In my last post, I talked about one of the criticisms I’ve heard of the Harry Potter series — namely that its theme of good vs. evil is too simplistic. Another criticism I’ve come across is the lack of character development throughout the series.
It’s an easy criticism to see. The books tend towards being very plot-heavy, and the perception of plot-heavy books is that they lack character development in exchange (contrasted to some ‘literary’ fiction in which the opposite is true; I of course think that relationship is bullshit — as I’ve seen other writers note, plot is character (or as Chuck Wendig puts it, “Plot is like Soylent Green: it’s made of people”)). Pottermore — I mean, furthermore, just look at the main characters. Harry’s the same somewhat bratty, headstrong, short-tempered guy in the last book as he is in the first; Hermione is a know-it-all token female from start to last; and Ron is…well, the other guy. Right?
When first faced with this criticism, my instinct to jump to the defense of something I love made me say, “No, but–” and then kind of stop, because it does seem at first like the characters don’t really change. But on further reflection, there is a “but.”
All of the characters grow significantly throughout the series. Ron may always be the sidekick type, always in Harry’s shadow, always the comic relief, the underdog, the best friend, the other guy. But over the course of the books, he goes from really being in the shadow of everyone around him — his older brothers, Hermione, Harry — to being able to hold his own. He proves he has skills unique to himself in Philosopher’s Stone; he gets over his confidence issues of being in the shadows of others in Order of the Phoenix (represented primarily on the Quidditch team); he proves himself loyal and capable on his own terms when he returns in Deathly Hallows. Chuck Wendig says all characters follow a rule of threes (in his 250 Things You Should Know About Writing, which you can get here!) in their development, the beginning, middle, and end. Ron goes from unconfident and not as good as those around him, to finally confident in himself, to one of the most loyal characters in the books.
Hermione is always the smart one, the token girl, the one who actually understands human emotions unlike the ‘boys’. But she too grows over the series. In Philosopher’s Stone, she’s friendless and easily upset, the nerd no one likes. By Goblet of Fire, she’s become confident in herself, and aware of her own emotions and those around her, but almost willing to give up her friendships to assert herself. By Deathly Hallows, she’s come to understand that book smarts aren’t everything (and that other people are allowed to be smart, too), and that friendship and love are just as important. Prissy nerd to come-of-age woman to heroine.
And Harry may always be a bit of a brat, certainly hot-tempered, and constantly running towards danger, convinced he’s right even when everyone in his life is telling him he’s wrong. But he too develops over the series. In Philosopher’s Stone, he’s constantly acting on just the surface of what he sees — Snape must be the bad guy, for instance — and thinks that no matter what, he can save the day (and doesn’t even need help from, oh, say, adults). By Goblet of Fire he really starts to feel for those around him, like Cedric Diggory, and by this time begins to rely on his friends and allies to help him. In Half-Blood Prince, as he delves into Tom Riddle’s history, he sees beneath the surface, he begins to really understand people and why they do what they do; in short, he grows real empathy. This continues into Deathly Hallows, with Dumbledore, but in that book Harry also sees that he can’t just rush headlong into danger, and that he can’t rely on the people around him to help solve all of his problems — Dumbledore gone, his friends in danger, Harry accepts that he must sacrifice himself to save those he loves. Over-confident, brought to his lowest point as those around him die, then making a true heroic stand.
Self-centered, empathetic, self-sacrificing. The full Hero’s Journey.
Even the minor characters have arcs throughout the series. Draco goes from a simple jackass to trying to be truly evil, to realizing he doesn’t have it in him and ultimately just trying to survive. Ginny starts shy and infatuated, becomes confident and knows what she wants, and then moves on to kicking ass without anyone’s help.
Neville goes from the bumbling fool to the most kickass leader of Dumbledore’s Army.
These arcs aren’t even confined to the taking place over the course of seven books. Each book has their own arcs that are self-contained as the characters develop — Deathly Hallows Ron gets upset, leaves, learns, returns to kick ass; Goblet of Fire Hermione is snotty, cries, comes into her own, then comes back to her friendships. Harry goes through fairly major arcs in every book — rather than try to analyze them all here, I’ll just point you to this lovely Harry Potter For Writers blog, which does it quite nicely.
Finally, over the course of seven years, the characters grow up. They come of age, they go through puberty, they’re constantly changing and developing in little ways. This is perhaps the real journey of these books, seven years in the lives of these characters, watching them go from kids to adults, being a part of their lives as realistic, growing and changing people.
Sure, some character traits never really change. But then, some things never do change, in life. They don’t become completely different people — and I think that’s the beauty of it. Harry in Deathly Hallows is the same person as Harry in Philosopher’s Stone. But he’s grown, he’s learned; you can see his development even as you can see that he’s not a completely different person. He’s a realistic, believable character.