8 Things Harry Potter Taught Me About Good Writing


Why Are You Worrying about You-Know-Who?
You SHOULD Be Worrying About
U-NO-POO –
the Constipation Sensation That’s Gripping the Nation!

~from “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince”

Wonder if it's Nine Inch Nails?

As November winds down, so does both NaNoWriMo and my re-encounter with the entire Harry Potter series. My novel might be as dead as Nearly Headless Nick by now, but I’ve enjoyed catching up and reliving the adventures of The Boy Who Lived. Listening to the books on audio, read by the incomparable Jim Dale, I’ve also learned a few things about the writer’s craft. I don’t expect to be the next J.K. Rowling (it would be great, but, like winning the lottery, I’m not betting the farm on it.) In fact, going back through the books has been like getting an entire course for free. And I’d rather get that than an entire box of Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes products, which is saying a lot.

#1. Create main characters who are likable, but still have flaws.

Even the most lovable and goodhearted of Rowling’s creations have at least one glaring weakness: Albus Dumbledore’s tendency to look for the best in everyone, for example, or Ron Weasley and his mulish temper. They are characters we might want to hang out with in real life, even to grab a pint of (butter)beer, but they are like us too. One of the traps writers fall into is giving rise to characters who are just *too* perfect. (This is called a “Mary Sue” in fanfiction jargon.) The other good thing about using flawed characters as protagonists? It’s all the more satisfying to see them overcome obstacles and get what they want.

#2. “Said” is a perfectly acceptable verb when it comes to dialogue.

One thing I don’t seem to notice about Harry Potter and friends is *how* they’re speaking. They’re just saying what they have to say and getting on with it. If they’re shouting, or they’re upset or happy, we know it from their actions. They’re not “breathlessly shouting” or “exasperatedly begging.” I’ve encountered that pitfall plenty of times: the need to come up with adverbs and creative action verbs for simple interactions. I liken this to what my riding master once told me: it doesn’t matter what kind of fancy saddle one has if one is a lousy rider to begin with. Touche.

#3. A character’s name says a lot about him/her.

Rowling is obviously an heir of Dickens when it comes to naming…anybody remember characters like Thomas Gradgrind, Bob Cratchit, the Artful Dodger? Even new readers to the series know who the good guys and the bad guys are just by their monikers (with the possible exception of the alliterative Severus Snape.) We’re not going to think Bellatrix Lestrange is a hero, nor would we ever think of Molly Weasley as an evil witch. Feel free to give your characters creative names within reason: a family drama set in Nebraska might not give you much leeway, but wouldn’t “Isidora” be a more interesting first name than “Jane” for the protagonist?

#4. Setting is like landscape painting: it’s easy to either overdo or underdo. Easy does it.

The Harry Potter books are a must-read for anyone interested in learning about the right way to create memorable settings. Rowling’s world incorporates just about any milieu one could want, from an ordinary British suburb to a wizarding bank vault to an underwater obstacle course. We know where we are, we get a real sense of time and place…but we aren’t overwhelmed by it. Some authors want the setting to overwhelm the characters (in a few cases this works, but usually not.) Rowling walks a very fine line indeed.


#5. It’s all right to torture the main character(s).

The root of all great fiction is conflict. Would we really want to read about Harry if he weren’t the Chosen One, prophesied to fight and kill the most evil wizard of all time? We might, but that’s part of what makes the series so entertaining. Not every story is going to involve such epic struggles, but it’s the writer’s job to make  those conflicts seem just as much life and death. Say your protagonist lost her job. What if her husband left her? What if one of her kids became ill with cancer? This isn’t to say we should torture characters for the sake of it, but it might add more conflict as your character tries to get another job. Anybody who’s read the HP series can tell you Harry loses just about everything, even his own life, in the pursuit of his goals.

#6. Think of chapters like little self-contained stories.

There’s a couple reasons most novels are divided into chapters-both the limited capacity of the human bladder, and the convenience of breaking one long story into several dozen miniature tales. The individual chapters in HP, in addition to having cool titles and cooler header artwork, each have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Each feels like a plot point neatly wrapped and tied, leading right into the next chapter. And they’re like crisps…you can never have just one. That’s good writing in a nutshell.

#7. No matter how serious the story gets, humor is always welcome.

I admit…there have been times while reading Harry Potter books when I’ve laughed so hard my sides hurt. (The Snape-as-boggart scene leaps to mind.) The same books have made me cry, often just a few pages later. I’m sure there are stories out there with very little room for humor. However, if Rowling managed to find humor in the tale of an abused orphan boy whom the epitome of evil wants to kill, it’s probably a good idea to include bits of it in our own work. There’s a reason the “comic relief” often have such strong fan followings. We need humor to give ourselves a break from the heavier stuff sometimes.

#8. Good writing is good writing, “children’s” or otherwise.

There’s a good reason plenty of adults still read Louisa May Alcott and Roald Dahl and Lewis Carroll, authors who are perhaps best known for writing “children’s” stories. I suspect that, a century from now, people of all ages will still be enjoying Harry Potter just as much. If an author manages to find that magical mixture of good characters and plot, an interesting setting, a dynamic conflict, and time-tested themes like friendship and courage, it shouldn’t matter whether that author is writing a book geared toward children or toward adults. Harry Potter, at least for me, is just an entertaining story. I don’t particularly think of the books as children’s books, though they are the target audience. Anyone who ever attended a Midnight Magic party will tell you that adults easily made up half the crowd.

And maybe, now that I’m just about done reliving Harry’s adventures, I’ll be inspired to start bringing some of my own stories to life instead of sitting around here blogging about the possibility. Mischief managed, indeed.

I solemnly swear I am up to no good

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~ by Howlin' Mad Heather on November 20, 2011.

15 Responses to “8 Things Harry Potter Taught Me About Good Writing”

  1. The fact that it is perfectly all right to torture the main character and that humor is always welcome, no matter how serious the story has gotten, is so very true. Well done to point that out for once! Not everyone understands.

  2. […] Hoffmann Designs: Mak-Austrian Museum of Applied Arts, ViennaNazi-looted Klimt sells for $40M8 Things Harry Potter Taught Me About Good Writing var […]

  3. Reblogged this on cakkandas and commented:
    nice……………….

  4. I like your description of the purpose of chapters, an excellent summary. I always felt my chapters were a bit too arbitrary.

  5. Great observations, Heather! You know I love the Harry Potter theme. As you continue to develop and progress as a writer, I am cheering you all the way!

  6. I may have got the details wrong on this, but I swear I remember an interview with Rowling in which she expressed surprise that people found Snape sympathetic. I figure she’s actually a better writer than even she realises. Certainly, I remember my skin crawling as I read about Umbridge in The Order of the Phoenix…

  7. Off topic but

    Not sure how I am supposed to pass this on so I am just going to do this.

    : )

    http://psychowatcher.wordpress.com/2011/11/21/the-liebster-blog-award/

  8. […] over the world I might have never known. I’ve rambled on everything from being a geek to the process of writing to the Jedi Mind Trick. Unlike some other blogs, this is an Anything Goes zone. I’m not […]

  9. […] https://prawnandquartered.wordpress.com/2011/11/20/8-things-harry-potter-taught-me-about-good-writing… […]

  10. Such a great post to share at the party! I love your concise overview and points! Excellent!

  11. This is such a great metaphor/explanation of the crucial aspects of effective fiction! Thanks for the trip down memory lane, along with the fab reminders!

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