I always get weird looks when I say that Severus Snape is my favorite character. I mean, let’s face it — he is kind of a terrible person. So let’s not confuse my appreciation for his character with condoning his flaws. In fact, I’d say that it’s because of those flaws that I gravitate toward reading or writing fanfiction where he is a major character. But this isn’t supposed to be a defense of Severus Snape, no — this is how to write him.
To be fair, this is how I write him in fanfiction and how I view and consider the character. And while I wouldn’t call this an “official fanfiction standard,” it’s my definition of what constitutes a well-portrayed Severus Snape.
So how to go about it? I can tell you all the descriptors I reserve for him, what kind of behaviors I observe, the adverbs and diction. But that’s not enough to produce a faithful and original portrayal. Mechanics aren’t enough. If you want beautiful original characters that have depth and meaning, they need to live. They are people. They have wants, needs, flaws, problems, histories, aspirations — they have a stake in their own existence. You are investigating their lives, revealing more of their character — not creating it.
Why am I going into this? No one asked for a definition of what makes a good character. Well, if you’re looking for assistance on how to write Snape, it’s relevant. Bashing him is easy. He even deserves it. But if you want to capture his essence you got to care about him too. I think Orson Scott described it best in Ender’s Game:
“In the moment when I truly understand my enemy, understand him well enough to defeat him, then in that very moment I also love him. I think it’s impossible to really understand somebody, what they want, what they believe, and not love them the way they love themselves. And then, in that very moment when I love them… I destroy them.”
I’m going to teach you how to write him by analyzing his character. First thing first, we have to decide what school to follow: Alan Rickman Movie Snape or Book Canon Snape. For myself, I’m a Book Canon with occasional Movie elements. It’s easy to start after all the hard development it takes to change the things you dislike about his character — but I don’t believe in hiding things under the floorboards like it never happened. Also, I’m a sucker for the redemption arc, what can I say?
So let’s talk Severus Snape! Where to start? Do I start with the person we meet in the Philosopher’s (or Sorcerer’s) Stone? It’s a very good introduction.
Professor Quirrell, in his absurd turban, was talking to a teacher with greasy black hair, a hooked nose, and sallow skin.
It happened very suddenly. The hook-nosed teacher looked past Quirrell’s turban straight into Harry’s eyes — and a sharp, hot pain shot across the scar on Harry’s forehead.
“Ouch!” Harry clapped a hand to his head.
“What is it?” asked Percy.
The pain had gone as quickly as it had come. Harder to shake off was the feeling Harry had gotten from the teacher’s look — a feeling that he didn’t like Harry at all.
“Who’s that teacher talking to Professor Quirrell?” he asked Percy.
“Oh, you know Quirrell already, do you? No wonder he’s looking so nervous, that’s Professor Snape. He teaches Potions, but he doesn’t want to — everyone knows he’s after Quirrell’s job. Knows an awful lot about the Dark Arts, Snape.”
Harry watched Snape for a while, but Snape didn’t look at him again.
Ah, there’s so much to unpack here! This is the very first scene where Harry’s scar hurts him, an important climatic moment and it’s shared with the introduction of Snape. It both sets him up as the Red Herring for the entire series and firmly establishes his hatred for the Boy Who Lived. But that scene is so much more complicated when you know about his feelings towards Lily, about how James bullied him in school. You don’t know all this as a reader experiencing him for the first time. But you need to know it when writing him because it informs his actions, explains his thoughts and why he might look this way or say this thing — even if the main character has no idea. J.K. Rowling informed Alan Rickman before it was ever revealed in the books so that he could better portray the character on the silver screen.
Now if you want to read Pottermore’s take on the whole thing, be my guest. However, I’m not satisfied with that. It’s a good summary but you need more if you’re going to write him.
Severus Snape grew up feeling trapped and isolated, building resentment toward muggles because of his father Tobias, an abusive drunk who, “didn’t like anything much.” The canon here becomes vague and leaves much unsaid. I’ve seen several different interpretations to fill in the gaps. As for me, it goes like this:
As a pureblood, Eileen Prince was disowned for marrying a muggle. Her husband didn’t know she was a witch when they sealed the deal and resented her for tricking him. Snape would often go to bed listening to the sound of his parents screaming at each other and in the morning spy his mother hiding her bruises behind a glamour. And shining like a beacon of goodness came Lily Evans, a girl who didn’t know she was a witch. For the first time, Snape had someone who didn’t glare at him when he came into a room. He had a best friend.
They went to Hogwarts together and she was sorted into Gryffindor House, while he went to Slytherin. It was okay — at first. She didn’t let house differences stop her, so everyone else tried to step in. A gang of Gryffindor boys bullied him mercilessly. He dropped his muggle father’s name and signed his books as the Half-Blood Prince. During the summer it was just him and Lily and though he wanted to be away from his family, he lived for those moments when it was just her and him and no one demanded anything.
But at home, things didn’t change. When he stepped in to protect his mother, he was the one to walk away with bruises. He was inclined to hate muggles and fell into the growing movement. He wanted more power — the power to stop his father, power to defeat Potter, the power to win Lily who he feared was forgetting him. And then, like an ass, he lashed out to her when pained and embarrassed. He calls her a slur he learned from his friends, and she turns around and never looks back — and knows he’ll regret it all his life.
Now sure, there are still some unanswered questions. What happened to his parents or what about the time James Potter saved his life or when exactly did he become a death eater? Most of these aren’t answered, and they’re not crucial to understanding him.
There are many different roads, but they must all lead to that day he overheard Professor Trelawney make a prophecy, in an upstairs room of the Hogs Head. He doesn’t stay to hear it in its entirety, however, and recounts the partial prophecy to the Dark Lord. It’s only when he interprets the words and decides to target the Potters that Snape realizes he’s put Lily in Lord Voldemort’s path — something he never wanted to do. Snape begs with him to spare her, using the worst excuses in the book because they’re the only ones Dark Lord will consider — but he knows they won’t be enough. So, risking everything, he ends up before Dumbledore. He warns him, swears his loyalty, and begs him to keep Lily safe — do that, and he’ll be Dumbledore’s inside man. But even that’s not enough, and when he finds out Lily is dead his world collapses. He shows up, drunk, destroyed, and berates Dumbledore for failing to protect her — and agrees to protect her only son.
TLDR; he’s basically that sad emo kid who took awkward fedora pictures and joined a racist nationalism movement because he couldn’t handle getting friend-zoned. He becomes, well, a wizard Nazi and flips sides when wizard Hitler decides to murder the girl he’s been pining over since he was twelve.
That’s the person Harry Potter meets for the first time — a bitter, resentful man who looks at Harry and sees all his failures. He failed to get the girl. He failed to save her. He doesn’t want to change but he is haunted by the past, so he lashes out at everyone around him. He displays gross favoritism, childish spite, and is intentionally unfair to teach Harry a cruel lesson. He’s a bully, selfish, and vindictive. He can’t even have his dream job even though he’s qualified — a curse is on the position and he’s too valuable to risk it. And yet, at the same time, he is an undercover spy, pretending to act the double agent for the most feared wizard in a century. He doesn’t know how to deal with his emotions, and I think it’s easier for him to project James onto Harry than for him to accept that he didn’t deserve Lily.
So that’s his background, what about his personality? What are the lines that define him? Well, let’s not mince words. He’s cruel. He once deliberately dropped Harry’s vial of potion after he turned it in and after Ron had already vanished the potion, meaning he got a failing grade for the day. He’s vindictive and looks for any reason to punish the Gryffindors, Harry, or anyone else who’s got it coming. If anything, it’s his duty to keep them humble. The man should get some kind of award for the longest grudge.
He’s got an Authoritarian style of teaching. Do not talk back to Snape. It’s either his way or the highway — and no complaining! — he’ll bulldoze right over opposing viewpoints. But he doesn’t give empty threats, he means every word he says and throws tantrums when things don’t go his way in the form of vicious words, popping eyes, and throwing chairs. There’s a reason students live in fear of his detentions — famously disemboweling horned toads or cleaning out the bedpans in the hospital wing without magic.
But he’s also a spy, and he’s damn good at it. He expertly keeps his cover. I mean, there’s a reason Harry suspected him. But Lily is his bedrock and despite everything, he’s unfailingly loyal to Dumbledore. He protects Harry best he can, though he resents his concern for the boy’s safety because of what he represents to him.
That’s Severus Snape. He walks a tight rope between two powerful figures, hoping he doesn’t lose his balance.
All of this is important because it colors his first interactions within my fanfiction. His abusive history means no matter how enraged he is, he would never beat a child himself. He resents those who have easy coddled childhoods though and believes he’s the one who needs to teach them about the unfairness of life. He thinks he deserves so much more.
If you understand who he is and where he came from, you’ll know how he would react.
But I want Snape to change! We’re writing fanfiction here after all and Canon Snape would never in a million years adopt Harry Potter. Wrong! It’s our job to convince him, and by so doing convince the reader that Snape is changing. Even if he’s perfectly in character up until he finds out about Harry’s abusive life with the Dursleys, he can’t just adopt the kid on the spot. He needs to struggle with this knowledge, deny it’s happening, and then reevaluate everything.
The trick — don’t change Snape’s personality. Just throw him in situations that force him to confront his demons, especially when he doesn’t want to. Push him to consider his behavior. Take your time. Remember the type of person he is.
So, how does one write Severus Snape? Carefully. I think of him like a shrapnel bomb. He’s sharp, hard edges, callous and furious, but he keeps it carefully contained, tries not to overextend and get himself in trouble. He’s a Slytherin after all. He knows where the line is and crosses it pointedly at times. He’s a swell of emotion, years of resentment, but he keeps it all close to the chest and buried within — shards of glass and rusty nails that threaten to impale everyone around him. He doesn’t care for vulnerability, doesn’t believe in coddling or adding sugar to make it go down easier. And if the carrot dangling in front of him is snatched away — the bomb goes off. He’s too starved for approval, the need to be acknowledged, socially congratulated — he’s living behind the scenes and he’s doomed to the shadows. So, crush his hopes and watch him explode, he’ll blame everyone around him in the fallout.
I always return back to his first speech in the books because of how well it sets his tone of voice.
“You are here to learn the subtle science and exact art of potion making,” he began. He spoke in barely more than a whisper, but they caught every word. “As there is little foolish wand-waving here, many of you will hardly believe this is magic. I don’t expect you will really understand the beauty of the softly simmering cauldron with its shimmering fumes, the delicate power of liquids that creep through human veins, bewitching the mind, ensnaring the senses… I can teach you how to bottle fame, brew glory, even stopper death — if you aren’t as big a bunch of dunderheads as I usually have to teach.”
Emulating this can seem daunting at first. There’s a poetic quality to the words here, his diction is deliberate. I find it helps to read it out loud, in that bare whisper, letting my teeth enunciate the sounds. Snape chooses his words carefully, and will always take the opportunity to ridicule. It’s the difference between:
“Put that book away! There’s no reading in my class,” he said coldly.
“What’s this?” he said, snatching the volume from her hands. “Magical Me by Gilderoy Lockhart? Tell me, does Lockhart have any advice on the brewing of today’s potion? Perhaps if you had been paying attention, you would have known to take your potion off the fire three minutes ago. I guess you’ll have to try again in detention this evening,” he said with a snarl, dropping the book carelessly back onto the desk.
But when I write Severus Snape, I see his greasy hair and sallow skin. I see his black eyes, like cold dark tunnels and his billowing black robes. He is a predator in his classroom, an overgrown bat, looking for weakness and mocking it. He waits for you to give him a reason, he gaslights, and he sneers, and he towers over with authority. His lip curls, his eyes pop in fury, he speaks in a calculating whisper like his teeth are knives when it’s important, and spits and disregards things that aren’t. He is coursing with vicious emotion that he hides beneath his skin.
But if you carefully lay the groundwork, you can soften his edges and make him care about something again.
So, how do you write Severus Snape? Who do you want me to write next?
This article was also published on Medium.