Writing Like J.K. Rowling: Character Complexity

Writing Like J.K. Rowling: Character Complexity


Books can contain a lot of characters—the
first Harry Potter book alone contains over fifty! So how much should each player in a story
be developed in terms of complexity? As a general rule, the more scenes a character
appears in, the more complex the reader will expect the character to be. I like to think of character importance in
terms of a four-tier pyramid. At the base, you have your protagonist, who
is the most complex by virtue of how much time the reader spends with them; the audience
knows more about the protagonist’s desires, motivations, and flaws than any other character. For example, even at the start of the Harry
Potter series, we already know a great deal about Harry. We know his backstory: He’s an orphan who
lives in a cupboard under the stairs and is constantly bullied by his relatives. We know his personality: He’s principled,
cheeky, and brave, not to mention impulsive and reckless. With his parents dead and the cruelty of his
other family members, Harry has always been alone in his life, until he arrived at Hogwarts. Scene by scene, we experience his moments
of sadness, anger, confusion, wonder, and joy—as well as the complex character reactions
that come with those emotions. On the second, smaller tier of the pyramid,
you have the other major characters, the most important players in the supporting cast. These are often antagonists or friends—your
Rons, Hermiones, Hagrids, Dumbledores, Snapes, Dracos, and Voldemorts. From the start, each of them have defining
features and quirks that make them complex. We have a character who comes from a big family
of red heads; a friendless know-it-all; a kindhearted guide who was expelled from school;
a cheery and powerful mentor who gives sage life advice; a teacher who hates the protagonist’s
father and fame; a snob from a pureblood family who at first tries to befriend the protagonist;
and a villain whom no one dares to call by name and who must live on someone else’s
body. These major characters all have backstories
and goals independent of the protagonist. Think of the Mirror of Erised, which shows
the viewer’s deepest desires, and how the different characters view themselves: “Ron
saw himself as the Gryffindor Quidditch Captain and Head Boy, holding up the Quidditch Cup,
as he has always been overshadowed by his brothers and is always striving to be noticed
by others.” On the third tier are your minor characters,
the ones who only appear in a couple of scenes, such as parents or childhood bullies. In this category, you want to avoid obvious
stereotypes. One of my biggest pet peeves is generic bully
characters—people who try to knock the protagonist down a peg for no reason and in uncreative
ways, like the mean preppy girl who trips the protagonist in the hallway. You can avoid such clichés by adding detail. In the case of a bully, give them a motivation
and an interesting way of bullying. Dudley Dursley, for example, is a spoiled,
overweight mama’s boy who thinks he’s the center of the universe, so it makes sense
that he would think himself above his cousin and use fake tantrums to get Harry in trouble. That’s as far as you need to go in terms
of complexity for minor characters, unless you plan on having multiple books. In the case of a longer series, these second-
and third-tier characters should experience some kind of character arc. Even as antagonists, both Draco and Dudley
mature in later books and begin to doubt their antagonistic roles. Over the course of multiple volumes, new backstory
may also be revealed, changing the protagonist’s and the reader’s perception of a character,
such as in the case of Snape, Dumbledore, and Voldemort. At the tippity top of the pyramid are your
background characters, who usually appear in just one scene. Many of them may be unnamed and known by their
role—guards, goons, red shirts, shop owners, thieves, and so on. This also includes characters who are mentioned
by name alone, such as authors of books or unimportant classmates. The presence of interesting background characters
can make a world feel larger and lived in. For example, in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s
Stone, even the boa constrictor at the zoo has a certain level of complexity, as described
in its Wiki entry: “Lonely and bored, the snake found it highly
annoying to have zoo visitors tap on the tank’s glass front every day. He had also always dreamed of living in Brazil. He also had a rather playful side, as he made
a point of snapping at the heels of panicking Muggles as he left his former prison but without
intent to hurt them. Interestingly, the snake seemed to be capable
of reading; when Harry asked if it missed its family in Brazil, it pointed to a sign
which read RAISED IN CAPTIVITY.” Rowling could have simply had Harry see the
snake and wish that it would attack Dudley. Instead, she chose to make the snake a sympathetic
character whose trapped situation mirrors that of Harry’s. As it’s leaving, the snake even has a fun
line of dialogue. Of course, you don’t want to spend too much
time developing one-off characters. However, if the protagonist interacts with
them for even a page or two, you can still add flair. They could speak in an interesting way or
have a single defining personality trait that adds humor or subverts expectations: a self-conscious
thief, a philosophical guard, a chef who’s missing three fingers, a mistrustful innkeeper
who suspects everyone is trying to burn his damn place down. By adding a few small details, you can give
even the most minor of characters a unique backstory and personality. Think of all your characters as having different
levels of complexity and adjust the amount of detail you reveal according to how often
they appear in your story. Here’s the breakdown: Tier 1=main character(s) [appears in most
scenes] Tier 2=major characters [appear in many
scenes] Tier 3=minor characters [appear in a few
scenes] Tier 4=background characters [appear in
one scene] Try listing all the characters in a book as
you read. How complex does each one feel to you? I’m curious to know more examples like the
boa constrictor from Brazil, so tell me your favorite background character in the comments. Whatever you do, keep writing.

45 thoughts on “Writing Like J.K. Rowling: Character Complexity”

  1. I really hope this channel become bigger. Your content is amazing. Your narration is clear, direct and very informative.
    I was about to quit writing, but this channel lit my inspiration/motivation once again.

  2. Really appreciate this in depth study of a popular work! Your points are well stated and practical; I'd love to see more content like this from writers, as opposed to surface level criticism or needlessly complex obscurantism. You don't get bogged down in theory, but there's enough to give perspective.

    May I ask what tool you use to create the visual aids? I'm especially fond of them, and I've been looking for new styles to try out.

  3. How interesting to put this whole understanding in a triangle. It makes the whole thing surprisingly simple. I like that.

  4. Hmmm… I had hoped you would go a little more into detail about the difference between tropes (an immensely useful writing tool that saves you a lot of effort in creating interesting characters) and stereotypes (avoid at all costs). Interesting video though. I hope you do another video on this subject because it seems like there's a lot more to cover.

  5. I really liked this video, you explained the different tiers really well, so even someone who hadn't read the books – like me – could understand what you were trying to say.
    And I think that's what a reader would see in a well written story. But as an author, I like to know as much of my characters as I possibly can – to be fair, my stories tend to be very character-driven – so I'll always portray them accurately and consistently, even if they're just minor characters.
    Maybe that's just me though… or maybe that's a strong indication, giving away my character-centric style of story-telling…

  6. The concept you developed in this video was simple and insightful. Great for any aspiring writers. However, I always thought of Harry as a blank slate character — one used so readers can put themselves in his shoes. I'd argue that Ron and Hermione are more complex characters.

    I'll elaborate: You have already mentioned Harry's struggles and backstory. These influence his actions and allow us to empathize with him. They also generate conflict and, therefore, tension in the story. Yet, all of these are never challenged by a character arc. Meaning that, by the end of the story in The Deathly Hallows, Harry is still the same character he was all the way back in The Philosopher's Stone. He grew up, sure. He has matured, yes. But, at the end of the day, have any of his struggles changed or shaped him in a different way? Does his decision-making differ from the first to the last novel? Except for some teenage tantrums along the way – which Rowling so accurately portrays -, the answer is no. (There are some inconsistencies I found jarring in book 7, but those is beyond the scope of this comment).

    Now let's compare it to Ron. His backstory and struggles are also simple. Enumerating them would be rather pointless since we only care about one; his insecurity. A flaw we see him carry on his shoulders throughout the saga until he finally confronts it, overcoming his flaw, and changing as a character.

    This makes Ron the more complex character because this flaw was getting in the way of his goals. Whereas Harry's struggles don't really hold him back from doing anything he sets out to. They are simply there as a requirement for the readers to empathize and relate to him, not to challenge him.

  7. Personally, my biggest problem as a writer is writing character personalities. What they do, what they say, how they say it. I tend to just blow it out of proportion until they’re walking cliches. The villains tend to be the only ones who don’t fall victim to this, and even then it’s not 100% full proof. Any advice would be appreciated.

  8. Great video. I'm trying to flesh out some of my characters and this was a great reference. My favorite background character… probably the little kids on Camazots (A Wrinkle In Time) Their struggle was real and their punishments painful. I sympathized with them very quickly.

  9. When I'm making characters, should I create them knowing how important to the story they will be? Do I essentially decide that I want X amount of major characters and Y amount of minor characters and so on? Because like… I have been trying to dive into the personal connections of any random guard or worker that my MC stubbles across in the story. It hasn't made many results yet mostly because I keep trying to force random information into the book about characters that don't really mean much to the story or plot in general.

  10. I love the Boa Constrictor. I wish it had shown up again, like maybe it followed Harry home and he hid it from the Dursleys and then took it to school with him as a pet. It would have been interesting to see Harry use Parseltougne for fun on occasion. And the snake could have eaten Aunt Marge's dog in book three.

  11. Its sucks that JK went all crazy after the original seven. She eventually became the villain of her own writing. But her techniques in the originals were great. Great video, good study.

  12. i think this is a great video and it's got me thinking but I have to disagree about Harry himself. I think he's one of the blandest characters in the books. He has a very well developed backstory but being an orphan who misses his parents isn't personality, it's just background. What depth he does have comes from a) his occasional temper and moments of impulsivity b) when you realise there's a degree of truth to Malfoy's and Snape's suggestion that he's "saint potter" who strutts about the place, showing everyone else up and c) what you can either see as his arrogant righteousness to pry into others lives and meddle, or his sense of duty to try and prevent bad things happening to the school.

    Aside from that, he's quite lacking in personality, which isn't necessarily a criticism because Ron and Hermione fill that role perfectly with their ongoing rivalries of lazy slob vs uppity nerd: giving Harry a chance to take up the role of mediator between them

  13. The scene at 3:25 with Dudley was soooo good in the book!! It makes me so mad they left it out!! This editing is really good!

  14. "ABOUT JENNA" STORY :
    Jenna was kidnapped and forced to become an prostitue by the sex offenders and gangsters, which is Jenna feel so anxiety and concern. But she's also try to be brave, strong, and not scared of the sex offenders, because sex offenders knew that they are coward people. Most all of the victims are teenage girls and young female adults. Jenna is also socialized with the gangsters to find a way to escape from the prostitution place. But she's also wants to help, rescue, and free up the other prostitue girls at the bar, by doing something in the smart way. To distract, beat, and defend the gangsters.

  15. Ellie bertanya kepada David
    "David kenapa anak-anak selalu menjadi korban penculikan?".

    Kata David "Itu karena anak-anak itu masih kecil dan mudah diancam dan diperlakukan oleh orang dewasa".

    Ellie kaget dan bilang "Wah.. itu berartinya menjadi anak itu tidak mudah dan tidak aman ya.., aku merasa kecewa david!".

    Lalu David berkata "Ellie.., itu tidak berartinya menjadi anak itu aman atau tidak aman. Semua itu terkandung dari lingkungan dan kondisi keamanan di setiap kota-kota masing-masing Ellie.., Kamu atau orang lain pun bisa melapor jika mereka punya masalah atau diserang oleh penjahat atau siapapun juga".

  16. My favorite background character so far in my plot is frank, an airline employee that assissts the antagonist, who is in a wheelchair, on board a plane in one scene. Frank makes breif conversation with the antagonist, asking where he's headed and for what purpose. In this short exchange, the antagonist eludes to his ultimate plans that unfold in the end of the story. His answer to Frank is different than the one he gives the protagonist, when she asks him the same questions. But the conversation with Frank is so vague and the situation plays out so fast, the reader should barely notice it, unless they remember Frank at the end, and think "WAIT A SECOND." At which point, that guy on that one page becomes the tool that foreshadowed tragedy, because of other verbal hints that the antagonist accidentally drops to other characters.

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