Tag Archives: Harry Potter

Snape & Nellie Olsen: Creating Characters We Love to Hate

This morning, my son and I finished the 3rd Harry Potter.  This is my second go-round with the series, and as much as I’m loving them all over again, my biggest joy is getting to watch my 7-year-old experience these wonderful books for the first time.  Among the many voyeuristic and maternal pleasures in this, one of my favorite things is seeing how riled up he gets over Snape.

You can see it in his eyes, or in the way his hands curl up every time Snape deducts points from Gryffindor.  Oh, the injustice!  Yet at the same time, it’s obvious how much he revels in his hatred of Snape.

It’s the same theory by which the kooky loudmouth inevitably gets invited to the party, in hopes that his presence will breed solidarity among the rest of the (well-liked) guests (or at least give them something to gossip about).

I tried to a find similar literary example from my own youth and came up with one from television instead.  Nellie Olsen.  In case you’re not familiar with LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE, Nellie Olsen is the banana-curled 1870’s version of a mean girl.

To this day, the sight of those perfect blonde ringlets make me want to shove the girl down the steps of Olsen’s Mercantile.  But alas, Nellie Olsen is no longer a little girl, and also, she’s a fictional character.   For years, LITTLE HOUSE was my favorite show on TV, but much as I loved Laura Ingalls, hating Nellie Olsen was half the fun.

My point is:  you can’t create a great villain without having great affection for them.  Whether they’re simply annoying and cruel (Nellie Olsen) or truly evil (Hannibal Lecter) if your villains don’t get your blood boiling, they’re not doing their job.  And just like in real life, where the people who get under our skin just so happen to be the ones we resemble most, good villains embody many of the same flaws as our heroes.

No wonder I hate that damn Nellie so much.

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Suspending Our Disbelief

One of the challenges of coming up with a good story is making your world believable.  Why do we completely buy into the existence of Hogwarts, whereas the sight of Tom Hanks stuck in an airport terminal makes us want to shout, “Just walk through the door, you big dummy!”

I’ve always been a bit of a cynic; perfecting my signature lip spritz-slash-eye-roll by the time I was ten.  Like when I learned that my short-haired, sensibly-shoed fourth grade teacher had formerly been a nun, but had left the church for “personal reasons.”  Nudge-nudge, wink-wink.  Sadly, none of my classmates were yet fluent in air quotes.

It is hard for me to suspend my disbelief.  Harder than most people, I’ve come to realize.  And because of this, on movie night, my sweet, patient husband is often forced to endure one of my rants.  i.e., “What studio exec was deluded enough to believe that seeing an elderly baby[1] on the big screen was a good idea?” Eye-roll/lip spritz.

And yet, I want to believe.  I long to be drawn into a fictional world, to clap my hands because I DO believe in fairies.

I love the magic, but I despise the lie.   And I firmly believe there is a big and obvious difference between the two–one, being a fiction that moves us to willingly suspending our disbelief, and the other, which dupes us into deluding ourselves.  Just like it did to all those mother-f-ers who caused the mortgage crisis.  I don’t think all of them were plotting to do evil[2], I think most of them were just suspending their disbelief.  I mean REALLY suspending it.  And if I had to guess, they’re probably the same people who also loved “The Terminal.”


[1] “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.”  Skip it.

[2] My guess is 20%, tops.

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