In the Harry Potter books, J.K. Rowling spends a lot of time developing the characters important to the story, be they Harry’s friends, teachers, rivals, or enemies. A lot of these characters started off as one-dimensional, especially if introduced in Sorcerer’s Stone or Chamber of Secrets, but were then further complicated as the series went on. This not only works on a structural level, but also helps bolster one of Rowling’s major themes in the series, that things are rarely what they seem to be at first glance.
Here is a list of the five characters* I think she did the best at demonstrating this theme through. This list does not by any means mean that I particularly like all of these characters, though I also think that that is part of the brilliance of these books: just because the characters are multidimensional doesn’t mean they are necessarily likeable or redeemable.
*This list does not include Harry Potter on purpose. Since he is the main character and is the character we see developed the most, I’m not counting him.
Severus Snape is one of my least favorite characters in the entire Harry Potter series, but it isn’t for lack of writing skill. When we first meet Snape, he is a strangely abusive teacher with a seemingly random grudge against Harry and who obviously favors the students in his own House. While at first, Snape’s abuse is unexplained, we begin to learn more about his life growing up. His characterization and backstory are given to us piece by piece throughout the series. We first learn about the mutual hatred between him and Harry’s father, then about what he deemed as bullying from the Marauders, about his fascination with the Dark Arts, and at last his relationship with Harry’s mother, Lily. While “The Prince’s Tale” in some ways reads as a chapter that excuses a character from the terrible things he has done because of the good things he’s also done, I appreciate the chapter more because it gives us a full look at how Snape got to be where he was up until his death. Not only was he a double agent, but everything he did was because of his love for Lily, even if it was really more the idea of her than the actual person she was. While this in no way excuses Snape for the horrible things he’s done including becoming a literal Death Eater and abusing children, it does create an interesting look at a character who is still human despite his faults.
Robyn has talked about how adaptations of the books have dumbed down Ron Weasley’s character, so I’m just going to talk about the Ron Weasley we all acknowledge. The Ron of the books is funny, loyal, brave, strategic, and insecure. Ron is definitely someone you would want as your friend if you are facing the greatest Dark Wizard of all time and while he tends to take things for granted, when it comes down to it he has the backs of the people he loves. This isn’t to say that Ron is all good, and throughout the books Rowling does a good job of showing both his flaws and the way that he grows. As great of a friend Ron is, he also has deep insecurities about not being good enough. As the sixth child of seven and the best friend of the Chosen One and the brightest witch of her age, Ron struggles to find a place for himself and so when he gets jealous he tends to lash out. This happens a few times during his time at Hogwarts, but then comes to a head during the horcrux hunt. We know that horcruxes feed on your deepest fears and insecurities and the locket-horcrux does just that for Ron, to the point that his jealousy and anger boils over and he leaves his friends. Of course, because he’s Ron, he realizes his mistake right away and does everything he can to get back to them. Ron’s insecurities are just as important to his character as his humor and loyalty to his friends.
When we first meet Neville, he is a small, forgetful boy with confidence issues. He was so unsure of himself that he begged the Sorting Hat to put him in Hufflepuff, though in the end the hat won and put him in Gryffindor. Gryffindors are known for being brave, and in the beginning of Harry Potter, Neville seems the furthest from inhabiting the tenants Gryffindors prize. However, through Neville we see that there are different forms of bravery. Bravery is more than doing big, gallant, heroic things and can be as simple as getting up every morning or going to Potions class every day despite the teacher being the thing you fear most in the entire world. While Harry and his friends are out saving the school and the world, Neville is being brave on a much smaller - though equally important - scale. Neville spends much of the books working on himself so that when he is truly needed, he is able to really rise to the cause.
Dumbledore is a character who operates largely in mystery for the first two-thirds of the series. He always seems to be the voice of reason, the always-present, all-knowing force, the safety net for the students of the school, the Order of the Phoenix, and especially Harry. While upon a reread it becomes clear how much Dumbledore keeps from people and how little he does as Headmaster early on, his character becomes much more interesting after he makes his first big mistake in Order of the Phoenix and continues to become complicated through Half-Blood Prince and even more so in Deathly Hallows. Through Rowling’s writing we see through the veneer of a wise, kind old man to a calculating, manipulative man who is forced to compartmentalize his feelings and plans for “the greater good.” In some ways, he’s the opposite of Snape, a good man who does bad things rather than a bad one who does good. The complication of his character does well to show how things are rarely how they seem in the beginning, and the dangers of blindly following people.
Draco starts off in Harry Potter as a one-dimensional bully, one who has clear insecurities but hides them behind taunts and dumb bodyguards. He goes out of his way to make things difficult for Harry, constantly uses his equally reprehensible father to do his dirty work, and often relies on his wealth and blood status to demonstrate his proclaimed superiority. As the books go on, we begin to see a boy who is merely repeating the things he was taught at home, a boy who is way more bark than bite, and who truly loves his family despite them being followers of Voldemort. Like his parents, Draco is an opportunist who only does things when there’s something in it for him. At the same time, as he gets older he begins to see the error of his parents’ ways, though by the time he does it’s too late to turn back and forge a different path. Though Draco is far from being a good person, at least in the span of the seven books, he does become more complicated and grow as he gets older.
There are far more characters in Harry Potter who show growth or who become much more complicated as the series progresses, but these five are the main ones who I think do a lot of the work and who contribute to some of the main themes of the series. Good or bad or something in between, these characters are all human and the Harry Potter books do a good job of demonstrating that.