In the seven Harry Potter books we are given, through observed events, insights into the personalities of the major adult characters such as Dumbledore, Snape, James and Lily Potter, Hagrid, the Weasleys and even Mister Crouch.

We see them dealing in personal ways with family and friends. But we never see McGonagall as anything but a teacher. While we do see different aspects of her as a teacher – she is both strict and stern but also caring – we never get a chance to see beyond that.

I always wondered while reading the books who she is really and how she came to be who she is.

Has Rowling ever said why she didn't give us a better understanding of Professor McGonagall?

  • Why poison a potential spin-off prequel money well? Aug 5, 2016 at 15:11
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    She's competent, strict, and an all-around ass-kicker with a bit of a soft spot for her students that she tries to hide, and proud of her Scottish heritage. I think we understand her well enough.
    – EvilSnack
    Apr 21, 2017 at 1:09

2 Answers 2


It never really came up

I'm afraid there's not a whole lot else to say on this, there was just never the right moment to inject this information. Naturally, when good authors write their stories, they come up with a lot of extra background info - and with Rowling and Harry Potter, this seems to have been especially true - but it doesn't always fit neatly into a plot and it would be ugly and cack-handed to try and shoehorn this stuff in anyway. Hence things like Pottermore.

This is what Rowling had to say in a TV interview she did with Daniel Radcliffe (currently available here):

By the time that I said that [revealed that Dumbledore was gay], I had been working on these characters for 17 years. Now, not many writers have ever been with the same set of characters for that long, so I feel I can sort of speak for all of us who have to say it becomes a very intense experience. And, inevitably, you are gonna know things about characters (and I'm - characters in the plural) that are not - in some cases will be relevant, and you'll think 'oh yeah, yeah, this is the moment that becomes relevant and I will say that, or show that.' For example, Professor McGonagall. I had a whole history worked out for her that I think I thought at some point would become relevant. That she'd had a love affair with a Muggle and that she'd had this quite tortured past and she ended up being this celibate, elderly teacher. Um - never became relevant. Never happened.

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    Given Rowling's habit of spending the last chapter info-dumping everything needed to tie up all the earlier plot points, "ugly and cack-handed" don't seem to be something that she was overly concerned with.
    – Valorum
    May 21, 2016 at 10:31
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    @Valorum Eh, I don't take that as evidence she wasn't concerned with it, but rather that perhaps she was successful at it some times and not so much at others. I imagine it's particularly difficult when you haven't tied up plot points and really need to, and haven't figured out how to do it more gracefully... that becomes a priority and something's gotta give. If she didn't tie up the plot points, she'd probably be crucified even worse for that.
    – Don Hatch
    May 21, 2016 at 14:27
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    And +1 for the "ugly and cack-handedly shoehorning lots of extra background info in" description. That very well articulates a common frustration I've had, even more with other authors that are widely regarded as "good authors"; Tolkien comes to mind.
    – Don Hatch
    May 21, 2016 at 14:33
  • Thanks for the answer. I wished Rowling had found a way to give us a better picture. The Pottermore information only goes so far. It provides an outline but it doesn't show us how she actually behaves when she's not acting like a teacher. Teaching does require an act, even when dealing with other adults. But what does she joke about when talking with friend over lunch? In various ways we see events in other characters lives where they act and react in very human. With McGonagall all we see is the act.
    – Readin
    May 22, 2016 at 17:53
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    @DonHatch: in his defense, Tolkien actually kept most background info out of his publications – in the Hobbit and LoTR, you mostly get superficial references to the detailed history that's only revealed in the Appendices, Silmarillion etc.. May 22, 2016 at 20:33

Actually Rowling has given us an insight into Minerva McGonagall's life through an article on Pottermore titled 'Professor McGonagall'. This article provides a quite comprehensive look into McGonagall's life, starting with her childhood and moving on through her schooling years, Ministry career and her marriage. Rowling ends the article with her own thoughts on why she decided to name the character Minerva McGonagall.

Excerpts from the article:

  • Minerva McGonagall was the first child, and only daughter, of a Scottish Presbyterian minister and a Hogwarts-educated witch

  • Minerva was revealed to be a Hatstall. After five and a half minutes, the Sorting Hat, which had been vacillating between the houses of Ravenclaw and Gryffindor, placed Minerva in the latter.

  • Minerva was quickly recognised as the most outstanding student of her year, with a particular talent for Transfiguration. As she progressed through the school, she demonstrated that she had inherited both her mother’s talents and her father’s cast-iron moral sense.

  • By the end of her education at Hogwarts, Minerva McGonagall had achieved an impressive record: top grades in O.W.L.s and N.E.W.T.s, Prefect, Head Girl, and winner of the Transfiguration Today Most Promising Newcomer award.

  • Under the guidance of her inspirational Transfiguration teacher, Albus Dumbledore, she had managed to become an Animagus; her animal form, with its distinctive markings (tabby cat, square spectacles markings around eyes)

  • Minerva was also, like her mother, a gifted Quidditch player, although a nasty fall in her final year (a foul during the Gryffindor versus Slytherin game which would decide the Cup winner) left her with concussion, several broken ribs and a lifelong desire to see Slytherin crushed on the Quidditch pitch.

  • Upon graduation from Hogwarts, Minerva returned to enjoy one last summer with her family before setting out for London, where she had been offered a position at the Ministry of Magic (Department of Magical Law Enforcement).

  • Though a most efficient and gifted employee, and fond of her much older boss, Elphinstone Urquart, Minerva was unhappy in London, and found that she missed Scotland.

  • Through all her early years at Hogwarts, Minerva McGonagall remained on terms of friendship with her old boss at the Ministry, Elphinstone Urquart. Shortly after Voldemort’s first defeat, Elphinstone, now white-haired, proposed during a summertime stroll around the lake in the Hogwarts grounds. Minerva accepted. Elphinstone, now retired, was beside himself with joy, and purchased a small cottage in Hogsmeade for the pair of them, whence Minerva could travel easily to work every day.

  • The accidental death of Elphinstone from a Venomous Tentacula bite, three years into their marriage, was an enormous sorrow to all who knew the couple. Minerva could not bear to remain alone in their cottage, but packed her things after Elphinstone’s funeral and returned to her sparse stone-floored bedroom in Hogwarts Castle, accessible through a concealed door in the wall of her first-floor study. Always a very brave and private person, she poured all her energies into her work, and few people - excepting perhaps Albus Dumbledore - ever realised how much she suffered.

  • But why didn't she put it in the books? (I can imagine some reasons, but I'm wondering if she has ever said herself what the reasons are.)
    – Readin
    May 21, 2016 at 4:51
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    @Readin I am not aware of any reasons Rowling has mentioned herself. But I think the biggest reason would be that she couldn't fit McGonagall's history into the storyline. All the characters you mentioned affect Harry's life in some way or the other as it pertains to the story. McGonagall, however, is just Harry's Transfiguration teacher, and is only in more prominence compared to other teachers (Flitwick, Sprout,etc) because she is Harry's Head of House and the Deputy Headmistress of Hogwarts. May 21, 2016 at 5:01
  • In addition, we get to know the backgrounds of some teachers either because of Dumbledore (or Rita Skeeter, for information about Dumbledore), or because of widespread rumors, or because the teachers themselves told something to the students (but Minerva seems very reserved). In my opinion, McGonagall is such a "strict, but fair" teacher - at least according to the Gryffindors - that no one Harry knew spoke behind her back. It is possible that some Slytherins, with powerful connections and inside knowledge of the staff, could know something about her, but Harry likely didn't know it.
    – A. Darwin
    May 21, 2016 at 8:09
  • @A.Darwin Well JKR mentions in her Pottermore article on Professor McGonagall (and I have quoted this in the answer) that McGonagall ended up a very private person. Only Albus Dumbledore knew the troubles she went through in life because he comforted her during a difficult time early in her Hogwarts career (again see Pottermore article). So while it was probably common knowledge that Minerva McGonagall was a half-blood, I doubt much else was known to anybody. May 21, 2016 at 9:53
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    The style of storytelling contributes to why it never came up. The reader only learns what Harry learns (with I think two scenes in the entire series not over his shoulder) so an episode of McGonagall's past either needs to be key to Harry's story or it would be very awkwardly shoe-horned in.
    – ThruGog
    May 21, 2016 at 15:12

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