7 Lessons Writers Can Learn from Harry Potter

Whenever Harry Potter is mentioned, people
will inevitably share the story of when and where they first fell under J.K. Rowling’s spell. For me, I remember reading The Goblet of Fire
late into the night, leaning against my bedroom wall with the lamp dimly lit overhead, listening
to the same fluty Kitaro songs over and over on my CD player. The larger-than-life feeling that a good book
can create is truly unforgettable. So, let’s look at seven major lessons writers
can learn from this magical series that has captured the hearts of so many—techniques
that you can use to enliven your own stories. Lesson number one: The Power of Human Relationships. The Harry Potter series contains a web of
characters, many of whom are connected in surprising ways. Every person Harry encounters plays a different
role in his life: friend, admirer, enemy, mentor, guardian, parent, love interest—the
list goes on. Sometimes they play a combination of roles,
or their roles change over time. For instance, Dobby and Harry have a tense
dynamic at the start of The Chamber of Secrets because Dobby is intentionally trying to get
Harry expelled in order to protect him. In that way, Dobby is both an antagonist and
an ally. No matter how annoying the house elf may be,
he and Harry’s long-term friendship is cemented by the events at the end of the story, when
it’s revealed that Lucius Malfoy is Dobby’s master. It’s hard not to cheer when Harry outwits
Lucius by making him accidentally grant Dobby his freedom. Lucius and Dobby’s reactions are what make
this scene memorable. Good writers create opportunities like this
for their minor characters to stand in the spotlight. We also get to see how each major character
connects to Harry on a personal level. In the Order of the Phoenix, Harry’s first
interactions with Luna Lovegood leave an impression. After Luna’s quirkiness is established,
the chapter ends with Harry being confused by the horse-like creatures pulling the carriages,
which his friends can’t see. This proves to be a point of connection between
Harry and Luna in the chapter’s last page: “It’s all right,” said a dreamy voice
from beside Harry as Ron vanished into the coach’s dark interior. “You’re not going mad or anything. I can see them too.” “Can you?” said Harry desperately, turning
to Luna. He could see the bat-winged horses reflected
in her wide, silvery eyes. “Oh yes,” said Luna, “I’ve been able
to see them ever since my first day here. They’ve always pulled the carriages. Don’t worry. You’re just as sane as I am.” Smiling faintly, she climbed into the musty
interior of the carriage after Ron. Not altogether reassured, Harry followed her. The reader later learns that these thestrals
can only be seen by those who have witnessed death, and that imbues this moment with even
greater meaning. Harry is able to bond with someone outside
of his current friend group because of their shared experiences with death. So, even if you have two characters that seem
fundamentally different, you can find a commonality between them that creates a point of human
connection. It’s also clear that Rowling has no problem
killing off characters who are important to the protagonist and to the reader. Death is a part of life, and our characters
grow from those experiences. By establishing strong relationships between
the protagonist and other characters, each death will resonate. That’s lesson one: Provide other characters
with different roles to play in the protagonist’s life. Lesson two: Everyone Has a Story. Across the series, we learn that most characters
are more than what they seem. Those labelled as “good” people are given
pasts that complicate that rosy image. James Potter is shown to be a bully and Dumbledore
a fanboy of magical Hitler. Similarly, those who are deemed “bad”
people are given sympathetic qualities. Voldemort was an unwanted child. Snape loved Harry’s mother more than life
itself. We understand how these characters became
who they are. One of the backstories that most affected
me was that of Neville Longbottom. We learn that he, rather than Harry, could
have been the child described in the prophecy. His parents were tortured into insanity by
Voldemort’s followers, and now they must spend the rest of their lives in St Mungo’s
Hospital, all memory of their son gone. Despite the pain he’s experienced, Neville
has a gentle disposition and an inner strength, not to mention his talent for Herbology. If you’re looking to deepen the characterization
in your own stories, give each character a past. Lesson three: Distinctive Dialogue. “The females’ve got sorta sucker things
on their bellies. . . . I think they might be ter suck blood.” “I heard your father finally got his hands
on some gold this summer, Weasley. Did your mother die of shock?” “Now, it is the view of the Ministry that
a theoretical knowledge will be more than sufficient to get you through your examination,
which, after all, is what school is all about.” You could probably guess which characters
spoke the above quotes, based on the tone and content of the dialogue. Hagrid has an informal way of speaking and
often talks about dangerous magical creatures without concern; Draco is snotty and spends
his time insulting Harry and his friends, referring to them by their last names, perhaps
because surnames are an indicator of status; Dolores Umbridge maintains a prim and proper
tone, with more than a touch of condescension, and she’s constantly parroting the views
of the Ministry. How a person speaks and what they focus on
reveals a great deal about their personality, beliefs, and values. We don’t need to be told that Hagrid is
a lovable-but-reckless teacher or that Draco is a jerk; instead, the reader learns those
facts by seeing the characters in action. Dialogue is the ultimate way to show instead
of tell. In your own stories, determine each character’s
primary emotion—maybe they’re annoyingly cheerful or quick to irritate. Think of how you can convey that trait through
the way they speak. Also keep in mind that the way they speak
may change depending on whom they’re talking to, such as professors vs. friends. You can use dialogue to convey personality. Lesson four: Sensory Surprises. When crafting a world, it can be tempting
to dip into purple prose, piling on the adjectives and adverbs. Harry Potter teaches us that you don’t need
verbose descriptions; rather, having a few details that stand out are what make a scene
memorable. Look at this description of the Great Hall
from the first book: “It was lit by thousands and thousands of
candles that were floating in midair over four long tables, where the rest of the students
were sitting. These tables were laid with glittering golden
plates and goblets. At the top of the hall was another long table
where the teachers were sitting…Dotted here and there among the students, the ghosts shone
misty silver. Mainly to avoid all the staring eyes, Harry
looked upward and saw a velvety black ceiling dotted with stars.” What details stand out? For me, it’s the floating candles, the ghosts,
and the ceiling charmed to look like the night sky. We later learn of the moving staircases and
talking paintings that exist all throughout the school. The descriptions aren’t dense, but they
are visually stunning because of their uniqueness. Every book in the series unveils new settings,
items, spells, and characters that provide more opportunities for sensory surprises that
keep the story fresh and engaging. Most readers could easily describe the iconic
settings in the Harry Potter series: Diagon Alley, Hogsmeade, The Shrieking Shack, The
Burrow. If your settings are difficult for someone
else to describe from memory, then the details you’ve chosen might not be very striking. In addition, description doesn’t have to
come through narrative; you can provide it through dialogue as well. In the Half-Blood Prince, we encounter the
Amortentia potion for the first time, and the dialogue exchange between Professor Slughorn
and Hermione provides exposition, sensory details, and characterization: “Excellent, excellent! Now, this one here . . . yes, my dear?”
said Slughorn, now looking slightly bemused, as Hermione’s hand punched the air again. “It’s the most powerful love potion in
the world!” said Hermione. “Quite right! You recognized it, I suppose, by its distinctive
mother-of-pearl sheen?” “And the steam rising in characteristic
spirals,” said Hermione enthusiastically, “and it’s supposed to smell differently
to each of us, according to what attracts us, and I can smell freshly mown grass and
new parchment and —” But she turned slightly pink and did not complete
the sentence. Right before this scene, we also get a sensory
description from Harry that serves to show the reader what the characters are thinking,
even subconsciously: They chose the one nearest a gold-colored
cauldron that was emitting one of the most seductive scents Harry had ever inhaled: Somehow
it reminded him simultaneously of treacle tart, the woody smell of a broomstick handle,
and something flowery he thought he might have smelled at the Burrow. Rowling doesn’t tell us that the smell reminds
Harry of Ginny; instead, the reader can use those sensory cues to pick up on the subtext
and thus become more mentally involved in the story. Take advantage of opportunities to use your
sensory descriptions to communicate something about your characters and the world they live
in. In general, you want to choose unexpected
details that are easy to visualize. Lesson five: Chekhov’s Guns. “If you say in the first chapter that there
is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t
be hanging there.” This is a famous quote from Russian playwright
Anton Chekhov. More recently, the term “Chekhov’s Gun”
has been used to refer to a seemingly insignificant detail that becomes important to the story
later on. This is a common technique used in mystery
novels to foreshadow the culprit’s identity, and because Harry Potter is a mystery series
at heart, it’s filled with Chekhov’s Guns. For example, in the Philosopher’s Stone,
Harry gets a chocolate frog card of Dumbledore that mentions Nicolas Flamel and the philosopher’s
stone. Later on, when Harry and his friends are trying
to research Flamel, Harry can’t remember where he heard that name before—until he
gets another Dumbledore chocolate frog card. In the Chamber of Secrets, the most important
catalyst for the plot happens during a rather forgettable moment, when Lucius Malfoy runs
into the Weasley family at Flourish and Blotts: He was still holding Ginny’s old Transfiguration
book. He thrust it at her, his eyes glittering with
malice. “Here, girl — take your book — it’s
the best your father can give you —” In the last chapter, Harry puts two and two
together and accuses Lucius of putting Tom Riddle’s diary in Ginny’s textbook back
at the bookshop. This type of foreshadowing is a fun way to
make small details and insignificant scenes relevant to the larger plot. Even if you don’t know the ending of your
story as you’re writing, you can always go back and add in those Chekhov’s Guns. As the author, you know what happens but your
reader doesn’t, so make your book worth re-reading by sprinkling clues that put the
answer right under the audience’s nose. Employ foreshadowing to deliver clever reveals. Lesson six: Something Borrowed, Something
New. The Harry Potter series is known for putting
a twist on familiar mythology. There may be dragons and unicorns, but we
also encounter lesser-known magical species, like hippogriffs and mandrakes. Even the clichéd ideas of wizards and witches
wearing pointy hats, riding broomsticks, and using wands are subverted through new additions
to the established tropes. We have the Sorting Hat, which sings and reads
the wearer’s personality to determine which of the four Houses to put them in. There’s Quidditch, which turns broomstick-riding
into a sport. Mr. Ollivander presents the idea of the “wand
choosing the wizard,” and wands can be made of many types of wood, from willow to yew,
and filled with unicorn hair, phoenix tail feathers, or the heartstrings of dragons. These components also determine the type of
magic the wand is best used for, not to mention that wands can also have “brothers” and
be linked in that way, as Harry and Voldemort’s are. Rowling builds on the cultural mythology that
already exists in the readers’ minds, giving us new factoids to chew on. You can do the same in your fantasy stories:
recycle old legends, subvert tropes! Read history books and dive into folktales
from different cultures; I highly recommend the Myths and Legends podcast for inspiration. Find ways to add a twist to familiar concepts. Lesson seven: Life’s Big Questions. The reason Harry Potter will remain an international
classic for generations to come is not because of its accessible writing style or page-turning
mysteries, but because of the universal themes it explores: Friendship. Heroism. Love. Death. How should we think about these important
parts of our lives? Dumbledore is the most quoted character in
the series, and he delivers the story’s themes through simple words of wisdom: “After all, to the well-organized mind,
death is but the next great adventure.” “It is our choices, Harry, that show what
we truly are, far more than our abilities.” “Do not pity the dead, Harry, pity the living,
and above all those who live without love.” “Of course it is happening inside your head,
Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?” As a writer, you want to entertain your audience,
but you can also raise questions that go beyond the story. Every time I finish a Harry Potter novel,
I feel that indescribable sense of fulfillment, and the world takes on new color. By taking a page from J.K. Rowling’s book, you can give that same gift
to your own readers. What have you learned about storytelling from
reading the Harry Potter series? I’d love to know your thoughts in the comments. Whatever you do, keep writing.

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