Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

SPOILER! The Trouble With Writing Beloved Characters
New books dissected over email.
July 25 2007 3:58 PM

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

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Illustration by Charlie Powell. Click image to expand.

Hello all,

How scary is it to write characters who have become so well-known as to have lives of their own?

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The hardest part of writing well-known characters is that they belong to so many other people. Superman, Batman, Harry, and Hermione—for better or worse—have millions of readers who feel possessive of them. Part of loving is taking ownership in what you love; real Superman fans feel that he is somehow "theirs." The result for the writer is reaction and criticism that's a hundred times more ruthlessly focused.

When I wrote my first Batman scene, well … I'd waited my whole life to write that scene. Batman had always been my favorite; I spent most of my youth wearing a Batman cape everywhere I went. Before I started, I came up with a storyline that I thought would work well. But when I wrote the word Batman in the script and I waited to see what his first words would be, I realized: You know what? Batman would never be in this scene. I know it sounds insane, but for that moment, the character was just so much bigger than me. At the crucial moment, my internal sense of how Batman would and wouldn't behave outweighed my own desires about plot and narrative. The key, when writing well-known heroes and heroines, is to trust that internal sense of character. And to trust your own sense of it, not the readers'. Indeed, my biggest problem with Internet feedback is that writers become so worried about being liked that they change their writing for the sake of that instant online popularity.

Reader feedback is even harder to handle when it's time to kill off a beloved character. In my years of writing comics, I've killed three of them. During that time, I've gotten three death threats. And that's from three different people who suddenly went all Misery when they saw the body show up in the story.

So, is it hard to kill off a popular character? If it isn't, you don't love the character. But does that mean you shouldn't do it? Of course not. (Still, I suspect that's why Hagrid got saved in the end—Rowling just loved him too much.)

Which brings me back to my original wish for the final book: I wanted Harry to die. It's something I didn't think Rowling would do (and we all want what we can't have). But looking back on it, I've reconsidered: Wanting Harry dead is cool. But it's unfair. And it comes from us wanting her to write OUR book. A book for us. And at the end of the day, as epic and beautiful and realized as the Potter world is, it's still a book for young people first. As much as I love lessons of loss and sacrifice, I'm starting to realize that when I read it with my children, the lesson needs to be that Harry LIVES for being good, not that Harry dies.

And so ... when it comes to the book, I've decided to be thankful. Like the walk-to-death chapter says: Thankfulness is what the world needs more of. Take it all in and enjoy it. (Then bitch about it online.)

Brad

Brad Meltzer, a novelist and comics writer, is the author of The Book of Fate.

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