Everything I know about writing and life I learned from Harry Potter and J.K. Rowling


Story and Art By Mo Conlan

Well, that’s only a slight exaggeration. Still, wouldn’t you want a spiritual adviser like the great wizard Dumbledore? A wise, kind soul who sees your virtues and guides you through life’s hard parts? And friends who will stare down death with you, such as Ron and Hermione?

Everything rings true in the Harry Potter novels by J.K. Rowling. As read on audio books by Jim Dale -- an actor with a gift for voices -- these stories are worthy of the stage. (I own all the novels in print, too. Long live real books!)

As much as I have come to love the characters as a reader, as a writer, I am learning. The first lesson is to keep writing, even in the face of rejection. The creator of the now beloved Harry Potter character was turned down by publisher after publisher. I picture her rather like Harry locked in his closet waiting to be rescued from the awful Dursleys.

Rowling teaches me to put clothes on my characters, and then to delve beneath the skin. We come to know Harry and his crowd inside and out. Skinny Harry with the unruly hair doesn’t look like much in hand-me-downs that are too big, but he musters the courage to battle evil incarnate.

Hermione, the level-headed nerd, is ignited by idealism and fierce loyalty. Ron, the Everybloke, insecure about his abilities relative to his brothers, rises to heroics to save his friends.

There is the deliciously terrible Professor Snape. The truly evil Lord Voldemort. The half-giant Hagrid, whose heart is bigger than he is.

Each of Rowling's characters is lavishly and lovingly drawn - never stereotypically. Though literature is filled with snobs and bullies, Harry’s nemesis, Malfoy, is an original.

She writes with witty insight about how people actually behave – especially people in power. The posturing, the politicking, the fudging, the envy and greed. But these are counterbalanced in her stories by high jinks, adventures, team spirit, and through-thick-and-thin friendships.

In this real-seeming world, children are bullied and sometimes humiliated. But they find the courage to stand up to bullies and to those in power – such as Minister of Magic Cornelius Fudge, who refuses to see what is plainly before his eyes -- that the evil Voldemort has returned.

Lately, I have been thinking of Harry Potter in the context of Charles Dickens – whose stories introduced me to the power of the novel.

Dickens’ characters live on down the centuries. Everyone knows Scrooge, Tiny Tim, David Copperfield and Oliver Twist. That’s the longevity I see in Rowling’s characters.

Like Dickens, she knows that in childhood reside our fiercest desires, affections and adventures. Like Dickens, she hates a bully. Finds strength in the poor or neglected child. The one who is clumsy or not especially good looking. The one left out.

As in Dickens, hers is a compassionate intelligence. These children have inner gifts that shine. And like Dickens, Rowling deals with essential themes of the human condition. Death, love, loss, use and misuse of power. She gives us worthy ideas to mull.

Dumbledore tells Harry: “To the well ordered mind, death is but the next great adventure.”

And she uses language to be delighted by: Blast-ended Scroots are strange creatures. Wingardium leviosa is a spell to raise an object into the air. But you have to say it correctly, as Hermione points out in such a very Hermione way.

Rowling paints her characters with believable dialogue that rings with understanding of human motivation. Like Dickens, she understands the human heart – its fears and longings.

Both authors create huge fictional worlds. In Rowling’s, her trio of adventurers finds the courage to battle evil. To save themselves and their magical world. Harry, the Everychild who is essentially good, triumphs over the evil Voldemort.

Teachers and librarians say that the Harry Potter stories have a magical effect on children who were non-readers – especially boys. They began to read. Maybe they were waiting for stories of sufficient power to move them. What good taste to wait for Harry Potter.

Another writer with far reach: McCall Smith

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