I recently started listening to the audiobook of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire at work. I do pretty repetitive graphic design and digitizing, so I need something to keep my brain occupied in the meantime. The entire Harry Potter series is basically my security blanket; I’ve re-read each book more times than I can count. It had been a while since my last re-read, though, and this time I noticed something that had only been in the back of my mind the last time around: Harry is a terrible protagonist in this book.
The Harry Potter series is a big part of what inspired me to be a writer when I was a kid, and I’m sure I’m not alone in that. The magical world the series takes place in is the best kind of escapism for me, and the cast of characters is so memorable that I feel like I know them personally and often think about them even years after first reading the books. What young writer wouldn’t dream of having that kind of effect on readers? Obviously, there are problems and weaknesses in the books—let’s not even touch all the J. K. Rowling scandals that have happened after the series ended, because that’s a giant rabbit hole I’m not that interested in—but I think these weaknesses are huge opportunities for growth for the generation of writers who grew up wanting to create something as magical as Harry Potter. Let’s examine one of those weaknesses, shall we?
NOTE: needless to say, there will be some spoilers.
First off, let’s make something clear: “protagonist” isn’t he same thing as “hero.” Harry is fairly heroic in Goblet of Fire: he’s a good person who stands against evil and tries to protect his friends and the people around him. Consider especially the second task, in which he jeopardizes his chance to win in order to make sure Ron, Hermione, Cho, and Fleur’s little sister are safe, or when he risks his life to bring Cedric’s body back to his family. However, I don’t think he’s anywhere near as heroic in this book overall as he is in others, and that’s tied to—but not the same thing as—his lamentable lack of protagonistic qualities.
So what do I mean by all this? A protagonist is defined as someone who pursues the main goal of the story and moves the story forward. However, Harry spends the entirety of Goblet of Fire reacting to the actions of other characters. He doesn’t have a clear goal or desire other than to make it through the Tri-Wizard Tournament, in which he is forced to compete. He has desires and takes action in some individual scenes, of course, but overall his impact on the story is minimal. He isn’t proactive and he doesn’t really move the plot forward; his friends and enemies disguised as friends are the ones who solve problems for him and move him through the tournament. A protagonist doesn’t have to be heroic, but they do have to make meaningful decisions and impactful actions. Harry doesn’t do either of those.
Goblet of Fire, the fourth book in the Harry Potter series, is the one where Lord Voldemort is trying to get access to Harry’s blood so he can regain his body and his powers. He sends his faithful Death Eater,
David Tennant Barty Crouch Jr., disguised as Dumbledore’s old friend Mad-Eye Moody, to Hogwarts to make sure Harry competes in and wins the Tri-Wizard Tournament, which is a contest held between Hogwarts and two other magical schools. Harry, meanwhile, gets entered into the tournament against his will, gets help from all sides to pass the tasks, gets bullied and slandered (for which Hermione exacts revenge, not him), gets handed the Tri-Wizard Tournament win (which transports him to Voldemort), and then gets his blood taken by Voldemort. He’s essentially a plot device that other characters act upon.
Not only is Harry pretty much useless throughout this whole book (he would never have passed any of the tasks without tireless effort from everyone around him), but he doesn’t really have a goal or desire that drives him. He briefly considers breaking the rules to enter the tournament, but then he doesn’t, and gets entered and selected anyway. After that, his interior monologue continually reminds us that he doesn’t want to be in the tournament and is worried about the next task, but that’s not motivation—that’s just him reacting to the situation he’s in. He gets into a fight with his friend Ron because of something outside of his control and for several chapters wishes Ron would apologize to him, but he doesn’t take any actions to help or hinder that desire, and they eventually make up because of Ron’s initiative. He wants to go out with Cho Chang, but Cedric asks her out first, so he gives up on that. Nothing that he wants or does affects the plot in any significant way.
If anything, Barty Crouch Jr. is the real protagonist (and perhaps because of that, the character I found most interesting) of Goblet of Fire. His motivations—to help Voldemort return to power, to get revenge on his father, and to punish the former Death Eaters who abandoned Voldemort—drive the plot forward more than anyone else’s desires. His actions get Harry into the Tri-Wizard Tournament, help Harry pass every task, and deliver Harry to Voldemort at the end of the tournament. Without him, there would be no plot. Harry could be replaced with a sack of potatoes and the book wouldn’t change that much.
So how could Goblet of Fire have avoided this pitfall? Simple as anything: give Harry a motivation. In Prisoner of Azkaban, the third book in the series, Harry has strong motivations. He wants to get revenge on Sirius Black for (he thinks) getting his parents killed. He wants to win the Quidditch Cup, which motivates him to learn how to fight against the Dementors who prowl the school grounds. He wants to be a normal kid, which motivates him to escape the castle to have fun against advice from his teachers. All of these motivations and the actions they inspire drive the plot and make Harry a much more interesting protagonist. In the fifth book in the series, Order of the Phoenix, Harry wants desperately for his classmates and teachers to believe that Voldemort is back, which motivates him to speak up at many opportunities, getting him in serious trouble. He wants to feel prepared instead of helpless, which inspires him to be a great Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher to his classmates. You get the idea. Harry can be an active, compelling protagonist—Goblet of Fire just seems to hinge on the fact that he’s an easily manipulated pawn with no compelling desires of his own.
There’s a reason so much writing advice encourages you to give your characters, particularly your protagonist, a motivation that drives their actions. Otherwise, you haven’t written a lead character—you’ve written a prop, and props are boring on their own. Goblet of Fire gets by on the strength of its secondary characters, especially Barty Crouch Jr./fake Mad-Eye Moody, who basically carries the whole plot; Hermione, whose desire for justice and for her friends’ wellbeing is much stronger than Harry’s in this book, making her a much more active and heroic character than him; and Hagrid, whose character arc is much more compelling than Harry’s. Remember when I said Harry was less heroic in this book than in the others? That’s because you don’t need to be heroic to be a good protagonist, but you do need to be a good protagonist to be heroic.
If you’re writing a book, no matter how far along you are, and you haven’t taken a long, hard look at your protagonist’s motivations, now is the time to do it. The protagonist’s motivations and the actions they take because of them should change the story. The protagonist’s motivations should be one of the foundations of the plot. Even if you have already looked long and hard at their motivations, look again. In the writing of my current series, it’s been hard for me to figure out my protagonist’s motivations when he’s in a scene filled with other strong-willed characters—I was once stumped on a scene for months because of this problem. But the good news is that if you’re aware of the need for your protagonist to have strong motivations that lead to plot-changing actions, making that happen is much easier than most of the other things you have to do as a writer. It’s woven into the fabric is storytelling.
And maybe if you can’t for the life of you figure out what your protagonist’s motivations are or his they can impact the plot, then the character you thought was the protagonist really isn’t. Maybe that character’s brainy, caring best friend is the protagonist. Maybe the villain is.
I would totally read a good fanfic all about Barty Crouch Jr., by the way. Send recommendations if you have them!
What are your thoughts? Let me know in the comments!