So You Want To/Write the Next Harry Potter
While the details surrounding the popularity of Harry Potter can at times be sketchy - just how popular was the first book before the media got ahold of the story? - the fact is that author J. K. Rowling somehow managed to get a whole generation of kids totally hooked on a series of door stoppers each larger than the last (well, okay, the last two started to shrink a bit, but still).
And all about some kid named Harry who finds out he's a wizard.
So it's no surprise that people want to follow Rowling's success with successes of their own. The question is, How?
This page, once fleshed out, should go a long way toward answering that question.
(But don't forgot to check out So You Want To Write A Story for elements and advice that hold across genres.)
- 1 Necessary Tropes
- 2 Choices, Choices
- 3 Pitfalls
- 4 Potential Subversions
- 5 Writers' Lounge
- 6 Departments
- 7 Extra Credit
While it might be tempting to think that Functional Magic lies at the heart of Harry, the truth is that you could probably do something similar with far less magic. Indeed, it's worth noting that the magic system in the Harry Potter universe is really quite banal; when a fairly uninteresting formula of pseudo-Latin and wand movements results in, say, turning a rat into a teacup, not even the wizarding students in the story itself can be inspired to care too much. The power of the story doesn't lie in the trappings of wizards and witches and magic wands, but rather in the characters and archetypal roles, the Character Development, the symbolism, and the fact that Rowling never shied from addressing big issues such as hate, depression, and, of course, death.
When you consider that Rowling patterned her Dementors after the symptoms of depression (complete with the feeling that happy thoughts had never existed and would never exist again) and that the books became choice gifts for adults in mourning, you realize that Rowling touched a level much deeper than people expect to find in the Young Adult section.
So aim for Depth.
More specific information coming up under various categories below.
Magic... well, you could have the main characters use magic, restrict the magic to secondary characters, or have a magical setting with no Functional Magic at all.
If you choose to give the main characters Functional Magic, the money's on Magic A Is Magic A. Good, functional magic spells that work the same every time you use them. But there are some alternatives to study, so head over to Magic and Powers and start perusing.
Secondly, the core cast. Rowling used a Power Trio, which is always a strong choice, but there's the possibility of other Ensembles. Regardless of which Ensemble you choose, understand what it means to every character involved. Harry Potter is, above all, about Harry, Ron, and Hermione. The books are about characters first, plot second. How the characters interrelate is very important, and the Ensemble you choose will influence this.
As examples, look at how they interrelate. Harry is big on gallows humor, which is totally fine with Ron, but Hermione can't stand. She's too serious for that, and she worries too much over them to let that kind of thing slide. Ron and Hermione argue frequently, but notice the difference between the way Ron&Hermione argue and the way Harry argues with, well, everyone. Harry doesn't really argue much, but when you get a rise out of him, he tends to get near-psychotic about it.
It is vital to understand how each pair of characters in your Ensemble interrelate, and how those relationships affect others. Ron is the effective glue that holds the party together, but that is because of how the other characters interact. There are things about Harry that Hermione may understand, but simply can't relate to. She's too level-headed to effectively deal with his head-strongness, and she has no way other than appeasement to deal with his occasional rages. And Harry doesn't really understand Hermione's general conservativeness and skepticism, particularly when he's willing to jump to a conclusion based on what seems like reasonable evidence. It is the way Ron interacts between them, essentially translating from one to another, that keeps them functional as a group.
Here's a major choice you could make: Complexity. Study the Harry Potter fandom and figure out which elements they enjoyed analyzing - you'll find that the theories far outpaced the actual work. Rowling set up a number of Chekhov's Gun moments early on, which led people to try to figure out which new elements were new Guns - and given the time between installments, people had plenty of time to dig through the mix looking for minute detail that might hold clues to future plots and relationships. If you could set out enough detail ahead of time, you'll be planting Epileptic Trees for generations.
You'd think from the sheer length of the books that you'd have room to throw in whatever you want. Wrong. Every moment should advance the plot or improve the characterization. And characterization is not independent of the plot: Harry's state of mind was largely responsible for several plot events, including the end of the fifth book, and that state of mind was built up over a long period of seemingly reasonable responses.
See the recommended reading at the bottom of this page for a description of Destiny Unfulfilled, which details the various flaws found in the series. Very useful reading.
Although Rowling did it remarkably well, her use of archetype occasionally worked against her as much as for her. Remember, you don't need Chosen Ones, prophecies, or any other fantasy cliches to make your plots Potter-level. Love doesn't have to be the pivotal emotion, either.
Harry Potter is just rolling in Aesops, although they're not always directly stated (though some are: Dumbledore was good about discussing it all with Harry at the end of every book (even after he died)). Some of the Aesops include:
- Don't judge a book by its cover. No, I don't mean literally (though you shouldn't play with talking diaries); rather, a character who is friendly and helpful might be evil, and a character who is gruff or even cruel might be the guy you want on your side when the chips are down. Rowling wrote in a lot of greys, averting the Black and White Morality that so many kids' books get steeped in.
- Blood doesn't matter. Not only do we get a few different angles on racism, but we see that Harry's friends and mentors care for him far more than his blood relatives do.
- The Power of Love. In fact, the power of emotion period. Harry won the day by being human - far more human than You-Know-Who - and while his heart-before-head stance may have cost him dearly, it also saved his hide more than a couple times. The ability to feel love and joy and sorrow was consistently upheld as a positive factor. In other words, life is life: Live it!
- How to deal with an unjust world. Rowling took a lot of flak for having heroes who do bad things but don't get called on the carpet for them. But if you look at the progression, you see, for example, that at the start of one book Harry might react to a slight against his parents by lashing out with his powers, but by the end, he's laughing off a Rita Skeeter article that the whole wizarding world is going to read. And Delores Umbridge was an extreme example of what it feels like to know the truth but be unable to talk about it.
Rowling used animal totems for various characters, including deer (Harry and his parents and Severus Snape), a wolf, a rat, an otter, and so forth. This can be an effective way to characterize your cast quickly and vividly so you have a basis to write around as you flesh them out. Hey, Elf Quest did it too.
The cast is also fleshed out with plenty of Steven Ulysses Perhero names. Remus Lupin? He wasn't a werewolf back when he got that name.
Now, John Granger's The Hidden Key to Harry Potter goes into great detail as to the symbolism he sees in the books. While this might be a case of What Do You Mean Its Not Symbolic, he makes a good case for the patterns that, consciously or unconsciously, found their way into the work. For example, the way that Harry Potter and friends mirror his parents' generation but Snape is an odd man out (throwing the spotlight on him as a key character whose allegiances might go either way). Or how the characters of Albus Dumbledore (white), Sirius Black (black), and Rubeus Hagrid (red) represent the colors of alchemical transformation. And so forth. Go study it; it's a good read.
Classical allusions can also abound, and not just in the pseudolatin (some of which is actually accurate, and some of which is gibberish). Of course, without J.K.'s background in Classics, sticking to the more well known legends is advisable. Grounding names in Latin also works, especially as they are less likely to be obvious, what with it being a dead language and all.
There's an air of mystery around Harry Potter. There's also some melodrama and teenage Angst. But the primary story... hrm, sorry, can't think straight this morning. Be back later.
Oh, and John Granger points out that any time Ron has a fight with Harry and heads off on his own, it indicates a low point for the team. Always Ron. This is related to his role as the Power Trio's Id, the impulsive side that must be subjugated to the wiser and less irrational parts of the Trio - at least, that's the explanation Granger gives.
If you're going with the Boarding House setting, you'll find that your characters are stuck in one location. They can't head out on a Quest that takes them to the edge of the world and back, but they can explore every nook and cranny within the small world they're trapped in. And as they explore, they'll open up more layers, even call attention to details that the readers had previously overlooked. Make their world worth exploring.
The magic's in the details, whether the characters have Functional Magic or not. Here's your chance to be inventive. This is a world not quite like our own, but the characters still have to eat, drink, work, play, commute, and deal with the government. Consider all the little devices that allow them to do these things in an unusual way that seems perfectly normal to their society.
These being children facing a great evil, they're not going to deal with their problems by beating them over the head with a stick. But with outright combat taken away from them, what can they do? Run and tell the teachers.
Okay, that's boring. Be a little more inventive.
As far as the day-to-day: Like Alice in Wonderland, these characters are in contact with magic that can make them shrink, grow, change color, change shape, teleport, and even go back in time. And mind control is always fun.
Books that you should also study include:
- The Deltora Quest series by Emily Rodda, and her Rowan of Rin series as well. A strong sense of setting with an unpredictable world that didn't abide by our physical rules and could offer up unexpected danger if you took just a single step in the wrong direction.
- Harry Potter, of course. If you're looking to make the next Harry Potter and don't know what you're trying to be, it'll be a sad day when you figure out it's a far cry from what you were aiming at.
Non-fiction books that you should study:
- John Granger's The Hidden Key to Harry Potter, which discusses at some length the symbolism behind the series. He may be imagining some of these elements, but it's nevertheless a well-thought-out thesis with plenty of detail to back it up.
- Destiny Unfulfilled: A Critique of the Harry Potter Series. You can find it on Amazon here and in PDF here. It hits point by point through the various flaws in the series, and is a must-read if you plan on avoiding the pitfalls and writing one better.
- As with all criticisms, though, take this one with a grain of salt. For example, the book seems to take it for granted that Harry should beat Voldemort by strength of arms - that is, by being a stronger, more gifted wizard, or by amassing superior firepower in the form of fellow wizards - when, in fact, a case could be made that it's supposed to be the other way around. Harry Potter, like The Lord of the Rings, might best be taken as an aversion of the whole Right Makes Might tradition: The hero wins not by out-gunning the villain, but rather by Flaw Exploitation, generally of the enemy's blindness to some crucial fact. In The Lord of the Rings, for example, Sauron can't begin to imagine that anyone would ever try to destroy the One Ring, so the heroes win despite being horribly outmatched by the sheer power of their Big Bad.
- Gunnerkrigg Court.
- Nancy Stouffer's The Legend of Rah and the Muggles, of course. Actually sold as the previous Harry Potter, but nobody believed her and rightly so. A true Epic Fail that's a must-read for any aspiring novelist looking for advice on what not to do.
- There may not have been a "before" - Radio 4 picked up on it right back when the first book was released in 1997
- And this without falling into moral relativism, either: Harry may be flawed, but he's still firmly on the side of good, and there's still a Big Bad who's doing unmistakably evil things and who ultimately pays a terrible price for it.
- Christopher Booker goes over this one at length in The Seven Basic Plots