Your novel’s hero is a pretty good guy or gal, right? Willing to do anything it takes for the greater good? What if the greater good involves hurting a friend?
If you are J.K. Rowling or Suzanne Collins, you probably just said “yes” to all those questions. The hero clashes with other good characters because that extra conflict provides depth and keeps the relationships exciting.
In Harry Potter and The Hunger Games, one of the hero’s friends stands in his way, just as the climactic action is starting to build. It helps that the YA hero is quite stubborn!
When Harry Potter wants to sneak out to protect the Sorcerer’s Stone, he is stopped by Neville Longbottom, who doesn’t want Harry to break anymore school rules. When Katniss Everdeen wants to sneak off to the feast to get medicine to save Peeta Mellark, he blocks her because he doesn’t want her to risk her life for him.
Harry Potter and Katniss Everdeen both have the same solution: they incapacitate their good adversary. Here is an 11-step breakdown of how the bestselling novels pull off this scene without it seeming contrived.
1. The hero must act quickly.
J.K. Rowling and Suzanne Collins both insert a new deadline to get their characters to act quickly. This means the hero doesn’t have time to overthink his options.
- Harry is sure that if he doesn’t take action, the Sorcerer’s Stone will get stolen later that night. “’It’s tonight,’ said Harry, once he was sure Professor McGonagall was out of earshot. ‘Snape’s going through the trapdoor tonight.'” (HP Ch.16).
- Katniss knows that she must show up at dawn to get Peeta the medicine he needs to stop his blood infection. “Each of you will find that something in a backpack, marked with your district number, at the Cornucopia at dawn. . . . For some of you, this will be your last chance.” (HG Ch.20).
2. The hero must choose between two evils (one of which is risking his own life)
In order to protect his friends or save the world, the hero must choose between two evils. He can stay behind, complacent, and let fate run its course. Or he can risk his life (against his friend’s wishes) and do something about it.
- Harry decides he must sneak out to save the Sorcerer’s Stone, even if he could get expelled. “Don’t you understand? If Snape gets hold of the Stone, Voldemort’s coming back! . . . There won’t be any Hogwarts to get expelled from!” (HP Ch.16).
- Katniss knows she must try to get Peeta his medicine. “‘What am I supposed to do? Sit here and watch you die?’ I say. He must know that’s not an option. . . . I would hate myself, too, if I didn’t even try.” (HG Ch.20).
3. The hero works in cahoots with someone else.
The hero isn’t acting alone. He gets aid from a more supportive friend who shares his idea of a greater good.
- Harry works with Hermione and Ron to sneak out under the Invisibility Cloak. “’But will it cover all three of us?’ said Ron.” (HP Ch.16).
- When Haymitch sends Katniss some sleeping syrup, she realizes he wants her to use it to subdue Peeta. “A vial this size could knock Peeta out for a full day, but what good is that? . . . A full day? That’s more than I need.” (HG Ch.20).
4. The hero makes secret preparations.
Once he has a plan, the hero makes secret preparations to sneak by past his friend.
- Harry waits until all the Gryffindors go to sleep before he gets started. “’Better get the Cloak,’ Ron muttered, as Lee Jordan finally left, stretching and yawning.” (HP Ch.16).
- Katniss mixes the sleeping syrup with berries to trick Peeta into taking the medicine. “I mash up a handful of berries so the taste won’t be as noticeable and add some mint leaves for good measure.” (HG Ch.20).
5. The hero worries about the outcome.
The hero feels anxious while he waits to act on his plan.
- Harry, Hermione, and Ron are anxious about sneaking out and possibly facing Voldemort. “After dinner the three of them sat nervously apart in the common room.” (HP Ch.16).
- Katniss is worried about losing Peeta. “As I go down to the stream to wash up, all I can think is that he’s going to die if I don’t get to that feast.” (HG Ch.20).
6. The hero lies when confronted by the friend.
When the hero starts out on his secret intentions, his friend catches him in the act. The hero denies that he is up to anything.
- Harry is confronted by Neville, who asks Harry what he is up to. “Neville stared at their guilty faces. ‘You’re going out again,’ he said. ‘No, no, no,’ said Hermione.” (HP Ch.16).
- Katniss is confronted by Peeta, who guesses she will try to get his medicine. “’Who said I was?’ I say. ‘So, you’re not going?’ he asks. ‘Of course, I’m not going.'” (HG Ch.20).
7. The hero and the friend disagree about the hero’s choice.
The friend is worried about what will happen to the hero, and he wants the hero to pursue a less risky course of action.
- Neville does not understand that saving the Sorcerer’s Stone is more important to Harry than the risk of getting in trouble at school.“’You can’t go out,’ said Neville, ‘you’ll be caught again. Gryffindor will be in even more trouble.’” (HP Ch.16).
- Peeta does not think that getting his medicine is worth the risk of Katniss dying. “I jump as Peeta grips my shoulder from behind. ‘No,’ he says. ‘You’re not risking your life for me.’” (HG Ch.20).
8. The friend threatens the hero.
The hero tells the friend that he won’t change his mind. At this point, the friend threatens the hero with a physical challenge in order to make him comply.
- Harry tells Neville that he doesn’t understand how important the situation is. Then Neville responds with a threat: “’I won’t let you do it,’ he said, hurrying to stand in front of the portrait hole. ‘I’ll — I’ll fight you!’” (HP Ch.16).
- Katniss tells Peeta that there is nothing he can do to stop her since he has a bad leg. Then Peeta responds with a threat: “‘I can follow you. At least partway. I may not make it to the Cornucopia, but if I’m yelling your name, I bet someone can find me. And then I’ll be dead for sure,’ he says.” (HG Ch.20).
9. The hero incapacitates the friend.
The hero has to subdue his friend in order to continue on his quest. Naturally, he doesn’t want to actually hurt him, just stall him.
- Harry instructs Hermione to use magic on Neville, and she puts Neville in a full body-bind curse. “’Do something,’ he said desperately. Hermione stepped forward. . . . [Neville’s] whole body rigid, he swayed where he stood and then fell flat on his face, stiff as a board.” (HP Ch.16).
- Katniss forces Peeta to swallow the sleeping syrup, which knocks him out. “I clamp my hand over his mouth and nose hard, forcing him to swallow instead of spit. He tries to make himself vomit the stuff up, but it’s too late, he’s already losing consciousness.” (HG Ch.20).
10. Once “paralyzed,” the friend communicates to the hero through his eyes.
The hero immediately feels the weight of his actions, just by the look that his incapacitated friend gives him.
- Neville cannot speak because the body-bind curse shut his jaw. “Only his eyes were moving, looking at them in horror.” (HP Ch.16).
- Peeta falls unconscious as he stares back at Katniss. “Even as he fades away, I can see in his eyes what I’ve done is unforgivable.” (HG Ch.20).
11. The hero half-heartedly apologizes and moves on.
The hero can’t help but feel a little bit sorry for his friend, who is now physically unable to move. . . but not sorry enough to change his mind!
- Harry feels nervous about what he did to Neville as he continues on his way to protect the Sorcerer’s Stone. “’We had to, Neville, no time to explain,’ said Harry. . . . But leaving Neville lying motionless on the floor didn’t feel like a very good omen.” (HP Ch.16).
- Katniss feels a little sad about what she did to Peeta as she continues on her mission to get his medicine. “I sit back on my heels and look at him with a mixture of sadness and satisfaction.” (HG Ch.20).
Why it Works
This scene is a neat example of blurring the lines between good and evil— both the hero and his friend are “good,” but they have different priorities. The friend wants to play by the book and let fate run its course. The hero wants to risk everything to save the world. However, the hero gets to stay “good” because he doesn’t permanently hurt his friend– it’s just a temporary knock-out.
As readers, we feel the tension with the hero here, because we know if the hero fails now, everything will be so much worse. The hero intentionally ignored his friend’s warning, so we are on the edge of our seats hoping that he did the right thing.
This “incapacitate a friend” scene occurs near the end of the book, just before the climactic action really heats up. Let’s put this index card in Chapter 16 of the master outline. When we counted the number of trials along the hero’s journey, we put a placeholder card (“trial 12: fail) in that Chapter. I am tempted now to chalk it up to a “draw.” What do you think? Head over to the master outline and check it out.
P.S. Okay, you got me. I didn’t analyze a scene from Twilight in this post. In fact, Bella does harm a good character– she says intentionally hurtful words to her dad in order to get out of the house and to protect him from the evil vampires. But because we already looked at that same scene as an example of female characters emotionally manipulating others, and as an example of the hero withholding information, I decided to skip Bella this week. 🙂