There is a truth that's rarely acknowledged about fantasy and sci-fi stories, and it is this: The main heroes are rarely as interesting as the secondary characters. Take The Lord of the Rings. You can't not admire Frodo for the journey he willingly takes. He inspired an entire "Frodo Lives!" movement in the 1970s. But if pressed, I suspect many people would name Aragorn, Gandalf, or Samwise Gamgee as their favorite characters. Frodo carries the Ring, but Sam gets the final line of the book, and that says something.
Star Wars is another really, really popular example. Luke Skywalker is a very cool character. He's not exactly unloved. But it's Han Solo who gets the wisecracks, the Wookiee, the ship, and the girl. There's a reason Han-Solo-in-Carbonite is its own Etsy category, and I suspect it's because he made off with the majority of fan's hearts too.
It's a tradition that stretches back a long way -- King Arthur may be the epitome of chivalry, but it's Lancelot that had the best adventures -- so it's not really surprising that Harry Potter follows suit. Harry is a loveable and sweet character. Fans tore through Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows because we had a very dim (if unreasonable) fear that Harry Potter would have to die in order to kill Voldemort. It would be terrible to lose him. He is our anchor in the wizarding world, the outsider who had to learn the rules and ropes for us.
But if forced to name a favorite character, I don't know that many of us would say "Harry Potter!" Because he's our conduit into magic, we wind up being Harry Potter, and so our favorite characters are his friends. Or foes, depending on how rebellious we are.
You probably disagree. Since we are a film site, you may even say, "Well, you're influenced by the actors and their performances, not the characters as they are written!" But let me try to convince you with one tiny and geeky story. Once upon a time, at the first wave of Potter mania (back when it was still only three books!), I worked in a kid's book department. Book four was an untitled whisper, and the big rumor was That A Major Character Died. A little boy was watching me shelve more copies of the third book, and asked me if I'd heard this terrible rumor.
"Yes, I have," I said.
"Who do you think it is?"
"I don't know. I'm worried it might be Hagrid."
"Do you think..." and he paused as his chin trembled. "Do you think it will be Ron?"
Not Harry. (Of course. It was only book four!) Ron. Because deep down, even a five-year-old knew Harry Potter was never going to die. (As my medieval professor said, "This isn't a French novel. Of course Harry lived.") We feared for the characters who might die for him. The secondary characters. Our favorite characters.
So, without further rambling, here's my ranking of the best Harry Potter characters excluding the titular hero. Because while we might love him, he's not nearly the most complicated or interesting boy (or girl) who lived.
Be warned -- massive spoilers abound.
13. Professor Remus Lupin
Lupin was one of the most exciting and promising characters of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. He was threadbare, mysterious, and one of the only Dark Arts professors who taught anything useful. But Lupin carried a dark and dangerous secret -- he was a werewolf. Despite his personal troubles, he never backed down from supporting Harry and the fight against Voldemort. The reason I rank him last is because he becomes regrettably whiny, and practically abandons his own child out of his own self-loathing. Doesn't he know that's how Dark Lords are created? Sheesh.
12. Luna Lovegood
The kooky character who is right more often than she is in fantasy land, her breathy and blissful attitude toward all things otherworldly is pretty inspiring. Even her tragic past -- she saw her own mother blow up -- doesn't darken her ethereal disposition. Like the Weasleys, she is one character who never ever shirks from supporting Harry, even if it endangers her to do so.
11. Neville Longbottom
Neville narrowly avoided becoming Harry Potter. Much of this is lost in the mysteries of the Deathly Hallows -- and some of it was sheer luck -- but Neville factored heavily in the fateful prophecy that bound Harry and Voldemort together. He's a sweet character (I think I was sealed on the story when he "blissfully" found his toad, Trevor) and becomes one of the bravest and toughest fighters of all the young wizards. Not bad for a kid who didn't make the Quidditch team and was believed to be a Squib!
Of all the characters, Hagrid is probably the most pure-hearted and thoroughly good. But he's also nothing but trouble due to his love of monsters and a good ale. However, he's unfailingly loyal to Hogwarts -- despite being wrongfully expelled -- and never fails to support the school, its students, or its headmaster. Plus, his alliances with unworldly creatures save the day on more than one occasion. Where would Harry be without Buckbeak or the Thestrals? Plus, he has the coolest canine companion to ever grace fantasy in Fang.
9. Ron Weasley
Ron may be ranked low, but there's no shame in it. He's a good guy, and the best friend we all should have. However, he's just not terribly interesting. What we know about him by book one -- that he's insecure and overshadowed by his family -- is just repeatedly reinforced and culminates in his abandoning Harry by book seven. But he returns, as only the best sidekicks do, and he gets the best girl: Hermione Granger.
8. Alastor "Mad-Eye" Moody
Mad-Eye was a Potter character who deserved an entire spin-off. He's mysterious and a little crazy. He's missing half of his body parts, he knows everything, and he's one of the few warriors we meet in the series. Even his paranoia is pretty endearing, and it's well deserved considering all the chaos and horror he's been through. As long as Mad Eye was around, you couldn't help but think Harry would be safe. When he dies, it honestly seems as if there's no hope for the battered Order.
7. Hermione Granger
Let's face it -- Harry wouldn't have made it past his first year without Hermione. She's the brains of the book. Though a lot of people (even within Hogwarts) find her insufferable, I've always liked and admired her, probably because I always had my hand up in class. Plus, she's one of the few characters who actually questions the wizarding world around her. Though her attempts to free the house elves go overboard, she's right in asking whether the wizards have set themselves up for a fall, and Dumbledore backs her up in that.
6. The Malfoy Family
Yes, I'm lumping Lucius, Narcissa, and Draco together as one, because ultimately they all end up with the same motivation: family. You're completely justified in hating the Malfoys. They're all that is wrong with our world as well as the wizarding one -- they're wealthy, they're insufferably rude, and they suffer no consequences for their evil actions. Yet once Voldemort gains control, the Malfoys reveal themselves to be an insecure and unhappy bunch. Draco becomes a Death Eater out of a misguided ambition and need for attention, but then sobs in private about what he must do. He carries on because he loves his parents (awful though they may be), and worries Voldemort will kill them. Narcissa worries Voldemort will kill Draco, and seeks Snape's help. By book seven, all Narcissa and Lucius want is to keep Draco safe, and they are absolutely miserable at what their machinations have wrought. In a tragic and twisted way, they realize what's really important -- their family -- and realize that following the Dark Lord is a threat to that. It's hard not to pity them for their foolishness, even if you think they should be sent to Azkaban.
5. Sirius Black
If you ask any Potter fan what single moment out of all seven books still leaves them furious, it's usually the death of Sirius Black. Black is introduced as a villain (he was convicted of betraying James and Lily Potter -- his best friends -- to their death) and winds up being a hero. He was an innocent man, and lost a decade suffering in Azkaban prison. He's released, enjoys a brief respite, and dies one of the most humiliating and pointless deaths of anyone. I rank him here only because he doesn't allow his bitterness to get the better of him, and is the cool uncle that Harry needed at one of the grimmest points of the series.
4. Fred and George Weasley
The red-haired terrors of Hogwarts, Fred and George burst in whenever the wizarding world seems bleakest. Though they behave as though nothing worries or frightens them, they never waver in the fight for good, and always back Harry even when suspicion turns against him. Their triumphant departure from Hogwarts (under the thumb of the tyrannical Dolores Umbridge) lit with a glittering W remains one of the funniest and coolest points of the series. And how can you not love two dropouts who become millionaires?
3. Professor Dumbledore
I'm torn about Dumbledore as a character. He was so warm, funny, and kind, and always looked after Harry as much as possible. He had a delightful office, an endless supply of candy, and the best pet in the world. But he frequently fumbled when it came to preparing Harry for the worst scenarios, and his attitude was often baffling. (He spends all of Order of the Phoenix ignoring Harry because he was "caring" about him too much, which just tormented an already beleaguered adolescent.) But he was an anchor to the series, and a mentor we all clung to and wished we had. Even his troubled past was an aspect to be admired, because it proved that even the most brilliant wizard was still a flawed human.
2. Lord Voldemort
What? The villain? Yes, because a hero is only as good as his opponent, and Voldemort and Harry have been tied together by prophecy. Voldemort's origin is also one of the most interesting of the series. He isn't a posh wizard obsessed with money, power, and purity. He's a "Mudblood" born of a wizard mother and a Muggle father, and abandoned to the cruel world. Like Harry, he lives in poverty and neglect until rescued by Hogwarts. But his experiences have twisted him and made him cruel. His self-loathing manifests itself in physical mutilation, and in political purging. He advocates pure blood when he himself is only half. Voldemort is a chilling and fascinating character, as his life reveals a thousand points where he could have gone right, but he chose to do evil again and again.
1. Professor Severus Snape
We all loathed Professor Snape at the beginning. He was every teacher who made us feel small and stupid. Even his name was wretched. But even at the end of book one, we found out he wasn't all bad -- that it was he who protected Harry despite his loathing for him -- and it was a hint of what was to come. By Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Snape was revealed to have a noble and sacrificial streak and willingly rejoined the Death Eaters to assist the Order of the Phoenix. There were hints of a tragic past, and we knew him to have been badly bullied by Harry's own father.
But then he killed Dumbledore. Harry's fears and our suspicions were confirmed. The big reveal, of course, was that he'd done so under Dumbledore's orders and to save the soul of Draco Malfoy. Snape had spent his entire life atoning for being responsible for killing the Potters, particularly Lily, whom he had loved unrequitedly. He sacrifices himself for Harry and Hogwarts, and his final words are the heartbreaking, "Look at me!" Why? So he could die looking into Lily Potter's green eyes. Snape's life is one of misery, loneliness, and sacrifice, and the man never gets a single moment of happiness. He started out as everyone's least favorite, and winds up being the silent hero of seven books. It's one heck of an arc, as evidenced by Harry naming his second son after him.