JK Rowling's journey with Harry Potter began, apparently, when Harry walked, fully formed onto her London bound train. She knew immediately she had been given a brilliant idea for a book. However, it still took her five years to brainstorm and write the rest. Which goes to show that while the hero might be the central character of the book, if you only have him or her, you don't have much.
In the Harry Potter saga there are really three different kinds of heroes. These heroic archetypes pop up all over Western Literature, and as soon as I identify them, I'm sure you can think of other examples in movies, television, literature, and maybe even in your own stories.
The three types of heroes are:
- The Classic Hero
- The Every Man Hero
- The Anti-Hero
Harry Potter: The Classic Hero
Harry is a representation of all the best qualities in our society: courage, intelligence, athleticism, and loyalty. He is the standard Classic Hero, the best of the best, the cream of the crop. The guy everyone knows will succeed.
The problem is, he's so good it no longer surprises us when he wins. To keep us on our toes, Rowling throws plenty of failure his way (spoiler alert): the death of Sirius, the dissolution of his friendship with Dumbledore, and then Dumbledore's death. Since Harry is so capable, Rowling has to work hard to keep us questioning whether he can succeed after all. Otherwise, the story becomes predictable.
Great writers are always conscious of their character arcs. Protagonists need to change and grow. Otherwise, we lose interest in them. It can be difficult to show growth in the Classic Hero. They're so perfect already, how can they get better? That's why authors will often make orphans of their heroes (e.g. Superman, Batman, Harry Potter, every fantasy book ever written). This motivates the hero to fix the great evil in the world that wounded them so deeply. Of course, as they heal others, they find healing themselves.
Neville Longbottom: The Every Man Hero
Every Man heroes are not as difficult as Classic Heroes. After Deathly Hallows, Part II, my wife reposted a picture on Facebook that showed Neville holding the Sword of Gryffindor and said, “Neville got hot.”
The Every Man Hero doesn't have any exemplary qualities on his own. He or she is not particularly intelligent, athletic, or brave. They are normal like the rest of us. They were just in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Of course, that's exactly what makes these Every Man (or Woman) Heroes so amazing. They become our representatives to the land of heroic deeds. They do the things we always wonder if we could do if we were put in extraordinary circumstances. They are us, and who wouldn't want to watch themselves be the hero? That's why everyone cheered louder in the theater when Neville cut the head off that scary snake than they did when Harry finally finally killed Voldemort. They were really cheering for themselves.
Severus Snape: The Anti-Hero
However, the most important story in all of Harry Potter is not Harry's or Neville's, it's Snape's. Even now, months after seeing the movie, I still get choked up when I think about Snape and his doe patronus.
The real question at the heart of Harry Potter is, Can love win? And it's answered in Snape, the second cruelest person in the world, next to Voldemort, who is somehow transformed by love.
Snape, like all Anti-Heroes, represents what society detests: cruelty, cowardice, self-interest, and dishonesty. He is the opposite of the hero, a villain, and yet somehow he's a villain on the good guys' side. Because of this, anti-heroes are almost always our favorite character. Han Solo, Ryan Gosling's character in Crazy, Stupid Love, and Huck Finn and Holden Caulfield in literature are all examples of Anti-Heroes. We like them because they have the widest character arc, the most room to grow, and because sometimes it's just fun to root for the bad guy.
This lesson is part of our tutorial, Characterization 101: How to Create Memorable Characters. If you want to create characters that stick in your readers’ minds for years, you should think about signing up.
Today, let's practice breaking down heroes into these three categories.
- Make a list of your favorite heroes.
- Determine what type they are: classic, every man, or anti?
- What qualities (or lack of qualities) make them that type?
Post your results in the comments so you can help all of us better understand these archetypes.