Author’s note: I tried to keep this essay spoiler free, but found it hard to come up with any supporting evidence without detailing plot events. So, if you would like your Harry Potter experience to remain unspoiled, read no further.
Additionally, I’m familiar with the term “Mary Sue,” but have chosen to use “Gary Stu” because Harry is male.
“Ugh! I hate Harry! Hermione should have been the protagonist.”
“He’s so angsty and whiny! Seriously, get over yourself!”
“He thinks he’s so much better than everyone, including his best friends!”
“He’s such a Mary Sue. Seriously, he’s good at Quidditch, and he can talk to snakes, and he’s the Chosen One? What a tool.”
“I’ve never cared about Harry. He’s just a vehicle for the plot.”
I heard this last criticism at Bible study during a discussion of our favorite and least favorite films. I had to grip the edge of my chair to keep from screaming, upset without knowing why. After a few more seconds of Harry-bashing, the conversation moved on, but I was still rattled. I didn’t understand the sentiments. I was the youngest person in the group and, having grown up with the series, was admittedly biased. Even so, I wondered: how could they say such harsh things about one of my favorite characters in literature?
How I encountered Harry
My parents were among the many Christians in the early 2000s that forbade their children from reading Harry Potter, though their reasoning was practical rather than spiritual: “You had nightmares for weeks after reading the first one at school, so you can’t read any more of them.”
(I had a few poorly timed growth spurts so painful they kept me up at night that coincided with my reading Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone. My parents still insist their version of events is correct.)
I don’t remember when I read the whole Harry Potter series–it might have been after the sixth book was released. At that point I was in junior high and my parents let me read pretty much whatever I wanted. Unusually, I read the series out of order, something my brain won’t normally let me do.
The sixth book in the series, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, is notable for a shocking death that occurs toward the end of the book. By now, everyone knows who dies and who killed them, but back in 2005, the fanbase was traumatized.
After reading that book, I knew I loved the series because of how much Dumbledore’s death affected me. Not only did I mourn the loss of a great character, but I wept for the Boy Who Lived, who kept having people die on him.
Harry Potter fan club: 1 member
Not everyone who’s read the series shares my feelings. In recent years, there has been an increase in criticism for “Chosen One” narratives, a reaction partly inspired by Harry Potter. Because Harry is “chosen”, people consider him a good-for-nothing Gary Stu, a nickname for an insufferable character–usually a protagonist–who is the most beautiful, intelligent, special snowflake in the whole universe. Everything works out for these characters–they are less real people than idealized versions of people with no discernible flaws.
Some of the strikes against Harry that mark him as a Gary Stu are ones I listed above: he can talk to snakes, an incredibly rare power; he’s destined to defeat Voldemort, the series’ villain, as enumerated by a prophecy; he’s one of the best Quidditch players of the century, inheriting his father’s natural talent and mastering the sport without prior training; and authority figures bend the rules for him, never punishing him for crimes that might have gotten other students expelled.
Though there is some truth to these arguments, not all of them are fair. To start, many of Harry’s powers, including Parseltongue, were bestowed upon him (unwittingly) by Voldemort. Harry’s not a lucky snowflake–he has superpowers because Voldemort put stock in a prophecy, thus creating his own worst enemy and bringing the events of the prophecy to pass. Having these powers doesn’t always benefit Harry–speaking Parseltongue brings him fear and social rejection, and being mentally connected to Voldemort leads to the death of Harry’s godfather.
As for skills, while Harry is freakishly good at Quidditch, he’s average at pretty much everything else. He’s not a good student and he struggles with magic as much as the rest of his peers (excepting one charm). Before starting at Hogwarts, he even worries that being raised in a Muggle household will make him awful at magic. Other than Quidditch and the Patronus charm, Harry has to work at everything he does. When he comes to the end of his abilities, he relies on his friends. That many readers object to this says more about Americans’ strong sense of individualism than Harry’s uselessness or ineptitude.
It is true that the teachers at Hogwarts and some members of the government are less severe with Harry than they would be with other people. However, many of these instances can be explained:
- During Harry’s first year, instead of expelling Harry for flying without permission, McGonagall suspends punishment and recruits Harry for the Gryffindor Quidditch team, even though the rules state first years are not allowed to play. McGonagall admits she wants Gryffindor to beat Slytherin in the Quidditch cup, and with Harry, they have a chance. Later in the book, she is just as harsh with Harry as she would be with other students, giving him detention and taking fifty points from her own house. In the third book, McGonagall sticks to the rules instead of allowing Harry to visit Hogsmeade without parental permission. The only exceptions McGonagall makes for Harry are Quidditch-related.
- Dumbledore tends to be the most heavily criticized faculty member because he lets Harry get away with quite a bit. I’m not going to deny that this is true; I do, however, think it’s consistent with Dumbledore’s personality. Dumbledore tends to flout authority and useless adherence to rules all the time, even when it gets him into trouble. At one point, he becomes a fugitive rather than face arrest. So, while his actions show favoritism, they fit the behavior of a flagrant rule-breaker.
- Some criticism is aimed at the wizarding government, particularly Minister of Magic Cornelius Fudge, for not penalizing Harry’s multiple legal offenses. Even Harry questions Fudge’s laissez-faire attitude toward his crimes and calls him on it. However, each of these pardons, while unfair, is a political move on Fudge’s part, a government official trying to placate a celebrity to improve his own image. Once public opinion changes, Fudge rejects Harry and tries to inflict harsher punishments as payback for Harry’s unpopular opinions.
So none of these common arguments are strong enough in painting Harry Potter as a Gary Stu. They do coincide with the opinions of a surprising audience: the other characters in the series.
Intuition: Why the other characters don’t like Harry
Harry is rash. When he believes in something, he takes action–often to unfortunate ends. Almost every book features some sort of mystery–usually involving Voldemort–that only Harry picks up on. In each book, he has hunches, piecing together what little information he has to form one conclusion: the wizarding world is in danger and he has to save it.
What surprises me every time I read the series is the number of people who go out of their way to stop Harry from accomplishing this goal. Sometimes they use a reasonable argument, usually along the lines of, “It’s too dangerous. You’re just a kid. Let the adults handle this.” More often, though, they respond with, “That’s not what’s going on, Harry. You’re imagining things.”
Much of this criticism comes from Harry’s two best friends. Here I have to take a break to complain about Hermione. People love Hermione for reasons I don’t have the patience to analyze. What I most often hear nowadays is praise for Hermione as a feminist icon.
Here’s the deal, guys: I hate Hermione, and always have. Not because I’m secretly sexist and think ambition makes women bossy know-it-alls. First of all, that’s dumb. We all know people like Hermione, and those people are annoying, male or female. Ron’s brother, Percy, displays many of the same characteristics and is far from popular. No, my problem with Hermione stems from the fact that she is almost always the first to disbelieve Harry when he has a hunch about something. “No, Harry, Snape can’t be bad; he’s a teacher!” “The Deathly Hallows aren’t real, Harry, that’s just a legend.” “Malfoy isn’t up to something, Harry, it’s just your imagination.”
None of this makes Hermione a bad character. On the contrary, Hermione is a perfect representation of what it’s like to have a friend who doesn’t take anything you say seriously.
“That’s not what’s happening.”
Like Harry, my intuition is sometimes ignored. A couple years ago, I had a movie night with some friends. During the night, I noticed one of my friends was really upset. The movie wasn’t disturbing and no one had said anything to her. I guessed she was upset about two members of our crew who had recently started dating and were pretty liberal with PDA.
Later that night, when my boyfriend was driving me home, I told him my theory and asked if he had any thoughts or could supply further information.
Instead of saying, “I didn’t notice that, so I have no idea,” or, “Hm, maybe,” he laughed at me and said, “That’s not what was happening.”
Eight months later, I spoke to my friend and found out I had been right: she was upset about our friends’ relationship. I remember being angry that my guess, which had been right, was immediately dismissed by my situationally-unaware boyfriend. He was wrong, yet he treated me like the crazy one.
Gaslighting: “You’re being crazy.”
That was not the first time I’ve had a hunch and people doubted me, only for me to be proven right later.
My intuition is the reason I’m a nightmare to watch movies with. I can predict dialogue, events, and endings no matter the movie, and I will usually share these predictions with my fellow movie watchers.
A sample conversation from these movie nights:
“UGH, LAUREN! STOP QUOTING THIS MOVIE!”
“I’m not, this dialogue is just super cliche.”
“LAUREN! Stop spoiling it if you’ve already seen it!”
“Yeah, I’ve never seen this before.”
It gets really bad when I watch TV shows and try to guess what will happen in the latter half of the season. Every time, friends and roommates tell me I can’t be right because I can’t substantiate my reasoning with facts. Even when I can, it’s never enough to convince them. Then, when I am right, they’re quick to dismiss it as a fluke. “Whatever,” they say, “you just got lucky.”
The problem with Hermione
As I’ve said above, Harry Potter gets this treatment often, and Hermione is usually the culprit. Hermione seems to believe that Harry is crazy or imagining things whenever he has an idea.
Here is a list of things Harry has been right about:
- Someone wants to steal the Sorceror’s Stone
- Voldemort is still alive
- Snape is a bad guy and is working for Voldemort
- Malfoy is up to something
- The Deathly Hallows are real and once belonged to the Peverell brothers
- Death Eaters are going to attack the school and people need to be prepared
That’s a lot of plot-relevant things to be right about. And, true, Harry is rarely ever 100% right about things. He sometimes gets details wrong–for instance, Snape didn’t try to steal the Sorceror’s Stone, and, though he did work for Voldemort, debates still rage about good ol’ Severus’ alleged villainy. I don’t think 100% accuracy is what’s important. What bothers me is that every time Harry senses something is wrong and verbalizes it, he is met with resistance.
I have felt like Harry my entire life.
People have theorized about the Myers-Briggs types of the Harry Potter characters. They accurately identify Hermione as an ISTJ (Introverted Sensing Thinking Judging), while Harry is usually determined to be an ISFP (Introverted Sensing Feeling Perceiving). Personally, I think anyone who describes Harry as a Sensor is missing something. To sum up, Sensors make decisions based on facts and are very detail-oriented, while Intuitives prefer hunches and looking at the big picture. Harry’s interactions with Hermione are a classic clash between Sensing and Intuition, something I can verify from my own experience.
Harry Potter’s intuitive decision making gives him an unusual personality. Intuitive personality types make up just over a quarter of the population. My own personality type, INFJ, which I suspect Harry shares, makes up 1.5%, the rarest of the sixteen types.
It’s fine if readers prefer Ron or want to turn Hermione into a feminist icon as long as it’s not at Harry’s expense. Harry Potter is important to me because he validates my own experience and represents a perspective that the majority of the world disdains. For others with minority views or brains that work differently, he is a hero because he stands by his convictions and acts on his hunches, even when those hunches are incorrect.
To me, Harry Potter isn’t a vehicle for the plot or a special snowflake–he is me dealing with a frustrating supervisor at work, or my mom questioning a group of concrete thinkers, or my high school English teacher defending unorthodox teaching methods to a rules-conscious vice principal. Harry’s interactions with other characters, especially Hermione, accurately depict what life is like for Intuitives.
Harry consistently claims he doesn’t want to be famous. He dislikes the notoriety he receives and the way his fame affects his family and friends. I doubt he would want those who question Intuitives to suddenly laud them as superior to Sensors.
I feel similarly. While I appreciate protagonists like Harry, I don’t want Intuitives to become martyrs at the expense of Sensing personalities like Hermione. A power reversal won’t solve anything. However, I do want the Hermiones of the world to start listening to the Harrys and for once consider their point of view.
Harry Potter isn’t always right, but what he has to say is worth a listen.