away in a person who it no longer has power over.

The Fate of One, The Future of All

I said in my earlier post that I think “the fate of one will change the future of all” is about Jacob. Here’s my theory.

A few months ago, I wrote a post about Grindelwald’s supporters:

https://hogwartspensieve.wordpress.com/2018/03/21/who-are-grindelwalds-supporters/

In that post, I said that, since most of Grindelwald’s supporters are apparently “unsuspecting of his true agenda”, there might be large numbers of ordinary, well-intentioned-but-misguided people among them, especially those who for one reason or another are forced to live double lives: wizards with muggle relatives, wizards married to muggles, squibs who grew up in the magical world but have no powers of their own, and so on. These people would not fit Grindelwald’s “pure-blood” ideal, but that doesn’t mean he wouldn’t mislead them and use them for his own purposes. Grindelwald seems to be less of a cold and cruel Voldemort type and more of a charismatic would-be dictator who draws people in with promises, lies, and ideas that look all right at first glance but turn unpleasant under further examination.

Of the main cast, I theorized that Queenie and Jacob would be most vulnerable to Grindelwald’s false promises, especially since the laws in America make it illegal for them to marry and for him to remember magic. They basically have three options. They can accept his memory wipe in the first movie as final, they can have a secret relationship but risk punishment (and his memory being wiped again) if they are ever found out, or they can move to a different country (Britain, for instance) where wizard/muggle relationships are accepted and muggles who marry wizards can be told the truth about the magical world. Wouldn’t anyone in that situation be tempted by a man who talks about bringing wizards out of hiding if he conceals the darker parts of his agenda?  The same synopsis that describes Grindelwald’s followers as ignorant to his true goals goes on to say, “Lines are drawn as love and loyalty are tested, even among the truest friends and family”, which certainly makes it sound as if someone from the main four will question their loyalties, and it would make all the sense in the world for it to be Queenie.

Queenie is a legilimens, but she does best with American English and has trouble reading British people’s minds. How much harder would it be for her to read the mind of Grindelwald, whose thoughts are probably not in English at all? She didn’t notice that he wasn’t really Percival Graves, so she very well might not notice if he’s lying to her about something else. He, of course, would know that she’s a legilimens, because it’s not as if she tries to hide it. Being a legilimens gives her a lot of insight that other people don’t have, but what happens if Grindelwald sets her up to meet with supporters of his who honestly believe they’re creating a better world and don’t know about the worst parts of his plans? In that case, it could be a weakness, because their thoughts would be honest and well-meaning and she would have no way of knowing whether they themselves had been deceived.

Why would Grindelwald want Queenie on his side? Well, she’s a powerful legilimens with direct access to one of Dumbledore’s most trusted allies. Maybe he wants to know what Dumbledore has told Newt, or what their plans are. In that case, she would still be with the other main characters even after her loyalties shift. It would be hard for someone so warm-hearted to betray her loved ones, and especially to remain a part of their group and deceive them about it while she does, but maybe she thinks they’ll all be better off in Grindelwald’s world. Maybe he promises their safety – and remember, she can’t read his mind to know if he’s telling the truth.

Even if all that happened, I don’t believe Queenie would turn to the dark side completely or permanently. I think it’s far more likely she would be tempted for a while, take a few steps down the wrong path, but then come back to the right side by the end of the movie. And what would be most likely to make her change her mind?

Probably if something happened to Jacob.

The new trailer has a voiceover that says, “Muggles are not lesser. Not disposable,” with shots of Jacob onscreen. It’s a man’s voice speaking, but the message is certainly something Queenie would agree with, and it’s clear that Grindelwald believes exactly the opposite. If Grindelwald did something to harm Jacob – if he treated him as “disposable” because he’s a muggle, if he’s hurt or put in danger because of what she helped Grindelwald to do – that would have to change her viewpoint. And if she then caught a glimpse into Grindelwald mind – because that combination of anger and love seems like it could fuel a some powerful magic – she’d be hit hard by what he’s really planning, but maybe it would give her insight into how to thwart him as well. If all that happened because Grindelwald treated Jacob as “lesser” or “disposable”, then … well … “the fate of one will change the future of all”.

The Sorting of Neville Longbottom

The Sorting Hat takes your choice into account, but it doesn’t always give you what you want. Harry was able to choose Gryffindor over Slytherin, but Neville was put in Gryffindor despite his preference for Hufflepuff.

In Neville’s case, the Hat was determined to place him in Gryffindor: Neville, intimidated by that house’s reputation for bravery, requested a placing in Hufflepuff. Their silent wrangling resulted in triumph for the Hat. – Pottermore

It’s easy to imagine Neville as a Hufflepuff. Even aside from the fact that Helga Hufflepuff took all the students the other founders rejected, and would have accepted him regardless, he’s a pretty good embodiment of Hufflepuff traits. He is down-to-earth, humble, and generous. He’s hard-working and always seems to try his best despite not doing very well in his classes. He certainly values fairness and justice, and he’s less-inclined to break the rules than some of his Gryffindor peers. Meanwhile, he spends the first six books as a timid, awkward, easily-overlooked kid who seems utterly out-of-place in Gryffindor. While he does show some signs of bravery, such as standing up to the trio in Sorcerer’s Stone and joining Dumbledore’s Army in Order of the Phoenix, it’s hard to say at that point that Neville is defined by his bravery. It’s not until Deathly Hallows, a full seven years after the sorting ceremony, that his true heroism begins to show.

So why, then, did the hat refuse to put him in Hufflepuff when it’s honored similar requests before? His preference was different from Harry’s in one very important way. While Harry asked not to be a Slytherin because he knew of their reputation for dark magic and evil, Neville was just intimidated by Gryffindor, not repulsed by it. He didn’t think he was good enough for Gryffindor and thought he would have to settle for Hufflepuff in order to avoid embarrassing himself. Putting Harry in Slytherin would have meant dismissing his values and denying him a choice. Putting Neville in Gryffindor, on the other hand, was a vote of confidence.

In many cases where a character doesn’t quite live up to what their house is supposed to stand for, I think we can assume the hat was trying to give them a chance for growth. For instance, Peter Pettigrew is a cowardly Gryffindor, but he was almost certainly placed there because the hat saw his admiration of his more heroic friends and hoped he could become more like them. Gilderoy Lockhart is an incompetent Ravenclaw, but his skill as a writer indicates intelligence and creativity that could have been put to better use. On a more positive note, Hermione grows from a stuck-up know-it-all to a courageous young woman as a result of her time in Gryffindor. It’s as if the sorting hat can see not just a person’s potential but where they’ll have the best chance of reaching their full potential as well.

Neville didn’t truly want to be a Hufflepuff or value Hufflepuff work ethic and fairness over Gryffindor bravery. He simply wasn’t ready yet to accept his own potential, and as a Hufflepuff, might never have embraced it. Being placed there would only have confirmed his fears of inadequacy, while being sorted into Gryffindor gave him a chance to grow in confidence and courage.

Or, in other words, the Sorting Hat takes your choice into account if you want it for the right reasons. It takes your choice into account if your value system doesn’t match up to a house you’re suited for, if you have a deep personal reason for what you want, or if your choice will give you a chance to grow into a better person. It doesn’t take your choice into account if your choice would limit you. Neville did value bravery and heroism and was simply afraid he’d never be capable of them, so by putting him in Gryffindor, the hat made sure that he would.

More Thoughts on Daphne Greengrass

A few minutes ago, I posted a poem from Daphne Greengrass’s point of view. Since she’s really kind of a blank slate of a character, I thought it was worth explaining a bit of my thought process.

Sometimes I like to imagine what a “good Slytherin” from Harry’s generation might have looked like. Not a Draco Malfoy type who turns out to be less evil than he’d like to be, but more of a Professor Slughorn: someone consciously choosing to “live within the light” despite their housemates’ decision to do the opposite. The problem is that all Harry’s Slytherin classmates are so unpleasant, and unlike the adult characters, they all seem to be unquestioningly pro-Voldemort. So when my mind drifts down that route, I have only a few very minor characters to choose from. My ideas usually center around Daphne and Astoria Greengrass.

The two sisters make only one appearance each in the actual Harry Potter books, but Astoria has a major off-screen role in Cursed Child as Scorpius Malfoy’s deceased mother, and is given most of the credit for what a decent person he’s grown up to be. Daphne is there in the background throughout the series as a member of Pansy Parkinson’s giggling gang of Slytherin girls. Neither of them plays any role in the conflict between Harry and Voldemort, so it’s hard to say what they would have thought or who they would have supported. At the very least, they weren’t actively working for Voldemort, and it’s not too much of a stretch to think they might have privately disagreed with their fellow Slytherins who were.

But, then again, what kind of conflict would that have led to with friends and classmates, relatives, future in-laws, etc. who were all either Death Eaters or at least in support of Voldemort? How could you be a decent, “live within the light” sort of person and be able to tolerate being constantly surrounded by evil? Hence, the poem I wrote.

You can read it here: https://hogwartspensieve.wordpress.com/2018/03/30/hate-a-poem-about-daphne-greengrass/

The Sorting of Regulus Black

Using the Hogwarts Houses as a basis for character analysis is pretty much my favorite hobby. I guess I’m just weird like that. And while I spend a lot of time thinking about what Houses characters from other stories might be in, I also have a lot of thoughts about the Harry Potter characters themselves, especially those that break House stereotypes. I’ve written about why Luna Lovegood belongs in Ravenclaw and how Peter Pettigrew – one of the most cowardly characters – ended up a Gryffindor. I’ve talked about the ways in which Dumbledore shows traits of all four houses, and I’ve got a growing list in my head of characters I think were probably given the same Gryffindor or Slytherin choice as Harry: Albus Severus Potter, Barty Crouch Sr., Rufus Scrimgeour, and Regulus Black.

Unlike his brother, Sirius, Regulus Black was not a rebel – at least, not at first. He was a Slytherin, like his parents and his cousins, and he later went on to become a Death Eater.  He is characterized only through secondhand information from those who knew him and never appears in the story or the flashbacks, but based on Sirius and Kreacher’s descriptions, we can get some idea of his personality.

Dumbledore describes Voldemort’s school friends, and by extension the Death Eaters, as “the weak seeking protection, the ambitious seeking some shared glory, and the thuggish gravitating towards a leader who could show them more refined forms of cruelty” – and that’s a pattern that proves fairly true. Regulus, who was certainly courageous and is never described as being particularly cruel, almost certainly joined out of ambition. He seems to have been eager for his parents’ approval and eager to do great things, but without much discernment or ability to think for himself about who to follow. Ambition is a Slytherin trait, and Voldemort was an expert at tapping into Slytherins’ personal ambitions in order to win their support.

Along with ambition, Slytherins are also supposed to be cunning, which is something Regulus definitely demonstrates. Nobody really knew until decades after his death how he had died or why – not even Voldemort or his own family. He came up with his plan in secret and made sure that it stayed that way, revealing himself only in a hidden note that was set up to not be found until after Voldemort discovered what he had done. That sort of careful planning fits well in Slytherin house. Then again, he planned carefully and executed flawlessly a plan that he knew would result in his own death, and he went through with it because he believed it was the right thing to do. Is that really a Slytherin move, or is it more Gryffindor?

Slytherins are supposed to be “brave … but not foolish” and have strong self-preservation instincts. They put themselves and their own safety first, along with sometimes that of their loved ones. It is Gryffindors who are known for showing selfless courage. They are willing to put themselves at risk, stand up for what they believe in, and lay down their own lives for their cause. A Slytherin who had second thoughts about working for Voldemort might have tried to disappear, changed sides, become a spy, or simply ignored their conscience, but few would have thrown their own lives away in the hopes of making it easier for someone else to defeat him. That’s Gryffindor courage, even if it’s Slytherin ambition that got him there in the first place. The star Regulus is named for is even located in the constellation Leo, and is nicknamed “the lion’s heart” – surely not a coincidence!

But Regulus was not a Gryffindor. Why not? Because Sirius was. Not only did the two brothers not get along, but Sirius was the elder, and his parents did not take it well when he was sorted into Gryffindor. Having seen how furious they were could easily have increased Regulus’ determination to be the “good” son and restore the family honor, leading him to choose Slytherin in much the same way that Harry chose Gryffindor. You could even say that Regulus Black is one of Harry’s foils, a Dark Side character with a huge self-sacrificial streak and a ton of Gryffindor bravery to contrast with Harry’s own secret: that he was almost put in Slytherin house.

What Makes Half-Blood Prince So Important?

Between the darker tone and heavier themes of Order of the Phoenix and the all-out epic conclusion to the series in Deathly Hallows, it’s easy to overlook Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. It seems lighter, softer, tamer, and far less significant. The movie was rated PG, while all the others from Goblet of Fire onward were PG-13. Its plot spends a great deal of time focusing on teenage romantic drama and day-to-day life at Hogwarts, while Voldemort himself never appears except in flashbacks and in the looming threat of danger that remains in the background until the end. It’s certainly not the most exciting Harry Potter book, and I’ll admit it’s not my personal favorite. But it does have a significant role to play.

Order of the Phoenix is about loss of innocence. Not that Harry has ever been totally innocent, at least not in the “sheltered and naïve” sense of the word. But in Order of the Phoenix, he has seen his parents’ killer return from the dead and murder one of his classmates, barely escaped with his own life, and attempted to warn his fellow wizards, only to be mocked, ridiculed, and viewed as either delusional or a liar by almost everyone. He sees the most trusted adults in his life fighting in secret to protect the wizarding world from a threat it won’t acknowledge exists, and at school, he does the same with his friends, forming a Defense Against the Dark Arts study group that grows into a full-blown resistance movement. Meanwhile, his dreams are haunted by that night in the graveyard and by visions of what Voldemort is doing, leading him and his friends into a battle against the Death Eaters where Harry loses one of his father figures and has to withstand being possessed by Voldemort. Harry has certainly endued hardships before, but this is different.

Order of the Phoenix is about loss of innocence, and Deathly Hallows is a high-stakes war story. In contrast, Half-Blood Prince is a last chance for Harry and his friends to just be teenagers. The world believes them now; the adults in power are doing their best to defeat Voldemort; Harry has heard the prophecy and knows he will have to face him someday, but that might be years in the future; and in the meantime, he has tests to pass, Quidditch games to win, and a growing crush on Ginny to deal with.

That doesn’t mean it’s filler, though. I would argue that Harry needs the chance to be a teenager before he sets off on his quest to defeat Voldemort. He needs to understand and experience the normal life he’s giving up in order to be the Chosen One. More importantly, he’s fighting to allow others – perhaps not his classmates, who mostly get drawn into the war along with him, but the younger students and the next generation – to live in a safer world where they will be able to live normal lives, and where teenagers will not have to fight in wars against Dark Wizards. Those moments “out of someone else’s life” that he spends with Ginny matter more than they seem to at first. Ron, Hermione, and to an extent all the children of Hogwarts are also given one last peaceful year before the full-fledged war portrayed in Deathly Hallows.

I said that Order of the Phoenix is a loss-of-innocence story, but so is Half-Blood Prince – not for Harry himself, but for Draco Malfoy. Like Harry, Malfoy has never been entirely innocent – he’s a vicious, mean-spirited bully – but in his own way, he’s incredibly sheltered and naïve. He doesn’t seem to have had an independent thought in his life and has never been through any real hardship. In Half-Blood Prince, he’s recruited to work for Voldemort and given a special mission to kill Dumbledore, which does not go according to plan. He becomes increasingly sullen and withdrawn as the year goes on, before finding himself unable to commit murder when the opportunity finally arises. In the same way that Harry transformed from child hero to pariah to resistance leader, Draco goes from playground bully to Death Eater to a conflicted young man incapable of either true good or true evil. Their stories are parallels that come to opposite conclusions, which makes sense since they are foil characters.

Finally, Half-Blood Prince sets the stage for Deathly Hallows. In Harry’s private lessons with Dumbledore, they explore flashback memories of Voldemort’s past, which allow them to figure out what kind of Dark Magic he used to make himself immortal and how to reverse it. His journey in Deathly Hallows revolves mostly around this, ending with the revelation that Harry himself must die in order for Voldemort to die – and, of course, the further twist that he doesn’t die at all. Dumbledore’s death at the end puts Harry in a position of having to face Voldemort alone, without his most powerful protector, while Snape’s actions seem to establish his role as a villain rather than an ambiguous character in Deathly Hallows, thus subtly setting the stage for the revelation of his true loyalty.

While the threat of Voldemort is present only in the background, it’s still there, and it casts its shadow over the whole story. Students are pulled out of school by parents who are afraid the school is not safe. Shops in Diagon Alley close down when the shop owners go missing. Bridges mysteriously collapse, morally-lacking opportunists sell bogus protective charms, and thanks to Polyjuice Potion and the Imperius Curse, you can never be quite sure who might not be who they seem. The war against Voldemort is raging in the background, a student is plotting to kill the Headmaster, Harry is learning and preparing to eventually fulfill the prophecy, and by the end it’s clear that he will have to do so sooner rather than later. All of this leads directly into Deathly Hallows, which in turn builds up to the Battle of Hogwarts and the final confrontation between Harry and Voldemort.