It’d be easy to think, Well, Hogwarts, of course.
The Hogwarts setting is so imaginative, so detailed, so enthralling. In fact, that’s what Rowling herself used to think (“the magic is so fun and the idea of this hidden world is so appealing”). But then in 2011, she changed her mind.
She had gained some perspective, she said, after talking to thousands upon thousands of fans. The appeal of her story had nothing to do with setting at all. What was it? She realized that:
[readers had fallen] in love with the characters.
Character Trumps Setting
Some of the most popular novels recently have had memorable settings (e.g., The Hunger Games and Divergent), so it’s tempting to think that a unique setting is the be-all, end-all of a blockbuster book. It isn’t.
Only one thing can create a fresh, gripping story: character.
Or to be exact: character in conflict.
How to Create Characters in Conflict
Sample Study: This Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Every year I reread The Great Gatsby, but this year I also read for the first time This Side of Paradise, which was Fitzgerald’s first published book.
One of Fitzgerald’s greatest talents as a writer was his ability to succinctly yet so clearly portray each of his characters’ inner and outer conflicts.
For example, here’s how he introduces the character Rosalind in This Side of Paradise.
Rosalind is—utterly Rosalind. She is one of those girls who need never make the slightest effort to have men fall in love with them. Two types of men seldom do: dull men are usually afraid of her cleverness and intellectual men are usually afraid of her beauty. All others are hers by natural prerogative.
If Rosalind could be spoiled the process would have been complete by this time, and as a matter of fact, her disposition is not all it should be; she wants what she wants when she wants it and she is prone to make every one around her pretty miserable when she doesn’t get it—but in the true sense she is not spoiled. Her fresh enthusiasm, her will to grow and learn, her endless faith in the inexhaustibility of romance, her courage and fundamental honesty—these things are not spoiled.
There are long periods when she cordially loathes her whole family. She is quite unprincipled; her philosophy is carpe diem for herself and laissez faire for others. She loves shocking stories: she has that coarse streak that usually goes with natures that are both fine and big. She wants people to like her, but if they do not it never worries her or changes her.
She is by no means a model character.
The education of all beautiful women is the knowledge of men. Rosalind has been disappointed in man after man as individuals, but she had great faith in man as a sex. Women she detested. They represented qualities that she felt and despised in herself—incipient meanness, conceit, cowardice, and petty dishonesty. She once told a roomful of her mother’s friends that the only excuse for women was the necessity for a disturbing element among men. She danced exceptionally well, drew cleverly but hastily, and had a startling facility with words, which she used only in love-letters.
The foreword to the 1996 edition of This Side of Paradise said that Fitzgerald was criticized for “the novel’s lack of polish, its dreadful spelling and frequent gaffs in word-choice.” These would ultimately prevent the book from reaching “the permanent heights of acclaim attained by his later works,” but still Paradise received “outstanding reviews and sold spectacularly.”
Because Fitzgerald built his story around interesting characters who were dealing with interesting conflicts.
Second Sample Study: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Great Gatsby is one of the most celebrated novels of all time—and it is all about characters in conflict.
Here’s how Fitzgerald introduces Tom Buchanan, a character who absolutely must be believable in order for readers to accept the story’s ending:
And so it happened that on a warm windy evening I drove over to East Egg to see two old friends whom I scarcely knew at all. Their house was even more elaborate than I expected, a cheerful red-and-white Georgian Colonial mansion, overlooking the bay. The lawn started at the beach and ran toward the front door for a quarter of a mile, jumping over sun-dials and brick walls and burning gardens—finally when it reached the house drifting up the side in bright vines as though from the momentum of its run. The front was broken by a line of French windows, glowing now with reflected gold and wide open to the warm windy afternoon, and Tom Buchanan in riding clothes was standing with his legs apart on the front porch.
He had changed since his New Haven [Yale] years. Now he was a sturdy straw-haired man of thirty with a rather hard mouth and a supercilious manner. Two shining arrogant eyes had established dominance over his face and gave him the appearance of always leaning aggressively forward. Not even the effeminate swank of his riding clothes could hide the enormous power of that body—he seemed to fill those glistening boots until he strained the top lacing, and you could see a great pack of muscle shifting when his shoulder moved under his thin coat. It was a body capable of enormous leverage—a cruel body.
Gatsby became a classic not because its setting of extreme wealth in the Jazz Age was interesting. It became a classic because Fitzgerald perfected the art of characters in conflict.
How to Create the Best Characters
One of Rowling’s greatest strengths as a writer is her ability to create complex, lifelike characters (Stephen King called her the current champ of backstory). I’ve included a chart below found on Tumblr which lists the different personality types of the Potter characters—look at all that conflict!
If you struggle with character development, I recommend Please Understand Me II by David Keirsey. It was my 2013 number one pick for best writing books. It’s actually a psychology book and it analyzes the sixteen types of personalities, covering everything from societal roles to parenting styles to sex lives.