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All of the flashbacks and memories that involve James potter seem to show him as a quite self-centered bully, a sneak, and a rebel.

Is there anything in the books that show James to be the really swell guy that Harry built up in his head?

The only information he would have had prior to attending Hogwarts would be from home, and there certainly wasn't any positive input there.

Edit: Sorry, the original question is less about what Harry thought about his father and more about whether Harry's views actually matched the man.

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Yes, he was an utter tool when he was younger. In his later years, he devoted himself to fighting Voldemort and ended up sacrificing his life for the betterment of Wizardkind. The question is really whether the two cancel each other out. – Valorum Mar 26 at 22:41
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Perhaps the fact that he was eventually named Head Boy, as explained in this answer. – davidbak Mar 26 at 22:47
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Part of why Lily eventually fell for him is that he grew up. He was very immature and self-obsessed and sometimes cruel, but he did what we all do eventually and just grew up a bit. – ThruGog Mar 26 at 22:54
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Did Luke think his Jedi Dad was hip before that whole treachery debacle? – Major Stackings Mar 26 at 23:57
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why would he not think highly of his Dad? Don't we all love our parents unless given reason to feel otherwise? – The Giant of Lannister Mar 27 at 8:30
up vote 38 down vote accepted

By the end of Philosopher's Stone, Harry knows quite a few things about James that are likely to have endeared him.

Hagrid liked them (see also, why Harry hates Slytherin)

‘Sorry,’ he said. ‘But it’s that sad – knew yer mum an’ dad, an’ nicer people yeh couldn’t find – anyway –

He left Harry a pile of money

All Harry’s – it was incredible. The Dursleys couldn’t have known about this or they’d have had it from him faster than blinking. How often had they complained how much Harry cost them to keep? And all the time there had been a small fortune belonging to him, buried deep under London.

He was an impressive Quidditch player

‘Your father would have been proud,’ she said. ‘He was an excellent Quidditch player himself.’

He hated Snape.

‘Oh, he does,’ said Quirrell casually, ‘heavens, yes. He was at Hogwarts with your father, didn’t you know? They loathed each other.

His father looks a lot like him

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 like Harry’s did.

He died (bravely) defending Harry and Lily

‘How touching …’ it hissed. ‘I always value bravery … Yes, boy, your parents were brave … I killed your father first and he put up a courageous fight … but your mother needn’t have died … she was trying to protect you … Now give me the Stone, unless you want her to have died in vain.’

He was a lovable scamp

Dumbledore’s eyes twinkled. ‘Useful things … your father used it mainly for sneaking off to the kitchens to steal food when he was here.’

James Potter put his life on the block to save an enemy

‘Well, they did rather detest each other. Not unlike yourself and Mr Malfoy. And then, your father did something Snape could never forgive.’
‘What?’
‘He saved his life.’

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And you didn't list "being named Head Boy", which I think I get. As someone looking in on the English (British?) school system from the outside (books and such) being named Head Boy would hardly be something that would "enamour him" to another boy. But that's just my impression: that Head Boys are pompous ambitious bum kissers (as seen by other boys). Is that the way it really is, though? – davidbak Mar 26 at 22:52
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It's really quite notable that Harry didn't really get a view of James Potter from Snape's perspective until much much later on. – Valorum Mar 26 at 23:07
    
@davidbak - I can't find anything in any of the books to suggest that Harry Potter was especially impressed by someone (whether his father, Voldemort or Percy) being Head Boy or Head Girl. There are some mentions, but that's about it. – Valorum Mar 26 at 23:08
    
No, I don't recall anything like that. Mrs Weasley, yes, of course. But Harry, no. I was just asking (in a comment, it's not worth a question) whether, in general, English (British?) boys would consider the Head Boy a role model, or not? Something to aspire to themselves? (The boys themselves, not their parents.) – davidbak Mar 26 at 23:54
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@davidbak - In my experience it depends on the school, the student and the head boy himself. Generally I think a previously popular head boy would only benefit from it, while a head boy like Percy would be treated, well, like Percy by most of the students. Also some schools are much better than others at building school pride etc. – ThruGog Mar 27 at 1:20

I think the answer is simply:

James is Harry's Dad

All children (by default) look up to their parents. Even when kids start to rebel against their parents, it's often simply due to a desire of the child to develop an identity of their own. Barring extreme circumstances, a child always has a level of love and respect for their parents.

Additionally, as a child gets older, children may "lose" some respect for their parents (or alternatively, get a different understanding of their personality) due to behaviors of the parent (in my mind, I'm viewing it as the classic-teenager "Dad, you're embarrassing me" mantra). Harry, however, never had any 'negative' interactions with his parents (and as Richard's answer pointed out, he only heard positive reports about his parents. Which frankly, makes sense, because it would be really inappropriate to put down a kids' dead parents in front of him). The only people who denigrated his parents were, frankly, people Harry didn't care too much about.

This is why in Book 5, when Harry was in the memories of his father in Snape's pensieve, it had a particularly strong effect on him. This was the first time he saw his father in a bad (arguably very bad) light, and it was something that was 'real' in the sense that it was an actual event that happened, and not a biased accounting from enemies of the Potters.

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I think this might be a bit too simplistic. There are plenty of people who don't like their parents and their absence could easily have resulted in his disliking them, especially as they chose to put their own lives at risk rather than care for him. – Valorum Mar 27 at 8:58
    
I don't think this applies as far as the biological parents in an adopted kid situation - or rather why would this apply to James and not Vernon? – user2813274 Mar 27 at 21:06

There is a lot of confirmation bias going on in Harry's head. Obviously he wants his father to have been a great guy, because that's so much nicer than having an nasty, inconsequential nobody for a father. So everything positive he hears (quidditch seeker, head boy etc) reinforces the mental image, and anything negative (James and Snape loathed each other, James stealing food) is interpreted in the most positive way possible. It doesn't help that most of the people around him who knew James don't want to pop his bubble.

Only when Harry is confronted with Snape's memory of James and the other Marauders at their most vicious does he start to re-evaluate his image of his father.

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