In past weeks, I’ve made an effort to spend time on Tumblr. And one of my most exciting discoveries, from a writing standpoint, is the fascinating and elegant character analysis tool of The Sorting Hat Chats, created by Kat and . Though an extension of Harry Potter fandom in style, I’ve found it to be a simple, yet complex and useful, tool for analysing and building characters regardless of one’s Pottermania or lack thereof.
So, how does it work?
(Note, I summarise the system in my own words here, but if you want it straight from the source, there are links underneath to Kat and Inky’s own explanations.)
The tool’s strength, from a character standpoint, is that it looks at character through two absolutely essential frames: How does the character see the world, and what tools/methods does the character instinctively use to achieve their goals? This active way of looking at characters, focused on decision-making and goal-pursuing, is particularly effective for writing characters for the screen and creating motivated characters that actors will relish playing.
The system breaks characters down into two categorisations: Primary House and Secondary House. (Keep in mind: Though this system is based on the Harry Potter canon, feel free to disregard the names and focus on how effective the system is at breaking down character). Your Primary indicates your motivations and worldview, how you relate to other people and how you prioritise relationships and morality. Your Secondary looks at what skills you instinctively go to in order to achieve your goals; not what you’re best at, but what you’re most comfortable doing.
(At an advanced level, there are also: models, which are when you emulate the style of another House while not feeling it at your core, more using it as a tool; and performance, which relates to a House you perform publicly, well or poorly. Houses can also be burned, when a person’s Primary is obliterated by life experiences; more below.)
Regardless of using this system, both are excellent things to dig into when building a character. These are things you need to know.
And a reminder – under this system, heroes or villains can be of any House makeup. Their primaries and secondaries merely define how their point-of-view motivates their heroics or villainy – that is, how they find internal integrity.
The creators of the system break the primaries into two types: loyalist (people over morals) and idealist (morals over people).
Idealist Houses: The two Idealist houses are Gryffindor and Ravenclaw. The difference between them, as primaries, is delineated by the nature of their moral system: Gryffindors follow internal, ‘felt’ moral systems that they serve above all else, while Ravenclaws serve constructed moral systems that they use as a guideline for all behaviour. Gryffindors will follow a moral because it feels right; Ravenclaws because they have deduced that it is right, as declared by their system.
Idealist houses are capable of prioritising individuals they are about over their moral systems, but they will feel guilty doing so. When the chips are down, their priorities will come down to what’s right.
Of course, what’s right is mutable. There can be villainous Gryffindors whose ‘felt moral system’ is I deserve to have everything I want. There can be villainous Ravenclaws whose focus on a system – say, a system of rules or commands – may lead them to choices others would see as ‘immoral’. Just as there can be heroic Gryffindors who want to save everyone and Ravenclaws whose constructed moral system is about ensuring all people are taken care of.
Loyalist Houses: The two Loyalist houses are Hufflepuff and Slytherin. Slytherins’ focus on people is “my people”; they will prioritise the ones they love over all others, sometimes to the detriment of all others. Taken to its extreme, the Slytherin viewpoint might be to let the whole world burn as long as their people are safe and happy. For Hufflepuff, all people are equal and deserving of that respect, and no person is higher than any other: they are community-minded and egalitarian. (ETA:) You determine what to do, who to help, by who has greatest need of help.
If forced to choose between saving the lives of 5 people they love and 10 strangers, Slytherin will choose the people they love and Hufflepuffs would save the strangers. Also, in opposition to the Idealist houses – where an Idealist would feel guilty breaking the rules for someone they cared about, a Loyalist would be disturbed by someone valuing a moral system over people – whether people in general or their people.
A Gryffindor would be disgusted by a Slytherin doing wrong to help their family; a Slytherin would be disgusted by a Gryffindor sacrificing his family for the greater good. Either could be a hero or a villain.
So, to determine your Primary House, first determine whether you are an Idealist or a Loyalist; if you follow a moral system, do you follow your gut (Gryffindor) or an external system that means something deep to you (Ravenclaw); if you are loyalist, do you value people by how much they mean to you (Slytherin) or is every person equal to you no matter what (Hufflepuff).
Burned Primaries: In a nutshell, ‘burning’ is when you’ve lost faith in your primary worldview, but still follow it because it is ingrained into who you are. Burned Hufflepuffs can’t handle loving and taking care of the world, so they shrink down their focus to a smaller circle of people – and hate it, because it feels like a failure. Stripped Gryffindors still believe in moral systems but have lost faith in their moral instincts and feel lost. Fallen Ravenclaws has utterly lost confidence in their moral system and feel destroyed without it. Petrified Slytherins have been burned so many times that they’ve reduced their people to just themselves. These statuses can be healed, but not easily, as they are signs of a Primary rocked to its core.
Secondary houses determine how you are most comfortable in pursuing your goals. Not necessarily what you’re best at, but what feels most comfortable to you. If Primary is about your worldview, Secondary is about your tools.
Gryffindors prioritize bravery, leadership, acting from your gut, and questioning authority in the name of what’s ‘right’. Slytherins prioritise adaptability, quick thinking on one’s feet, and are comfortable lying and manipulating in order to get what they need. (Note: Other houses can lie and manipulate; for Slytherins, they’re completely comfortable doing so.) Hufflepuffs community-build, empathise, and focus on hard work and getting it done. Ravenclaws plan, strategise, prepare, and outthink their foes.
These are very adaptable – you can have cowardly Gryffindor secondaries who prize bravery, adaptable Slytherin secondaries who are terribleat constructing lies, grumpy Hufflepuffs who put in the work over community building, or Ravenclaws who struggle with problem-solving. It’s not about what you’re good at, but what feels natural to you even when you lack skill. Kat and Inky go into numerous examples in their blog of Secondaries who aren’t particularly good at the skills prized by their Secondaries.
Models and Performance
Models are constructed secondaries, based on what a person thinks is useful rather than intrinsically feel comfortable with. It’s seeing how another secondary does things and doing it yourself because it works. If you use planning and logistics because you recognise their value, but feel more at home adapting on the spot to things as they come, you may be a Slytherin Secondary modeling Ravenclaw. If you use community building because you recognise the utility of having allies but are most at home barging head-first into situations, you might be a Gryffindor secondary modeling Hufflepuff. Etc.
Performances are constructed facades of primaries: Basically, you put forward the image of having a particular primary to the world. You may be a Slytherin who finds value in projecting the empathy and community-mindedness of a Hufflepuff, or a Gryffindor who prefers to be seen as a smart tactician and performs Ravenclaw. Etc.
So, why is this system so useful for writers?
For one, it forces you to break down the complexities of a character you write instinctively in ways that you can understand more cleanly. Sometimes it can be helpful to realise that an element of your character is performance, or a model; that two characters who have chemistry share a primary or secondary, or even one models an aspect another feels intrinsically.
For example, The Hunger Games love triangle makes a bit more sense when you look at their analysis of the central trio, and its result is almost predetermined by the characters’ Houses: Primary Slytherin Katniss takes comfort in the Slytherin model that Gale uses to connect with her, but when it comes down to it, he’s a Gryffindor Primary and that genuinely disturbs her. Meanwhile, Gale looks at Katniss and sees her Gryffindor Secondary, until he is forced to contend with her Slytherin Primary. Katniss and Peeta, ultimately share a Slytherin Primary and with it a worldview – they will protect their people.
In a current project of mine, two characters had a distinct spark of chemistry that fuels a romantic plotline. It wasn’t until I analysed their characters that I realised both why they are drawn to each other and why their relationship, as I’d planned, was doomed: one is a Gryffindor/Gryffindor and the other is a Slytherin/Gryffindor. They bond over their methods (and the latter models Gryffindor in some respects), but their diverging Primaries ultimately rip them apart. Not that two people with different Primaries can’t make it work, but that certain obstacles target certain imbalances in ways that can tear at those specific seams.
It can also help with adapting characters. Oftentimes, I think, adaptations can change a lot, but if the Houses are the same (or are spun for specific reasons, like Burning a Primary in an apocalyptic adaptation), then a character will still feel real. Possibly many problems come from screwing up a character’s Houses when moving them from one form to another. I’d love some thoughts on that.
Take a look at some examples in the Masterpost for practical applications of these Houses. In particular, I think the Firefly sortings are absolutely brilliant and illuminating for anyone who knows the show. But there’s a great variety in the examples they give, as long as you like genre fiction – though, not always genre, as their Gilmore Girls analysis would attest.
I’d love to hear from anyone who either uses this as a tool already, or might give it a try now. I know I’ll be using it as an element of character construction and for shaping cast dynamics, definitely. And, if you’re an experienced user of it and there’s something here I’ve messed up, please let me know so I can revise and correct!
What do you think?