Living the Magic: How to Make a Good Harry Potter Character
by Jacqueline Larson
Internet access is becoming more and more available to people of all ages. Populated as it is with every subject a person can imagine, it is not at all surprising to see that fans of anything and everything have begun to display their hobbies and passions in more diverse ways. The most well-known of these practices, of course, is fan fiction: the writing of stories using characters belonging to a certain television show, movie, game, book, etc (Wilson). Almost as popular is the rise of RPGs, or role-playing games, that litter the net as of now. Fans can indulge in the worlds of their dreams by creating their own characters, or taking up an existing one, and playing out their lives in real time. However, in both practices, most of the things produced are not of good quality. Amateurish would be a kind word to use. The fault lies in a fans inability to utilize the facts stated within the genre of their choice, or common sense for that matter, while creating characters to insert. The elite of fan fiction and role-playing refer to the products of these bad ventures as Mary Sues, and one of its most popular places to roost is in the Harry Potter fandom.
Mary Sues in Harry Potter display all warning signs of classic Mary Sues, as defined by Writers University columnist, Priscilla Spencer (Litmus test):
Who is “Mary Sue? Mary Sue is the perky, bright, helpful sixteen-year-old witch who hangs out with the main characters as though she was always a part of J.K.’s universe. Everyone likes Mary Sue, because Mary Sue is good at everything. Mary Sue is a brilliant sorceress, a helpful friend, a good leader, a cunning and skilled dueler, and is stunningly beautiful. Her name is often the author’s name, be it a net name, birth name, or a favored nickname. By the end of the story, Mary Sue will be locking lips with the author’s desired character, will have left amid cheers from all the regulars, or will be dead, usually accompanied by heavy mourning from the cast. The reader, on the other hand, will be celebrating. Mary Sue’s twin brother, Gary Stu can often be identified by his brooding, solitary behaviour, matched by his maverick disregard for authority.
Characters such as these, when inserted into a story or a game, often have conflicts with what many fans of a certain media refer to as canon fact. Most of the better writers follow guidelines laid down in canon fact like it was the Bible itself. Fans of Harry Potter are no different. However, the process of making a proper character that will fit into the fandom is not as easy as it sounds, even if the writer is well-versed in canon. To display the process, the guidelines for a female student character are best described, as a majority of all Harry Potter Mary Sues are students at Hogwarts.
The Name’s the Game
Believe it or not, the first and biggest mistake a writer can make can start with the name of their new character. Making up a name is simple. However, at times the task meets some undeserving abuse. The name of a character should be a window into their life, yes, but the problem is that everyone wants to give their characters special names. Here’s the kicker, however, with playing a Harry Potter RPG, or writing a Harry Potter fan fiction, that hangs on every one of JK Rowling’s words: Special names are at times an oddity. Interesting, cool sounding names are often only attributed to characters who are going to have some major relevance to the book’s overall plot, like Severus Snape, Gilderoy Lockhart, Sirius Black, Tom Riddle, Remus Lupin, Madeye Moody, and so forth. One must note that these names were not chosen just because they sound cool. Each of these names have many inward meanings, and at times tend to betray outward appearances. In conclusion, the name of a new character should never be striking and filled with great hidden (or obvious) meaning unless the writers intention is to have them play a large unseen part in the ongoing plot — but only if the plot goes on the same scale as JK Rowling’s last five books.
Flowery names don’t make the character interesting. Overly long names are not just stupid sounding; they’re obnoxious. It’s all well and good to have an original name, but subtlety is key. If a writer throws out something that he or she thinks sounds absolutely beautiful, or cool, or mysterious, then the character’s story has already been told. Therefore, there is no reason for anyone to look into them to find anything interesting. Big, attention-grabbing, and entirely new names (or common names that are simply spelled differently to make them special) are often interpreted as an attempt to draw more attention to one’s character. That can be good in some cases, but in most, it can just be annoying. No one likes people that scream to be in the spotlight. The same goes in fan fiction and especially in RPGs, where everyone deserves a fair chance to have fun in the game.
What Do You Look Like?
As with choosing a name, one might think that giving the physical description of a new character should be easy, as most writers have an idea of what their character looks like in their head. In Harry Potter fan fiction and role-playing games, this extends to not just physical attributes and age, but also to manner of dressing and such. The one thing that most Mary Sue writers fail to understand about description is that one must approach the appearance of his or her character objectively. It is considered cliché, cute, and even bad taste, to describe a new girl character as having eyes so deep you could lose yourself in them, curves in all the right places, or bound to attract the eye of all who meet her. The reason is that this gives the reader, and other players, if it’s a game, no chance to make a decision for themselves, standards or no, whether they find the character attractive or not. Everyone has a difference in opinion as to what beauty or ugliness is. That is something that should be respected. It is recommended that writers describe simple details, like hair, eye color and body type with as few adjectives as possible, and simply give readers a basic rundown. In prose, it is never okay to fully describe the character in the first page they appear. Drop in small details every once in a while to give his or her persona more flavor, and if velvety adjectives must be used, then use them sparsely, and never in the first introduction.
Physical attributes should also be realistic save in some rare instances. Deep purple is not a natural eye color. Neither is red or yellow. Red heads do not tan. Waist length hair does not fall in ringlets, and it is never perfect, as being that long would make it not only stringy but very hard to manage. Near anorexic thin teenage girls do not have large breasts. In fact, any girl in her preteens that has any noticeable amount of cleavage at all will likely grow up to be fat. However, Harry Potter’s world is a magical place, and it must be allowed that some abnormalities occur. Being a Punk Rock Princess is not one of them, however. Having weird hair colors, especially as a student, would be warned against, as Hogwarts is in all senses a boarding school. Just as there are uniform policies, there are likely restrictions as to how hair is worn as well.
Manner of dress is important to note for several reasons, as well. As stated before, Hogwarts is a uniform school, so it does not matter what the characters favorite clothes are half the time. Through most of the story, he or she should be wearing a uniform. Writers must also bear in mind that Harry Potter was born in 1980. Harry Potter’s fifth year at Hogwarts takes place in 1994. Therefore, there are no bell bottoms or hippy shirts. There is no Good Charlotte, and the goth movement as teens today know it was not yet in full swing. This also means, thankfully, there is no Avril Lavigne fashion. As with physical attributes, clothing description should be kept minimal and spread throughout, not vomited on the reader in the first paragraph that clothes are changed.
It’s All About Personality
This section will come in handy when a house must be chosen for the character. Personalities are hard to develop, especially when the writer is accustomed to writing one certain kind of personality and no other. A writer must pay attention to all details they outline here and never stray from it. It should also be noted that History, like house association, must correspond with the characters personality. If they do not synch up, then the character makes no sense and is therefore a Mary Sue.
What should be avoided at all costs is contradiction. If the character is outgoing, they cannot be shy and introverted; if it is gentle, then it is not violent; it cannot be open-minded to other people and be self-absorbed. Conflicting details in the personality are often formed when a writer makes a character have traits they themselves admire or wish they had. Just because it sounds cool doesnt mean it goes with the rest of the cool stuff.
Writers generally like to use mental instability to make their characters more interesting. This often involves adding psychotic disorders to the personality. However, the average fan fiction writer or role player does not have the proper knowledge to adequately portray such things. Half the time, they are even too lazy to research it. Abuse of any kind, like psychological disorders, should be avoided for the same reason. Also, it’s considered bad form to use that in fan fiction writing, because use of such things is looked upon as glorifying the problem, and is again, frowned at as a widely pathetic cry for attention from the writer. It can be deduced that if the character is criminally insane, he or she will not likely be accepted as a student at Hogwarts because it is an accredited school. Not unless someone notable could testify that they were completely cured.
History, or Herstory, as the Case May Be
Once again, lots can go wrong here. However, some of the major problems with history were covered in personality, having to do with abusive homes and such. In a nutshell, since it’s been said before: don’t do it. In history, the writer will often describe the character’s family. Writers who want to make their character sound more important, or at least accepted by both sides of good and evil in the story, like to make the family Pureblood. Here’s the problem with that: Purebloods, or wizards from long lines of wizard-only families, are very rare, so rare that the entirety of their kind could be summed up on a tapestry in the fifth Harry Potter book. Better yet, and what crushes the dreams of many Mary Sue writers upon discovering it (if it doesn’t just squick them), is that they are inbred. Think of the British royal family and give them sticks to wave around and blow things up with. Those are Purebloods in a nutshell.
If a character became a student during a year that Harry Potter was attending school, the writer must refrain from inserting the character into scenes in the books. The authors original creation, when making fan fiction and role-playing game storylines, must be respected at all times. If the writer’s character did not follow Harry and company out to the Whomping Willow in year three originally, then they should not do so anywhere else. Once again, this goes back to honoring canon facts.
The major advantage to JK Rowling’s style is that her vantage point lies mainly close to her main character and his friends. That means that many things can go on in the background throughout a specific year that she never covered. This leaves many opportunities for writers, if they must start a story, or storyline, taking place during one of the books. Much can be written without obstructing the original timeline.
As a final note, students should never be exchange students or suddenly transfer from some foreign country without reason. In the five years that Harry Potter attends school at Hogwarts, it is never once mentioned or confirmed that an exchange student program exists in the Wizarding World. Hogwarts sends letters to children living in the area of Great Britain, Ireland, and Scotland, so it is not likely that the character will receive a letter if he or she lives in America, or Japan, or any other place not listed. As it is, all of those countries are said to have their own great schools to send children to. Hogwarts is only considered the best in its area, just as Durmstrang is the best around Bulgaria, and Beauxbatons in France. If the character moved from one country to one in the area of the British Isles, it is more likely that he or she would transfer to Hogwarts, but its still iffy. Transportation in the Wizarding World is so fast and efficient that even if a character did move, it would be no trouble sending them back to their old country to finish schooling.
Last but not least, the Sorting of the new character must take place. Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry has four separate Houses: Gryffindor, Slytherin, Ravenclaw, and Hufflepuff. Generally, it is best to sort the character into their house not by the writers personal preference, but by which of the houses fits the characters personality. One thing to bear in mind when sorting is that lineage has nothing to do with it. If a character’s parents were in one house, there is no guarantee they will be in it, as it’s not a valid excuse. Alignment is not a good reason either. Gryffindors are not all good, just as Slytherins are not all evil. Look at Peter Pettigrew. House descriptions are as follows:
Founded by Godric Gryffindor, whose symbol is the Lion, members of the Gryffindor house are favored for their bravery, which can be defined in many forms.
Founded by Salazaar Slytherin, whose symbol is the Serpent, members of the Slytherin house are catagorized for cunning, or, in simpler terms, street-smarts. They know how to survive on their own and, being ambitious as well, they generally like having their way and intend to go far with it. Not all Slytherins are Purebloods. Voldemort wasn’t one, and neither is Snape.
Founded by Rowenna Ravenclaw, whose symbol is the Bird of Prey, members of the Ravenclaw house are chosen and sorted through a desire to learn. A character needn’t be a genius prior to enrolling in order to belong here. Always inquisitive, a Ravenclaw can tend to be the first to try something new, but it can also mean a Ravenclaw character is a terrible gossip as well. Their tendencies make it hard for them to make friends outside of their own house at times.
Founded by Helga Hufflepuff, whose symbol is the badger, members of the Hufflepuff house are loyal. As described by the Sorting Hat, Helga wished to accept everyone into her house that did not fit anywhere else, or were too eclectic. Those who were became eternally grateful, but also intent upon proving their house was just as worthy as any other’s, hence their penchant for hard work.
Some writers may complain, stating that fan fiction allows them to make whatever changes they want, and that is the purpose. Many others would be inclined to disagree. Fan fiction is meant for taking an original story and adding onto it, not changing it. No true and well-educated fan would ever warp the hard work of their favorite author.
Even more writers with some dislike for this editorial might say that any character that he or she makes is their own and therefore can be whatever they want it to be. I would have to smirk and send them on their way. Agreeably, writers have every right and inclination to create something that is their own. However, most will never sell a story unless they can grasp legitimacy. If the readers do not care about the character, or if they do not think it believable, then there will be no gain.
Those objectors I have namelessly mentioned are the ones that can benefit best from what I have written here. People who are serious about writing should never pass up any chance for improvement. Growing and learning is just part of the process.
With careful attention to detail and constant revision at times, an avid Harry Potter fan fiction writer or role-player has a greater chance of being widely respected in their area if the guidelines are followed closely. The work put out can be an object of pride, and should be, as it does take a lot of hard work to perfect characters, especially when theres an entire series the writer must remain faithful to. The pieces made are tributes to the original author — in this case, JK Rowling — and therefore deserve a lot of effort. However, the main object is to have fun, and for a writer, there is no greater joy than creating a well-composed piece that others can enjoy and apply to the things they love.