• Welcome to the Fantasy Writing Forums. Register Now to join us.

How to make a story that's not too similar to Harry Potter?

This whole fight is getting out of hand. Please stop.
Please stop before I have to close the thread. I recognize that topics can be very personal, but there's a point where a debate serves its usefulness, and a point where it degenerates into something that needlessly harms relationships in the community. It's better to let things go instead of crossing that point.




There's a series called Upsidedown Magic, where the main characters and several of the others struggle in a special division of the school because their magic is "Upsidedown" and doesn't work the same as everyone else's. I suppose it's similar to the arcs you often see in these inspiring disability stories, but it doesn't correlate to any specific real world condition.

As for the Ted talk, I think it's easy to forget that the literature kind of takes a necessary path of evolution. Those stories were in many ways essential for bringing attention and respect to the needs of the disabled community, and whatever their faults, I do think they warrant a modicum of respect for the intentions behind them and some of the positive effects they've brought.

~~edit to add,

Upsidedown Magic brings me back to the OP. There are plenty of ways to tell a story about a kid in a magic school that doesn't look like Harry i Potter.... to the point, unfortunately, that there's a whole subgenre of magic school storytelling you also might run afoul of.
I agree with these two. We're getting off topic.
 
Then let's talk about the topic.

School for witches and wizards that can't be too similar to Harry Potter.

Change the era or the country or the universe it's set in. Change the way magic works. Change the way students are selected. Don't include a dark lord who reliably brings the story to a climax at the end of every school year. Maybe there isn't a Big Bad in this one. Maybe it's just a teen drama that happens to be set in a magical world.

Maybe the existence of this school and its graduates isn't any secret at all from the muggles (who wouldn't be called muggles, of course). Maybe they're integrated into normal society, but with special roles befitting their knowledge of magic.

Maybe school happens year round, instead of sending the students home for the usual school holidays, like in Potterverse. That wouldn't necessarily mean it happens the same way year round. Maybe for the summer session, they go camping in the enchanted forest and have to live off the land, using their magical wits. Heck, maybe they do something like that the entire school year. Or, if it gets too cold in the winter, that's when they go inside and study magical theory and indoor spells.

Another question you might play with is, how does magical ability develop? In Potterverse, all the Hogwarts students have innate magic power, they just need to learn how to use it. But what if magical ability could be developed in anyone, it just took certain exercises or procedures to bring it out? Then, if your young witches and wizards are at a school, they're going to be spending more time on the development of their abilities, at least at first, than on what to do with them.
 

Devor

Fiery Keeper of the Hat
Moderator
To take a different tact, Harry Potter does a some uncommon things phenomenally well - the sorting hat, using humor to cover its relationship with muggles, the twins with their own magic joke shop, and more. These are the kind of things I would want to avoid. They're just too hard to top, and they're going scream "Harry Potter." You can find your own ways to stand out.

There's also the villains: Voldemort and Umbridge. Every story needs its own villains, so get your own. And there's Snape, who is just... such a complex character. Anything that screams Snape will scream Potter. In your work those kinds of key characters should have their own fresh stories - including their connection to the MCs - and your own storytelling quirks.

There are lots of Dumbledores, lots of Hermiones, lots of Harrys, Lunas and Dracos out there. Many schools have houses, often specializing in different magic types. There's sports and tournaments. All this stuff is magic school bread and butter. Potions, dragons, and magic items - that's the fantasy flourish. All that stuff is fair game. This is the stuff people are looking for when they pick up magic school literature.

And even in magic schools "Chosen Ones" are still so common people will be on their third eyeroll before they even remember Harry Potter did it too.
 
No chance. I don't know anything about schools, and I have no kids. (To be fair, I'm a Platoon Sergeant; I have 35 children, though some of them outrank me).
Why not set it in a magical military academy. Now that would definitely not feel like Harry Potter... ;)

To the OP, you could have a school where all the kids have a different magical ability, maybe set somewhere in the USA like New York or some such. They are raised at the school because their parents are afraid of them and don't know how to handle their powers. And they're trained to fight of evil threatening the world by a mind reader in a wheelchair.

Wait, that's X-men. ;)

That does illustrate the point a lot of people are making. No one would confuse X-men with Harry Potter. But both are about a boarding school hidden from the world where the kids can do magic (superhero magic is still magic, just not the wand-waving type). They have the kids fighting evil. If you describe it abstractly enough then you would almost think they're the same thing. But once you get into them they are clearly not. The powers and how they work are different. The story beats are different. The setting is different. The atmosphere of the story is different.
 
I'm kinda busy working on a different story right now, but i've been working on a story about a young witch who goes to a magic school called Ellsford academy for young witches and wizards. My only problem right now is that i'm a bit worried that i'll be accused of copying, so i'd like some advice on how to make my story different from Harry Potter. Any suggestions?

my biggest suggestion is don’t worry about it—“magic school” is more of a trope than a connection to a specific work at this point.

But I think a lot of the major fantasy books that are obviously derivative of Harry Potter are lots more derivative than the setting. I would say try to mix up the characters especially—so many of these books have the protagonist immediately find two best friends and then meet a rich, stuck up “noble” wizard who becomes the protagonist’s main rival. It kind of gets writers stuck writing the same dynamics over and over again
 
Coincidentally, I stumbled upon a book that followed a "Harry Potter" template seemingly on purpose, read it this week, and enjoyed it.

Carry On by Rainbow Rowell is what I'd call a light read. It's a light romance. The author chose to use a bit of satire. The main character, Simon Snow, acknowledges himself to be the "Chosen One" although he thinks he's a bad choice; but everyone else knows him to be the Chosen One, so he has to go along with it. His best friend is a girl named Penelope, and this seems to me to be clever because, for whatever reason, it reminds me of "Hermione." (It's something more than the 4 syllables.) She's super smart, very into books. The general tone of things at school is the same you'd find in the Harry Potter books. There's the trusted elder mentor-friend who is a goatherd living on the property; although a woman, she might as well be Hagrid. There are all kinds of fanciful, magical creatures and beings populating the magical world, some with silly names. People who aren't magical, who can't use magic, are simply called "Normals."

While reading it, I often felt like I was reading a Harry Potter novel. Tonally, it rang those bells.

But, it was different also.

For one thing, it begins at the start of Simon's last year at the magic school, when he's already 18 years old. The first few short chapters are basically exposition during his trip back to school. The book is written in first-person present tense, but these opening chapters include flashbacks written in past tense to let us know about Simon's history and some of the main players in the story/school. Imagine Harry Potter was only ever one book, and in the first few chapters you learned he had killed a Basilisk underneath the school one year, another year he had confronted a three-headed dog, and once he had participated in a tri-school championship competition and fought a dragon. That sort of thing. For me, this was both weird and nice, because most books involving young wizards begin when they are noobs largely unaware of dangers.

I mentioned this was written in first-person present tense. That's a difference, right there. Unfortunately for me, the author chose to skip around to the heads of about 6 or 7 people during the story. Each skip was prefaced with a chapter label of the character's name, so you could know whose head you would be in; but every one of these except Simon's and one other's was mostly useless. The info given or revealed could have been delivered far more effectively without the break in narrative. Plus, the method seemed hackneyed, a gimmick that showed the author's hand. For instance, one character might end a section wondering what so-and-so might think about something, and the very next short chapter would be so-and-so who starts out the chapter by thinking about that thing. I enjoyed other aspects of the novel well enough to ... er ... carry on through these lurches anyway. Some weren't so bad, even if ultimately they were unneeded. There were also grains, hints, that at least one of these other characters might make for an interesting protagonist in some later story.

The magic system in this book may be the most interesting part of it. Essentially, cliches and well-worn phrases are the magical phrases they use to cast spells. This can be lines from famous poems, jingles, lyrics from famous songs, just general cliches and sayings or proverbs, childrens rhymes--so having a great vocabulary and awareness of these things is necessary. This is similar to the Harry Potter style, but better. In fact, unknown and rare Latin words would be almost powerless in this system--hardly anyone in the world uses them--whereas lines from a Queen song might have lots of power. (The Bible and Shakespeare, though old, continue to hold a lot of power.)

Some things in the social structure of the magical world are similar to the Harry Potter world, but some things are different, different enough for this magical society to seem like a different society.

Some of the biggest differences between this novel and Harry Potter:
  • It's ultimately a romance between two male characters.
  • The antagonists, and their raison d'etre, are quite different than any you'll find in Harry Potter.
  • Very, very little of the school environment is used. We never see them in any classes, for instance. We don't see them competing in sports. Actually, mostly we only get the cafeteria and Simon's dormitory room, with short detours to the headmaster's office, a barn, a tower, a crypt.
  • There are no school houses, or division, i.e., no Slytherin and Gryffindor, and so no competition between houses.
  • The narrative in general is very internal, subjective, with a lot of of internal thoughts, observations, etc. I suppose this was exacerbated by the first person present approach. But this also means that a lot of the action in the novel is internal and/or in dialogue. Action happens in the novel, but the story as a whole feels less kinetic than the Harry Potter novels.
Did this novel feel like a theft of the Harry Potter series? No, not really. Not to me. In part, the obvious homage made me feel comfy. The tone of HP has been missed, so this feels like a close cousin in a peculiar, specialized genre. There was enough that was different, particularly in the character interactions, the magic system, the antagonists, and the general non-romance portions of the plot, to make this feel like its own thing. (I'll add here at the end that the romance was not handled as well as it could have been; but nonetheless for a quick, light read, it sort of hit the spot for me.)
 
Last edited:

Steerpike

Felis amatus
Moderator
my biggest suggestion is don’t worry about it—“magic school” is more of a trope than a connection to a specific work at this point.

The idea also predates Potter by quite a bit--Rowling drew on prior works involving wizard or magic school. The comparison to Potter now is inevitable, but I wouldn't worry about it. There is an audience for wizarding-school type books. If you can give them what they want and are writing something you enjoy at the same time, that's great.
 
Last edited:
The idea also predates Potter by quite a bit--Rowling drew on prior works involving wizard or magic school. The comparison to Potter now is inevitable, but I wouldn't worry about it. There is an audience for wizarding-school type books. If you can give them what they want and are writing something you enjoy at the same time, that's great.
Such as Discworld's Unseen University and Elder Scrolls's Arcane University. Difference was, magic schools were for adults back then- there were no magical high school ers or middle school ers.
 

Steerpike

Felis amatus
Moderator
Such as Discworld's Unseen University and Elder Scrolls's Arcane University. Difference was, magic schools were for adults back then- there were no magical high school ers or middle school ers.

Except that Dianna Wynne Jones was writing about children sent to magical boarding schools (witches and wizards) at least as far back as the early 80s. She even had some stuff that turned up later in Potter, like portraits on the wall with people moving around in them.
 
Except that Dianna Wynne Jones was writing about children sent to magical boarding schools (witches and wizards) at least as far back as the early 80s. She even had some stuff that turned up later in Potter, like portraits on the wall with people moving around in them.
There were some high schools, such as Cackle's academy from The worst witch.
Whoops. I had no idea. Thank you for telling me.
 
No problem. At one point, I think there were people arguing that Rowling stole from Dianna Wynne Jones. I think that’s probably overstating the case quite a bit but it did make some news:

In appreciation of Diana Wynne Jones

Jones commented on the “striking similarities” between her works and Potter.
I noticed some similarities between Harry Potter and The worst witch, such as an old, friendly headteacher, a rich, blonde rival, and a potions teacher who hates the main character and dresses all in black...
 

Mad Swede

Inkling
I've said numerous times on various boards that I regarded Harry Potter as an obvious blend of Enid Blyton's (numerous) boarding school stories with A Wizard of Earthsea.

Few people agree with me.
That might be because so many literary critics have such negative views of Enid Blyton, and many would consider it heresy to lump JK Rowling in with Enid Blyton.

Boarding school was a fact of life for many children in the UK between the wars and after, and thats reflected in quite a lot of childrens and YA books. Things like the Green Knowe books, The Dark Is Rising books, the Narnia books, Swallows and Amazons and the Chalet School books. You might even add books like RF Delderfields To Serve Them All My Days if you want to include serious novels. So there's no lack of tradition or influences when it comes to a boarding school as a setting for British literature.
 

Miles Lacey

Maester
I've said numerous times on various boards that I regarded Harry Potter as an obvious blend of Enid Blyton's (numerous) boarding school stories with A Wizard of Earthsea.

Few people agree with me.

I don't know about the Earthsea thing (only because I never read that series) but I read a lot of Enid Blyton as a kid. I would agree with you about Harry Potter being nothing more than a British boarding school story with fantasy elements tossed in.
 
Top