Mentor Text Wednesday: In Praise of the Secondary Character

Mentor Texts: “In praise of Joanne Rowling’s Hermione Granger series” – Sady Doyle

Writing Techniques:

  • Character analysis
  • Applying a critical lens
  • Voice

Background:

I am re-reading the Harry Potter series with my oldest daughter. We’re reading the gorgeous illustrated editions. This means that we are now on our second go-round with Chamber of Secrets, as Prisoner of Azkaban won’t be released with Jim Kay’s art until October.

I was a fan of this series as a reader, but as a parent, watching my oldest react with such excitement to Rowling’s tale is a whole other experience. I’m especially proud of how she’s picked up on the fact that Hermione doesn’t deserve the treatment she gets from others, because, as she says, “It’s not fair, Dad. She’s really smart and works hard to help.” Every time she takes her braids out, she struts about, with “hair like Hermione’s”

Which makes her part of my inspiration in my mentor text choice this week. Sady Doyle wrote this great piece which I’ve had in my files for a few years now. If you haven’t read it already, it is a fun piece, assuming a somewhat satirical voice while applying a feminist lens to the Potter series, imagining them as a series dealing with, instead, the exploits of Hermione.

I’ve used an excerpt from this essay as a writing prompt for students as we focus on the nature of heroism.

Hermione is not Chosen. That’s the best thing about her. Hermione is a hero because she decides to be a hero; she’s brave, she’s principled, she works hard, and she never apologizes for the fact that her goal is to be very, extremely good at this whole “wizard” deal. Just as Hermione’s origins are nothing special, we’re left with the impression that her much-vaunted intelligence might not be anything special, on its own. But Hermione is never comfortable with relying on her “gifts” to get by. There’s no prophecy assuring her importance; the only way for Hermione to have the life she wants is to work for it.

I love this passage, as it encourages students to think about exactly what makes a hero heroic. Often, in literature and pop culture, they are presented with a Chosen One as a hero, who really has no choice but to become a hero, or, i suppose a villain.

And that is the crux of how I would use this piece with my writers, as a mentor text for looking at a secondary character, not as that, but perhaps as a main character.

How we might use this text:

Character Analysis – The core conceit of this piece is looking at a secondary character as if they were the main character. As an analytical tool, I love this. It encourages students to look deeper at these characters, to compare and contrast them with the hero of the text.

Doyle’s’ piece begins this in earnest in the fourth paragraph. “In Hermione, Joanne Rowling undermines all of the cliches that we have come to expect in our mythic heroes.” She talks about characterization, and analyzes how she sees Hermione as a response to the tropes that exist in the kind of story she has written. In a fantastic world, Hermione is an “everyperson,” a response to the notion that fantasy heroes are something more than this. The excerpt I included earlier exemplifies how well she does this, positioning our Miss Granger as a working class hero of sorts. Yes, this is another character archetype, but one not often used in the fantasy world.

Doyle’s reading of the series though points out a thing that we should note about Hermione, as well as Harry. She is a rock, reliable, and always there with a save for Harry when it is vital. She is more than sidekick, and this type of analysis highlights it. I’d be curious to see what our writers could do with this as they analyze other texts.

Applying a critical lens – Obviously, Doyle’s piece applies a feminist lens to Rowling’s work. She does it well. And by well, I mean engagingly.

That, I think, makes it important to put this in front of students. First off, Doyle applies her lens to a popular piece, which, even if it was only via film, they are familiar with. Secondly, she shows that an academic exercise, such as using a critical lens need not be boring. When I’ve asked students to apply critical lenses in the past, the results have been so clunky and formulaic that it almost didn’t seem worth it.

Doyle’s piece does this in such a way that it seems fun. It uses voice. It dares to poke fun at the text. By using the conceit of an “alternate version,” she is able to tap into a bit of humour. Perhaps this is because she is not treating the text we know and love with the reverence that is expected. Technically, she’s talking about a different book. It’s a neat device, and used sparingly, is a strong way for our students to stretch as they express themselves.

I would think this exercise alone, applying a critical lens to a work by focusing on a secondary character, would give students a positive experience with using a lens to allow them to see how these lenses work, and can be useful when looking at literature.

Voice – I’ve already mentioned it, but it’s significant in this piece. Doyle writes with a distinct voice here. It’s weird, because it’s discussing an alternate reality. It’s funny, because she’s sending up a sacred cow of sorts. In all likelihood, the bulk of her audience would be highly invested Muggles, fans of the texts being discussed. This means she can get into poking fun without needing to explain.

This allows for the piece to be written in a darkly comic voice. She’s sarcastic. It is the voice that allows for this piece to work as well as it does.I’m always an advocate for pushing our writers to write in voices that aren’t theirs, purely because it allows them to explore their own voice. If this task shows them how to tap into a darker, more critical, or sarcastic voice of their own that they can draw on, then it’s a good exercise. Does this mean this becomes their default voice? Not necessarily, but the exploration of a voice not their own may serve to strengthen their idea of what their voice is.

I love that this week’s column allows me to dust off something that I have had sitting in the archives for a while, and find a new, better purpose for it. I love that it gives me a way to shake up some of the things I feel I need to do with the texts we study in class. I love that the enduring love for Harry Potter still exists, and I can tap into it in a different way with this text. I love the possibilities that this mentor text offers us for our writers.

How do you get students to think about characters in different ways? How do you get them to apply critical lenses? What other texts can you think of where such a compelling cases for a secondary character as the true hero can be made?

Leave a comment below or find me on Twitter @doodlinmunkyboy

–Jay

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