I recently re-watched the old Harry Potter movies and while my inner child was beaming with joy, the writer in me was also given a little food for thought. I think we can all agree J.K. Rowling is a genius and if by some miracle you disagree, then you should probably re-evaluate your definition of genius so it fits the Harry Potter series. Okay? Now we can proceed.
In book/movie number 1 – Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone – we are introduced to the Mirror of Erised. If I were to transcribe the little dialogue between Dumbledore and Harry in front of the mirror, it would follow as such:
Dumbledore: “The happiest man on earth would look into the mirror and see only himself, exactly as he is.”
Harry: “So then, it shows us what we want – exactly what we want?”
Dumbledore: “Yes. And no. It shows us nothing more or less than the deepest and most desperate desires of our hearts.”
Now, Harry never knew his parents. He misses them deeply and it is only natural for him to see their reflection in the mirror. This is his deepest, most desperate desire. Actually, the name “Erised” is “desire” spelled backwards, as if reflected in a mirror. Had you picked up on that one?
What about other characters? Shortly after his discovery, Harry runs up to the dormitory and eagerly wakes his best friend. He wants Ron to meet his parents. But of course the mirror reflects individual desires. Ron doesn’t see Harry’s parents but rather himself, holding the Quidditch cup. His motivations are different.
Goals change of course. A story may begin with a character who wants nothing more but to become the editor-in-chief of The Architectural Review (can you blame me for choosing the AR?!) but as the plot unfolds, their goal might change. They will grow, along with their motivations and ambitions. For all we know, the story may end with the character being perfectly happy with his low-paying position in a small design publication because they have realised what makes them unhappy is not their job but rather the strained relationship with their father.
But let’s put ‘change’ to a side for now. Tell me this…
What would YOUR characters see if they were to look in the Mirror of Erised?
The most popular bit of advice in character development is probably “characters need flaws”. The second most popular would then be “characters need goals“.
Think about your protagonists but don’t forget those supporting characters, the ones that make a story rich and compelling. Interview your characters. Ask them: “What do you want the most in this world?” Or: “What would make you profoundly happy?” And don’t forget to ask “Why?”.
You may come up with a string of logical answers at first and some might end up in the “keep pile” but before you hit the gavel, try to magic up (see what I did there?) a few more solutions. You may find it will end up being an amalgamation of them. We are complex beings after all.
If we put ‘change’ back on the table, you could even make a list with those questions and ask them again when you get to the middle of your story. I believe a character should grow, learn and, ultimately, transform. In one way or another. So if you have done things right, their answers should differ from the beginning. A little or a lot.
As it is with everything, exceptions apply of course. You could stop a character from changing to highlight their stubbornness, conservative opinions or conversely, their firm beliefs, unconditional love or whatever you want it to be. After all, you’re pulling all the strings.
As I watched Harry gaze at this treacherous reflection, I wondered beyond my characters. What would I see? Would it be me in a concert hall, bowing by the side of a grand piano? Would it be me holding my very own published book? Would it be this or would it be that?
Do you think it’s best not to know? Or would the knowledge of our goals help us achieve them? I have my own little idea but I’m intrigued to hear what you guys think.