Personhood is easy. Personhood is concrete. There is a person there. I can see her. She has brownish hair, hoop earrings, and blue Chuck Taylors she's decked out with lime green laces. Writers can vomit up details like that all day. Character emerges. Character is hard. That young woman I see. She's there. But who is she? What would she do if she heard someone call for help, or saw a lost wallet, or found a baby in a trash bin? Character is ephemeral, it is revealed in action. Character is like "voice," but writers aren't as uncomfortable with it because it is one of the building blocks with which we build voice, and voice calls out our story. Character is plot looked at in photographic negative. Character and plot slice one another like scissor blades. A strong character is when that spark arrives and steals the readers' attention. Sometimes the strong character arrives and challenges the main protagonist. This is when the author must adjust accordingly and follow the arc in a new direction, or they can use it to their and the protagonist's advantage.
When I wrote Numb I recognized immediately that the character of Mal was one to pay attention to. As it turned out, his vying for attention on the page became symbolic of the jealousy he felt for Numb in the story. He emerged instantly in a way that Numb, a man without a past, could not. Something similar happened with my second novel, Man in the Empty Suit, when a man named Phil suddenly answered a door. When I wrote that the main character knocked I expected someone else to answer, but there was Phil, old, bearded, bedraggled, surrounded by a pain that consumed him. I knew he mattered, and I hope the reader does too.
A special type of magic occurs when that character you think you know, and one who you've been told by the author is to be left behind--not ignored, but easily pegged as support or comic relief, or background--steps out and becomes more. Their struggle to overcome an author's definition makes a character a strong character. They show up and demand a scene, a chapter, and a history. A puzzle, a moment of mystery. As if an egg can only become an egg by first breaking from its shell.
I was unaware that just this phenomenon was happening in the Harry Potter books with Neville Longbottom until it was too late for me to do anything be thoroughly captured by his brilliance. He's not the chosen one, Harry is. But somehow, in his own way, he is. I'll never forget reading Harry Potter and The Order of the Phoenix and mentioning to my brother how impressed I was by Neville's actions. My brother, who had much earlier finished the entire series, got a knowing smirk and said, "I won't tell you anything, but just wait until you see who Neville is."
In the final book, when Neville greets Harry, Ron and Hermione and brings them back into Hogwarts, he dismisses his own safety in the name of fighting the good fight.
"But they've used you as a knife sharpener," said Ron. . .
"Doesn't matter. They don't want to spill to much pure blood, so they'll torture us a bit if we're mouthy but they won't actually kill us."
Harry didn't not know what was worse, the things that Neville was saying or the matter-of-fact tone in which he said them.
Harry has had years to adjust his choices to the idea that he fulfills a destiny. Harry's experiences have demonstrated that there is a special power in him (thanks to the connection to Voldemort). But Neville has chosen to do the bold things he's done despite not having the best control of magic, despite being told he's useless, despite his experiences reinforcing that he'd best just sit in the corner and try to not hurt himself in the process. Choice. He strives to overcome his own nature. The brilliance of the Harry Potter books is that they are filled with lovely nooks and crannies that we are aware of but never get to fully examine. Ms. Rowling lets our imaginations fill in so much, even in such a thoroughly imagined and richly textured series. When I read the passage quoted above I can't help but imagine what the sorting hat must have said to Neville. We aren't surprised at Harry's heroism because from the start the sorting hat gave him the choice: Ms. Rowling brilliantly let us know Harry gets to choose to be a hero:
"Hmm. Difficult. Very difficult. Plenty of courage, I see. Not a bad mind either. There's talent, oh my goodness, yes—and a nice thirst to prove yourself, now that's interesting... So where shall I put you? Not Slytherin, eh? Are you sure? You could be great, you know, it's all here in your head, and Slytherin will help you on the way to greatness, no doubt about that—no? Well, if you're sure—better be GRYFFINDOR!"
Here's where Ms. Rowling gives us the reins and lets us fill in the gaps. Neville's house selection isn't described. Yet, he's in Gryffindor. What of that sorting moment for Neville?
"Let's see. Unsure, but honest and faithful. Hufflepuff perhaps? But not Slytherin, certainly not. No doubts there. But what's this? Oh, you don't even know do you? Or maybe you do. . . Doubts and worries cast a big shadow, but there it is, yes, and it's stronger than most. Don't you worry, you'll fit right in when you're ready. There's one house that was made for those like you. GRYFFINDOR!"
He's Harry's antithesis, not because he's the villain but because he challenges for the readers attention, because he defines heroism along slightly different lines, because he asserts the idea that heroism comes in many forms. He changes our vision of the mythology. We know Harry, he's on the covers. Hermione and Ron are at his side throughout. They reaffirm Harry as the definition of Hero. It's with Neville that Ms. Rowling re-envisions her own books. Neville isn't "the boy who lived." He's "the one who could have been." And he still is. He's the one who chooses to do the difficult because it must be done as opposed to being the one everyone expects to do it. Harry has a support network and Dumbledore leading him. Neville has... Harry.
And in the spiraling out from the end of the novels to imagined stories that are only in my head, I see a future class of Hogwarts arriving for the first time, fearful and awed, and welcomed by Headmaster Longbottom, Wielder of Gryffindor's blade, Hero of the Battle for Hogwarts, and recipient of more than a few distrustful and judgmental glances from the incoming Slytherins who have all been raised with the maxim, "Keep an eye on the one you least suspect lest he be a Longbottom."
Sean Ferrell lives and works, in no particular order, in New York City. His first novel, Numb, was published by Harper Perennial in 2010. His second, Man in the Empty Suit, will be published in February 2013 by Soho Press.