Reading the seven books in the Harry Potter series is like taking a master class on plot and character development and world building and pacing, and, well, pretty much everything else that goes into writing one of the most beloved series of all time. It would take an entire book to delve into all of the way the series succeeds, but I thought I’d hone in on a few elements that really stood out to me and what writers can take away from them.
1. You can accomplish amazing things with a third person limited perspective
In case you aren’t familiar with the definition, third person limited means that the novel is told through one character’s perspective and only that character’s perspective (in this case: Harry’s). We only know that one character’s thoughts and don’t otherwise jump into another character’s head. Other than the very beginning of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s/Philosopher’s Stone and a few other scattered moments throughout the series, we only know what Harry knows and only see what Harry sees.
This very constrained perspective is a big part of what makes the story great. We really feel close to Harry and his struggle, as the rest of the world of Harry Potter is literally on the outside. Like Harry, we’re gradually getting to know this magical world, we learn the answer to the mysteries at the same time that Harry learns them, and feel anchored to Harry throughout the series.
But this limitation isn’t without its immense narrative challenges. At some point the characters need to know what’s going on in the broader world. And Rowling is remarkably adept at finding creative and suspenseful ways to let Harry learn what he needs to know: he overhears things while using the invisibility cloak, he sees things through the pensieve, he sees things in newspapers, and he develops a tenuous connection with Voldemort so he can see some of what is going on with him as well.
Yes, all of these things are amazingly clever as elements of Harry’s world, but they also solve sticky narrative moments: they turn info dumps into fully-realized scenes, they let Harry see things he wouldn’t be able to otherwise, and they get around the challenges posed by constraining the narrative to what the protagonist knows.
So if you’re going to write in first person or third person limited, try to think of creative ways to let your characters in on the things they need to know.
2. Don’t be afraid to show your characters’ flaws
Yesterday’s blog post is a testament to how many beloved characters J.K. Rowling created. And part of what makes her characters so amazing is that they aren’t perfect people.
When we fall in love with our own characters we have a tendency to be too good to them. We can’t bear to see them do something bad or do something that might make the reader love them less than we love them. Rowling does not possess this fear.
Harry, let’s be honest, can be kind of a jerk sometimes, particularly in Order of the Phoenix. And this is amazing! He is not perfect. He’s growing up. He’s going through a really dark time. And the fact that he’s feeling sorry for himself before moving on and embracing what he has to do is part of what makes the second half of the series so powerful.
Even Dumbledore can be imperious and careless sometimes. Rowling knows her characters’ flaws just as well as she knows their strengths. And that’s what makes them so great.
3. Making it look easy is really really hard
One of the greatest achievements of the series is just how unputdownable it is. In terms of flow and rhythm and scene to scene and book to book construction, reading Harry Potter is just. so. easy.
And when it’s so darn easy to read, it’s tempting to feel like it sprung forth fully formed from Rowling’s pen and was correspondingly easy to write.
Nuh uh. As anyone who has written a book knows, building a compulsively readable 700 page book with intricate plotting and incredible polish is not just something that happened.
I don’t know Rowling, nor have I read much about her writing habits, but she has to be one of the hardest working writers in the business. These books didn”t just happen. Yes, she’s obviously phenomenally talented, but don’t for a moment forget the rule of ducks: look pretty on the surface and paddle like heck under water.
Rowling was paddling like heck to write these books.
4. “You might try and go easy on the adverbs when the emotion is apparent from the dialogue,”
Nathan said apologetically.
5. Have fun with your world
To be sure, Rowling is not afraid to go dark or kill off beloved characters like it’s the end of a Shakespeare play. But while so much of the Harry Potter series is chilling and thrilling, the reason we care so much is that the world Rowling created and want to spend so much time there is that it’s just so darn charming.
Peeves and the Bloody Baron and the Weasley twins and Hagrid’s antics and Arthur Weasley’s fascination with Muggles and Luna Lovegood. There is so much of Harry Potter’s world that’s charming and funny and endearing.
The grimmer things get in Harry Potter, the more we crave those innocent and hilarious moments and want the characters to set things right. The charming-ness of the world is the foundation for the depth of the danger and suspense to come.
And there’s only one way to make a world charming: by loving the world you’re creating, spending time with it, and infusing it with personality, humor, and spirit.