Critiquing Harry Potter is a popular pastime among speculative fiction fans, and we’ve done our fair share here at Mythcreants. There’s a lot to critique: a house system that seems designed to churn out evil wizards, potions that grant god-like powers, a sport where only one player on a team of seven matters.
But in the midst of all this critiquing, it’s easy to lose sight of what Harry Potter did right. Rowling’s books are popular for a reason, and aspiring writers can learn a lot from them. Let’s look at five of the biggest strengths from the Harry Potter series.
1. A Novel Setting
Harry Potter was not the first magic school series. It wasn’t even the first magic school series to attain popularity. But it had something that drew in readers that previous entries in the subgenre didn’t have: novelty. Lots and lots of novelty.
Nearly everything in Harry Potter is designed to inspire awe and interest in the reader. Hogwarts is full of enormous staircases that literally move around. The main wizarding sport is played by racing around on broomsticks. The kids are brought to school on carriages pulled by invisible death-horses. So cool!
But it’s not just the big flashy stuff. Smaller-scale elements are novel as well. Rowling does an impressive job making the wizarding world seem different from our own, without making it so different that the reader can’t understand it. Chocolate frogs that hop are just weird enough to be cool without confusing the reader, as are paintings and pictures with subjects that move around and visit each other.
Novelty in stories isn’t empty razzle dazzle. It’s a critical element of audience enjoyment. Novelty is what grabs readers before they’ve had a chance to get attached to characters or plot. Without novelty, a story is dull, and the readers will never get to the deeper stuff.
Unfortunately, some of Harry Potter’s novelty comes at the expense of setting integrity. Talking paintings are really cool, but they raise the question of why Harry and company didn’t ask Dumbledore’s painting for more information in book seven. And don’t even get me started on time-turners.
The lesson for aspiring storytellers is to pay close attention to their novelty. It’s very important to have, but when used indiscriminately, it can create plot holes.
2. Established Magic
Harry Potter’s magic system is extremely arbitrary. The effects of spells and potions are a random grab bag without any method or pattern. But for all that, Rowling gets one thing very right: she always sets up important magic in advance.
This might sound obvious, but it’s distressing how often authors forget to establish their magic ahead of time. In novels like The Fire’s Stone and Gentleman Bastard series, wizards seem to do whatever they want whenever they want. There’s little satisfaction when a wizard solves a problem, because it feels like the author simply conjured a solution on the spot. The same is true when a wizard is defeated. In that situation, it feels like the wizard should have been able to pull out some new spell and triumph, but they don’t because the author decided it was time for them to lose.
In Harry Potter, Rowling is very careful to establish each spell before it’s important to the plot. Before Ron uses Wingardium Leviosa to defeat the troll in book one, there’s a scene where he has trouble learning it. When Hermione first uses the unlocking charm, it’s so the trio can avoid punishment for minor rules breaking. The charm won’t become critical to the plot until later books. And of course, the patronus is given multiple chapters of setup in book three, which is fitting for what’s possibly the most important spell in the series.
Establishing magic in advance is vital so readers can understand what a character is capable of. That way, when the character uses their magic to craft a clever solution, it will actually feel clever. Of course, this doesn’t stop Harry Potter’s magic from reaching plot-breaking levels when you consider all the various spells together, but in the moment Rowling does an excellent job communicating each character’s abilities.
3. Memorable Characters
The internet is full of advice for how to make characters deep and three-dimensional. We’ve got plenty of that advice here on Mythcreants. But another important character aspect is often overlooked: memorability. If audiences can’t picture a character in their minds after finishing the story, then it doesn’t matter how deep the character was.
Characters in Harry Potter are extremely memorable. They aren’t always well developed, or even consistent, but readers know who they are. Hermione is super smart and knows everything. Ron isn’t good at anything,* but he always tries his best. This is true of the secondary characters as well: Dumbledore is a kindly mentor, Hagrid is a lovable and buffoonish giant.
The major exception is Harry himself. Harry’s personality isn’t well defined. He’s generically brave, kind, and clever, but that’s about it. This is on purpose. Harry is a blank protagonist, designed to let the readers live vicariously through him. Blank protagonists aren’t the right choice for every story, but they’re a legitimate tool, and Harry is an excellent example.
Characters who leave a strong impression are important in getting readers to pick up the next book in a series. Reading a novel is a big investment of time, and if the characters don’t stick with readers between books, there’s little incentive to continue with the series. Authors should strive for depth and consistency as well, but without memorability it will all be for naught.
4. Tight Plotting
I’ve lost count of the stories I’ve watched or read that start off great and then stall into mediocrity because of poor plotting. The author gets distracted by tangents, or the action slows to a crawl as the audience waits for something to happen. Bad plotting can easily kill a story even if everything else is done well.
Harry Potter has excellent plotting. That’s because Rowling built herself a strong framework: the school year. The first six books follow a reliable and successful formula. The characters get to Hogwarts and start learning new magic, while something sinister builds in the background. The characters struggle with their new magic, and the sinister thing gets stronger. Then in the climax, they use the magic they’ve learned to defeat the sinister thing.
That might sound simplistic, but a reliable plot formula is something to be envied. Rowling keeps most of her books lean and moving, focusing only on what’s necessary for the formula. The Harry Potter books are not difficult reads, and one reason for that is the tight plotting. Readers rarely have to fight their way through a boring section to find something good, because every piece is essential. This increases reader enjoyment and leads to more people finishing each book. The school year even facilitates the book’s overarching plot. If it takes seven years to graduate Hogwarts, readers will naturally expect seven books. There’s no feeling that the books will wander around forever in search of an end that never comes.*
It’s easy to see how critical the school-year structure is by looking at book seven. In the Deathly Hallows, Rowling abandons her framework because it no longer makes sense for the characters to be at Hogwarts. This hurts the story and is why Hallows is so infamous for its slow plot.* Without the school year, the characters wander around aimlessly until Rowling drops the answers in their lap.
5. The Rise of Fascism
Voldemort is a passable villain, but where Harry Potter really shines is the depiction of fascism and how it takes over a moderate society. This is surprising for a children’s story – twelve-year-old me certainly didn’t see it coming – but Rowling’s books are among the best when it comes to describing the rise of bigoted extremism.
No one in Harry Potter ever uses the word “fascist.” They don’t have to. The Death Eaters are such a clear parallel for the racist far right that a direct comparison is almost redundant. Death Eaters obsess about lineage and purity. They claim that the most downtrodden in society are actually the oppressors. They expound about how they will restore magic to some theoretical prior state, before it was polluted by muggle-borns.
Just as accurate is how society responds to the Death Eaters. That is, it doesn’t. Those in power dismiss the threat because they don’t want to acknowledge it. Instead, they turn their attention on the very same muggle-born wizards being oppressed. Anyone who does try to stand up to the Death Eaters is labeled a dangerous extremist. Meanwhile, Voldemort’s supporters quietly amass power. When they do take over, it isn’t a violent or dramatic affair. They simply walk in, and no one has the strength to resist them.
This was a valuable lesson to learn even before the far right rose up in America and Europe, and it has only grown more relevant. But Harry Potter is more than a cautionary tale. It is also a story of hope. The wizarding world inspires people, reminds them that evil can be defeated. That’s something a lot of us need.
The more popular something is, the easier it is to critique. This is a good dynamic, since it would be pretty mean of us to tear apart unedited books on the Kindle store’s back pages. But we run the risk of forgetting why popular stories got popular in the first place. Sometimes it’s good to look back at those stories and see what makes them tick. You never know what you might learn.
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