As writers, every one of us dreams of writing the “New Harry Potter”.
C’mon, admit it – don’t you wish you could come up with the just the right...the right...the right WHAT?
Listen. My kids – at the time of the first book, they were six and ten – eventually heard me read, then picked up and read, the HP books. My father – who was SEVENTY when he picked up the first book – read and enjoyed the entire series as well. How is it possible that people of such disparate ages could read and enjoy the same books?
While it’s not as if it has “never” happened before – adults and kids were reading TREASURE ISLAND, THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS, and THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA long before JK Rowling gave literary birth to Harry Potter – what are some of the aspects of the phenom we might pick up as writers and apply to our own writing?
There are literally tens of thousands of pages of analysis of the books, ranging from fan sites to academic: “Despite being children's books, the Harry Potter novels have also been subject to serious social scrutiny, with studies of the series' political intricacies performed by columnists, professors and doctoral students alike. As of 2007, the catalog of the Library of Congress has recorded 21 volumes of criticism and interpretation, and at least seven master’s dissertations and 17 doctoral theses have been devoted to the Harry Potter books. Seriously.” (http://www.insidehighered.com/views/mclemee/mclemee133) This was in 2007 – how many MORE are there seven years later? Oh, by the way, these archives also hold an essay entitled: “Quidditch, Imperialism and the Sport-War Intertext.”
I’m not looking for anything quite so esoteric, though a read-through of the doctoral dissertations might shed some interesting light on HP, I’m looking for practical, lay-person methods that might improve my writing.
One of the things that comes up most often is that the books include HUMOR. This is hardly a new tool for grabbing a reader’s attention. In fact, in their movie format, they might even be classified as dramedy – “Comedy-drama (also known as dramedy, tragicomedy, comedic drama, or seriocomedy) is a genre of [literature,] theatre, film, and television that combines elements of comedy and drama, having both humorous and sometimes serious content.” My favorite example of this is MASH – in which nearly every episode had a serious message and a humorous story line.
Another thing people mention often is that the books deal with racism obliquely, never coming out exactly and saying “don’t be a racist” – and never actually dealing with Human races, but confronting the whole issue of pure blooded wizarding families and kids who come from mixed-blood families is a deep issue that plays a major role in driving all seven books. Racism still haunts us. We want to see it dealt with even when WE aren’t the ones doing the dealing – we’re just reading about it.
Lots and lots of people comment on how Harry Potter and the rest of the characters “felt as if they were alive”. My rebuttal for that is that they had BETTER seem alive after a million words of story! Realistically however, most of us will never be allowed to have a million words to make our characters come alive and the truth of the matter is that neither did JK Rowling. By the time she reached the million words, the world was gripped by Pottermania. I worked at Barnes & Noble during the release of three of the books – ORDER OF THE PHOENIX, THE HALF-BLOOD PRINCE and THE DEATHLY HALLOWS. People were desperate to read the books before Rowling reached 500,000 words! Why did people fall for Harry? Because he was an “every man” (or boy) who was picked on mercilessly by his “parents”, his “brother”, relatives, neighborhood kids, and his classmates (though we never see that, we assume it’s true). Every single person who read a Harry Potter book – and I make absolutely no distinction of culture here – had been picked on by someone, somewhere, at some time. The connection was instant – what might be called the “poor me” syndrome – is literally universal. Translation of the books into at least 70 languages should be argument enough that the syndrome is universal.
Two other aspects twine together to form another frequently mentioned aspect of the books: people working for good who are so far “under cover” that for all intents and purposes, they are evil and the idea that it’s OK to admit you were on the wrong side and you can switch over to the right side…but there will be a price to pay. These twined concepts might be shortened to “deception and disloyalty are OK under the right circumstances”. Wrapped loosely around this, I might add the moral imperative that recognizes that murder is wrong – but right under certain circumstances.
So how do I make usable tools out of all of that?
1)Use humor to leaven tragedy.
2)Deal with real issues imperceptibly.
3)Use the “poor me” syndrome.
4)Deception, disloyalty, and murder are usually wrong – but infrequently right.
OK – I’m going to go apply this to the story I’m working on now and then analyze stories I’ve written that have been published, and finally take a long look at the pieces I’ve written recently.