Spoilers: Books 1-5
The tall, thin, black-haired man standing next to her put his arm around her. He wore glasses, and his hair was very untidy. It stuck up at the back, just as Harry’s did. (SS, 208)
James Potter is the father of Harry Potter, the hero of our series. James and his wife, Lily, were murdered by Lord Voldemort on Halloween night when Harry was just a year old. Therefore, whatever facts that we learn about James are heard from other characters—even Snape’s Pensieve scene is filtered through Snape’s perceptions. Unlike his wife James is a pureblood wizard from a presumably wealthy family, considering that Harry’s parents left him a “small fortune.” Although it is possible that James was a regular middle-class wizard, there is no mention that he had any paying job after Hogwarts, and so presumably the money is family money. It may also be assumed that James was an only child, as there is never any mention of any siblings, and Sirius says that Mr. and Mrs. Potter took him in “as a second son.” It is also often noted that Harry looks remarkably like James. Even Harry notices it when he sees the memory of his fifteen-year old father in Snape’s Pensieve:
“It was as though he was looking at himself but with deliberate mistakes. James’s eyes were hazel, his nose was slightly longer than Harry’s, and there was no scar on his forehead, but they had the same thin face, same mouth, same eyebrows. James’s hair stuck up at the back exactly as Harry’s did, his hands could have been Harry’s, and Harry could tell that when James stood up, they would be within and inch of each other’s heights.” (OotP, 641)
James was also considered, by other characters as well as himself, to be smarter than the average wizard. McGonagall says that both Sirius and James were exceptionally bright; in OotP when Sirius says that the O.W.L. they had just taken was a “piece of cake” and that he’s sure he scored an Outstanding on it “at least,” James nonchalantly agrees with him. In addition to his brains and money, James is also considered to be popular at Hogwarts. Although in OotP he is shown to be a bit of a bully, Lupin also says that “[James] and Sirius were the best in the school at whatever they did—everyone thought they were the height of cool [. . .].” And when James is bullying Snape, it doesn’t appear as though there is much except for Lily’s protests—most of the other students cheer for him, in fact. In his years at Hogwarts, James is made Head Boy in his seventh year, which implies that despite his troublemaking Dumbledore trusts him and believes him to be responsible, or to at least have leadership qualities.
A very important part of James’s character is the fact that he, along with Sirius and Peter, managed to become an Animagus in their fifth year. James’s Animagus form is a stag, which opens up several possible interpretations to his character. Both Sirius’ and Peter’s Animagus forms echo at least part of their character—Peter is a rat, and “rat” is often synonymous with untrustworthiness, and Peter has amply shown himself to be untrustworthy. Sirius is a large dog; dogs are considered to be loyal and very protective, which Sirius shows himself to be. In PoA, Sirius tells Peter that he “should have died—died rather than betray your friends, as we would have done for you!” (PoA, 375). Therefore, James’s Animagus form makes one wonder what it is about James’s character that resonates with a stag—wisdom, perhaps? However, it is rare that James is shown as “wise” in the books—but then, we only get a true sense of James’s character in OotP, so undoubtedly it will become clearer later what there is about James that is so stag-like as to cause him to turn into a stag during his Animagus transformations.
Along with becoming an Animagus, James was also in the small group of friends that fanon commonly calls the Marauders. They are never directly called this name in canon, but JKR herself has called them this in interviews, so it is often taken as canonical fact by many. This group included Sirius Black, Remus Lupin and Peter Pettigrew—although by all accounts they were a closely-knit group, it is admitted by all of the characters that Sirius was James’s best friend. This is why, when choosing a Secret Keeper, it appeared logical to all outsiders that James would have chosen Sirius as his Secret Keeper.
James: A Very Gray Character
Throughout books 1-4, James is often shown as the Golden Boy who seems to show very few flaws. His good points are renumerated time and time again—he was Head Boy, a brilliant Quidditch player, he fought Voldemort bravely to try to save Lily and Harry, and he saved Snape’s life at great risk to his own. Although he is described as a troublemaker, he is lumped together in the same category as the Weasley twins, who are not particularly interested in anything except their joke shop and Quidditch. This is perhaps an unfair assessment of the twins, but it is obvious that at some point James must have matured, otherwise he wouldn’t have become Head Boy or been able to convince Lily Evans to go out with him. Harry even admits in OotP that before seeing Snape’s Worst Memory, he had “been so sure that his parents had been wonderful people that he never had the slightest difficulty in disbelieving Snape’s aspersions on his father’s character” (OotP, 653). Yet it is hard to reconcile this very slightly tarnished paragon of virtue with the bully that we see in OotP. Sirius admits that they were “all idiots,” but justifies James’s dislike and bullying Snape by saying that Snape was “up to his eyes in Dark Arts and James [. . .] always hated the Dark Arts” (OotP, 670)
In a way, it is hard to get a decent grasp on James’s character, because the characters themselves either love him or hate him. The only moment when Harry truly sees for himself what his father is like is in Snape’s Worst Memory, which isn’t precisely one of James’s finer moments. This is the defining moment of James’s character so far in the series, both because it is an extended scene where he is involved directly, as well as because it complicates his character: before Snape’s Worst Memory, he was the shining tower of mischievous virtue that he had described as throughout books 1-4. James was not perfect, by any means, but he was definitely cast into a noble or a “good” light. Although Snape’s Memory is not a flattering look at James, it does make him more human and makes one wonder what James was like on a normal day, instead of when he was pushing Snape around.
There are very few instances in any of the books when James is not accompanied by another character, even in speech. His name is consistently linked with Lily’s, both as a married couple as well as Harry’s parents, and he is also often linked with Sirius. Whenever James is mentioned on his own, it is often by Voldemort or Harry himself and very often in relation to the circumstances of his death. “And now you will face me, like a man…straight-backed and proud, the way your father died…” (GoF, 660); “[. . .] He was not going to die kneeling at Voldemort’s feet…he was going to die upright like his father, and he was going to die defending himself, even if no defense was possible…” (GoF, 662). This suggests that James was a very social creature, for the most part, as Lupin also says that James was one of the most popular boys in their year, and he appears to be perfectly fine with being in front of a crowd—e.g. Snape’s Worst Memory.
Fanon Opinion of James:
James is very often paired off with one or more of the other Marauders—mostly Sirius and Remus, because Wormtail is not particularly liked in canon or fanon. It is relatively accepted that the Marauders were a tightly knit group, and therefore they are prime slashing territory. Personally, I haven’t seen many stories about James on his own—Lily’s death is often more explored, and fanon doesn’t seem to be too interested in James as a single character in fic without the Marauders around him, although the other Marauders are often in stories on their own.
Since the release of OotP and the realization that James wasn’t the perfect Golden Boy that many fans thought him, there have been many people who grumble that James was everything from a bully to a Death Eater in disguise. Just a few months ago there were heated discussions wondering if James had used the Imperius curse to get Lily to marry him, as she doesn’t seem to like him very much in the Pensieve scene.
Fanon has also decreed that James was the ringleader of the Marauders. McGonagall says in PoA that both Sirius and James were the “ringleaders of their little gang” (PoA, 203). Fanon has interpreted this to mean that James was the ringleader and Sirius his sidekick.
It appears hard for fandom to reconcile the two views of James into one solid character—the next two books will obviously provide great insight into his character to bridge the gap between Harry’s model father and Snape’s bully.
Why Do I Like James?
I like James because he's a very complex character. If he ends up with no other purpose in the series (which I don't believe), James has shown Harry that people are not all black and white--there are areas of gray which are very painful to look at. Harry realizes that his father wasn't the shining paragon that he always thought he was, and just like fans of the series, it's hard for him to connect the man that people speak so highly of with the terrible bully that he saw in Snape's Pensieve. There's also an aura of mystery about James. Both Lupin and Sirius have been explored in other books, but only in OotP have we gained any sort of idea about James's character. It's a cliffhanger that leaves a James fan anxiously awaiting books 6 and 7 to find out how James managed to progress from shameless bully to Harry's loving father and a fine, upstanding member of the Order.
What Others Say About James Potter:
James is very obviously attracted to Lily. Lily, for all that she protests his actions, is interested enough in him to be able to describe how he ruffles his hair and struts around the halls. She was clearly disgusted by his behavior at that point. She probably became more friendly towards him only after the Shrieking Shack incidient. I expect that James wised up and matured a lot after that, once he realized just how dangerous he and his friends were becoming. -- strangemuses
I think James had a very good, supportive home life, although he may have been slightly spoiled. Not too badly, though. Mistreatment, after OotP and Sirius's comments, seems highly unlikely. I see him as much more similar to Ron, personality-wise, than to Harry, who is more like Sirius. -- alyndra
The book, I really didn't think of James at all. Ever. Before the movie (so post-OOTP) I thought he was kind of a prat growing up, but he did grow up. So I would say James was like Harry- impulsive, self-centered, etc etc. not necessarily the gigantic asshole Snape makes him out to be, but he wasn't a saint or anything. Before reading OOTP, I thought James was a good father. I figured he was a typical teenager and that he grew up into a good man. Now I have a fanon view of him. In my head, he's like Harry minus the angst. He has a good sense of humor, he's the ringleader of their group. More Weasley twin than Harry, I guess. But he's brave, smart, probably impulsive, but not nearly as much as Harry.-- barbed_whispers
One Last Breath by Jessica C. Malfoy
They are Marauders and They Hunt in a Pack by Tybalt-Quin
Wait by Lady Brinna
shoebox_project by ladyjaida and dorkorific
James by queenmabsreveng
James by linnpuzzle
James and Lily by saridout
James and Lily's wedding by nasubionna
Judgement by nasubionna
Harry and Prongs by nasubionna
Cursing Snape by nasubionna (Marauders)
James saving Severus by nasubionna
James and pregnant Lily by icarusinwax
Prongs the Patronus by kellyl
Thank yous go out to fluffyllama and noticeably for their amazingly quick beta work, amberdiceless for her fic recs, and to strangemuses, barbed_whispers and alyndra for their opinions.
Editions of all books are American paperback editions.