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In the Harry Potter series, Dumbledore seems to represent ultimate wisdom and authority. Harry (and the readers with him) hold him in awe; many times throughout the series Harry willingly accepts and follows Dumbledore's plans even when he doesn't understand them. Dumbledore is portrayed as trustworthy - so much that Harry grudgingly accepts Snape as an ally, against his own suspicions and based on Dumbledore's say-so, so much that Harry is willing to die when Dumbledore tells him he must.

I'm writing a character I'd like to share some of these aspects. Not quite to the same extent, but she's a mentor character who constantly withholds information but is trusted implicitly by my protagonist. It's important for me that this loyalty be considered genuine - I want readers seeing her as a source of support, not a potential backstabber.

For this purpose, I would like to understand better what methods and techniques Rowling uses to make Dumbledore so trustworthy.

Please note that I am looking less for in-world explanations ("Harry finds Dumbledore comforting (cf. _Stone_ p.142) and overall considers him a father figure, which he's sorely missing") and more for authorial decisions and techniques ("Dumbledore's ridiculous humor in _Stone_ appeals to the reader, making Dumbledore feel friendly and lovable, and countering the condescending nature of the character").

Specific recommendations for generalizing these observations into my own writing are particularly appreciated.

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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 10:06
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Hi Standback,


Good question. JK Rowling is a far better writer than people give her credit for.


  1. Everyone's character is defined by their feelings towards D'dore. He is a kind of compass for the others in the books. Hagrid shows him loyalty like a dog, showing his unambitious, straightforward nature. Harry respects him as a guru, showing his drive to learn and do the right thing. Voldemort fears him as an equal, showing his need to be superior.
  2. Dumbledore is down to earth even though he has otherwordly powers. Examples: he likes sweets (lemon sherberts) and has an unpretentious mischief. We simultaneusly associate him with a grandfatherly and a grandmasterly figure.
  3. He understands and accepts peoples' weaknesses. And he shows up at just the right moment to encourage them when they are feeling disempowered.

4 + 5. He bestows kick-ass gifts / He speaks in riddles / He 'outdoes' the rest of the story. Dumbledore speaks in a harmless, lullaby way but his words always have real significance. And so do his actions, even when they're mysterious. The gifts he gives have almost mythic power. In short - Dumbledore's actions always has meaning.


I hope you find this someway to being helpful.

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I think it comes down to relatability. Dumbledore is portrayed in such a way that almost anyone can relate to him in some way. He is so... gosh darn grandfatherly that no one really feels the need to question his motives. Rowling takes something fantastic and lofty (a nearly all powerful wizard) and makes him so human and down to earth, that he feels like that nice old man in church, or your great grandfather telling war stories in front of a fireplace.

What makes Dumbledore so unassailable is his absolutely upstanding and kindly characterization. When reading Dumbledore, you don't feel the need to criticize him, because deep down inside he strikes that chord that tells you that he is really doing what he thinks is best. There are moments where you wonder whether he really is making the right choices, but at the same time, the fondness that he intimates with the reader makes them feel that he is doing his absolute best.

What contributes to Dumbledore's characterization? Everything he says or does. His choice of passwords to his office. His fondness for sweets and trinkets. His kind understanding of the students wants and needs. His mercy when they misstep. Even when he is first introduced to the reader, he is seen going out of his way to protect Harry. Rowling really does a masterful job in her series of characterization. She may have plot holes here and there, and some of her choices seem a bit odd, but it is her skills at creating real characters that make her a joy to read.

How to apply this to your work: Make Real Characters. What does that involve? Getting to know them. Really getting to know them. Sit down and have tea with them, or play chess with them. What are they like? What is their personality? What they say, why they do things, or even how they do things is less important than what they do. Growing up, we are taught that "actions speak louder than words." Well, it really is true. Even in fiction. Having a character that does what makes sense for them is the first and most important part of having a real character. When your characters are real, you won't have to worry about what the reader thinks, because it will be the natural reaction to the character.

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