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The Subtle Genius of Professor Severus Snape and a Short Rant on Character Writing

I was nine when I first cracked open the pages of Harry Potter, and to put it simply, it did nothing short of changing my life. Now, although however much I may want to, the purpose of this piece is not to go into the nitty gritty details of the book series and its impact that expanded far beyond the reading community, because we’d be here all day if I did such a thing. My only words on the series as a whole is to read it if you haven’t yet or to read it again if you’ve had the delight of doing so and swoon over the missed experience of sweet childhood. 

I’m sure I have elicited at least a raised brow with the title of the piece, so I should probably address this before your curiosity turns into confusion. I’ll unabashedly admit, first, that my all-time favorite character from Harry Potter is Professor Snape; it has been and I supposed it very well may always be. Over the years, I have received polarizing responses when friends and classmates learn of this fact about me, from wholehearted agreement to downright disbelief; I expect nothing less, Snape, after all, is about as jarring and as multifaceted of a character you will possibly ever get in fiction writing. 

For those who have read Harry Potter, you know Professor Snape is undoubtedly the most bitingly bitter, sassy (maybe more so in the movies?), potently resentful, child-hating wizard there is in the Wizarding World. Voldemort doesn’t even come close in comparison, except maybe in the last aspect. There’s also this horrific scene that lives as fresh in my mind as the day I read it, where Snape threatens to feed Trevor, Neville Longbottom’s toad, an abysmally made potion that Neville himself has butchered (this has simply transcended beyond the realm of “petty”). Needless to say, I am not defending Snape here as a person, because I have the insight to realize that would be an uphill battle, and one that’s impossible to climb to even fight. Secondly, I would probably be crazy if I did such a thing. 

To all of the Snape-lovers out there, allow me to go on before passing judgment. I understand that there is a substantial audience who adores Snape, I included, so now the question arises: why do opinions on his character vary so widely within the Harry Potter fan base? In my self-proclaimed expert opinion, I attribute this as a difference not solely related to the text of the series itself, the emotional intolerance or indifference of readers at certain parts of the books (what people might call as the difference in human experience), but rather, I believe there is a part in how we perceive the role of characters in art that affects the likability of a character. Specifically, do we evaluate a character on the same moral scale individuals are held to in reality, or are characters permitted (perhaps even encouraged) to push boundaries? 

This idea permeates classic literature (the first example that comes to mind is Crime and Punishment). Is a character completely wrong, then, if they murder (as Raskolnikov does, or maybe think of one of those YA fantasy novels where people die left and right like flies at the hand of the ambitious main character destined to do XXX), and do we hold them accountable to the same standard as we do to those who have committed crimes, stolen, killed? I think the answer here is a definite no. It is very hard to do so, tedious and borderline insane to apply the same set of morals, whatever these moral may be, to both the realm of fiction (nonfiction would be different and hence doesn’t apply) and reality and expect an equally emotional response from an audience, because fantastical words on a page are not the equivalent to people dying on the news, albeit how hard authors may try to elicit sympathy for a character/theme/social issue. 

Do we hold characters on the same basis of moral reason as we should hold our peers to? Usually, no. And it might be unhealthy to do so. The question here then, is to consider how one should view characters in books, films, TV shows, etc. Professor Snape’s character, I presume, is enjoyed among readers because of what he represents as a person. He is curt, has greasy hair, yet he possesses a certain intrigue, a courtesy from his past, all unspooled at the latter of the Deathly Hallows. The difference in reader’s opinions is all in the perception, which has to do with how they think a character’s role in the book is. Confusing characters with people is about as dangerous as confusing art with reality. Snape as a character should be separated from him as a person. You might loathe his class if he were your teacher (I would gladly join in on this hating club), but on paper, when he takes up breathing space in the Wizarding World, far away from your high school, he is a miraculous being, filled to the very brim with suspicion, complexity, sadness, and a type of relatability to a toxic extreme. This is what Professor Snape represents as a character, this is why he is so loved by some. 

When we write/read/watch, it is an opportunity for us to live vicariously, and often, we do so through utilizing the blank canvas of an unborn character, sometimes even without realizing it. After all, they do say that books are a way to live a thousand lives at once. The how we view, or the how we write of characters, is ultimately up to you, the reader/author, to decide. I only hope you chose to make the most out of these decisions. 

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