Welcome to Part 2 of A Very Potter Case Study! If you haven’t read Part 1, then this isn’t going to make any sense at all! You can find Part 1 here.
#3 – Build Conflict out of Characters, not Plot
All good stories need conflict. It’s the reason the story exists, it drives the plot forwards, it’s the catalyst for characters to grow and change. As such, your story’s conflict needs to be compelling. But you know what’s not compelling in the slightest? Conflict which is only there because the plot needs pushing forward a bit. Because then your characters are just being pulled along by the plot, and are not pushing the plot forward themselves by their own actions.
To look at compelling vs less-compelling conflicts and the difference between them, I’d like to look at two arguments between the Golden Trio in the series, one in The Prisoner of Azkaban and one in The Order of the Phoenix.
Let’s start with the less compelling one. At the beginning of The Order of the Phoenix, Harry has heard little-to-nothing from Hermione and Ron over the summer holidays, despite them knowing he’s just suffered through the magical world’s version of the Hunger Games, watching a schoolmate’s murder and being the sole non-evil witness to the rise of the Dark Lord via dark magic. The previous year was a touch stressful, one might say?
What little Harry’s friends have told him essentially exists to tell him that there’s a lot that they aren’t telling him, and I think we can all think back and agree that there are few things as irritating from those around us than being constantly told that there’s something they are refusing to tell us.
‘HARRY! Ron, he’s here, Harry’s here! We didn’t hear you arrive! Oh, how are you? Are you all right? Have you been furious with us? I bet you have, I know our letters were useless – but we couldn’t tell you anything, Dumbledore made us swear we wouldn’t, oh we’ve got so much to tell you, and you’ve got things to tell us –…’
The snowy owl clicked her beak and nibbled his ear affectionately as Harry stroked her feathers.
‘She’s been in a right state,’ said Ron. ‘Pecked us half to death when she brought your last letters, look at this –‘
He showed Harry the index finger of his right hand, which sported a half-healed but clearly deep cut.
‘Oh, yeah,’ Harry said. ‘Sorry about that, but I wanted answers, you know –‘
‘We wanted to give them to you, mate,’ said Ron. ‘Hermione was going spare, she kept saying you’d do something stupid if you were stuck all on your own without news, but Dumbledore made us –‘
‘- swear not to tell me,’ said Harry. Yeah, Hermione’s already said.’
[Author’s Note: As a general rule in life, can we all agree that when the owl is Judging you, you are doing something wrong? Owls know these things, I tell you…]
Ok, so now the group is addressing this lack of communication, and when I first read this I was thinking to myself, seriously? That’s it?!
Dumbledore told them not to tell Harry anything? That’s the explanation? Now I recognise that Dumbledore up until this point in the books has been shown as a great and benevolent figure, but this still isn’t credible. Hermione and Ron have never flinched away from defying their authority figures before now, and I refuse to believe that this is where they’ve chosen to start obeying commands without question.
Hermione set a grown man on fire aged eleven, and brewed a highly illegal and dangerous potion using instructions she swiped from the Restricted Section of the school’s library under false pretences aged twelve. Ron stared down the wand of a convicted crazed criminal, while standing on a broken leg, to act as a human shield aged thirteen (yes, Sirius Black wasn’t really the Bad Guy™ but Ron didn’t know that!) and as previously mentioned organised the illegal smuggling of an illicit dragon out of the school in his first year!
The set up for this disagreement makes no sense at all, and the next part of the argument doesn’t improve things, because Hermione and Ron are shown to be very aware that they are harming the group by their actions, but still don’t have a good reason to do so:
‘So why’s Dumbledore been so keen to keep me in the dark?’ Harry asked, still trying to keep his voice casual. ‘Did you – er – bother to ask him at all?’
He glanced up just in time to see them exchanging a look that told him he was behaving just as they had feared he would. It did nothing to improve his temper.
‘We told Dumbledore we wanted to tell you what was going on,’ said Ron. ‘We did, mate. But he’s really busy now, we’ve only seen him twice since we came here and he didn’t have much time, he made us swear not to tell you important stuff when we wrote, he said the owls might be intercepted.’
‘He could still’ve kept me informed if he’d wanted to,’ Harry said shortly. ‘You’re not telling me he doesn’t know ways to send messages without owls.’
Hermione glanced at Ron and then said, ‘I thought that, too. But he didn’t want you to know anything.’
And here we have the reason why this conversation is happening – the adults, especially Dumbledore, are trying to keep Harry in the dark. This is the plot-point that’s being set up. And that’s a fine plot-point, no problems there. But how is the plot served by Hermione and Ron just going along with it? The argument is over by the next chapter; it’s not setting up the idea that on top of Harry being in the dark, the adults are trying to isolate him from his friends or anything. Harry’s not really being abandoned by everyone in his life. Look, the next time it comes up, all is forgiven:
‘Harry’ll tell me and Hermione everything you say anyway!’ said Ron hotly. ‘Won’t – won’t you?’ he added uncertainly, meeting Harry’s eyes.
For a split second, Harry considered telling Ron that he wouldn’t tell him a single word, that he could try a taste of being kept in the dark and see how he liked it. But the nasty impulse vanished as they looked at each other.
‘Course I will,’ Harry said.
Ron and Hermione beamed.
This whole argument just isn’t consistent with what we know of the characters in past books, and it doesn’t help the main arch of this book’s plot, which focusses on the adults keeping secrets, not the teens.
The plot-point is perfectly serviceable, and continues throughout the book. The adults go to some really quite spectacular lengths to keep Harry from knowing things (and frankly, if they’d put this amount of effort in during Harry’s first year, I feel like The Philosopher’s Stone would have gone very differently!)
But why couldn’t Harry have arrived at Twelve Grimmauld Place to find Ron and Hermione at odds with the adults? Hermione admits that she considered there were ways to communicate other than owls. Ron’s family sent Harry a muggle letter last year and Ron himself has tried using a telephone before. Fred and George spend this year showing off the true potential of their inventions in both information gathering and diversionary tactics, can’t they have been found in league with Hermione and Ron to try and contact Harry without the adults’ interference? The plot wouldn’t be affected at all. Hermione later this year helps Harry contact Sirius, and sets up and maintains an illegal defence club, not to mention cursing the sign-up sheet to ruin the life of whoever breaks the secret to outsiders, so she doesn’t seem to be that changed from previous years in the long-run.
This whole thing exists to push the plot forward, and the established characters aren’t supporting it at all.
So what does a character-driven conflict look like?
Prisoner of Azkaban’s plot is I swear about one half argument between Harry-and Ron and Hermione. The whole conflict goes on and on and keeps going and it’s absolutely riveting the whole way through! Every time I read it, I’m completely hooked and I desperately want them to make up with each other, but I’m also fascinated by the many ways they are clashing. And this is because the whole thing is based on the characters’ established traits reacting with plot-based stimulus. The plot is affecting the characters and they are responding, but they aren’t becoming unrecognisable to serve the plot’s needs. Harry, Ron and Hermione are recognisably Harry, Ron and Hermione throughout.
The argument is a superbly crafted work of art, I’m not even kidding. It’s got all these layers and it moves between peaks of anger and these valleys where everything calms down and you think it’s going to be fine soon, and then it gets kicked back into anger again. JK Rowling was absolutely on top form all through this book, and this argument is one of the things that makes it so great. There’s clearly been a lot of time and effort put into making it so good, and it really pays off.
I would argue that in fact the argument in The Prisoner of Azkaban is actually 2 or 2.5 separate arguments, but like all good writing, they all feed into each other, with the earlier one setting up some aspects of the later one, and the later one being made worse by the earlier one having happened. Untangling it for the purposes of analysis has been a nightmare, and I’ve focussed on two main themes that run throughout.
Friendship – An exercise in trust
The first argument, which I like to call The Firebolt Incident, is really Harry’s argument with Hermione. Ron doesn’t have that much of a role, except for backing Harry up. It kicks off when Harry, in need of a new broom, receives a brand new Firebolt for Christmas anonymously. Harry and Ron are excited but Hermione instantly has reservations:
‘Oh, Harry! Who sent you that?’
‘No idea,’ said Harry. ‘There wasn’t a card or anything with it.’
To his great surprise, Hermione did not appear either excited or intrigued by this news. On the contrary, her face fell, and she bit her lip.
‘What’s the matter with you?’ said Ron.
‘I don’t know,’ said Hermione slowly, ‘but it’s a bit odd, isn’t it? I mean, this is supposed to be quite a good broom, isn’t it?’
Ron sighed exasperatedly.
‘I’s the best broom there is, Hermione,’ he said.
‘So it must have been really expensive …’
‘Probably cost more than all the Slytherins’ brooms put together,’ said Ron happily.
‘Well… who’d send Harry something as expensive as that, and not even tell him they’d sent it?’ said Hermione.
The thing is, there’s nothing wrong with Hermione’s concerns, but she never elaborates further except to say:
‘I don’t think anyone should ride that broom just yet!’ Said Hermione shrilly.
Harry and Ron looked at her.
‘What do you think Harry’s going to do with it – sweep the floor?’ said Ron.
So we, and Harry, know she has concerns, but we don’t get anything further. We know that Hermione is upset about the Firebolt, but there’s no further conversation, although we do get this extra bit:
[Harry] devoted himself to examining the Firebolt, which he had brought down to the common room with him. For some reason this seemed to annoy Hermione as well; she didn’t say anything, but she kept looking darkly at the broom as though it, too, had been criticising her cat.
It all seems weirdly emotional for Hermione, who likes logical deductions and fact-based analysis. We, like Harry again, are utterly confused about what could be the matter. This isn’t the first mystery the group has tackled after all; puzzles are a yearly staple of Hogwarts for them, so this refusal to talk about it and instead just silently sulk is out of character. We do get a climax to this tension though and, while it all makes sense after-the-fact, it’s totally out of left field for both Harry and the readers.
[Author’s Note: I’ve cut a lot out of this section that didn’t apply directly to the argument, sorry. Hopefully it still reads ok.]
‘Coming?’ Harry said to Hermione.
‘No,’ Hermione muttered. ‘I want a quick word with Professor McGonagall.’
‘Probably trying to see if she can take any more classes,’ yawned Ron
… Harry went straight up to the dormitory, collected his Firebolt and the Broomstick Servicing Kit Hermione had given him for his birthday, brought them downstairs and tried to find something to do to the Firebolt… He and Ron simply sat admiring it from every angle, until the portrait hole opened, and Hermione came in accompanied by Professor McGonagall.
… Hermione walked around [Harry and Ron], sat down, picked up the nearest book and hid her face behind it.
‘So this is it, is it?’ said Professor McGonagall beadily, walking over to the fireside and staring at the Firebolt. ‘Miss Granger has just informed me that you have been sent a broomstick, Potter.’
Harry and Ron looked around at Hermione. They could see her forehead reddening over the top of her book, which was upside-down. …
Professor McGonagall turned on her heel and carried the Firebolt out of the portrait hole, which closed behind her. Harry stood staring after her, the tin of High-Finish Polish still clutched in his hands. Ron, however, rounded on Hermione.
‘What did you go running to McGonagall for?’
Hermione threw her book aside. She was still pink in the face, but stood up and faced Ron defiantly.
‘Because I thought – and Professor McGonagall agrees with me – that that broom was probably sent to Harry by Sirius Black!’
So Hermione has seen a risk to Harry’s life, and acted to keep him safe. That’s laudable, but what she’s also done is sacrifice Harry’s trust in their bond. Rather than laying out her concerns to him and giving him time to think through the clues and draw his own conclusions (you know, that thing that Harry does every year and is usually proven right all along?), she went behind his back to the Deputy Head of the School and got it taken away from him, only afterwards giving any kind of reason. Did she think Harry wouldn’t listen to her? Maybe, but since she never gives him the chance, this seems pre-emptively harsh. Did she think she just knew better than Harry what was for his own good? Harry’s trust-issues are well-earned and wider than a Quidditch pitch, so even though as readers we can see logic in Hermione’s actions, we can also sympathise with Harry.
Even Harry can see both sides in the dispute, despite his frustrations:
Harry knew that Hermione had meant well, but that didn’t stop him being angry with her. He had been the owner of the best broom in the world for a few short hours, and now, because of her interference, he didn’t know whether he would ever see it again. He was positive that there was nothing wrong with the Firebolt now, but what sort of state would it be in once it had been subjected to all sorts of anti-jinx tests?
Ron was furious with Hermione too… Hermione, who remained convinced that she had acted for the best, started avoiding the common room.
It’s like this perfect storm of everything Harry reacts most poorly to; people taking control over his choices away from him and thus rendering him powerless, and uncertainty about the future. Of course it’s resolved simply enough when Harry gets his broomstick back, miraculously still working despite two non-professionals (in broomsticks) having fiddled about with the spells that make broomsticks fly. But there’s crucially no real conclusion in the group; no one apologises and therefore nothing really gets a chance to heal:
‘I got it back,’ said Harry, grinning at her and holding up the Firebolt.
‘See, Hermione? There wasn’t anything wrong with it!’ said Ron.
‘Well – there might have been!’ said Hermione. ‘I mean, at least you know now that it’s safe!’
‘Yeah, I suppose so,’ said Harry.
It’s a small thing, the lack of any real closure, but it comes into play multiple times later on when the group is fractured again by Hermione’s cat appearing to have eaten Ron’s rat. The Golden Trio is held together by shared loyalty and friendship, and the fractures to those connections are showing badly.
‘Can’t you give her a break?’ Harry asked Ron quietly.
‘No,’ said Ron flatly. ‘If she just acted like she was sorry – but she’ll never admit she’s wrong, Hermione. She’s still acting like Scabbers has gone on holiday or something.’
Ron has seen Harry feel hurt by Hermione before without closure or apology and he’s unwilling to allow himself to be hurt in the same way. Ron’s definitely the most emotionally aware of the group in this book, he knows what he needs to past the argument; he just doesn’t think he’s going to get it:
‘If she’d just get rid of that cat, I’d speak to her again!’ Ron said angrily, ‘but she’s still sticking up for it! It’s a maniac, and she won’t hear a word against it!’
And further blows to the pair’s trust in Hermione keeps being dealt too. Later on Hermione tries to intercede in the interests of Harry’s safety again, and again seems all too happy to break Harry’s trust in her to do this:
‘Harry, if you go into Hogsmeade again… I’ll tell Professor McGonagall about that map!’ said Hermione.
‘Can you hear someone talking, Harry?’ growled Ron, not looking at Hermione.
‘Ron, how can you let him go with you? After what Sirius Black nearly did to you! I mean it, I’ll tell –‘
‘So now you’re trying to get Harry expelled!’ said Ron furiously. ‘Haven’t you done enough damage this year?’
And it says something that relations reach such a low point in the end that when Hermione receives devastating news, the look on her face only suggests one thing to Harry and Ron when they see her.
He broke off; they had reached the corridor where the security trolls were pacing, and Hermione was walking towards them. One look at her face convinced Harry that she had heard what had happened. His heart plummeted – had she told Professor McGonagall?
‘Come to have a good gloat?’ said Ron savagely, as she stopped in front of them. ‘Or have you just been to tell on us?’
‘No,’ said Hermione. She was holding a letter in her hands and her lip was trembling. ‘I just thought you ought to know … Hagrid lost his case. Buckbeak is going to be executed.’
But the group does heal, and as was always foreshadowed, the one thing the Golden Trio needed to do was apologise and forgive each other:
Hermione flung her arms around Ron’s neck and broke down completely. Ron, looking quite terrified, patted her very awkwardly on the top of the head. Finally, Hermione drew away.
‘Ron, I’m really, really sorry about Scabbers …’ she sobbed.
‘Oh – well – he was old,’ said Ron, looking thoroughly relieved that she had let go of him. ‘And he was a bit useless. You never know, Mum and Dad might get me an owl now.’
Destabilising the Familiar – Conflicting Character Roles
Now the second-half of the Great Argument is very different in nature and here’s why; this is the argument where Ron and Hermione switch traits and roles and it’s just so confusing for everyone. No really, hear me out. Ron is the emotional one in the group. Harry has the weirdly accurate intuition, Hermione logically works through clues to a sensible conclusion and Ron has the emotional depth.
I should stress here that this isn’t the same thing as out-of-character behaviour as in The Order of the Phoenix. For one thing, there’s no new traits in the group, such as a previously unseen docility, Hermione and Ron have essentially just swapped traits. Secondly Harry, standing in for the reader, is utterly baffled by this and unsure of any way out of the situation. This is uncharted territory and the book acknowledges this straight out, there’s no pretending that this is normal:
It looked like the end of Ron and Hermione’s friendship. Each was so angry with the other that Harry couldn’t see how they’d ever make it up.
Back to this trait-swapping. The Mysterious Affair of Scabbers is the time when Ron has all the logically followed clues and Hermione is stubbornly making an emotional judgement. Ron has a whole year of Crookshanks’ many witnessed best efforts at chasing and trying to catch Scabbers, Scabbers’ blood on his sheets and Crookshanks’ hair in the room where Scabbers was last seen alive. Added to a general Rule of Nature that cats eat rats, this does seem like a logical conclusion. But Hermione…
Hermione, meanwhile, maintained fiercely that Ron had no proof that Crookshanks had eaten Scabbers, that the ginger hairs might have been there since Christmas, and that Ron had been prejudiced against her cat ever since Crookshanks had landed on Ron’s head in the Magical Menagerie.
Personally, Harry was sure that Crookshanks had eaten Scabbers, and when he tried to point out to Hermione that the evidence all pointed that way, she lost her temper with Harry too.
‘OK, side with Ron, I knew you would!’ she said shrilly. ‘First the Firebolt, now Scabbers, everything’s my fault, isn’t it! Just leave me alone, Harry, I’ve got a lot of work to do!’
We, the readers, end up sharing in Harry’s bewilderment a little. It’s understandable that Hermione should defend a beloved pet, but she’s not on very firm ground as far as the evidence points. She’s outright ignoring what’s in front of her to defend her cat, and blaming others for following their logically drawn conclusions. Leaving aside what actually happened in the book, it’s worth noting that even when the adults try to intervene and patch things up, their argument is not ‘Hermione’s in the right’ but ‘Look, does this really matter?’:
‘Hermione,’ said Hagrid.
‘What about her?’ said Ron.
‘She’s in a righ’ state, that’s what. She’s bin comin’ down ter visit me a lot since Chris’mas. Bin feelin’ lonely. Fris’ yeh weren’ talking to her because o’ the Firebolt, no yer not talkin’ to her because her cat-‘
‘- ate Scabbers!’ Ron interjected angrily.
‘Because her cat acted like all cats do,’ Hagrid continued doggedly. ‘She’s cried a fair few times, yeh know. Goin’ through a rough time at the moment. Bitten off more’n she can chew, if yeh ask me, all the work she’s tryin’ to do… I gotta tell yeh, I thought you two’d value yer friend more’n broomsticks or rats. Tha’s all.’
Harry and Ron exchanged uncomfortable looks.
So everyone’s swapped behaviours, this is confusing and unsettling to everyone, and because JK Rowling is a genius and clearly decided that this wasn’t enough, what we also get to see is another aspect of Ron and Hermione’s character traits. They are both attacking each other with the other’s main trait. Character traits have been weaponised in a way.
Ron using Hermione’s logical ways has turned this against her, pointing out unwelcome facts and drawing logical conclusions that Hermione understandably doesn’t want to face. Hermione, in turn, is behaving as Ron normally would, stubbornly holding on to an emotional belief regardless of contradictory information, and then lashing out angrily at others when they don’t support her. We, as readers, are seeing the uglier side not only of Hermione and Ron, but of these character traits too, because when removed from their customary character, we see them on their own. Sure, loyalty to beloved friends (and cats) is good, but what if you’re wrong? Is it so good then? Is loyalty worth more than the truth? In the same way, logic and evidence-based thinking is great. But does that make it alright to force people to face up to possibilities they are uncomfortable with? Would we like it if people treated us in literally the way we would treat them?
The arguments in The Prisoner of Azkaban are some of my favourite in all of literature because JK Rowling isn’t just showing childhood drama, or giving us easy answers here. She’s asking us to question ourselves, our own behaviour and what we would do if we were convinced we were in the right. Hermione and Ron are both absolutely convinced that they are in the right, that the other is clearly wrong, and will do anything to prove it. Wouldn’t we do the same, if it was us? What’s your main character trait? Do you ever use it on others? Would you like it if people treated you like that?
It’s a hard question, isn’t it?
There’s certainly no lack of plot being served throughout all this conflict, but it’s not the only thing being served.
But how do you end a conflict in which everyone is using each other’s worse traits against them? Of course, as book readers already know, what brings the group back together is needing to team-up to defeat a larger shared enemy; Lucius Malfoy’s efforts to have Buckbeak the Hippogriff executed, and their efforts to help Hagrid appeal the decision. Between the need to join forces to defend Buckbeak and the climactic showdown with Sirius Black, the group is forged anew in very much the same way as they found each other to begin with.
It’s the troll in the girls’ bathroom all over again; they are all forced to put themselves at risk to defend each other, they lie and deceive the authorities to do the Right Thing, they lean on each other’s natural strengths, rather than exploit each other’s weaknesses. The stakes are bigger and the metaphorical monster is bigger these two years down the line, but then again, so are Harry, Ron and Hermione. It seems fitting somehow, that this is what heals the group.
Because that’s what conflict should do, in the end; it should feel like it fits in with what we’ve already had established. This might sound ironic, but what conflict in a narrative absolutely should not do is conflict with the narrative, and the characters driving it. If major elements of the narrative are pulling in different directions then there’s no anticipation of what might come next, because the audience has no coherent sense of foreshadowed doom. We can’t tell where the narrative is going, so where is the threat meant to be coming from and what is it going to affect, and actually if none of these characters are the ones we invested our emotions into in the first place, do we even care? And there’s the final disaster to all narratives: the reader no longer being compelled to follow the characters down their journey.
Stories need to be cohesive to be compelling.
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 chapters here. See you next week!