This lecture is not taking place. I am not giving it, and you are not listening to it. Collectively, we need a cover story.
If anyone asks you, in the future, you will say you were somewhere else, doing something else, buying birthday cards, because you deliberately missed this lecture, because you thought Sympathetic Central Characters wasn’t something you were interested in, because you thought it sounded a bit forced, a bit unnatural; and, for myself, if anyone asks me, in the future, will admit to giving a casual little talk about the importance of sympathy in writing. In this cover talk, I will have said some very bland general things about readers liking nice characters because readers are nice. I did not, as I am about to, reveal just how rankly narcissistic the relationship is between a reader and a character they would blandly say they liked or loved.
Why do we need to have complete deniability?
Because what I am going to say makes explicit the mechanism of something that popular writers cannot afford (publicly at least) to admit can be made explicit or even that it has a mechanism.
Popular writers, you see, are writers who are liked or loved – popular writers are themselves sympathetic characters, but they are never central; it is the books of popular writers that are central, and central to the books are the sympathetic characters.
I am, to change metaphor, about to handle some extremely toxic material, on your behalf – for your edification; toxic, because it is material about that which must appear to be entirely pure. If it shows any touch of interference, its purity is lost forever.
However, I haven’t really changed metaphor – from mechanism to toxic material: this is a toxic mechanism I’m talking about. Imagine it as the inner workings of a nuclear power station; the robot hands that grab the uranium rods. It powers your computer, but if your computer came anywhere near it your computer would be destroyed. The toxic mechanism creates the power that allows the illusion of the purity of light. Imagine it that way.
Only writers who are prepared to be unpopular can admit to being self-conscious manipulators; popular writers must be expressers of something separate to and ultimately far beyond them.
You, if you want to be popular – and not even on the level of popularity of J.K.Rowling – must be known by your readers to be pure in heart. And, to achieve this, you will have to lie, with a straight face, forever afterwards; you did not attend this lecture, you did not hear what I’m about to say. You did not even catch a word of what I have said already.
Most people mistrust writers; or, at the very least, think there’s something a bit suspicious about them. The only writers people really trust are autobiographers – those who have written memoirs, after going through real-life (as opposed to unreal-life?) experiences. The more terrible the experience, the more the writer is to be trusted. They wouldn’t lie about something like that, would they?
It is a constant disappointment to people when they find their trust in a memoirist has been betrayed – because the terrible thing the writer said happened to them didn’t really happen, or didn’t really happen in the way it was written about.
What people don’t want to be told is that in order to find the central character in a book of non-fiction sympathetic, that character needs to have been given to them by the toxic mechanism that fiction has established works for forcing characters upon the reader as inevitably sympathetic. And of course the most important force is forcing the reader never to suspect they have ever been forced to do or feel anything.
Paradoxically, it is impossible for a writer to write a sympathetic character. Because to write a sympathetic character is to create a sympathetic character. And to create something suggests the prior intention to create that particular something. And prior intention suggests conscious thought about the desired outcome, and about the required mechanisms for achieving that outcome. Prior intention suggests also the wish to manipulate or force the reaction to the thing that has been created.
Let’s backtrack a little – to create something suggests the prior intention to create that particular something, unless the creation has happened by accident. But even an accident suggests the desire to create something, something that would have an effect upon the world around it. And, for most people, the desire to have an effect is pretty much the same as the wish to manipulate or force.
So it is far better that no creation has taken place at all. Therefore it is impossible for a writer to write a sympathetic character.
But this is madness, you say – books are written, characters are created.
Please don’t be so naïve.
We are now about to enter the heart of the toxic mechanism.
The book I chose for you to read, in preparation for this lecture, was Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.
Here is the world’s most popular writer, J.K. Rowling, giving the canonical account of the creation (which was of course the non-creation) of her hypersympathetic central character. Let me give you the context –
“On February 3, 2000, classrooms across America went online to ask J.K. Rowling their burning questions about Harry Potter. Below is the transcript from that interview.”
Which is still up on the Scholastic website –
Question: How did you come up with Harry Potter?
Answer: Harry just sort of strolled into my head, on a train journey. He arrived very fully formed. It was as though I was meeting him for the first time.
This is absolutely perfectly put. A year earlier, in an interview with Borders Online, J.K.Rowling didn’t have it down so well. Then, she answered the more dangerously phrased question:
‘How did you get the idea for Harry Potter?’
– in this way:
‘I was taking a long train journey from Manchester to London in England and the idea for Harry just fell into my head. At that point it was essentially the idea for a boy who didn’t know he was a wizard, and the wizard school he ended up going to.’
But ‘fell into’ isn’t as perfectly pure as ‘strolled into’ – because inanimate objects can fall, things without agency. In order to be capable of strolling, a thing needs to be self-possessed. Even robots can’t yet stroll.
And ‘the idea for Harry’ is clearly much less sympathetic, much more toxic, than ‘Harry’. Worse still is ‘the idea for a boy who didn’t know he was a wizard’.
And so, it us upon the second interview that the Bloomsbury website builds and elaborates:
“When she was 25, Jo was delayed on a train from Manchester to London. On the train Jo says that the idea for Harry Potter simply ‘strolled into her head fully formed’. But she didn’t have a pen so couldn’t write all her thoughts down! [But the idea had taken hold and during the next five years she started writing and outlining the plots for each book.]”
– builds and elaborates by adding ‘simply’ to J.K. Rowling’s ‘strolled’. And then by emphasising even more that Harry didn’t stroll into Jo’s head because she was a writer cynically working towards or waiting for a good idea because – look! – she didn’t even have the most basic equipment of a writer, a pen!
What is being forced upon the reader, here, is, first of all, the uncreatedness of Harry Potter. In other words, You can emotionally invest in him because he’s not made up. He’s real in a way that’s greater than normal real. He’s not just real, he’s inevitable.
Secondly, what is being carefully (but not simply) established is a total lack of distance between ‘Jo’ and the reader – the reader who is allowed to maintain their vain illusion that, if they had happened to be sitting upon that delayed train from Manchester to London, then Harry Potter might just have simply strolled into their head, too.
We all of us sit upon delayed trains, and we all might be lucky enough to be visited by a sympathetic central character who – when we manage to find a pen – and after five years of hard work – will turn us into a billionaire.
If you want to be a popular writer, you must never attack this vanity.
While it’s impossible to deny that you have worked hard to bring your character to the reader, you must always do this with the attitude of being true to the moment of their original arrival.
And you must maintain a very careful dialectic between hard work and luck.
Because it is also impossible to deny that you have worked hard in order to be a good enough writer to bring your character to the reader.
Here, too, J.K.Rowling is absolutely perfect in her answer.
In the FAQ on her website, answering the question, ‘Do you believe in fate?’ she says:
‘No, I believe in hard work and luck, and that the first often leads to the second.’
To recap, in describing how she created Harry Potter, a character that the full force of international copyright law insists she solely created, J.K. Rowling simultaneously disclaims creating Harry Potter.
Why does she do this?
In order to herself be a sympathetic character, in order that her sympathetic character (Harry) is not harmed by suspicions of having had anything to do with the toxic mechanism.
Before anyone starts to get angry with me, I am not accusing J.K.Rowling of cynicism. I am not even saying that, by the year 2000, her account of how Harry Potter came into being was in any way disingenuous. It is likely that J.K.Rowling is entirely pure in heart – that she did not self-consciously construct either Harry Potter or her interview answers in order to force a hypersympathetic central character upon the world.
This doesn’t, however, alter the fact that the mechanisms behind both her own developing account of Harry Potter’s arrival and behind Harry Potter’s arrival itself in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone – which I’m going to look at very soon – that the mechanisms here are precisely those I am going to take apart for you.
And if you doubt this, think for a moment how different the giving of Harry over to the reader would be were J.K.Rowling’s canonical story to read something like this:
‘For years, I had been a voracious reader and an avid moviegoer, and I’d made various failed attempts to write something that worked. And, in looking at the difference between what I’d written and what other, more popular writers had written – in looking at why their books and films worked – I realised that there were certain things they did better than I did, and certain things they did that I didn’t do at all. I continued to read, but with a bit more attention to what was going on on the page. Why did I like this book more than that? Why did I like this character so much? These years of failure and thinking and reading and watching suddenly came together when I was sitting on a delayed train from Manchester to London, and I had the idea for a boy who didn’t know he was a wizard, and the wizard school he ended up going to. At that point, he wasn’t Harry – he didn’t even have a name. There was just this sense, “Ah, if I work on this, I might actually get somewhere with my writing, for a change.”’
Just to finish off with the original, canonical account – for the moment – I find it curious that the verb used to describe Harry Potter’s arrival is ‘strolls’. A close reading of the 3,407 pages of the seven UK editions of the Harry Potter novels would reveal how often he ‘strolls’. Somehow, I doubt it is very often. Perhaps he, once or twice, ‘takes a stroll’ at Dumbledore’s invitation. (Dumbledore strolls through all seven novels. At points, it seems, he does little else but stroll.) Most of the time, though, Harry is not at anything like enough leisure to stroll. And how many unconfident, bespectacled eleven year-old boys ‘stroll’? Unless they are imitating, probably mocking, an adult. Strolling suggests relaxation from labour. Strolling suggests a certain insouciance. Baddies stroll more than goodies. Stroll is what seducers do, away from seductees. That isn’t Harry in Book 1, is it? It’s more like Harry looking back on all his adventures, knowing they’re safely over.
I am now going to start handling the toxic stuff. I am now going to start taking apart the toxic mechanisms.
What makes for a sympathetic character?
How can you, as writers, make a character sympathetic?
A proviso needs to be inserted here. Whilst writers can’t be seen to be self-consciously creating sympathetic characters, screenwriters can – because no-one, apart from wannabe screenwriters, pays any attention to what screenwriters do; screenwriters are almost always invisible. So, you will find plenty of screenwriters who have thought a lot about how to make characters sympathetic. And, however much they put what they’ve learned into practise, they do not inevitably succeed. Everything might be in place for a character to be sympathetic, but the viewer just doesn’t react to them that way. I don’t have time to go into the possible reasons for this. It may be to do with miscasting of the actor playing them, or subtle problems with their costume or hair or make-up, or the cultural norms of those involved with film production in Los Angeles, or with shifts in the general culture.
In that last bit, I used a couple of words in what might have appeared a casual way. I said ‘Everything might be in place for a character to be sympathetic…’ They are not casual.
I have had some difficulty finding the best way to put this. In the blurb for this talk, I said: In this lecture we will be looking at the structures that lie behind sympathy.
Structures are things that are in place. But, in order for them to move, they need to be more than just structures – which word brings to mind buildings. These structures need to move, so they are more like mechanisms. But mechanisms still have structures, and the question seems to be better asked this way –
What is it structurally necessary for Harry Potter to be in order for him to be a sympathetic character?
– than this way:
What is it mechanically necessary for Harry Potter to be in order for him to be a sympathetic character?
I need the idea of structure because these necessities are different to surface or even profound aspects or qualities of character – as these might be shown to the reader.
It might be said, for example, that Harry Potter is brave and loyal and trustworthy. And you might therefore think that readers find Harry Potter sympathetic because he has these qualities of character, because he is brave and loyal and trustworthy.
This is not the case, however. Bravery, loyalty and trustworthiness are not structural elements.
That Harry Potter is brave is admirable, and will augment the reader’s feelings of sympathy towards him, and perhaps even serve to justify them. However, Harry Potter’s being brave is not structurally necessary. We could feel sympathetic towards a coward, particularly if they were a coward who – at the moment of greatest need – discovered in themselves the ability to act as the situation required, to save the day. And if Harry Potter was a structurally unsympathetic character, his being brave would not count in his favour. No-one is going to like a brave baddie more than they do a cowardly one. No-one admires the bravery of a fictional serial killer in pursuing their murderous desires. No-one thinks intense loyalty among a fictional paedophile ring makes them sympathetic.
What do I mean by structures?
I mean, the things that function by being in place – that is by being where they are in relation to other things.
What do I mean by structural?
I mean, a series of relations between things that create certain effects.
Let’s get to our example.
What makes a character sympathetic is not their personality, but how that character relates to their world, and how their world relates to that character.
To say it again, How the world is disposed towards the character, and how the character is disposed towards the world.
(In all of this, please always mentally insert the word fictional in front of character and world.)
For Harry to be structurally sympathetic, it is not necessary for him to be an orphan. But, as you will see, it is almost impossible for him – in practical terms – not to be.
The central definition I have for you today – the most toxic nugget – is this; if you remember nothing else, and deny remembering nothing else, remember this:
A sympathetic character is one whose true worth passes unrecognised by the world.
To expand slightly:
A sympathetic character is one whose true worth is not recognised by anyone within their world.
Why does this mean that it is practically impossible for Harry not to be an orphan?
Simply because, if Harry has a father and a mother, and Harry’s father and mother are fulfilling their normal, loving, nurturing parental roles, then it is impossible that they should not know or be willing to discover Harry’s true worth.
A fictional character who has either a surviving mother or father is structurally less sympathetic than one who is orphaned, because their worth is known or suspected by someone within their world.
Therefore, Harry has to be an orphan. But it’s the structure necessitated by the definition that makes this inevitable:
A sympathetic character is one whose true worth passes unrecognised by the world.
More than this, the structure of the world-which-does-not-recognise-the-worth, the world which is unsympathetic, creates a vacuum of sympathy that the reader rushes to fill.
Because the surrounding world does not recognise the central character’s true worth, it is left to the reader alone to be in a position do so – to be, as it were, orphaned in this knowledge, orphaned alongside the orphan.
The reader structurally feels sympathy towards a character who lacks it – even if the reader feels, to begin with, very little sympathy for the character they are reading about, they are (by the very fact of starting and continuing to read) paying that character more attention, and thereby behaving in a more sympathetic way towards them, than anyone else in the world. They are, therefore, already – for the character – more on their side than not on their side.
This being on the side of is the beginning. From this, all other things follow – sympathy, empathy, obsessional love.
Even if the reader is not actively on the central character’s side, they are more on the central character’s side than anyone else apparent in the world (inside or outside the book) – and, of course, this on-the-side-ness will be more exaggerated the more unsympathetic, or nasty, or cruel, or vicious, to the central character the minor characters surrounding them are.
Which brings us to the Dursleys.
Given what I have said, it isn’t structurally necessary for the Dursleys to be as unsympathetic, nasty, cruel and vicious towards Harry as they are, in order for Harry to be the basis of a sympathetic character. All the Dursleys need to be is placed among those who do not recognise Harry’s true worth.
However, if Harry is to be as sympathetic a character as possible, then the way of turning the structure into a mechanism, and making that mechanism exert as much force as possible, in the desired direction, is to have the world surrounding Harry not just fail to recognise his worth but actively to attempt to destroy his worth. Therefore, the Dursleys must be as unsympathetic as possible.
The Dursleys are magnificently awful – probably the most magnificent thing in the Harry Potter books. This is despite their being, on the simplest level, mean-sprited caricatures.
The horribleness of the Dursleys goes far beyond their immediate English suburban world. In writing them, J.K.Rowling knows she cannot go too far – and so she goes a very long way – all the way back to the Middle Ages. For the Dursleys are, beneath their acrylic fibres, medieval archetypes. They are the Deadly Sins that would have trotted onstage, and been instantly recognised, in a Mystery Play: Dudley Dursley is unmistakably Gluttony, Mrs Dursley is Envy and Mr Dursley is Vainglory.
(As an aside, it is one of the greatest faults of the first Harry Potter film that the grotesquely overpatterned house of the Dursleys seems far more energetic and therefore far more magical, visually, than Diagon Alley, the Hogwarts Express or even Hogwarts itself. The set-designers and -dressers seem to have had a lot more fun with 4 Privet Drive, despite its Muggleness.)
Already, in the structure of creating sympathy, we have seen the reader be placed on the side of Harry. By having the Dursleys be as extreme as they are, any other position for the reader to take is forcible removed. No-one, in reading the beginning of The Philosophers’ Stone, could conceivably wish to think themselves as more on the side of the Dursleys than of Harry.
At this stage in the book, ‘the world’ surrounding the central character equals the Dursleys because we are given no other world. It is only later, when we receive hints that another world might exist, and, later still, when that world starts to make efforts to contact Harry, that ‘the world’ as such begins to expand.
Let’s go back to the definition:
A sympathetic character is one whose true worth is not recognised by anyone within their world.
Given the structure required by this, how does one make Harry even more sympathetic? As sympathetic as possible?
The answer is clear – by laying things out so that chief among those who do not recognise the central character’s true worth is that character themselves.
At the start of The Philosopher’s Stone, Harry has no idea what amazing things – what bravery, what loyalty, what magic – he will achieve, by the end of the events narrated in The Deathly Hallows.
Of course he doesn’t, those things are in his future. But he has no idea that he might have the true worth to be capable of them – because structurally they don’t exist for him. How can he be brave when he has no opportunity for adventure? How can he be loyal when there is no-one for him to be loyal to?
More than this, Harry is unaware of his true nature.
As J.K. Rowling said, this was the central idea: ‘essentially the idea for a boy who didn’t know he was a wizard’.
As the books continue, it becomes clear that the Dursleys don’t merely undervalue Harry – that is the front they put on, so that he doesn’t become aware of his true nature. The Dursleys are so terrified of what Harry’s true worth might be that they actively try to destroy any possibility of him realising (in all senses) that worth.
By this time, by the end of the first few chapters of The Philosopher’s Stone, you will see how clearly the structure laid out – how that character (Harry) relates to their world (the Dursleys’ house), and how their world relates to that character, forces the reader to feel sympathetic towards Harry – Harry, who is the most sympathetic character possible.
The reader, who is on Harry’s side, wishes more and more powerfully to see that Harry’s true worth be recognised by the world.
It is the working towards a recognition of the central character’s true worth that is the most powerful force within most works of popular fiction.
Think of Oliver Twist, think of Luke Skywalker.
But there are other structural elements that contribute towards that force. I have already taken apart the canonical version of Harry Potter’s strolling into our world, not the Hogwarts Express but a delayed train from Manchester to London.
Very briefly, I’d like to apply the definition to the canonical image of J.K. Rowling sitting down and writing the Harry Potter books.
Here’s an interview with Joanne Rowling in The Telegraph from around the time of her first book, titled ‘From the dole to Hollywood’:
‘Joanne Rowling, a familiar solitary figure at a table in the upstairs window, asks the waiter for a menu: “You’re going to eat?” he says, incredulity causing him to drop his swishing napkin. For three and a half years, Rowling has been a regular at Nicolson’s, off Princes Street in Edinburgh, ordering up espresso and a glass of water and writing a novel in laborious longhand, her baby daughter sleeping alongside…’
In case we missed the point, the article continues:
‘It’s a scene, you might think, from the romantic fiction of Paris in the Fifties rather than a picture of life on income support in Scotland, 1994.’
And a paragraph later:
‘There are appealing parallels between life and art. The isolation of the slight, self-absorbed 31-year-old woman, red-gold head bent over sheets of paper at a table while a noisy, gregarious institution bustles about her, is reflected in the life of Harry Potter, spooling from her pen. He is an orphan whose arrival in the human world is heralded by flocks of daylight-flying owls, persecuted for the first 11 years of his life by cruel, earthbound, suburban parents until whisked off to magic boarding school, to learn the science of wizardry.’
Enough said on this, for the moment.
The Book Before It Is Read
Now, I’d like to turn to a very close reading of The Philosopher’s Stone. But a close reading of the book as it exists before it has begun to be read. Because the structure of sympathy is in effect here. How is this unread book placed in relation to the reader? Even if they haven’t read Elisabeth Dunn’s interview with ‘lucky’ Joanne in the Telegraph.
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J.K.Rowling was first published on the 30th of June 1997, by Bloombury in the UK
We start with the first letter of the title: H.
H is not a baddie letter (Q, V, Z).
H is a squarish, reliable, domesticated letter.
H stands for Hospital, a place where people go to get healed.
H is the first letter of Harry.
Harry is a diminutive of Henry; therefore, even at this point, we’re already more intimate with him than we would be were the book called Henry Potter and the Philosophers Stone.
I think there are associations of the name Harry that lead us towards sympathy with anyone in a novel called that name – even if that sympathy turns out to be misguided.
There’s Prince Harry of Wales, born the 15th of September 1984 – who, years after J.K.Rowling named her character, lost his mother (that was the 31st of August 1997).
There’s other non-fictional Harrys:
There’s fictional Harrys–
Harry Palmer (The IPCRESS File, Len Deighton) – a goodie
Dirty Harry (Clint Eastwood) – a sort-of goodie
Harry Lime (The Third Man, Graham Greene) – a baddie but stupendously charismatic
I think there are some strange associations in the sounds of the name, Harry Potter:
The first syllables: Har Po: Harpo Marx
Har Po: Haribo, sweets
The misheard sound of it: Harry Potter – Our Reporter
The Spoonerism of it: Harry Potter – Parry Hotter
The anagrams of it: ‘Try hero part’
But maybe not ‘Raper hot try’
Then we come onto his surname, Potter –
artisan, works with hands, works with clay
It’s a lower middle class name. Not the name of a Prince, a member of the nobility; not double-barrelled, although the social meaning of that has changed in the time since the novel was published.
Think how differently we would meet the character were the novel to be called Harry Potter-Wilkinson and the Philosopher’s Stone
And then there is the knowledge that Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is a novel, and that things happen in novels, therefore – in this novel – there is bound to be an intimate relation between the ordinary name, Harry Potter, and the extraordinary thing, the Philosopher’s Stone.
(What, as a puzzle, can a potter do with a stone?)
For the American publishers, Philosopher was not exciting enough, and the word was changed to Sorcerer. It’s easy to believe in a Philosopher called Potter – just as there were philosophers called Austin, Moore, Popper. But a Sorcerer called Potter is more of a stretch, and in this way the American title does more of the work of revealing the basic idea of the book: ‘a boy who didn’t know he was a wizard’.
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J.K. Rowling, an author who – as yet – is revealed neither as man or woman or other, and therefore isn’t not you whatever sex you are.
The Reader and Harry; Beyond Sympathy to Empathy
I said at the start that what was most toxic about this lecture was that I was going to reveal ‘just how disgustingly narcissistic the relationship is between a reader and a character they would blandly say they liked or loved’. And that’s where we’re going to go now.
A sympathetic character is one whose true worth passes unrecognised by the world.
Your true worth passes unrecognised by the world. And yours. And yours. And mine. And yours.
This is what we all feel, isn’t it?
Who alive feels their true worth has been recognised? That means all the possible ways in which they are worthy.
Or maybe saints looking down from heaven – and novels don’t tend to be about saints in heaven.
Whose true worth could possibly be known?
Even if you have performed one unwitnessed good act, and never told anyone about it, your true worth is unknown; similarly, if you performed one secret shameful act, your true worth cannot be estimated.
What we have here is what I’d call a disguised ego-loop.
In the reader’s head, not necessarily consciously, it goes round something like this:
While I am reading about Harry Potter, I realise the following:
- Harry Potter’s true worth passes unrecognised by the world (the Dursleys)
- I am closer to Harry Potter than anyone in his world; I am on Harry Potter’s side
- My true worth passes unrecognised by the world (my friends, family, colleagues)
- I am like Harry Potter; Harry Potter is like me
Aside: (Much of the pain I feel about my own true worth passing unrecognised, I also feel through reading about the true worth of Harry Potter passing unrecognised – this is sympathy)
- If our true worth were recognised by the world, both Harry Potter and I could achieve great things
- I recognise the true worth of Harry Potter (therefore I am not like the Dursleys or the world; therefore I am not like my friends, family, colleagues)
Aside: (As I read about Harry Potter’s true worth slowly gaining some recognition, and him starting to achieve some great things, I feel pleasure that – in his case if not mine – justice is being done)
Continued aside: (Harry Potter’s victories are a victory for justice, because they bring his true worth closer to being recognised; if there were greater justice in my world, my own worth would be recognised (and so would the worth of other people))
7. My emotions at Harry Potter gaining some recognition are very close to if not identical to Harry Potter’s emotions (this is empathy)
8. I am not like the world because I appreciate the true worth of other people because – look – I so deeply appreciate the worth of Harry Potter; I am better than the world because I am more just than the world
At this point we could probably replace ‘appreciate the worth’ with love – but let’s keep going as we are.
9. Appreciating Harry Potter’s worth makes me a better person, and the more I appreciate him, the better I become; and because I am part of the world (although better than the most of the world) by becoming better myself, I make the world slightly better
10. A better world is a world that is more likely to recognise the true worth of all the people in it, including myself
(Aside: Again, for some people, I think this escalates to: My world is a worse place because not enough people love Harry Potter – if I can get some more people to love Harry Potter, the world will improve)
11. Whatever I do for Harry Potter, I ultimately do for myself; because an increase in recognition for him is an increase in recognition for me (this is empathy)
(Aside: With some people I think this becomes: I will attempt to do more for Harry than anyone in my world, too.)
But this will be difficult to achieve because (and we’re back to the beginning) – however bestselling his books, if we go back to the beginning of The Philosopher’s Stone, we still find that:
12. Harry Potter’s true worth passes unrecognised by the world (the Dursleys)
I think this – all of this – could be simplified to:
Harry Potter isn’t loved enough
I am not loved enough
Harry Potter and me are the same
If Harry Potter were loved more, I would be loved more
I will love Harry Potter more because… [Going back to the start of loop] Harry Potter isn’t loved enough.
In all of this, the reader does not love Harry Potter because he is other to them, because he is different. The sympathy is forced on the basis of the structure within which Harry is presented to us.
In other words, love of Harry Potter is disguised self-love.
Love of all sympathetic central characters is disguised self-love, but disguised so that it appears to be both altruistic and world-improving.
Which is why I said it’s rankly narcissistic, because it ends up turning the self in to the world; all that remains is to gaze into the mirror.
“You are rankly narcissistic” is not the kind of thing you want to be saying to your readers.
Therefore, to turn this back into practical advice on writing: to create a sympathetic or even loveable central character, you have to create a disguised ego-loop for the reader – in which they can externalise their own ego in a form they both recognise and fail to recognise.
By creating the right structure around your character – not necessarily by having them be an orphan, or surrounded by cruelty, but by creating them so that their true worth is more known to the reader than to anyone present in their world – you will force the reader to sympathise. It will take a lot more work to make the reader empathise, but that is up to your efficient use of the toxic mechanisms.
The readers must never begin to suspect this is happening, that will make them dislike you as a writer.
That’s why I said earlier that ‘the most important force is forcing the reader never to suspect they have ever been forced to do or feel anything.’
Which takes us back, for a moment, to the beginning – and to the stage managing of the introduction of your character to the world. Your character must do the equivalent of ‘stroll into’ your world. If you are ever interviewed about your character, you must always insist on their total emotional reality. More than that, you must always have truly believed in their total emotional reality. While you were writing about them – note, ‘writing about them’ not ‘while you were making them up’. While you were writing about them, you felt their presence in your life. They were like a friend. You could ask them things, and they would reply. They were not in your control, but made their own decisions, some of which you disagreed with, yet you had no power to influence them. You never once considered, whilst writing about them, that they should do this or that because it would make them more sympathetic to a reader. Even to make such a suggestion is ridiculous. They were real to you and their world was real to you. And when you finished writing about them, you grieved for them – just as you would for any person who had been important in your life.
This may sound cynical; I hope it doesn’t. Because, ultimately, the technique you will need in order to do this successfully is to yourself believe all these things about the character and your relationship to them whilst, at the same time, masterfully creating the structures and operating the toxic mechanisms that will make the character sympathetic to the reader.
This, on a larger scale, is no different from, say, writing dialogue. You know such a thing as ‘dialogue’ exists – no-one can have gone through any basic kind of education without learning that. You have done more, though. You are creative writing students. You have done some dialogue exercises. You have read some stories specifically to focus on how they use dialogue. You have perhaps attended a Masterclass on dialogue. Yet, when you come to write about what one of your characters says to another, your dialogue will be much much worse if you are thinking (at that moment): ‘Right, now I am going to write some dialogue between X and Y. What should that dialogue be.’ Rather than thinking: ‘This is what X would say to Y, isn’t it? It feels right. It fits. And then what Y would say back is…’ Or rather than thinking: ‘Oh my God, X is saying this to Y, and now Y is saying this back to X! Oh my God! Whatever are they going to say next?’ Very often, writers to think this as they watch a scene happen in their head.
To finish up, I would like to say a little bit more on the question ‘Why Harry Potter?’ Because, while many many writers have done their best, unconsciously and consciously, purely and cynically, to create the most sympathetic central characters they can, there have been very few characters anything like as successful as Harry Potter.
I think that, to answer this, you would have to look much more widely at the culture. I think there is some explanation to be found in the fact that, when the Philosopher’s Stone came out, it seemed quite old-fashioned. J.K.Rowling sounded an old-fashioned name – like J.R.Hartley, who was an invented fogeyish character used to advertise directory enquiries; or like J.R.R. Tolkien or J.B. Priestley. And the idea that a boarding school adventure about magic would appeal to non-private school attending children who were mostly obsessed with technology seemed extremely unlikely. So that, before Harry Potter came along, there was – for a few years – unnoticed by anyone – a bit of a vacuum of things that we can now see are Harry Potter-shaped.
In other words, there was a consumer desire waiting to be fulfilled.
In other words, there was a gap in the market.
In other words, we all wanted to be allowed to fall in love with ourselves one more time.
Because that’s what we always want.
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