If you were to ask yourself, Why was the Harry Potter series so record-smashingly popular?
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.
9 thoughts on “Don’t Fall into This Trap: Hogwarts Is Not Why Harry Potter Became a Best-Seller”
Another great post. Amazing work and detail you’ve gone to!
Thank you, maisymak! It’s always so gratifying to know that my post meant something to somebody. You might have noticed that I’ve kind of disappeared over the summer – I ended up taking an unexpected sabbatical (you know how that goes with kids, right!), but I’m back now – with a fresh perspective and a lot of exciting things to throw out to you guys. I hope your writing is going well and I hope to hear from you again soon!
I could get lost on your site for hours. So much love and depth goes into each one of your posts. Love this one…. and seriously, the Myers-Briggs? Brilliant.
You should be a motivational speaker, Jen – seriously! Thanks for all the wonderful compliments you’re always dropping around my blog. I’ve been a bit off my A-game these past few months so it’s people like you that help my brain get back into focus. PS: Your website looks awesome! Sending you good writing vibes!
OH! And Sextrology:The Astrology of Sex and the Sexes is one of the most brilliant backstory generating tools I’ve found to date… It’s a HUGE book!
Very interesting recommendation, Jen! This is one I wouldn’t have thought of myself, which is exactly why I ask others to contribute – so I can think outside of my own little box. I’m always looking for new ways to create more unique, three-dimensional characters so I’m definitely going to have to check this one out. Thanks again!
You should look up the enneagram of personalities. Another great help when it comes to creating backstory. Look it up as Claudio Naranjo being the author, he was the first to write about the enneagram. His best book, I think, Character and Neurosis. He’s the original source. For example, in that system, Harry would be a 4 (in the majority of websites they describe fours as artists, but it doesn’t have to be that way, all the time).
4s as a group tend to be intuitive, introverted, they could have felt abandoned in their past and still fear being abandoned in the present) I see this in Harry. For example, at the beginning of the order of the phoenix and the half-blood prince, he is quick to conclude that his friends have abandoned him and he got angry about it. He’s seems prone to come up with that explaination (which is a little pessimistic, too).
There is also a tendency towards jealousy and envy, like that time when he was learning oclumancy when snape saw the memory of harry feeling jealous of dudley’s new bike. Harry also seems to feel a little envious of people with parents and families. Other qualities that can be detected in fours and in Harry as well: bitterness, feeling loneliness and misunderstood (which is very common in Harry throughout the series), they tend to be over-dramatic, pessimists (and he tends to worry a lot, too). Another quality that is also very common in Harry is his tendency to crankiness, moodiness and feeling intense hatred.
As a matter of fact, there is a few characters that you could describe as bitter, and that could be explained by saying that they became bitter because of feeling prolonged jealousy towards somebody. Petunia Dursley (her sister, Lily Evans, because of her magical powers) Severus Snape (towards James Potter for being Lily Evans’ husband and of course, he also hated him for being a bully) and Filch (towards the magical world for being a squid).
P.S. Of course, according to that system, J.K. Rowling is a four, too. I just posted this because you said that you really, really wanted to hear my thoughts. Good work classifying the Harry Potter characters using the psychological types by Carl Jung. English is not my first language, he he.
Herus, you did a great job explaining the ideas behind the Enneagram of Personalities, especially considering that English isn’t your first language! I’d never heard of Enneagram before so I found this very interesting – thank you for taking the time; I’m definitely going to have to get my hands on that book. I hope your writing is going well and I hope you drop in again! (And sorry that my response is so late. I took an unexpected break from blogging over the summer – but I’m back now!)
You know, after coming back a year later, I’d like to add something to my original comment. I think you can’t create good characters being so “intellectual”. If someone is going to create a believable character, it has to come from experience, it has to be based on experience. If you’re going to talk about a jock, you have to think. How do people who practice team sport usually behave? Are they competitive? Doesn’t it seem like they’re slightly angry all the time? Aren’t they a little agressive in their approach to life in general? Of course, we have to be carefull to not fall into stereotipes. I think something happens with names: I don’t name my characters right away, I usually think about them, I try to picture their personality traits and I don’t name them until I start writing about them.
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