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Sunday, November 12, 2017

Rulebook Casefile: Harry Potter Goes From Hero to Zero

It’s the greatest paradox of writing: Readers want heroes to be underdogs, but they don’t want them to be losers. They don’t want your main character to actually go from being zero to hero: they want him or her to start out with skills and admirable characteristics that will carry him or her though the story.

But Harry Potter does come off as sort of a loser in the first chapter of his first book:
  • Harry had always been small and skinny for his age. He looked even smaller and skinnier than he really was because all he had to wear were old clothes of Dudley’s, and Dudley was about four times bigger than he was. Harry had a thin face, knobbly knees, black hair, and bright green eyes. He wore round glasses held together with a lot of Scotch tape because of all the times Dudley had punched him on the nose.
Harry then takes a lot of abuse, without much pushback.  He’s really downtrodden.  Rowling is totally playing up the underdog aspect. We fear for him more than we cheer for him.

Why does this work? Because of the first chapter, when we saw Harry at age 1, having defeated the scariest wizard of all time. We don’t find out until book 4 (in a moment that I think should have gotten more emphasis) that Harry did not defeat Voldemort due to any inherent powers, but simply because of a spell his mom cast to bounce Voldemort’s spell off the baby. Until that reveal, we assume that Harry has some sort of special superpower that leaves all the greatest wizards in his world in awe. He’s the great hero they were all waiting for, right from the start.

So we’re more willing to put up with loserish qualities in Harry when we meet him again at age 11. He’s allowed to go from zero to hero, because he’s already gone from hero to zero. He’s secretly the ultimate bad-ass, so it’s ironic that he seems so weak now. If we didn’t know better, and we had the sense that he really was simply a weakling, we might be put off and quit reading.

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