SPOILERS FOR THE HARRY POTTER SERIES AND PSYCHO FOLLOW (in case you’re the one person on earth who is unfamiliar with them):
HBO has been running the movie Harry Potter & The Deathly Hallows Part 2 a lot lately. Since it’s my favorite of the Harry Potter movies, I’ve watched it several times.
Love it. A perfect ending to a great series.
One thing struck me on multiple viewings that hadn’t during all the years of reading the books and watching the movies:
Headmaster Albus Dumbledore was a manipulative bastard.
I cried like everyone else when he was killed by Snape in Harry Potter & The Half-Blood Prince. You better believe I did. For the longest time I didn’t want to believe he was dead.
But watching the last movie–wow. It struck me that Dumbledore was a puppet-master like few others. As Snape put it, he raised Harry “up for the slaughter.” He always knew Harry would have to die for Voldermort to be destroyed. That whole mentoring, surrogate-fathery-thing was so Harry would eventually agree to do it.
How about how he manipulated Snape? He knew of Snape’s undying love for Harry’s mother. He used his grief over her death to get Snape to protect Harry, even though Snape wasn’t exactly the boy’s biggest fan. When Dumbledore knew he was going to die, he again manipulated Snape, this time into agreeing to kill him, so Voldemort would completely trust him.
He had to know that pretty much signed Snape’s death-warrant, too.
Even after death, he’s still manipulating people all over the place, right up to the point where he sends Harry back from the between-life-and-death place they meet for the last time. So Harry can finish Voldemort once and for all.
I don’t mean this as a character analysis of Dumbledore–that’s a post for another day. But it got me thinking about how writers are sometimes terrified of manipulating their readers. Manipulation is BAD. Manipulation should be AVOIDED. You ALWAYS have to play fair with the reader.
Actually, I think it’s our job to manipulate our readers. If you play fair all the time, you’re going to end up with a pretty dull, dry story. Manipulation is what makes people laugh, sigh, cry, gasp. If you’re not pulling their strings at least some of the time, they’re not going to be that engaged with the story.
Like anything else, there are right ways and wrong ways to do it. The key is not to make readers aware you’re doing it. So heavy-handedness is out.
Learn from Dumbledore. His manipulations are grand, but subtle. So subtle that we still think of him as the beloved father-figure, not the sneaky guy who persuaded a bunch of people to die. So subtle that Harry even names his kid after him.
A few years ago I watched a movie about a cop. It starts with him chasing a criminal through a park. It’s a long, long chase scene. Finally, there are gunshots. He got the guy, right? Nope. The camera zeros in on the person the cop shot: a pregnant woman. Cut to cop cuddling his own kid. Later on, cop is asked to investigate the death of a fellow officer. He goes through the dead officer’s personal effects. Among them is a sonogram image. With the name the dead cop and his wife chose for the kid written on it.
Get it? Get it? GET IT?
That’s an example of heavy-handedness, in case I needed to point that out to you.
The director Alfred Hitchcock was a great manipulator. One of the most famous instances is from his movie Psycho. The first forty minutes follow a woman who is having an affair and wants to marry her lover. The problem is, they have no money. So she steals from her boss and leaves town. She later stops at a motel and has dinner with the eccentric manager. After talking to him, she decides to turn herself in. She goes back to her room, steps into the shower and . . .
Yeah, I think you know what happens next.
By killing off the character he made the audience think was the protagonist, Hitchcock not only achieved a short-term shock effect, but a fundamental change in the direction of the story. Most of the movie from then on is in the point of view of the killer, making the killer the protagonist. Instead of hoping the killer will get caught, the audience worries the killer will get caught.
So call up your inner Dumbledore and start pulling the strings. Your readers will love you for it.
They might even name one of their kids after you.