5 Writing Lessons from Harry Potter

November 10, 2012 — Leave a comment

We’ve learned a number of things from the Harry Potter series, from how to cast a Patronus charm to a lesson about how fear of something can actually feed its power. Did you know, however, that an in depth reading of J.K. Rowling’s popular series can teach some valuable writing lessons?

writing lessons

Here are five tips for writers that can be gleamed from the seven books.

1. Suffer the Favorite Characters

In some ways, a writer has to be ruthless. If your characters get close to happiness or experience momentary joy before the end of the story, then you need to sweep the rug out from under them just as soon as the reader is experiencing the joy with them. That doesn’t mean you have to write dark, depressing stories, but you do need to challenge your character at every turn.

Take Harry’s Quidditch happiness, for example. He is challenged when his rival joins the other team, when the Dementors take the field, and in Book 5 when he is not allowed to play. Rowling gives him the momentary high of the Quidditch game, but takes it away or messes it up at every other turn.

2. Give Your Characters Two Levels of Desire

Three-dimensional characters have multiple desires. There may be the desire that is obvious and the desire they keep hidden. There may even be subconscious needs and wants the character is unaware of, but which inform his or her actions.

Consider Professor Snape in the Potter books. We are told over and over again that Snape’s desire is to teach the Defense Against the Dark Arts class. What Harry doesn’t know is that Snape also wants to make up for his past. Hidden even deeper is Snape’s longing to live up to his love for Harry’s mother.

3. Consider Secondary Sub-Plots

If you are writing a novel, a single plot about one or two major characters is necessary. Subplots centering on secondary characters round out the story and help provide the reader with additional information about your world and the main character. Even though the Potter books are primarily told from Harry’s point of view, there are numerous subplots.

One subplot in the book includes Hagrid’s visit with the giants, which expands the world Rowling created and fills in Hagrid’s backstory. You also get subplots with various members of the Weasley family, Order of the Phoenix members, teachers, and Dumbledore himself. The rich subplots and world building are one of the reasons so many people are captivated by the Potter series.

4. Break the Right Rules

One of the most common pieces of advice provided to new writers is that they need to learn rules. Rules of grammar, conflict, style, and plot are just some areas budding novelists are supposed to study up on. While that advice is true, many writers become cramped because they try so hard to stay between some sort of defined lines.

After you learn the rules, it’s okay to break them from time to time when the story requires it. For example, most people will tell you to choose a point of view and stick to it. Rowling mostly uses a limited third person narrative from Harry’s point of view. However, there are a few parts of the story that need to feature Voldemort in scenes Harry wouldn’t know about. For these few scenes, Rowling breaks her own POV choice.

5. Little Things Matter

If you write something into your book and consider it “a little thing,” or something that doesn’t really matter, there will be at least one reader who thinks otherwise. That interesting salesman you brought in just to make a point, but who never makes a reappearance, may drive your readers crazy. If you give your character diamond earrings in chapter one but make a point in chapter five how she doesn’t like jewelry, you better explain.

Readers notice things, and they want to know that these things matter. Rowling is a queen of incorporating items from early books into later plots. Remember the necklace from the Black House in Book 5? What was so special about it that Kreacher strove to rescue it from the cleaning efforts? Turns out, the item was a huge plot element in the final books!

Whether you are a planner or a by-the-seat-of-the-pants writer, make sure you keep notes about the little things in your story. When you are editing the book, look for inconsistencies that have no explanation. Do they need some explaining, or can they be removed?

Writing a novel is hard work, but creating your own universe or cast of characters can be thrilling. There truly are very few right and wrong rules for fiction, but if you are looking for ways to do it right, then you can learn from those who went before. What author do you turn to for writing lessons?

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