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Throughout Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, Harry is certain that Snape is serving Voldemort, and bulling Quirrell into helping him. At the climax, we learn that Snape is protecting Harry, while Quirrell's master is Voldemort himself.

Unfortunately, Harry's misconception is built up through a series of unfortunate encounters which, in retrospect, are blatantly contrived. These include:

  • Harry just happens to hear precisely the right portion of a conversation between Snape and Quirrell.
  • Harry hears Quirrell being bullied, but conveniently nothing manages to disclose that Snape is nowhere around.
  • Hermione thinks Snape is casting a hex on Harry during a Quidditch game; she just happens to disturb Quirrell on her way to stop Snape, which conveniently stops the hex right when she was expecting.

These developments all depend heavily on being in the precise right place at the precise right time and noticing precisely the right things; when such events are the basis of a climactic plot twist, it smacks of author fiat.

What changes might be made to the story to let Harry's misconception feel better-justified and less contrived?

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This question is part of my effort to consider "case-study questions" as a question type for Writers.SE. I'd be happy to hear what people think of this type of question, and what guidelines might be appropriate. If you have any thoughts, please join the meta discussion! –  Standback Mar 5 '12 at 10:05
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1 Answer 1

IMHO, there are two explanations for this situation.

Firstly, it could be, as you hypothesize, be a contrived storyline, created perfectly to accomplish Rowling's plot point. This is a very real possibility. As writers, we know the temptation to "phone in" plot points, just to get them all in.

Secondly, it could be a simple case of a young boy seeing and hearing what he wanted to. Harry was abused for his whole life at the hands of the Dursleys. When he met Hagrid, he was the first person Harry had met that didn't think of him as a nuisance. As Harry went through Diagon Alley, and the Hogwarts Express, and of course, Hogwarts itself, everyone seemed to love and admire him, that is, until he arrived in potions class. Snape was extremely hard on Harry, even spiteful towards him. I think in Harry's view, Snape was like the Dursleys. If he was abusing Harry from day one, literally, certainly Snape was a villain like his family. Preconceived notions can go along way towards coloring your perception of events. In fact, one of the main themes of the book is just that. Assuming that Quirrel was harmless, or Snape was evil, or Hermione was a stuck up snot, or even that what you see is what is real (the mirror of Erised) runs through the whole story. I think that when viewed in the light of the story, the characters, and the plot, these "contrivances" are simply natural plot points.

Now to answer your question: "What changes might be made to the story to let Harry's misconception feel better-justified and less contrived?" If I were to rewrite the book based on critical analysis, I would develop Snape's character more. Snape needs to be mysterious and aloof, it's part of his nature. However, revealing some of Snape's positive traits earlier on would add further doubt to his "evil nature" that Harry percieved. Possibly having him directly stand up for Harry or one of his friends against Filch, or having him publicly reprimand Malfoy for his obnoxious attitude. Giving Snape more depth earlier in the story would do wonders to make the plot seem deeper and less contrived.

Most difficulties with far fetched plots can be fixed by developing your characters more fully. When you develop your characters, you begin to feel like they do. You understand their motivations more fully, and their reactions and decisions become natural. It's my experience that natural characters don't make contrived decisions. Let your real characters smooth out your less than realistic plots.

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Hmmm. Based on your answer, and @LaurenIpsum 's comments on meta, I'm wondering if what might help would be to make Harry more obviously wrong. See, what bothers me about this analysis is that the original passages are so carefully constructed that Harry's misunderstanding is sensible and justified (e.g. upon rereading). Harry's conclusions seem reasonable, so chalking this up to prejudice seems unfair. But if the prejudice were more evident surrounding these events, then we'd understand the error in retrospect. Does that make sense? –  Standback Mar 5 '12 at 18:15
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The problem is that the story is told from 11YO Harry's POV. We don't get an adult, omniscient, third-person narrator showing us how Snape is rereading Lily's old letters with tears in his eyes while Harry is snarfing down another pumpkin-juice frappe. We don't get that depth to Snape until Book 7. She chose to write the book from Harry's POV and Harry's ability to comprehend, and it's rare that an 11YO is going to accept that he's wrong about someone he dislikes. It takes him up to the end of Book 5 to even gamble on Snape's membership in the Order, and that only to save Sirius. –  Lauren Ipsum Mar 5 '12 at 19:28
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The upshot is, Harry is not going to recognize his own prejudice, or his own error, until he's much older. You can't retcon the 11YO Harry to understand what 17YO Harry or 30something Harry grasps. So no, you can't make Harry more obviously wrong. (In fact, that really pissed me off at the end of book 6!) I think Gabe is right; you have to give more evidence that Snape is not what Harry thinks he is, and let the reader figure it out even if Harry doesn't. –  Lauren Ipsum Mar 5 '12 at 19:30
    
you have to give more evidence that Snape is not what Harry thinks he is, and let the reader figure it out even if Harry doesn't. I think this is precisely what I was struggling towards. Book 1 doesn't give any such evidence (till then end), so the reader assumes Snape's guilt just like Harry does. To make "Harry is young, simplistic and prejudiced" fly, you've got to have something there that somebody older and more careful could have interpreted differently. –  Standback Mar 6 '12 at 14:21
    
Although, in Rowling's defense, when she wrote HPatPS, I do not think she had any idea that the book would blow up like it did. It was intended to appeal to a young audience, around Harry's age, who would be unlikely to question things like that. Not saying that makes the oversight any more correct, but honestly, if I were writing for a grade/middle school audience, I wouldn't put as much effort into bulletproofing my plot. It wasn't until after the fact that the book became popular with a much different audience than it was intended for. The later books are much more comprehensive. –  Gabe Willard Mar 6 '12 at 17:52
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