When people talk about the great storytellers of the modern era, J.K. Rowling should always be included on the list. The narrative of her writing of the Harry Potterseries is one often defined by good luck, creativity, and — yes — a little bit of magic. However, that muse-centric, fairy tale structure is a lazy, simplistic way of talking about Rowling’s skill with story. It takes away from the extreme intelligence, capacity for hard work, and storytelling genius that Rowling possesses.
In honor of the author’s birthday, let’s talk about the elements of storytelling that the British author demonstrates such an impressive command of in the Harry Potterseries. And let’s think about how, in a media age increasingly defined by long-form, serialized storytelling, Rowling is one of the very best…
Story structure in Harry Potter…
Rowling’s true genius lies not in prose, but in story structure, which is perhaps why the books have translated so well into film form. Even when you take away Rowling’s signature wit, the story itself can stand on its own in any medium. (We’re looking at you, too, The Cursed Child.)
Pictured above is one of Rowling’s many notes for the crafting of plot in Harry Potter. This specific spreadsheet is from the outlining of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, the fifth book in the series, and includes separate columns for most of the book’s major subplots, including: what’s happening in the main “prophecy” plot, what’s happening with Cho and Ginny, what’s happening with the Order of the Phoenix, what’s happening with the unraveling of the Snape/James Potter backstory, what’s happening with Dumbledore’s army, what’s happening with Hagrid/Grawp, etc.
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Sure, this is typical authorial outlining stuff, but anyone who has read the Harry Potterseries can explain to you how Rowling started foreshadowing the end of the series from the very beginning, especially picking up in The Chamber of Secrets.The Horcruxes were always integral to the story, hidden in plain plot sight — one example of the many narrative subthreads developed throughout the series and throughout each book. This development was rarely done in a heavy-handed way, which made the eventual reveals in The Deathy Hallowsthat much more rewarding.
For example, Harry spots The Vanishing Cabinet that Draco Malfoy would later use to get the Death Eaters into Hogwarts in The Half-Blood Princeway back in The Chamber of Secretswhen he ends up in Knockturn Alley’s Borgin and Burkes. In Prisoner of Azkaban, Professor Trelawney “reads” that Harry is born in mid-winter, even though his birthday is in July. As we later find out, she is actually seeing Lord Voldemort’s birth in Harry, a sign of his Horcruxian tie to the Dark Lord.
The examples go on: Dumbledore tangentially mentions his brother Aberforth in one of the early books. We “meet” the Grey Lady in book one, only to learn about her importance to the founding of Hogwarts and the destruction of the Horcruxes in the seventh books. We could sit here listing the detail-payoff patterns in this series all day.
The fact that these narrative crumbs were spread over not just a trilogy, but seven books, is particularly impressive. The amount of forethought and adherence to planning that Rowling demonstrates in pulling off this series is mindboggling in its focus. Pair that with the patience it took to introduce extremely relevant plot points early on in the series, and have that greater relevance revealed later on, and genius of Rowling’s plotting starts to take shape.
Characterization in Harry Potter…
Plotting is important, but the Harry Potterseries would not be what it is without Rowling’s command of characterization. The author creates a rich interpersonal world within the wizarding community that is so important in exploring the coming-of-age story’s main themes of love, family, and loss. We care if Harry defeats the Dark Lord because we care about these characters. It’s a simple narrative necessity, one that demonstrates emotional intelligence, but a skill that far too many storytellers don’t actually have.
For me, one of the best examples of characterization in the Harry Potterseries is Ron Weasley. Rowling’s skill in articulating character is so well demonstrated with Ron because he is the character that is generally characterized the poorest when other writers take him on. In the movies (and, to a lesser extent, in The Cursed Child, too), Ron is too-often flattened for comic relief. We lose the rich texture of this character, the way his struggle to get out of the shadow of his many brothers and, now, Harry, is balanced by his intense goodness and loyalty to the ones he loves.
Ron isn’t perfect by any stretch of the imagination. He’s not great at expressing his feelings and he is often petty and stubborn when he is feeling slighted (e.g. his fight with Hermione in Prisoner of Azkabanor his fight with Harry in Goblet of Fire.) But he would do anything for his friends, and matures an immense amount over the course of the series, while still maintaining his distinct Ron-ness. When we meet Ron, he is a bumbling, yet good-natured kid who has some outdated views of a world he is very much still trying to figure out. By the end of the series, he is destroying Horcruxes and worrying about house elves, even whilst still occasionally succombing to his jealous, insecure side.
From the book’s main protagonist to the seemingly most minor of supporting characters, Rowling has a gift for creating immediately distinct, relatable characters. Mrs. Dursley is a nosy gossip. Hermione Granger is a socially-awkward brain. Remus Lupin is a weary and mysterious, yet trustworthy authority figure. And, as with Rowling’s plotting, these characters have arcs within the individual books and the series as a whole. We understand how they exist within the wider community, how they are seen by those who are closest to them and by those who only know their family name.
More than that, the steady adherence to characterization exists not only in the individual character arcs, but in the relationships between characters. We understand why characters do everything they do — and that’s down to consistent characterization and the carefully-constructed relationships between characters. (“‘Always,’ said Snape.”)
World-building in Harry Potter…
You can’t talk about J.K. Rowling as a storyteller without discussing her skill for worldbuilding. Rowling’s ability to create a just-out-of-sight magical world with its own system of lived-in logic may be the most impressive thing about the Harry Potterseries. Rowling created an entire subculture, complete with economy, government, media, sports, history, lore, educational system, etc. Sure, it is very much based on the British social order, but it still exists as its own vividly-realized world.
As the Harry Potter For Writers website points out, Harry’s first introduction to the wizarding world doesn’t happen at Hogwarts, but rather at Diagon Alley where he visits the Leaky Cauldron, Ollivanders, Gringotts, and a slew of other shops. It is a mini-tour of the wizarding world, both for Harry and for the reader. We learn about wizarding money, customs, and the trappings of how Hogwarts works through the purchasing of Harry’s school supplies.
This worldbuilding extends to Hogwarts in The Sorceror’s Stone, then to the larger wizarding world with The Goblet of Fire‘s Qudditch World Cup and Triwizard Tournament and, eventually, Hermione and Harry’s tour of wizarding England in The Deathy Hallows.
Rowling slowly broadens the scope of this world from The Sorceror’s Stoneonward, weaving setting and wizarding culture. However, its depth is apparent from day one. Like any good writer, Rowling exudes confidence in her writing, a promise that she knows where she is going, that every detail has meaning and value, that this narrative journey won’t end in disappointing, disatisfying chaos. She doesn’t break that promise.
The difficult importance of an ending…
It’s hard to end a story in a satisfying way — especially a story that takes place over the course of seven books. You can’t just hope for the best. An ending needs to have its roots in the beginning. It needs to be present in everything that has come before. It needs to be a truth illuminated in the final moments, but a truth that has somehow been there all along.
Epilogues and canon-extending plays aside, Rowling sticks the landing of the Harry Potterseries, and she does it in an unexpectedly bold way by sending the Golden Trio away from Hogwarts to go on a dark, depressing adventure that not only calls into question the strength of their own relationships with one another, but the motivations of Dumbledore, a character that — up until this series-ending book — had been painted as a somewhat uncomplicated trustworthy mentor.
These challenging choices prove just how sure of her narrative Rowling was from the very beginning. She always knew where she was going, famously writing out the last chapter and keeping it hidden away in a safety deposit box, and it shows in the ending. If an ending needs to be informed by everything that has come before, then The Deathly Hallowsis a parade of the Harry Potter series greatest hits, but a parade that never feels like a tired retreading of what has come before.
If many of the questions, characters, and settings are the same, they are maturing and deepening in necessary ways. Can love conquer evil? What does it mean to grow up divorced from your past and identity? Do the ones we love ever really leave us? The answers get more complicated, their potential relevance more immediately dire, in The Deathly Hallows.
But Rowling never lets the narrative heavy-lifting show. She makes the moving and fitting together of the many, intricate moving parts of this story look simple, doing so much work through her plotting, characterization, and worldbuilding that we never doubt for a second that she knows what she’s talking about, that this world — and its meaning — is real in some sense of the word. In the way that any fiction is real: in the expression of theme and the exploration of humanity.
Dumbledore tells Harry at the end of The Deathly Hallows: “Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?” With Rowling, that master of narrative, moving us through this story, how could we ever believe otherwise?