Writing Tip: Sorting Your Characters

I’ve been working on writing the first book in a series for the greater part of three years now. Recently, I’ve finished a new draft and have started thinking about the editing process (mostly external, since I need some fresh eyes on the story). There are certain things I still haven’t been able to incorporate into the story that I want, and I’m still trying to figure out how to do so, but one of my main concerns are my characters.

The characters of one’s story are really important. While you may have a plot you want to stick to and things you’ve had in your mind that the characters will have to deal with, it’s important to know these people, their personalities, and motivations. Simply forcing them into making certain decisions because your plot demands it doesn’t work. You have to be sure that what they do is consistent with who they are as a character.

A few weeks ago, I had a random idea to sort my characters into Hogwarts Houses. It was mainly because Harry Potter has been on my mind a lot lately, especially with the launch of our #WizardTeam podcast, and it seemed like a silly but fun thing to do while I was waiting on my mom to catch up on the latest How To Get Away With Murder so that we could watch the next episode. Surprisingly, it ended up being a real exercise in testing how well I knew the characters in my book.

Some were really easy. Their personalities had been consistent from the start and I already knew exactly where they would fit. One character, in particular, surprised me. I won’t go into the details of the character or what his story is, but I will say that initially I assumed he was a Gryffindor. His general description makes it seem like that would be the obvious choice, but as I began to really think about it I realized that he was much more Hufflepuff than Gryffindor. This character is extremely loyal to those he loves and is extremely patient (though that patience is tested at times). Due to plot, he has to be brave—as do pretty much all of my characters at some point—but his outstanding characteristics fall pretty neatly into the Hufflepuff category, and it was great to discover that.

This exercise also helped me realize which characters I didn’t totally have a grasp on. Some of them I already knew, but others surprised me. For a few, I literally couldn’t think of any real reason why they would be sorted into any of the Houses, and I realized it was because I didn’t know who they were at the core. I should be clear: sorting characters into Houses isn’t like Divergent where everyone is placed into a category based on one characteristic and are only supposed to display that one characteristic; that’s impossible. Sorting is actually much more complicated than that. Of course people aren’t solely their Houses, but sorting them actually helps you (or, at least me) to discover and explore their nuances and who they truly are.

I encourage anyone working on a story to try this exercise. Even for non-Potterheads, I think it’s an interesting way to think about your characters and to really interrogate their personalities. That being said, here are a few reminders when sorting:

1.     Don’t try to force characters into the House you want them to be in.

This isn’t an exercise you should do as you’re creating your characters. If you come up with someone who you decide just HAS to be a Ravenclaw, you fall into the trap of creating an archetype. Rather than creating at complicated and interesting character, you just create a flat one who reads a lot or who is a know-it-all. And that’s boring. It’s much better to write your characters and to have an idea of who they all are, and then to use the sorting as a test to see if you truly know and understand them.

2.     Slytherin =/= evil

While it is common belief that “There’s not a single witch or wizard who went bad who wasn’t in Slytherin,” this is actually untrue (SS, 80). For one, we later find out in the Harry Potter books that there was both a Ravenclaw and a Gryffindor who ended up on the side of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. For another, just because most Dark Wizards come from Slytherin doesn’t mean that all Slytherins are Dark Wizards. The Sorting Hat describes Slytherin to be cunning and as people who tend to use any means to reach their end goal. While of course that could mean that they are willing to kill or torture or be evil to get what they want (it is certainly the case with Voldemort), this can also mean something much less extreme. Slytherins are resourceful and are able to see many different paths to their goals and then select the most efficient one. They are also described as being fierce friends, so they can’t be all bad.

3.     Related: Gryffindor =/= good

As I said above, there is at least one Gryffindor who turned to dark magic. While Gryffindor is the center of the Harry Potter books, this is mainly because it is the House Harry himself was sorted into. Because of this, Gryffindor has been placed on a pedestal both inside and outside of the Wizarding World. While Gryffindors are known for being brave, this can also translate into being reckless, exhibitionist, and proud (though Slytherins are known for this last trait too). These traits, while helpful in some instances, can also be problematic in others. 

4.     Hufflepuffs are actually pretty cool.

Hufflepuffs tend to be the most overlooked of the Hogwarts Houses. This is in part due to the fact that they are initially introduced as being the undesirable House, full of unintelligent and basic people. It is also due to the fact that within the Harry Potter series, they get very little shine. Since they are from Harry’s perspective, we get a lot of focus on Gryffindor (because that’s his House), Slytherin (who are his rivals), and some on Ravenclaw. Hufflepuff tends to be shunted aside, but their characteristics are actually really great and something to aspire to (I say this as someone who identifies as a Ravenclaw). As I said above, Hufflepuffs are described as being loyal and patient. During the Battle of Hogwarts, they had the most students stay behind to fight Voldemort (after, of course, the Gryffindors).

5.     There may be Hatstalls.

A hatstall is a phenomenon where a character fits into two or more Houses equally. While at Hogwarts they can only end up being in one, it is good to know if your characters embody more than one. Some notable hatstalls include Minerva McGonagall, Filius Flitwick, and Peter Pettigrew. 

Now, go forth and sort your characters!