Crimes of Grindelwald spoilers!
Harry and Voldemort have always had a lot in common. They were both orphaned at a young age, raised in cold and uncaring environments, and found the home they had never had at Hogwarts. They were both “half-blood” wizards, coming from old magical families but with muggle relatives as well, and neither of them knew about Hogwarts before they turned eleven. They both spoke Parseltongue and had the option to be in Slytherin house, although Harry chose Gryffindor instead. They were both natural leaders who drew supporters to their cause. Harry and young Tom Riddle are even said to look similar.
It occurred to me that Credence from Fantastic Beasts is a lot like both of them. He is also an orphan, raised in perhaps the cruelest situation of the three, by the leader of a group of witch-hunters who is implied to have killed his mother. He comes from a magical background (spoilers for Crimes of Grindelwald suggest he might be a Lestrange), but is raised by muggles and develops an obscurus by trying to suppress his powers. He does not go to Hogwarts and would be unlikely to be sorted into Slytherin; he’s an antagonist, but he is not ambitious or cunning, and is easily manipulated by others rather than being the one doing the manipulating. However, it seems like he’s become close with the Maledictus character, who is now confirmed to be Nagini, so he, too, has a connection to Slytherin house and snakes.
Credence is who Harry might have been if the Dursleys had tried a little harder to force the magic out of him. If, instead of stubbornly ignoring his early signs of magic, they had gone through with Uncle Vernon’s remark that his abilities were “nothing a good beating wouldn’t have fixed”. Credence is like a version of Harry who never got his Hogwarts letter, never met Ron and Hermione, and instead went on living with the Dursleys until adulthood. Like Harry, he is an unwitting host to a dark force he can’t control, which makes him a target for the main villain of the series: for Credence, his obscurus, and for Harry, the fragment of Voldemort’s soul that attached itself to him when he was a baby. In both cases, it seems as if there is no solution other than their deaths. No one survives being an obscurial, and Harry will have to die in order for Voldemort to die. However, they both survive their near-death experiences – at least for now.
Like young Tom Riddle – and unlike Harry – Credence is a creepy teenager who immediately looks like a suspicious character. His body language and way of speaking tell you immediately that there’s something wrong. And you’d be right. But while Voldemort is a sociopath and a vicious killer from a young age, Credence is an emotional wreck terrified of his own powers. He, like Voldemort, kills several people – including his muggle parent – as a young man, but Voldemort’s actions are cold and premeditated, while Credence is literally possessed by a dark force and is not fully in control of or aware of his actions. Credence, much like Dr. Frankenstein’s creation, makes the reader/viewer question who the real monster is: the thing doing the killing, or the person who created it? With Voldemort, no such question needs to be asked. His lonely childhood is not used to excuse or even explain his behavior, and the fact that he was conceived via love potion – the closest thing he has to Credence’s obscurial or Harry’s horcrux status – is something Rowling has described as “symbolic” of his inability to love rather than being the literal cause of it. He is clearly evil through and through.
I just recently read The Cuckoo’s Calling, by “Robert Galbraith” – J.K. Rowling’s adult mystery novel pseudonym. The main character, Cormoran Strike, had a rough childhood. He is not technically an orphan, but he might as well be. Although there is no magic and therefore there are no magical families, Cormoran’s father is wealthy and famous, while his mother was poor and died young. He’s not literally cursed, but things haven’t gone well for him. This is a recurring pattern in Rowling’s work; neither her protagonists and her antagonists come from stable and happy homes or have easy childhoods. Supporting characters like Ron and Hermione are a different story, but Newt Scamander might be the only lead that doesn’t have major family-related baggage.
The protagonist is the main character of the story. They may not necessarily be the “hero” of the story, but they often are. Obviously, Harry is the protagonist of the Harry Potter series.
The antagonist is the main character’s opponent. Harry has several antagonists, the most important of which is Voldemort. The antagonist can be, but doesn’t have to be, the “villain” of the story.
In the main Harry Potter series, hero/protagonist and villain/antagonist line up pretty well, but in some of the newer material, that’s not the case. For instance, in the movie Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Newt Scamander is the protagonist. Tina fills the role of the antagonist at the beginning, up until Percival Graves sentences her and Newt both to death, at which point she becomes his ally. Mary Lou Barebone is a terrible person, but she almost never crosses paths with Newt and his friends, so she isn’t much of an antagonist. Instead, the much more sympathetic Credence fills that role after Tina abandons it, with his transformation into the Obscurus providing one of the main sources of conflict. Percival Graves is the most clear-cut villain/antagonist in the movie, and the last-second revelation makes Grindelwald the big-picture antagonist who the viewer can expect to continue in that role in the sequels.
It’s harder to think of a protagonist who was not a hero. The only one I can think of comes from Tales of Beedle the Bard. The story titled “The Warlock’s Hairy Heart” follows a selfish young warlock who uses dark magic to remove his own heart and prevent himself from falling in love. After years of keeping it outside his body, it becomes shriveled and hardened, covered with hair. The young warlock is the villain of the story, but he is also the main character, and therefore the protagonist.
It’s common for the protagonist to be more villain than hero in older tragedies, where they are undone by a tragic character flaw. For instance, in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Richard III, and Julius Caesar, the protagonists commit murder for political power. They are certainly not good people.
When we talk about heroes and villains, we are talking about a character’s morality: whether or not their actions are, on the whole, admirable ones, and their values ones that the story is endorsing. When we talk about protagonist and antagonist, we are talking about the role that the character plays in the story. It is typical for the antagonist to be a villain, and in children’s stories like Harry Potter, almost unheard of for the protagonist not to be a hero. However, they are two distinct concepts, one describing the character as good or evil, the other describing who is the focal point of the story and who is standing in their way or causing problems for them.
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.
For the next post in my literary concepts series, I’m going to be discussing the hero’s journey. The hero’s journey is the basic storyline that many protagonists follow, beginning with a “Call to Adventure” and ending with great personal growth and triumph. It can be seen in everything from classical mythology to modern stories like Star Wars and Harry Potter. The stages of the hero’s journey have been defined in various ways, but I’ll be using Joseph Campbell’s seventeen stages as described in The Hero with a Thousand Faces. I was going to use Sorcerer’s Stone for this, but when I got to thinking about it, Fantastic Beasts is an even better example.
Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts does not follow a classical hero’s journey. There is no call to adventure or refusal thereof – he’s already been called and is in the middle of an adventure – and there’s no transition for Newt from the ordinary world into a special world, since he is already a wizard and very much a part of the magical world. However, there is a very clear, almost exactly step-by-step hero’s journey story in Fantastic Beasts, and it is Jacob Kowalski who finds himself following it.
Some of the names for the stages of the hero’s journey are overly-specific and don’t give a clear indication of their purpose, so I have paraphrased them. I have also moved “The Meeting with the Goddess” and “Crossing the Return Threshold” out of their typical order to reflect the order in which Jacob’s story unfolds.
The Call to Adventure: Jacob begins in the ordinary world, unhappy working in a canning factory and longing to open a bakery. He meets Newt at the bank and is accidentally exposed to magic.
Refusal of the Call: He is understandably confused by what he has seen and makes a run for it, accidentally taking Newt’s suitcase with him. Ironically, it is by doing so that he avoids having his memories wiped and ends up being part of the adventure.
Supernatural Aid: When Jacob is attacked by Newt’s murtlap, Newt, Tina, and Queenie help him.
Crossing of the First Threshold: Newt invites Jacob into his magical suitcase and shows him his creatures. Jacob realizes he is not dreaming and does not want to forget.
Meeting a powerful and helpful woman (“The Meeting with the Goddess”): Obviously, this would be Queenie.
Entering into danger (“Entering into the Belly of the Whale”): In this stage, Jacob, along with Newt and Tina, is arrested by MACUSA. The others are sentenced to death, and Jacob to having his memories wiped.
The Road of Trials: Jacob, Queenie, Tina, and Newt travel all around New York City trying to recapture Newt’s escaped magical creatures.
Temptation (“Woman as Temptress”): This really doesn’t apply. The main force of temptation in the movie is Grindelwald, but he never tries to influence Jacob.
Atonement with the Father: I’m not sure this applies to Jacob, but if it does, it might actually be his grandmother, rather than a literal father figure. He wants to become a baker partially because of her and apologizes to his picture of her when he believes he won’t be able to. By the end of the movie he has achieved his dream.
Apotheosis: Jacob finally comes to terms with the fact that he won’t be allowed to remember his time in the magical world and accepts it.
The Ultimate Boon: Realizing that Queenie is in love with him and that Newt considers him a friend. Later, Newt will make sure he does not have to return to the canning factory.
Refusal of Return: He spends most of the movie refusing to return to the muggle world but does so willingly when the moment is right.
Magic Flight: Not applicable. He does not have to escape with a treasure. His “Ultimate Boon” is simply realizing his new friends care deeply for him, which will lead to their helping him achieve his original dream.
Crossing the Return Threshold: When he steps out into the memory potion rain and lets himself forget.
Rescue from a final danger (“Rescue from Without”): When it seems that Jacob will be forced to return to the canning factory, Newt anonymously gives him a suitcase full of silver occamy eggshells to fund his bakery.
Master of the Two Worlds/Freedom to Live: Jacob is happier and better off for his experiences in the magical world even though he no longer remembers. He now has his bakery, and he bakes breads in the shape of magical creatures, indicating that he still has some memory of his encounter with magic. At the end of the movie, he meets Queenie again.
Theme. Symbolism. Conflict. Plot structure. Mood and style. These terms are worth knowing, but they’re not always easy to understand – and I say that as someone who absolutely lived for English class from about eighth grade onwards. When you’re already struggling to understand the antiquated language of your very first Shakespeare play, the last thing you want to do is decide which characters are flat characters or round characters, because what does that even mean and how do I apply it? But when it comes down to it, these concepts don’t have to be difficult or confusing. They’re a natural and universal part of storytelling.
I have a vivid memory of one of my old English teachers doing a lesson on foil characters. At first, I remember being confused, but then he gave an example that I knew so well, the pieces suddenly fell into place. I felt as if I’d always known what foil characters were; I just didn’t know what they were called. The example he gave was Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy.
Just before winter break last year, it all came full circle. I taught a lesson on foil characters. I used an example from a book that the sixth graders were reading, but after I’d explained the concept, I asked them if they could think of any other characters they thought might be foils. For a moment, there was silence, but then a boy raised his hand and hesitantly offered that very same example. It was as if, just like for my younger self, they suddenly saw the pieces fall into place. All of a sudden, all the hands in the room were up. They had examples to give, questions to ask, aha! moments to share – and just like that, a new, intimidating concept didn’t seem quite so scary.
That gave me the idea for a blog series, and it seems only fitting that I should start with foil characters.
Foil characters draw the reader’s attention to each other’s traits by being the opposite. They are often similar at first glance, but their differences are more important than their similarities. Harry and Malfoy are pretty much a textbook example of foil characters. On the surface, they have a lot in common. They are both Hogwarts students, the same age and gender, and play the same position on their House Quidditch teams. However, beyond these surface-level similarities, they are polar opposites.
They both play Seeker, which means they are often opponents on the Quidditch pitch. They are in rival houses, with Harry having consciously chosen Gryffindor over Slytherin. Harry has two close friends, while Malfoy has two lackeys to do his bidding. He seems to have no true affection for Crabbe and Goyle and certainly doesn’t see them as his equals. Even in their appearance they are opposites, Harry with his messy hair and hand-me-down clothes, Malfoy with his slick, polished look and traditional wizard’s robes (or, in the movies, fancy suits).
Both were born into the roles that they play in the war. Harry is the Chosen One of the prophecy, the only one who can defeat Voldemort. He is targeted from a young age, his parents are killed, and he’s fighting Voldemort from the moment the dark wizard re-enters his life. Draco, on the other hand, is a Malfoy. He grows up idolizing Voldemort and wishing he would return, and he’s eager at first to join the Death Eaters, although he becomes disillusioned as the war goes on. Neither of them has much choice in the side that they choose, but it would be a mistake to say they don’t make choices. Harry chooses to fight on many occasions when it would be easier to run or hide, while Draco often chooses not to make a choice at all.
At the beginning of the series, Harry is an outsider to the magical world and spends much of his time as a passive observer, figuring things out as we do. He reacts to whatever the conflict of the book is, but he doesn’t see himself as a hero and tries to live a normal life. Voldemort’s return in Goblet of Fire is the turning point, when Harry realizes that a war is coming and he will have to be ready for it. He spends Order of the Phoenix training Dumbledore’s Army and attempting to convince the world that Voldemort is back, while he spends Half-Blood Prince learning Voldemort’s secret weaknesses and investigating Malfoy, who he’s convinced has joined the Death Eaters. By Deathly Hallows, he is no longer an observer or a reactive character. He is a hero on a quest and a soldier in a war.
Malfoy, on the other hand, starts off the series as an active antagonist. While Voldemort has always been the ultimate evil, it was Malfoy’s schemes, taunts, and bullying that Harry had to deal with on a daily basis. Yet as the series goes on, Malfoy becomes more of a nuisance than a real threat. His role in Goblet of Fire and Order of the Phoenix is greatly diminished, he’s not all that successful as a Death Eater, and he’s totally unaware that he’s the master of the Elder Wand until after the fact. Just as Harry starts to become an active hero with a clearly-defined goal, Malfoy goes from being an enemy to an annoyance to little more than a pawn in other people’s schemes.
In Half-Blood Prince in particular, they are on parallel and yet opposite journeys. Both are taking a more direct role in the war, and both have been chosen to do what others on their side consider impossible: killing the leader of the opposing side. They both spend the year working to accomplish this, keeping it secret from all but a select few trusted people. However, while Dumbledore really does want to help Harry succeed and spends the year teaching him about Voldemort’s greatest weakness, it’s strongly implied that Voldemort chose Draco to punish his family for his father’s failure to retrieve the prophecy. He doesn’t care whether he succeeds and doesn’t expect him to.
In a way, you could say they were both chosen by Voldemort. The prophecy could have referred to either Harry or Neville, but Voldemort chose to attack the infant Harry and therefore handpicked the boy who would grow up to defeat him. Voldemort’s choices make a physical mark on both boys: while Draco is given the Dark Mark, branding him as Voldemort’s servant, Harry’s lightning scar is the fulfilment of the line in the prophecy that claims “The Dark Lord shall mark him as his equal”.
It comes down to a lot more than their positions on the Quidditch team or the fact that they are members of rival Houses. In fact, you could say that Harry represents Dumbledore and the Order among his peers, while Malfoy represents Voldemort and the Death Eaters. This larger-scale conflict at first plays out via Quidditch games and school rivalry, and as the kids get older, they themselves become part of the war they’ve already chosen sides in. Although by the end of the series, the rivalry between Harry and Draco is far from the most important battle being fought, it still symbolically represents the war in microcosm. It’s not a coincidence that Harry, having fought with Draco and taken his wand during the battle at Malfoy Manor, is then easily able to win his duel against Voldemort and therefore the war as a whole. Yes, there’s the Elder Wand explanation, but what it comes down to is that, symbolically, he’s already won.
Are there other examples of foil characters in Harry Potter? Certainly. Dudley is another foil to Harry, spoiled where Harry is neglected, greedy and selfish where Harry is generous and selfless, and – to an even greater extent than Malfoy – irrelevant and no longer threatening by the final books in the series. Hermione and Luna are foils to each other: one is the “brightest witch of her age”, but a Gryffindor who ultimately values courage and friendship more than knowledge, while the other is a Ravenclaw who is more perceptive, open-minded, and individualistic than book smart. The two often clash and disagree as if they were designed to be opposites, which they probably were. And then, of course, there’s the contrast between the two werewolves: the kindly, civilized Professor Lupin, who sees his condition as a curse, and the brutal Fenrir Greyback, who fully embraces it. However, Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy are probably the most intricate example of foil characters, with not just a few surface-level similarities to highlight opposite personalities, but contrasting plotlines and character journeys centering around a personal feud in which they are not just school rivals but symbols of opposite sides in the story’s main conflict.
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.