Fantasy Writing Course

Empower Your Words Today


‘Unlike any other creature on this planet, humans can learn and understand, without having experienced. They can think themselves into other people's places.  Of course, this is a power, like my brand of fictional magic that is morally neutral. One might use such an ability to manipulate or control, just as much as to understand or sympathise.’

J. K. Rowling, 2008 Harvard Address

"The overflowing fountain of JK Rowling's success, in my opinion, springs from a delightfully detailed world, an intricately woven mystery, and a wide range of quirky people with varied emotions and viewpoints. Of these three primary elements, however, her vivid and diverse characters are the wellspring of the first two. The intricacies of world building and mystery plotting must flow from and pour into the emotional depths of her character's lives if the story is to have any resonance with her readers at all." S.P. Sipal, A Writers Guide to Harry Potter

A Writer's Guide to Character Traits says, 'When we are absorbed in the material, we feel emotion.  And when we are emotionally moved, we believe.  Character is a "paradigm of traits," more than simply a series of actions.  A character acts because... In this way, the reader becomes conscious of the character's reality, even when that reality differs from his own.'

A character acts in one way or another because of their natural disposition and their memory of past experiences.  JK Rowling gave each one of her characters a detailed history or backstory.  She didn’t always write them into her series, but rather her story was like a giant iceberg, the greater mass remaining hidden.  For instance, we don’t know how Mr and Mrs Weasley met, which might strike you as odd because they are Harry’s self-adopted parents, but on the other hand we do know all about Voldemort’s history and how Voldemort’s parents met.  From this, we learn that Jo only released information that was crucial to the current story being told.  She did not bore us with back story.  This is a good lesson for us.

Observe People and Put Yourself in Their Shoes

‘Unlike any other creature on this planet, humans can learn and understand, without having experienced. They can think themselves into other people's places.  Of course, this is a power, like my brand of fictional magic that is morally neutral. One might use such an ability to manipulate or control, just as much as to understand or sympathise.’

J. K. Rowling, 2008 Harvard Address


J. K. Rowling is a great observer of people.  As a mother, and also as a teacher, she has an inherent sense of what appeals to children.  She did more than create cartoons of people by using a few well-chosen words of description; she actually used the power of imagination to put herself into her characters’ places, and do her story justice.  She expressed her characters’ emotions, observations, surroundings and circumstances so well that her readers were transported into a place where they were in the moment and right there alongside Harry.


J. K. Rowling practised what she preached as shown in Hermione’s insights into the feelings of Cho Chang in The Order of the Phoenix:

‘Well, obviously, she’s feeling very sad, because of Cedric dying.  Then I expect she’s feeling confused because she liked Cedric and now she likes Harry, and she can’t work out who she likes best.  Then she’ll be feeling guilty, thinking it’s an insult to Cedric’s memory to be kissing Harry at all, and she’ll be worrying about what everyone else might say about her if she starts going out with Harry.  And she probably can’t work out what her feelings towards Harry are, anyway, because he was the one who was with Cedric when Cedric died, so that’s all very mixed up and painful.  Oh, and she’s afraid she’s going to be thrown off the Ravenclaw Quidditch team because she’s been flying very badly.’

Characters Change - How Smeagol Became Gollum

Gollum Was Once Smeagol - An Examination Of The Characterisation Of Gollum Through His Relationship With Frodo And Sam, in "The Return Of The King"

Gollum was once Smeagol, before the ring captured his soul and was a hobbit just like Frodo or Sam. His heart was not evil and his mind was not tainted by it's touch. When the ring took Smeagol's mind, the character of Gollum began to grow and the evil began to work it's dark magic on his personality. Smeagol and Gollum are two characters in one body. Today it would be called a personality disorder and indeed, the portrayal of Gollum echoes deeply with any who have suffered the pain of loneliness and rejection or perhaps more poignantly addiction, in relation to his reliance on the One Ring.

Thus, the character of Gollum personifies the darkest side of man's nature. He is set in stark contrast however, to Sam Gamgee, an example of virtue, honour and courage, three qualities that Smeagol perhaps possessed once upon a time. In turn, it is his relationship with Frodo, that unwittingly brings out these qualities in Gollum, albeit briefly. Frodo's kindness to Gollum brings out Smeagol, the hobbit that he once was, whereas Sam's hostility only serves to feed Gollum, the creature that he now is.

Tolkien describes Gollum's personality aptly in The Taming Of Smeagol, after Sam and Frodo have captured him:

"For that moment a change, which lasted for some time, came over him. He spoke with less hissing and whining, and he spoke to his companions direct, not to his precious self. He would cringe and flinch, if they stepped near him or made any sudden movement, and he avoided the touch of their elven-cloaks; but he was friendly, and indeed pitifully anxious to please. He would cackle with laughter and caper if any jest was made, or even if Frodo spoke kindly to him, and weep if Frodo rebuked him"

Continued Below...

Characters Deceive -
The Half-Blood
Prince of Ties

‘Certainly Narcissa, I shall make the Unbreakable Vow,’ he said quietly.  ‘Perhaps your sister will consent to be our bonder.’

The Half-Blood Prince, chapter 2 (and aptly named Spinner’s End)

Severus Snape’s character is absolutely defined by deception. His ‘secret double-agent’ role in the wizarding world is not immediately revealed, yet his hostility toward Harry from their very first meeting is unmistakable and leads the reader to believe that Snape is a bad guy, pure and simple. As mentioned above, however, by the end of the series, Harry learns the truth about Severus, and even admires his strength and conviction so much in fact that he names his own son Albus Severus Potter.

The formation of bonds and motivations for a writer’s characters is an essential ingredient in order to create layers of definition and complexities for each individual. While Draco Malfoy comes across as extremely self-centred and unlovable, in The Philosopher’s Stone there is that one crucial moment where he attempts to bond with Harry, trying to persuade Potter to align with him. When Harry blatantly refuses, the line of delineation between the two boys is clearly drawn and from that point forward they are sworn enemies. Yet by the end, when the reader is allowed an inside look at Draco’s mother’s undying love and devotion toward him, one can’t help but feel he was somehow seeking that sort of unconditional acceptance from others and, failing to get it, chose to become divisive and manipulative of those who were weaker and would do his bidding. Perhaps the one thing that Draco had which Harry was envious of was the fact that he had living parents who adored him.

Other forms of love which Jo explores in her writing include Hermione’s affection for Ron, and his eventual return of that love when he finally matured, Harry’s secret love of Ginny (which also takes time and maturity to properly blossom), Mr. and Mrs. Weasley’s devotion to one another and their children, Dumbledore and Harry’s mutual admiration society which develops into friendship and love, and finally, yes, even Voldemort’s form love. What? You don’t remember Nagini? Perhaps the only creature that the foul Dark Lord truly cared for in any capacity. Of course, the ultimate love whose thread runs through the entire series is that of James and especially Lily Potter’s love of Harry, for which they paid with their lives.

Words like cringe and flinch emote images of a frightened and wretched creature. We feel sorry for Gollum here and unlike Sam, we, like Frodo, are taken in by this side of him over the course of the journey. Gollum's addiction to the ring gives him a bond with Frodo that Sam cannot understand. In turn, Frodo knows Smeagol's pain and what drove him to become Gollum. The closer to Mordor Frodo gets, the heavier the burden.  The more strain the ring exerts, the more his resolve slackens and the more prominent the inner battle between the opposites of Smeagol and Gollum becomes.

The complexity of Gollum is arguably further highlighted by the simplicity of Sam. Sam has no trouble with who he is. He is a hobbit and a gardener and he serves his master faithfully. Gollum, however, is a complex mess of emotions and contradictory thoughts. He is at war with himself. The Ring's influence is lessened on him at this point and his core self is beginning to come through. This is further aided by the unprecedented kindness Frodo shows to him.

Therefore, Tolkien uses not only descriptive language to characterise Gollum but also the use of other characters to emphasise the deeper sides of his character and highlight his strengths as well as his obvious weakness. The character of Sam serves to help us pity Gollum when he berates him or speaks to him out of turn and Gollum is visibly upset. Gollum hates Sam so much because Sam represents everything he could never be and reminds him of the evil creature that he has become.

Frodo's hand however, is stayed by his empathy with Gollum for the burden that they have both borne. As Gandalf says early on in the book when Frodo says it was a 'pity' that Bilbo did not kill Gollum when he had the chance: "Pity? It was Pity that stayed his hand. Pity, and Mercy: not to strike without need". It is this pity that is more dangerous to Gollum, in his attempts to get the ring back, than any of Sam's threats and insults.

Gollum's time away from the ring has perhaps softened him enough to begin to remember who he used to be and it is this contact with Frodo and Sam that perhaps acts as a catalyst for a host of childhood memories, when he was just an ordinary Hobbit called Smeagol, playing by the river with his best friend.

Thus, we see that Tolkien's characterisation of Gollum is not just about descriptive language related to appearance, mannerisms and behaviour, but also about interaction with other characters. Interaction that serves to give the reader even more insight and depth, into the mind of the hero and the villain that make up the tortured soul, that is ultimately hoist by his own petard when he himself, unintentionally, facilitates the destruction of the ring as he bites off Frodo's finger and falls back into the chasm of Mount Doom.


Article by Peter Petane

Characterization Exercise

'I imagine them very clearly and then attempt to describe what I can see. Sometimes I draw them for my own amusement!'
(JK Rowling talking about her characters and scenes)

To write like Rowling, your characters must be multi-dimensional; in other words, characters are more intriguing when you include admirable traits as well as flaws.  For example, in The Half-Blood Prince, Harry demonstrates arrogance in his potions class by following the handwritten instructions from the Half-Blood Prince’s textbook, but they worked to his advantage—at first. As time goes on, he becomes rather obsessed with them, to his detriment.


Another example where one of Harry’s traits gives him a different depth is in The Order of the Phoenix, where he allows his anger to get the better of him a few times, resulting in his loss of perspective and good judgment. Of course, Harry’s good traits always outweigh the not-so-good, but the fact that Rowling shows he is human (albeit a wizard) and has some flaws makes it easier for the reader to relate to Harry, and feel an even stronger bond with him. So don’t make your characters all bad, or all good, but instead opt for an effective balance of emotional struggles to keep them multi-dimensional as opposed to flat and unrealistic.

For this activity you will need:

  • A printout of the 2-page character chart downloaded from the link above.


    1. Turn on the TV to a political channel or reality show and describe each character as they come on screen.  What do they look like?  Sound like?  How can you describe them in three sentences? 
    2. Do the same as the above for three famous people based on their looks and not what they are known for.  Now, get a friend to guess who they are. 
    3. Take your main character/s you have created from the creative exercises and fill in the character chart until you feel you know them as well as your friends.
    4. For further research I recommend reading the book A Writer's Guide to Character Traits by Linda N Edelstein.

      Dialogue Exercise

      One of the best ways to learn about characters is through dialogue.  Dialogue is conversation.  It is often through conversation that the plot is gradually revealed.

      Just like any other aspect of writing fiction, there are effective ways to write conversations between people.  Spend a few minutes learning how to punctuate dialogue, write dialogue tags and internal thoughts.  Check out these tips too.