Wild About Harry

Harry Potter. Everyone’s talking about Harry. With Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone coming out on video and DVD, the fifth book looming on the horizon, and the second movie slatted for fall, the Harry buzz is gearing up again.

His stories have transformed the video-game generation into readers. His books have revolutionized the publishing industry (foreign rights are now sold by language rather than country because so many people ordered British copies of HP IV on-line). And his movie has broke a slew of records (it broke Jurassic Park II’s ‘best single day’ record twice).

So what’s so great about Harry? What exactly did J.K. Rowling do to deserve so much hype? Surely nothing is worthy of all this fuss.

I beg to differ.

Six months ago, I was heading the ‘get over it, it’s just a book’ camp. But I’d promised a friend, I’d read it, so I picked up a copy and read the damn thing. You know what? As much as I hated to admit it, it’s good. Really good.

But I was still left wondering, what is so great about Harry? Hype, buzz, and word of mouth aside (which other authors can pray for, but can’t duplicate through sheer force of will) what is so great about the books themselves?

After carefully analyzing the books and the movie (hey, I needed an excuse to reread them) I’ve narrowed it down to three issues.

First off, she uses classic story structure–the same story structure George Lucas used to make the first Star Wars so wonderful and that Tolkien used in The Lord of the Rings. She tapped into classic archetypal characters and pitted them against overwhelming forces of evil. She utilized the basic mythical story structure to create and fulfill reader expectations.

If you want to learn more about the Hero’s Journey, check out Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces or Christopher Voegler’s The Writer’s Journey. Both are excellent books.

Secondly, J.K. Rowling created compelling characters. Every one is well-rounded and complex, from Harry himself to Hagrid the groundskeeper to Scabbers the rat. She created characters we can’t help but love. Characters who face seemingly insurmountable odds and … well, surmount them. Characters who are willing to make huge personal sacrifices for the good of all wizardkind. You can’t help but love a trio of eleven-year-old with that kind of courage.

The third thing J.K. Rowling’s books have going for them is that they’re well-plotted. Well-plotted to an amazing degree that only becomes clear in the later books. Minor details and characters that show up in the first chapter of the first book reappear–with new meaning–in the last chapter of the third book. Again and again she uses and reuses every detail, every character. There are no coincidences in J.K. Rowling’s world. Nothing happens without a reason. She makes her characters and plot points work hard to earn their place in her books.

So, you’re probably wondering, is there anything J.K. Rowling doesn’t do right? Actually, yes. Her prose is not well-crafted. Maybe it’s a British thing but she uses too many adverbs. Way too many adverbs. The interesting thing is, no one seems to care. She’s such an excellent storyteller, no one gives a flip.

It’s the characters and the story the readers care about, the language itself is inconsequential. (“It sounds kind of sing-songy,” was the best a non-writer friend of mine could come up with.)

Don’t get me wrong, I think crafting our prose, knowing our grammar, and reigning in our adverbs are incredibly important. I’m by no means advising any writer to chuck all that out the window. But when it comes down to it, to reader, the story is more important than the craft.

So what am I advising? Understand story structure, know your characters, and plot, plot, plot. If you’re not the kind of a writer who can plot out a story in great detail before writing it, then at least plot the thing out after you’ve written it. When you finish that first rough draft, look carefully at all the characters, all the details, all the minutia of your story and make sure you’ve used each to its full potential. Don’t be lazy about writing your story and don’t let your characters be lazy either.

After all, you’ve worked hard to write your book. Shouldn’t your characters have to work just as hard to earn their place in it?

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