Over the past fortnight—when I haven’t been editing my novel or making sure to stay employed—I’ve re-read the entire Harry Potter series (I’m a fast reader, thankfully). It’s been amazing. It’s also been extremely eye-opening. And that’s because I read them all as an actual writer this time (rather than just for entertainment value), so I paid more attention to elements I would normally absorb without thinking.
So, why did I do it, you ask?
Well, I guess I wanted to re-read the series because, let’s face it, JK Rowling is one of those authors who helped revolutionise the world of fiction. No matter how many other books come and go, Harry Potter remains the industry ‘stock standard’ by which many other novels are compared. That’s just the way it is. I mean, sure, I’m generalising here. I guess I should be more genre-specific (for all those nit-pickers out there), so how about we agree that most children’s and young adult fantasy fiction are compared to Harry Potter, in one way or another. And since I write predominantly young adult fantasy, I thought it prudent to read her work again with the focus being on why her stories are still talked about fervently over seven years after the release of the final book in the series.
Do you want to know what I’ve come up with? Well, no blog post in the world could cover it all, I’m afraid. She’s simply a literary genius. But the funny thing is, if I’d only just stumbled upon her books for the first time today, I’m not one hundred percent confident that I would have actually continued reading past the first few pages. I know, I know, cue the gasp of shock, horror and outrage. I’m ashamed to admit it, believe me. But my reading tastes have changed a lot since I was thirteen (which was when I read the first book), and I actually found myself skimming over the first chapter of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone until I could get into the groove of her writing style – which I’m not entirely sure I actually like. (Cue another gasp!) Of course, I soon became so immersed in the story again that my writing style preferences didn’t matter at all. I was simply too lost in the world she created.
As a writer, I had many ‘light bulb moments’ while re-reading the series, too many to write about here (as previously said). So I want to focus on one element that really spoke to me. And it’s this: her characters are real.
Let me break it down further.
It’s impossible not to fall in love with the protagonist himself, Harry Potter, but it’s equally impossible not to become attached to everyone else around him – humans, animals, and magical creatures alike. (If you didn’t cry when Hedwig the owl or Dobby the house-elf died, then you need to go back and read it again! And don’t even get me started on the humans – Sirius (sob!), Dumbledore, Moody, Tonks, Remus… and, omigosh, Fred! Devastating!).
I think a major reason for our attachment is because JK Rowling’s characters aren’t necessarily always… likable.
Wait—bear with me here while I explain. Don’t throw anything at me yet!
As much as it pains me to admit it, her characters are flawed. Every single one of them. As a writer myself, I often fall into the trap of writing likable characters. I want my protagonists to be people readers like and I want their friends to be likable, too – because why would anyone read a story about characters they don’t actually like? But as ‘nice’ as it is to create those characters, they’re boring to readers because they don’t add any tension or flavour to the story (as my editor recently pointed out to me – thank you, Deonie!).
Characters without flaws are like hot chips without salt: they don’t live up to the potential of what they could be. And that’s why JK Rowling is a character-creating-genius; because she’s managed to make her characters likable—lovable, actually—despite their flaws. And oftentimes, their flaws are extreme. She didn’t pull any punches, that’s for sure. I mean, let’s take a look at the three main characters:
Harry can be moody, wears his heart on his sleeve, and often acts impulsively.
Ron can be attention-seeking, has a hot temper, and is prone to extreme jealousy.
Hermione can be whiny, self-righteous, and is annoyingly bossy at times.
These flaws create tension too many times to count over the course of the series. There are whole weeks where the friends might not speak to each other for various reasons – usually as a result of one or more of these character traits. If that’s not story ‘flavour’, then I don’t know what is!
We’ve all heard of the phrase, “Kill your darlings” (which JK Rowling certainly did—I’m still sobbing as I write this!), but I’d like to offer a new phrase here as well: “Flaw your favourites”. I think it’s self-explanatory. And it definitely made me love Rowling’s characters even more because—as previously said—it made them real. And that made them transcend through the pages and into my heart.
It’s been over seven years since I closed the pages of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows with a contented sigh, feeling a beautiful sense of closure. Before the seventh book was released, I read and re-read all six of the other books too many times to count, always waiting and wondering just how Harry would end up finishing his story. After reading Deathly Hallows in 2007, I had no further need to venture back into the wizarding world, since Rowling did such a wonderful job of ending the series. So I can’t begin to describe the journey I’ve been on over the past fortnight; it was almost like I rediscovered Harry and his friends all over again. It was beautiful. And it was definitely worth the late nights and blurred eyes. I feel like I’ve learned a lot – about writing a captivating story and, especially, about writing flawed (but still lovable) characters. But do you want to know what I learned most over the past two weeks? It can be summed up in this picture: