Understanding/Identifying Signposts (Harry Potter and Dramatica)

by Kay
(Grand Rapids, MI--USA)

Question: You often use examples from Harry Potter; can you identify one or more of the overall, main character, and impact character signposts in the Harry Potter story?

Answer: Now that's a heavy question that requires a little work. So, in answering this, let me first give a few caveats....

First, answering this question requires some subjective analysis on my part. Someone else who sees the story differently might come up with a different yet valid response.

Second, bear in mind that stories with a perfect structure are rare. A writer should always follow his/her instincts over structural rules, and most writers do. Theory is only there to help flesh out an idea or to help fix a story that isn't working. The Harry Potter books are excellent stories, but they are not a textbook example of theory.

Third, you didn't specify which Harry Potter book you have in mind. So, I will consider the entire seven book series as one story. (This is perfectly legitimate, since dramatica is recursive and can be applied to series, books, subplots, and even isolated scenes.)

Finally, this will be a little off-the-cuff and I might do a better analysis with more time and thought. But here goes...

Dramatica theory states that each of the four throughlines (those of the Overall Story, Main Character, Impact Character, and the Relationship between the latter two) should be assigned to a different domain. The four domains are:

Situation (external state)
Activity (external action)
Manipulation (psychological change)
Fixed Attitude (psychological state)

Harry Potter is the main character, and for most of the series we see him being thrust into situations he didn't choose. He didn't choose to live with the Dursleys, or be the “Boy who Lived.” Nor did he choose to be a Triwizard champion, nor to be Voldemort's nemesis, Dumbledore's secret weapon, nor a thorn in the Ministry of Magic's side.

So I'll give Harry the domain of Situation.

I also see Voldemort as the Impact Character. Harry's habitual approach to solving problems (copied from his mother) is to put himself in danger to save others, whereas Voldemort offers the alternative approach of killing others to protect himself (by making horcruxes).

Usually, if the main character's domain is Situation, the Impact character's domain will be Fixed Attitude (its polar opposite). Certainly, Voldemort's attitude remains fixed throughout the entire series. Even at the climax, he refuses to reconsider his actions and shows no remorse.

The Overall story concerns Harry's evolution from an underdog who sleeps a cupboard and is bullied by his muggle cousin into a confident wizard. That process of becoming something suggests that this throughline belongs in the domain of Manipulation. Certainly, Harry is manipulated and groomed by Dumbledore.

That leaves the domain of Activity for the Relationship throughline.

Now, let's consider how each domain breaks down into 4 signposts. Please note that the best order for the signposts varies with each story. Below is the order that makes sense to me for this story.

The signposts for the Situation domain are:

1. The Future: A prophecy is made that Harry will become Voldemort's nemesis and that only one of them will survive. This future fate is sealed when Voldemort kills Harry's parents.

2. The Past: Harry starts out ignorant of his past, but gradually learns more about it. He finds out how his parents were killed, learns about Voldemort's past as Tom Riddle, meets his godfather, etc.

3. Progress: Harry starts making real progress when he stops being pursued by Voldemort and becomes the pursuer. This begins in The Order of the Phoenix when he deliberately sets out to rescue Sirius. By the time he encounters Voldemort at Hogwarts in the seventh book, he is fully confident of his abilities.

4. The Present: At the end, we see Harry as a happy family man with a wife and children. His scar never hurts, and all his problems seem safely behind him.

The signposts for the Fixed Attitude domain are:

1. Memories: As the series begins, Voldemort has become just a bad memory which everyone is trying to forget.

2. Innermost Desires: As Voldemort returns, he starts pursuing his deep desire for absolute power and immortality – which depend upon eliminating Harry Potter.

3. Impulsive Responses: As the climax approaches, Voldemort seems to abandon his habit of careful planning and stealth. Instead, he starts acting on (often murderous) impulses. In The Deathly Hallows, we see him frantically rushing around trying to obtain the Elder Wand, confirm the safety of his horcruxes, and lead a brazen attack on Hogwarts to flush out Harry Potter. In his desperation, he kills Snape (even though he seems a valuable ally) to win the Elder Wand, yet makes only a superficial attempt to confirm Harry's death.

4. Contemplation. In the end, Voldemort proves unable to contemplate remorse, hence he cannot be saved from his own killing curse (whereas Harry can).

The signposts for the Manipulation domain are:

1. Conceiving an Idea: In book one, Professor Dumbledore comes up with the idea of leaving Harry with the Dursleys, both for his own protection and so his fame won't go to his head.

2. Developing a Plan: Voldemort develops his plans to return to power, while Dumbledore develops his plans to defeat Voldemort. He figures out Voldmort's secret (horcruxes), stages his own death (to prevent Voldemort obtaining the Elder Wand), and equips Harry to fight Voldemort.

3. Playing a role. At the climax, Harry assumes the role of a sacrificial lamb to save everyone – the role he has been groomed for.

4. Changing one's nature. After Voldemort's death, Harry has become a much wiser person than even Dumbledore, as illustrated by his rejection of the Elder Wand.

The signposts for the Activity domain are:

1. Understanding: In the first book, we come to understand that Harry and Voldemort have a special relationship. Harry's scar burns in Voldemort's presence, and Voldemort burns when he tries to touch Harry.

2. Doing: Harry and Voldemort do things to harm each other in the early books. Harry destroys Riddle's diary (the first Horcrux). Voldemort returns to life by taking Harry's blood. Yet neither is able to do what they ultimately must: kill the other.

3. Gathering Information. Harry learns the truth about Dumbledore's past and the Deathly Hallows. Voldemort tries to get information about the Elder wand from Olivander and
Grindelwald, but fails to learn when Harry becomes its master.

4. Obtaining: Ultimately, Harry obtains victory over Voldemort.

Hope this helps.

Comments for Understanding/Identifying Signposts (Harry Potter and Dramatica)

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Jun 21, 2011
Harry Potter
by: Anonymous

I love reading analyses of the Harry Potter serious from a writers perspective, especially when it highlights what she did right or well

Nov 29, 2012
Thank you
by: Clara27

Thank you for taking the time to do this. It´s a very interesting and insightful analysis. It will surely help in my own plotting. My question in reference to this is : would everything else be treated as sub plots, with their own throughlines? For example, the Quidditch threads?


If we take book 3 ( a very complex one in terms of stories), would something like that have multiple overall threads? Because there seems to be several stories going on at once.

Nov 29, 2012
by: Glen

Certainly there are multiple subplots running through the Potter series, as well as recurring themes (the power of love, for instance). In looking at the signposts for the series, the concern is the overall Story Goal (revenge) and the main character (Harry), because they are what hold the entire story together.

Nov 29, 2012
Overall story goal in HP
by: Clara27

Interesting that you mention revenge as the overall story goal. I have been trying to figure out what it was myself and could not come up with an adequate answer.
Do you mean it as Voldemort´s goal or Harry´s? or Dumbledore´s? I would think it´s Voldemorts. This is certainly a new take on story goals. Many other people teach that the story´s goal is born from the main character. But really, in HP, Harry seems to be only reacting to what Voldemort and others do. This is why you set him up as the "situation" character, right? In fact, In the series, Harry doesn´t really decide to start fighting back until book 5. Everything else is Harry solving "sub-plots" within "sub-plots". I´m not sure if you could call it that.

Dramatica is so complex! And it is this complexity that allows so much freedom to plot!

Rephrasing my subplot question, does each subplot have to be plotted independently as a complete throughline for each subplot? In this sense, one book would have several throughlines?

Thank you, thank you, thank you. You are truly a dramatica genius!

Nov 29, 2012
by: Glen

The goal of revenge is Harry's - revenge on Voldemort for the murder of his parents. Or perhaps a better word is "avenge," in the sense of inflicting retribution. It's not that Harry is filled with hate, or that he chooses this role - quite the opposite. Nonetheless, Voldemort must be brought to justice for the magical world's problem to be solved. Harry, who has suffered more at his hands than any other major character, is positioned as the best person to do it.

According to Dramatica, a complete story has four throughlines (overall, main character, impact character, and relationship). These represent four perspectives (They, I, You, and We) that that story can be viewed from. Each will have its own arc.

And that's not including subplots. A good subplot has its own story arc, but is often not fully developed. It may only have an overall or relationship throughline, for instance. (You have to trust your instinct.)

Some novels may have more than one main or point-of-view character, and the secondary POV characters may have their own stories more or less fully developed. In romance, for instance, the male lead may be the impact character to the female lead, while she is the impact character to him in his story. Sometimes several POV characters share an overall throughline.

Yes, it can get very complicated, which is why I only scratch the surface of Dramatica on this site. Writers who delve deeply too in the theory have been known to get so overwhelmed they stop writing. Best to take it in practical, bite-size chunks.

Dec 02, 2012
one more question
by: Clara27

Great information, as always. Thanks again. Absolutely right about Dramatica needing to be taken in small sips.
If I may ask one more H.P. Question--
In this analysis you have placed Voldemort as the Impact character, yet I remember reading that the IC character is the one that is constantly pushing the character to change. In this sense, could Dumbledore also be considered an IC, even though his machinations aren´t known until the end? After all, it is DD who is grooming harry for what is to come.

Dec 03, 2012
Re: Volemort as impact character
by: Glen

Dumbledore, as Guardian, certainly would have made a good candidate for impact character, if you compare him to Obi wan Kenobi for instance, who is the IC to Luke Skywalker. But for that to work, Harry would have to be a different person. Here's why...

The big decision at the climax of the Harry Potter series is that Harry must choose to sacrifice himself to save the lives of others. This is not a change for Harry. He takes this approach through the series, which makes him a steadfast character. But he must grow in his resolve.

Given that set-up, the impact character will be the person who gives Harry an example of the opposite choice. That is Voldemort, who kills people in order to preserve his own life via horcruxes.

Also, if the main character remains steadfast, the impact character generally changes. When Harry (staying steadfast) sacrifices himself at the climax, Voldemort changes by losing his ability to kill people and to remain immortal.

For Dumbledore to have been the impact character, Harry would have needed to start out as a kid who put his own interests ahead of others - a Dudley, in other words. Dumbledore would then have had to teach him to care about others so that he would make the right choice at the climax.

Dec 03, 2012
Voldemort as Impact character
by: Anonymous

Completely understood! Thnaks a million!

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