Last time on Chronicles in Creation, we looked at how designing compelling characters is, like all vitally important things, difficult to do. Today we’re taking an in-depth look at one of the finest examples of the art in recent times: Harry Potter, Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger – the Golden Trio – by JK Rowling. In fact, this post is so in-depth that I’ve had to split it into two parts. For Part 2 click here.
SPOLER WARNING – I’d like to think this was obvious, but this post is going to be talking about the plots of multiple Harry Potter books in great detail! If you aren’t familiar with these works, maybe skip this post?
Character Flaws vs Character Traits
A lot of writing advice on character-creation starts by emphasising how important it is to make sure your characters have ‘flaws’ as well as ‘strengths’. Essentially we’re told that there are ‘good traits’ and ‘bad traits’ and that characters should have a balance of them. I’m never very convinced about this, as I feel that it can be very limiting and potentially really damaging as well. Think about it; what exactly are ‘good qualities’? Being clever? How are you going to define that? Many people might say something along the lines of ‘is good with books’ but what about people who can build beautiful works of art or craft really useful objects with their hands, but can’t read or write easily? Is ‘patience’ a good trait? What if that just means the character never stands up for themselves and suffers needlessly?
There’s also the concern that this binary thinking can easily be used against people. ‘Female traits’ – such as domestic skills, loving relationships, gentleness – are often shown as being ‘bad’ or at least are undervalued, and more masculine traits – physical fitness, skill with weapons, the ability to intimidate one’s foes into submission – are often considered as ‘good’ and to be emulated. This has been challenged in recent years, but it’s worth looking past the efforts to redefine ‘good/bad’ in characters and challenge the idea of binary character traits at all. Changing one binary definition of ‘good trait/bad trait’ isn’t addressing the real problem here, it’s just swapping out the window-dressing.
There’s a school of thought I’ve discovered recently which really struck me as a much better model. The idea is that rather than divide characters up into ‘strengths’ and ‘flaws’, you simply give each character a variety of character traits, which can be good or bad to have depending on the character’s circumstances, and then keep putting them into situations where they are at an advantage or disadvantage.
This strikes me as a much better model because it provides writers with far more possibilities. Think about it: a main character who has ‘flaws’ must, by the end of the story, either have conquered those flaws and eradicated them from their being, or succumb to those flaws and ultimately fail on some level. Those are your two options here for a satisfying ending. And that can get very repetitive.
By giving a character traits however, they have to learn that all of human traits have positive and negative aspects and therefore a character must strive for balance between these aspects. The narrative is set free from ‘overcome your flaws’ and can instead explore the full extent of its characters, watching them grapple with situations that they cannot excel in naturally, but may triumph in through struggle and effort. It’s much more realistic for readers, who also live in a difficult world which doesn’t magically fit in with our strengths, and by not forcing the narrative into a well-worn formula, the writer has more creative freedom too!
I’d also like to mention that it’s less potentially damaging to readers who aren’t willing or able to fit the conventional ideas about what’s ‘good’ in fictional characters and by extension real people, but I’m not the first person to say that and others have done it better elsewhere.
So, how does JK Rowling help us here? JK Rowling has created some of the most memorable and relatable characters in modern fiction, and she’s done this by specifically constructing her stories around the idea that it is not a person’s intrinsic traits which make them good or bad, but the actions that person chooses to take.
As Dumbledore so wisely tells Harry in The Chamber of Secrets: “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”
#1 – Give Everyone Distinct Traits (Make Them Stand Out From Each Other)
You know what readers hate? Not being able to tell characters apart. The more characters you have, the more they need to stand out from each other instantly so readers aren’t stuck flicking through pages trying to work out who’s speaking to them, etc.
So give your characters their own very distinct personal traits that they can be easily identified by.
Harry, Ron and Hermione are really good examples of this – yes, they work together well as a team, but they are each very distinct from each other and those around them. You aren’t going to mix up Ron’s dialogue with Neville Longbottom, are you?
JK Rowling is also clever in designing the trio’s main traits; each trait is shown as having positives and negatives, and usually she will display both sides within the same chapter. But like all good writers, she doesn’t sit the reader down and just tell us this straight, but shows us the benefits and drawbacks through the character’s lives and interactions.
Let’s take a look…
The word I would describe Harry as he gets established at the start of the series is undoubtedly ‘Fast’. He’s physically fast, of course:
Dudley’s favourite punching bag was Harry, but he couldn’t often catch him. Harry didn’t look it, but he was very fast.
Which is later expanded on when he learns to fly and is shown to be brilliant at the role of Seeker. But he’s also prone to doing things without thinking, as if his actions are so fast his brain hasn’t caught up yet:
‘I had a dream about a motorbike,’ said Harry, remembering suddenly. ‘It was flying.’
Uncle Vernon nearly crashed into the car in front. He turned right around in his seat and yelled at Harry, his face like a gigantic beetroot with a moustache: ‘MOTORBIKES DON’T FLY!’
Dudley and Piers sniggered.
‘I know they don’t,’ said Harry. ‘It was only a dream.’
But he wished he hadn’t said anything.
Later on in the series, we see that Harry’s tendency to act without thinking can be both a help and a hindrance. He can think on his feet and act in a crisis like no other character, which saves his life on multiple occasions, but he also drops himself into trouble just as often by acting without thinking things through.
This might sound weird, but if pressed to say what trait was unique about Ron Weasley, I’d say ‘Family’ every time. Yes, Ron is his own person, but as a character he is defined primarily by his large family, especially at the start. No other family featuring in the whole series is so numerous; seven children in total. No other features as prominently as a group. The Weasleys are tightly knit, and often come in as the sources of help. Ron contacts his brother to smuggle Norbert the Norwegian Ridgeback out of Hogwarts, the twins help Harry out as Quidditch team-mates and later in the books with the Marauders’ Map and such.
Ron is introduced to us for the first time absolutely surrounded by his family, contrasting with Harry who is on his own having been abandoned by the Dursleys at the station. The initial benefit is clear – Harry, without any kind of inherited knowledge has no idea about catching his train to Hogwarts, but Ron, with his mother and brothers already familiar with Platform 9 ¾, knows exactly what to do.
‘Hello, dear,’ she said. ‘First time at Hogwarts? Ron’s new, too.’
She pointed at the last and youngest of her sons. He was tall, thin, and gangling, with freckles, big hands and feet, and a long nose.
‘Yes,’ said Harry. ‘The thing is — the thing is, I don’t know how to –’
‘How to get onto the platform?’ she said kindly, and Harry nodded.
‘Not to worry,’ she said. ‘All you have to do is walk straight at the barrier between platforms nine and ten. Don’t stop and don’t be scared you’ll crash into it, that’s very important. Best do it at a bit of a run if you’re nervous. Go on, go now before Ron.’
‘Er — okay,’ said Harry.
But once Ron and Harry start talking, the downsides of so many others going before you are fairly obvious too.
‘Wish I’d had three wizard brothers.’
‘Five,’ said Ron. For some reason, he was looking gloomy. ‘I’m the sixth in our family to go to Hogwarts. You could say I’ve got a lot to live up to. Bill and Charlie have already left – Bill was Head Boy and Charlie was captain of Quidditch. Now Percy’s a Prefect. Fred and George mess around a lot, but they still get really good marks and everyone thinks they’re really funny. Everyone expects me to do as well as the others, but if I do, it’s no big deal, because they did it first.’
Harry may be standing alone, but he’s never going to be overshadowed by anyone else either. Ron’s family is constantly present in his life, contrasting him with Harry’s family, only ever felt by their absence.
Hermione’s main trait is much easier to identify; she’s book smart to a fantastic degree. Everything she knows about the wizarding world, she learned from books. Books are how she relates to the world.
‘Nobody in my family’s magic at all, it was ever such a surprise when I got my letter, but I was ever so pleased, of course, I mean, it’s the very best school of witchcraft there is, I’ve heard — I’ve learned all our course books by heart, of course, I just hope it will be enough — I’m Hermione Granger, by the way, who are you.’
Hermione is unique in the Golden Trio; she has to wait four chapters for the inherent weakness of her main trait to be highlighted. This is because it simply takes this long for her to be put into a situation where her book smarts can’t help her. JK Rowling didn’t try and force this information upon the reader, it just comes along naturally when the occasion is there:
Hermione Granger was almost as nervous about flying as Neville was. This was something you couldn’t learn by heart out of a book- not that she hadn’t tried. At breakfast on Thursday she bored them all stupid with flying tips she’d gotten out of a library book called Quidditch Through the Ages. Neville has hanging on to her every word, desperate for anything that might help him hang on to his broomstick later, but everybody else was very pleased when Hermione’s lecture was interrupted by the arrival of the mail.
Hermione throughout the entire Harry Potter series absolutely hates flying. Like, she really hates it, and this isn’t a major drawback in everyday life but the books keep on having moments when she can’t get out of it. With Hogwarts being a school environment, she has plenty of opportunities so show the good sides of her ability to memorise and regurgitate information from her books and is rewarded with praise and House Points, but JK Rowling never forgets to find situations where Hermione is at a disadvantage either.
There are good and bad sides of all traits, if you think about it, and Rowling shows them off clearly to her readers whenever it is appropriate. She never over-does it, to the point where Harry being a fast flyer is a bad idea, for example, or where readers might wish that Ron didn’t have a family because they keep getting in the way. It’s always done just enough that we can see that nothing is a completely good or bad thing.
#2 – When Grouping Characters, Always Put Contrasting Traits Together
You know what no one likes, again? Everyone on the page being the same. Literally nothing is more boring than a group of characters who might as well be interchangeable. It’s not just dull, it encourages that slide into that ‘good trait/bad trait’ thinking we’re avoiding here too; if the heroes all have the same traits, even if the antagonists don’t you’re still sending a message that these traits are objectively ‘the best’.
The Golden Trio are amazingly well-grouped, because they are all each other’s opposites, yet they all have things in common. In the Harry Potter books, their shared traits are what prevents them from being each other’s antagonists, but because they are all so different too, the readers can appreciate the conscious choice each member has made to be a part of the group, so their camaraderie feels earned.
As we’ve already seen, Ron is immediately introduced as the polar opposite from Harry with his large family and he also has diverse native-born wizarding knowledge, providing Harry’s character with something new to contrast against his inexperience with this new world.
‘What are these?’ Harry asked Ron, holding up a pack of Chocolate Frogs. ‘They’re not really frogs, are they?’ He was starting to feel that nothing would surprise him.
‘No,’ said Ron. ‘But see what the card is. I’m missing Agrippa.’
‘Oh, of course, you wouldn’t know — Chocolate Frogs have cards, inside them, you know, to collect — famous witches and wizards. I’ve got about five hundred, but I haven’t got Agrippa or Ptolemy.’
Harry unwrapped his Chocolate Frog and picked up the card. It showed a man’s face. He wore half- moon glasses, had a long, crooked nose, and flowing silver hair, beard, and moustache. Underneath the picture was the name Albus Dumbledore.
‘So this is Dumbledore!’ said Harry.
‘Don’t tell me you’d never heard of Dumbledore!” said Ron. “Can I have a frog? I might get Agrippa – thanks.’
…Harry turned the card back over and saw, to his astonishment, that Dumbledore’s face had disappeared.
‘Well, you can’t expect him to hang around all day,’ said Ron. ‘He’ll be back. No, I’ve got Morgana again and I’ve got about six of her… do you want it? You can start collecting.’
Ron’s eyes strayed to the pile of Chocolate Frogs waiting to be unwrapped.
‘Help yourself,’ said Harry. ‘But in, you know, the Muggle world, people just stay put in photos.’
‘Do they? What, they don’t move at all?’ Ron sounded amazed. ‘weird!’
So Harry and Ron are very different, got it. But why are they friends then? Because they can also bond together over something they both share. In their case, they both know what it’s like to not have very much and to have to make do with the little they can get. Nothing in either boy’s life is easy, and they both have to learn not to equate self-worth with physical possessions.
‘You never get anything new, either, with five brothers. I’ve got Bill’s old robes, Charlie’s old wand and Percy’s old rat.’…
Ron’s ears went pink. He seemed to think he’d said too much, because he went back to staring out of the window.
Harry didn’t think there was anything wrong with not being able to afford an owl. After all, he’d never had any money in his life until a month ago, and he told Ron so, all about having to wear Dudley’s old clothes and never getting proper birthday presents. This seemed to cheer Ron up.
Also food helps with bringing people together as always!
‘Go on, have a pasty,’ said Harry, who had never had anything to share before or, indeed, anyone to share it with. It was a nice feeling, sitting there with Ron, eating their way through all Harry’s pasties and cakes (the sandwiches lay forgotten).
Hermione, by contrast, is introduced only in ways that set her up in conflict with Harry and Ron, and is almost shown as an antagonistic character. That may seem harsh, but look at how similar her remarks are to those of Draco Malfoy, Harry’s major personal antagonist in the series. (Yes, I know, I know there’s Voldemort, but he’s this shadowy figure for almost the whole thing, and Harry has barely any rapport with him to compare to the complicated and invested relationship he has with Draco Malfoy.)
Hermione with Harry
‘I’m Ron Weasley,’ Ron muttered.
‘Harry Potter,’ said Harry.
‘Are you really?’ said Hermione. ‘I know all about you, of course – I got a few extra books for background reading, and you’re in Modern Magical History and The Rise and Fall of the Dark Arts and Great Wizarding Events of the Twentieth Century.’
‘Am I?’ said Harry, feeling dazed.
‘Goodness, didn’t you know, I’d have found out everything I could if it was me,’ said Hermione.
Hermione with Ron
[B]ut the girl wasn’t listening, she was looking at the wand in [Ron’s] hand.
‘Oh, are you doing magic? Let’s see it, then.’
She sat down. Ron looked taken aback.
‘Er – all right.’
He cleared his throat.
‘Sunshine, daisies butter mellow,
Turn this stupid, fat rat yellow.’
He waved his wand, but nothing happened. Scabbers stayed grey and fast asleep.
‘Are you sure that’s a real spell?’ said the girl. ‘Well, it’s not very good, is it? I’ve tried a few simple spells just for practise and it’s all worked for me.’
…[S]aid Hermione in a sniffy voice. ‘And you’ve got dirt on your nose, by the way, did you know?’
And then there’s Draco Malfoy:
Draco with Harry
Three boys entered, and Harry recognized the middle one at once: it was the pale boy from Madam Malkin’s robe shop. He was looking at Harry with a lot more interest than he’d shown back in Diagon Alley.
“Is it true?” he said. “They’re saying all down the train that Harry Potter’s in this compartment. So it’s you, is it?”
“Yes,” said Harry. …
“[M]y name’s Malfoy, Draco Malfoy.”
…He turned back to Harry. “You’ll soon find out some wizarding families are much better than others, Potter. You don’t want to go making friends with the wrong sort. I can help you there.”
He held out his hand to shake Harry’s, but Harry didn’t take it.
Draco with Ron
Ron gave a slight cough, which might have been hiding a snigger. Draco Malfoy looked at him.
‘Think my name’s funny, do you? No need to ask who you are. My father told me all the Weasleys have red hair, freckles, and more children than they can afford.’
Yes, Draco is far more antagonistic, but he and Hermione both start by assuming they know everything about Harry because they’ve heard about Harry Potter the legendary figure, and both insult Ron by making him uncomfortable, especially about his appearance. Yes, Draco has a family-based grudge against Ron, which sets him further up against the pair, Harry being envious of Ron’s large family and all, but there are definite parallels. This makes Hermione becoming friends with both Harry and Ron feel like an achievement, something that was earned and the reader is instantly invested in the group as a whole in a way they never could be if it was easy for them all to bond together right from the start.
So how does Hermione overcome this rough start to become a part of the group? By the three of them sharing traits: bravery and bending the rules for the benefit of the group. When Hermione is endangered by a troll loose in the school, Harry and Ron save her, and later on Hermione puts her academic record at risk to take the blame for the situation. They share a dangerous task together, requiring them to work as a team, and in doing so they are triumphant.
[Author’s Note: I know it could be argued that Harry and Ron are responsible for Hermione being in danger, but the troll had already entered the bathroom, all Harry and Ron do is lock the door and Hermione was on the opposite side of the bathroom when they get there. So can we all just leave the blame with the monster who let a troll endanger children inside a school, please?]
First Harry and Ron show that they are willing to take responsibility for other people’s safety – even putting their own lives at stake for Hermione:
As they jostled their way through a crowd of confused Hufflepuffs, Harry suddenly grabbed Ron’s arm.
‘I’ve just thought – Hermione.’
‘What about her?’
‘She doesn’t know about the troll.’
Ron bit his lip.
‘Oh, all right,’ he snapped. ‘But Percy’d better not see us.’
…It was the last thing they wanted to do, but what choice did they have? Wheeling around they sprinted back to the door and turned the key, fumbling in their panic – Harry pulled the door open – they ran inside.
Hermione Granger was shrinking against the wall opposite, looking as if she was about to faint. The troll was advancing on her, knocking the sinks off the walls as it went.
‘Confuse it!’ Harry said desperately to Ron, and seizing a tap he threw it as hard as he could against the wall.
The troll stopped a few feet from Hermione. It lumbered around, blinking stupidly, to see what had made the noise. Its mean little eyes saw Harry. It hesitated, then made for him instead, lifting its club as it went.
‘Oy, pea-brain!’ yelled Ron from the other side of the chamber, and he threw a metal pipe at it. The troll didn’t even seem to notice the pipe hitting its shoulder, but it heard the yell and paused again, turning its ugly snout toward Ron instead, giving Harry time to run around it.
‘Come on, run, run!’ Harry yelled at Hermione, trying to pull her toward the door, but she couldn’t move, she was still flat against the wall, her mouth open with terror.
The shouting and the echoes seemed to be driving the troll berserk. It roared again and started toward Ron, who was nearest and had no way to escape.
Harry then did something that was both very brave and very stupid: he took a great running jump and managed to fasten his arms around the troll’s neck from behind. The troll couldn’t feel Harry hanging there, but even a troll will notice if you stick a long bit of wood up its nose, and Harry’s wand had still been in his hand when he’d jumped – it had gone straight up one of the troll’s nostrils.
And then Hermione leads the charge of lies to cover up the group’s actions, proving that some things are more important than being on the authority’s good side all the time:
‘What on earth were you thinking of?’ said Professor McGonagall, with cold fury in her voice. Harry looked at Ron, who was still standing with his wand in the air. ‘You’re lucky you weren’t killed. Why aren’t you in your dormitory?’
Snape gave Harry a swift, piercing look. Harry looked at the floor. He wished Ron would put his wand down.
Then a small voice came out of the shadows.
‘Please, Professor McGonagall — they were looking for me.’
Hermione had managed to get to her feet at last.
‘I went looking for the troll because I – I thought I could deal with it on my own — you know, because I’ve read all about them.”
Ron dropped his wand. Hermione Granger, telling a downright lie to a teacher?
‘If they hadn’t found me, I’d be dead now. Harry stuck his wand up its nose and Ron knocked it out with its own club. They didn’t have time to come and fetch anyone. It was about to finish me off when they arrived.’
Harry and Ron tried to look as though this story wasn’t new to them.
Like with any good ‘Building a Team’ narrative, the reader suddenly gets a glimpse of how well the team can work together, despite and because of their differences. It’s been hard, it’s been a struggle, but now we can see that it’s also been earned. As JK Rowling summarises it for us:
The common room was packed and noisy. Everyone was eating the food that had been sent up. Hermione, however, stood alone by the door, waiting for them. There was a very embarrassed pause. Then, none of them looking at each other, they all said ‘Thanks,’ and hurried off to get plates.
But from that moment on, Hermione Granger became their friend. There are some things you can’t share without ending up liking each other, and knocking out a twelve-foot mountain troll is one of them.
Found this useful? Let me know in the comments; if it’s popular I’ll do more in-depth looks at some other stories, books and films, focusing on what story-tellers can learn.
If this is your first time with the Chronicles in Creation Series, check out other topics here.