Friday, June 23, 2023

Killing Dumbledore: Why main characters have to resolve plots

I couldn’t believe it when J.K. Rowling killed off the greatest wizard, Albus Dumbledore, at the end of book six, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Dumbledore was my favorite character in that series of books. He was not only the most skilled wizard, he was the perfect teacher for Harry Potter. Dumbledores was stern, a tough taskmaster, yet you knew that he had Harry’s best interests at heart and cared deeply for his pupil. Without Dumbledore’s abilities, how could the concluding book seven show Good triumphing over the forces of Evil, personified by Voldemort and his minions?

Michael Gambon as Dumbledore in the Harry Potter movies
But that is precisely why it was brilliant of J.K. Rowling to have Dumbledore succumb before the end of the Harry Potter series. She was not writing Albus Dumbledore and the Deathly Hallows, she was writing Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. It was essential for Harry and his friends to solve the problem of the Death Eaters themselves. If Dumbledore had just stepped in, out-dueled Voldemort, and finished off the chief villain, there would have been no challenge, no plot. It’s vital for the main characters of a story to resolve the plot dilemma themselves.

J.K. Rowling
If the author chooses to have a deus ex machina step in and pull strings from above to solve the problem in the narrative, the reader or viewer feels cheated. It’s as if two people were playing a chess match, and someone from the outside stepped in and gave Black a second queen. That’s simply not how the game is played. Whenever I’ve read or seen a plot where the main characters are extraneous to resolving their own issues, I feel deflated, and as if I’ve been cheated.

When you’re writing a plot, you have to keep in mind who your main characters are. They are the ones who have to untangle the issues that the narrative is following, even if you have to shove off the stage the most interesting, charismatic, powerful, or witty character. This is particularly true in literature for children and young adults, where the kids have to resolve the difficulties, and not the adults.


In any case, a larger-than-life character such as Albus Dumbledore is not necessarily the one readers identify with as strongly as the protagonist, and not necessarily the one readers root for most ardently. The hero/heroine, more like us, with our flaws and fears, is the one who has to face down the antagonist in the end, in order for the drama to work its magic.

Zack’s most recent book of poems, Irreverent Litanies

Zack’s most recent book of translations, Bérenice 1934–44: An Actress in Occupied Paris

Other posts of interest:

How to Get Published

Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop

How Not to Become a Literary Dropout

Putting Together a Book Manuscript

Working with a Writing Mentor

How to Deliver Your Message

Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?

Why Write Poetry?

Poetic Forms: Introductionthe Sonnetthe Sestinathe Ghazalthe Tankathe Villanelle

Praise and Lament

How to Be an American Writer

Writers and Collaboration

Types of Closure in Poetry

Sunday, June 11, 2023

Why Ron DeSantis Is Wrong about Western Civilization

In a January 2023 press release, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis called for legislation to “ensure Florida’s public universities and colleges are grounded in the history and philosophy of Western Civilization…” Some of DeSantis’ ideas were then incorporated in to Florida Senate Bill 266, which passed the legislature and was signed into law by DeSantis in May 2023. What DeSantis’ views and the Florida law ignore is that a university education cannot be complete or true if the curriculum emphasizes only “Western Civilization.”

To begin with, “Western Civilization” cannot be properly understood or appreciated in isolation from the rest of the world. Take one key facet of “Western Civilization”: Christianity. That religion began in the Middle East, and it developed primarily out of spiritual traditions outside the West, including Judaism. In fact, none of the world’s major religions started in Western Europe or the United States, so a university education “grounded in the history and philosophy of Western Civilization” leaves out most spiritual traditions, among so many other things.

Take another example, this one from literature. What could be more quintessential about the literature of “Western Civilization” than the work of Shakespeare? The sonnet structure that Shakespeare used for most of his poems developed in Sicily during the 13th century CE. It was highly influenced by the ghazal, a poetic form created in neighboring Arab lands, a form that dates from the five centuries earlier than the sonnet. Not only that, rhymed poetry like the sonnet didn’t even exist in “Western Civilization” until the Middle Ages—Homer and Virgil didn’t write in rhyme. Western European poets borrowed rhyme from Arabic poetry, and from the verses of the Qu’ran, when Muslim civilization was flourishing in Spain.

Don’t even get me started on Shakespeare and the ridiculous set of laws that conservatives have enacted or proposed to limit drag shows. Do the reactionaries advocating that censorship realize that every female character in a Shakespeare play was performed in the Bard’s time by a man in drag, from Juliet to Cordelia to Queen Gertrude? If you really want to talk about “Western Civilization,” you can’t possibly discuss it without talking about the importance of female impersonators.

Another example: the democratic system in the United States, presumably a feature of “Western Civilization” that DeSantis believes in, was highly influenced by the organizing principles of the Iroquois Confederacy, which date back to the 12th century. To explain American democracy without that context is misleading and untrue.

Not only is it wrong intellectually to view “Western Civilization” in a vacuum, it is also extremely limiting for students. Why should students not learn about many of the world’s religions, philosophies, and cultures, and grow to appreciate the best in each tradition? If those in the West want to understand their own culture in three dimensions, one great way to do that is to step outside it and see it from the standpoint of other societies.

The current right-wing obsession with “Western Civilization” has little to do with education and truthfulness, and everything to do with race. By “Western Civilization,” politicians like DeSantis really mean White culture. The phrase “Western Civilization” serves as a dog-whistle to inform reactionary Caucasians that their interests and culture will be favored under a Republican administration. Not only that, the campaign of reactionaries in the United States and elsewhere to favor “Western Civilization” is scarily reminiscent of the Nazis banning culture that they considered “decadent,” namely any art not created by Aryans.

The Republicans and their allies outside the United States are hawking a myth. “Western Civilization,” like all civilizations, has great strengths and weaknesses, but it cannot have meaning and depth without understanding it in the context of world culture. Why deprive students of the full spectrum of global history and philosophy? By expanding the latitudes and longitudes of our knowledge, we only deepen our understanding of all cultures. And that should be the goal of a university education.