This article is by Brian Wood.
The Harry Potter era is over.
The final movie has entered theaters and I, for one, am more than a little bit sad. I figured there was no better time to talk about the genius of JK Rowling and the Harry Potter series. I have never read a series of books that was more overwhelmingly loved by all different kinds of people. So, if you’re reading this article, I hope you loved Harry, Ron, Hermione, and the rest of the characters as much as I did. If you didn’t, then I would think you can at least admit that Rowling must have done something right to sell so many books.
I would like to talk about a few of the reasons JK Rowling was so successful. Just so you know, I am no expert, just a new author with an opinion. There are some very obvious reasons Rowling was successful that I’m sure we are all aware of that I will not cover in detail, such as the classic good vs. evil, the amount of humor Rowling demonstrated in her writing, and the amazing foresight she had. I would like to talk about a few of the more subtle things Rowling accomplished. I’m sure I will miss some very important techniques that made Harry Potter great, but I’m trying to write an article, not a novel.
I have heard many people (some on this very site) call JK Rowling the Queen of Characterization. But how did she do it? What made her so successful?
Rowling followed a very simple rule: Show, don’t tell. The scene that sticks out most clearly in my mind is the first time Harry was trying to get on Platform 9 ¾ . Harry is starting to panic when he hears Mrs. Weasley talking about Muggles. Harry falls in with the Weasleys and they show him how to get onto the platform.
After Harry is through, he gets on the train, but when he finds his seat he can still hear the Weasleys talking. Through their dialogue, and all in the course of a few pages, the reader learns an amazing amount of information about the family.
You learn Mrs. Weasley is caring and loving, but also overwhelmed and frazzled. You learn that Percy is a know-it-all. You learn that Fred and George are good-natured jokers, and that Ron lives in the shadows of his older brothers. And finally, you learn Ginny wants nothing more than to be on the train with her brothers.
This may not seem like a big deal, but I would ask you a few questions: Have you ever thoroughly introduced six characters in such a short time? Have you ever done it through dialogue?
If I was answering those questions, the answers would be no, and no. Rowling accomplished something through that dialogue. She built the fantasy world and introduced characters. There are many other instances where she does the same thing, but this example is the clearest in my memory.
Rowling didn’t try to overwhelm people with her literary talents. She didn’t try to outsmart her audience. She wrote children’s books that became something more. And she did it with simple language.
If you have ever read On Writing by Stephen King, you know that Mr. King does not like adverbs in dialogue tags. He doesn’t believe in saying things such as, he said quietly. He thinks that the situation should dictate what the character is doing, and the reader shouldn’t be told.
But Stephen King also loves Harry Potter (and he uses his fair share of adverbs in his own writing, even if he tries not to). “She can write,” he said simply (see, there’s one right there) in an interview I saw.
Sometimes the easiest way to tell a child that someone said something quietly is to say, she said quietly. Rowling wasn’t afraid to do this. Now, I agree with Mr. King in most instances. In fact, my novels have very few adverbs, especially in dialogue tags. But I don’t write Children’s books or even Middle Grade. I write Young Adult. If JK Rowling ever writes YA or adult literature, I would be willing to bet she would use adverbs far more sparingly. But for Harry Potter, she kept things simple.
Creativity in Relaying Information
The Harry Potter series was written almost entirely from Harry’s point of view in a Third-Person-Limited style. The only exceptions I can remember were the Quidditch match in book one when Hermione set Snape’s robes on fire, and the openings to books four and six (I may have missed a few more, but there weren’t many).
The amount we knew about Harry’s world that Harry wasn’t necessarily there to see is staggering. Most fantasy writers use dreams, memories, and sometimes visions to get our stories across. But Rowling went beyond that.
She used the pensieve in Dumbledore’s office where Harry could view other people’s memories. My favorite example was when Harry learned the truth about Snape in book seven, but there were many more, most notably in books four and six.
Rowling also forged a connection between Harry and Voldemort that allowed Harry to view things through Voldemort’s mind. This allowed her to build her world and also build suspense in certain scenes.
When I think of everything I know about Harry’s world, it is hard for me to even believe that the series was written in third-person-limited. I think that is probably the hardest method for revealing a world, but Rowling did this amazingly well.
Secondary Plot Lines
Most of us are very good at developing our major conflict (if you’re not, then you might be in the wrong business). But there are a hell of a lot of words between the first and last. There are many ways to keep a reader’s attention, but one of the hardest is establishing secondary plot lines.
In the Harry Potter series, there are so many things beyond Harry vs. Voldemort that we care about. It would be impossible to list them all, but I would name a few (if you don’t mind). Quidditch. How bad did you want Harry to beat Draco Malfoy and win the Quidditch Cup?
Hagrid. From the dragon in book one to his back story in book two to when he becomes a teacher in book three, there is always reason to root for our favorite half giant. Hagrid is such a lovable character, partly because he is always involved in something, and usually he needs help getting out of trouble.
I won’t go into as much detail on the rest, but there are the love interests of Harry, Ron, and Hermione. There is the Weasleys being dirt poor and the complication of having seven children. There is school work, especially for Hermione. And who can forget SPEW?
Complex Villains and Side Characters
Have you ever hated anyone more than Dolores Umbridge? Is it possible that she is even more evil than Voldemort?
Is there a more complex character than Severus Snape? Did anyone truly know if he was good or evil?
Personally, I guessed that Dumbledore ordered Snape to kill him, but I had no idea why Dumbledore thought he could trust Snape. I had no idea he loved Harry’s mother.
I think in books (as opposed to movies), the best part isn’t the action. The best part is the revelations.
I don’t know if I have ever read a better scene than the one when Harry (and all of us along with him) learns the truth about Severus Snape. I thought it was heartfelt, exciting, sad, and staggering in its depth and planning.
I’m still not sure I like Severus Snape, but I definitely respect him. Not every character is good or bad. Sometimes they’re both. Snape reminds me of this every time I write.
Redeemable Main Character
Then, there’s Harry. When all the dust settles and we sort through the many reasons we love this series, we could sum it up with one word: Harry. There is a very simple fact about writing: If the reader doesn’t care about your main character, they won’t keep turning pages.
It is impossible not to care for Harry. Rowling put him through too much. He lost his parents, his godfather, his mentor, even his house elf. It would take a hard heart indeed not to root for Harry.
Harry doesn’t always do everything right. Sometimes he is reckless, like all of his late night adventures in Hogwarts. Sometimes he is mean, most notably in book five when his anger continually bubbles to the surface as he lashes out at his friends. Sometimes he is stubborn and unruly. But he is always redeemable.
To create a very good character, you can’t make them too good to be true. They can’t be infallible and perfect. But the balance is fine. Your character has to remain redeemable. If the reader stops caring about—and connecting with—your main character, they will stop turning the page.
I didn’t always agree with Harry. But I always cheered for him. Even when he was wrong I felt like I was on his side. He is my favorite main character of all time. I miss him, but I know he is just a page away.
Harry Potter rocked. I loved every second I spent with Ron, Hermione, and Harry. I hope you did too. More than that, though, I hope you strive to write something just as magical. If you do, I’ll be first in line to make a purchase.
About the Author:
Brian Wood is the author of Dreamworld, The Chronicles of Trayvian James, Book 1. The second book in the series, Reality, is currently being edited and is due for release in early 2012. Brian is a high school basketball coach and Calculus teacher in the South Denver Metro Area, where he lives with his wife and baby daughter.