Harry Potter And The Not Very Good Writing

Harry Potter And The Not Very Good Writing


Now, now, Potterheads. Put down your wands. I’m warded against your curses anyway. I don’t want to bash your fandom – just the poor style of its creator. I love Star Wars, but George Lucas is a poor filmmaker (He’s not Rian [pronounced Ryan] Johnson [1] bad) but, there, I said it: Something I love isn’t always very good.

“But why must you ruin my childhood, you … you dabbler in the dark arts!” Harry Potter fans scream into the void.

Well, I say, I liked those books too and I mostly still do. I reread the first Harry Potter, you know Harry Potter and the Regionally Dependant Title, not long ago.

I thought, let us see what made this such a good children’s book. So, I went to my bookshelves and rooted around, then remembered I’m 30 and sold those books along with my piles of Animorphs 12 years ago. Don’t worry, I still kept all my Asterix books. I’m not heartless.

So, I downloaded it to my iPad and began reading. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I thought, let’s keep this going. And boy was that a mistake.

Most writers improve with age. Terry Pratchett’s first Discworld novel, The Colour Of Magic, was fine, but 20 books in they were great [2]. R.A. Salvatore’s books are pulp trash, but he now writes only the best pulp in the trash heap.

J.K. Rowling is getting worse – and this is why:

1. Short And Simple

Children’s books should be a light read with action and adventure to stimulate a young mind. Sure, they can be dark or tragic but not 766 pages long. The first Harry Potter is 223 pages, you can read it in an afternoon. There are 13 chapters or so, don’t @ me. It’s a good size.

The Lord of the Rings is only 1 004 pages and they publish that in three volumes. Harry Potter is the adventures of a teenager going through magical puberty. It also occasionally features an incompetent dark wizard who I believe is killed three times by children?

The Lord of the Rings is a metaphorical trek through the horrors of a World War I battlefield. It is filled with loss, regret, and the gradual defeat that all living things go through. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s long for a calculated reason. If you don’t believe me look at The Hobbit, a lighthearted children’s tale that would lifts the spirits of the grumpiest father reading to his little ones.

[Suggested reading: Word Counts – How Long Should Your Novel Be?]

2. Pointless Characters And Subplots

Some of us are under the impression that world-building is simply adding more stuff to a story. What is the point of Quidditch? It seems to eat up pages and pages of these books with flowery action scenes that serve mostly to stall for time so the plot can catch up.

Meanwhile, Nineteen Eighty-Four, not a children’s book I grant you, has two main characters and a love interest. The first is the protagonist, the second is the antagonist, and the third is the reason he’s caught and tortured to the point of insanity. All have a clear reason for existing.

Every scene of this book serves to show the bleak nature of this world or move the plot forward to its twisted last scene. I will never forget Room 101, the Four Lights, or how O’Brien breaks Winston.

On the other hand, Dobby the House Elf makes no meaningful contribution to the plot in four of the six books he’s in, but he’s there for some reason. You get this feeling with a lot of the characters.

Rowling seems to write them and then, several book later, decides “Well, I guess they should do something while I have them here.” And then she gives them half a scene to chop off a snake’s head, or they tell someone a hitherto unknown thing that Harry needs to kill Voldermort – again.

3. Description For The Sake Of It

I mentioned Salvatore before. He writes action novels (including The Thousand Orcs: The Hunter’s Blades) about an elf that periodically goes on a killing spree in new and exciting places. So, he spends some time setting the scene. Tells you some history in a conversation. Gives you an idea of how evil the people his elf is going to murder are.

And then, the battles begin. They are clipped. Edged with sharp words. They describe the hero by how he reacts to the swords and spells coming at him.

Rowling takes a tea break during action scenes to describe what’s happening in the background. Someone casts a spell and then we hear about its flash. How it lights the room. How people react to it being cast. On one occasion she invents a lake during one of these scenes. Then, sometimes, we only find out how it affects the world in the next chapter.

“But, But, Harry Potter Is So Popular!” You Say.

Of course it is. It’s a hugely creative world that allows readers to project their wish-fulfilment fantasies onto the bland main characters. How could that go wrong at a time when nothing else like it was even being written?

It was a trend that protagonists, especially young ones, needed to earn their power and place in the world. It turns out that all people want is to feel special, and simply being told you are the one, a magic hero, right from your birth and here is the magic letter to make it official, is a very appealing proposition to the little tyrants we all were.

Unfortunately, Rowling lost sight of this and I dare say her editor didn’t have the power to stop her. So, gradually, her writing has become sloppy and fat to the point where her screenplays are bloated and confusing. If you can watch the Fantastic Beasts movie and tell me what the function of half the characters were to the plot, I retract every negative thing I’ve said. You were right. Mea culpa.

_________________________

[1] You know the one who made Luke meditate to death?
[2] Read Hogfather. It’s got the single most perfect speech describing the human condition.

 by Christopher Luke Dean. (Christopher has been starting flame wars for the better part of two decades.)

Christopher writes and facilitates for Writers Write. Follow him on Twitter.

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This article has 12 comments

  1. Zainab Mandlawala

    I completely agree with your analysis of these books. I recently started craving for some nostalgic writing and therefore picked up the series to read but man, now that I read them, I find so many plotholes and unnecessary deviations. Being a student of literature, I find it hard to swallow now that a writer I once revered has started failing me.

  2. Fiona

    An excellent article that makes some good points. I never rated HP for quality of writing!

  3. Jeremy Corter

    Thank you. This article is freeing. It’s easy to get hung up on writing great prose. To hear that you enjoy Harry Potter, but not the writing style, shows that you don’t have to be perfect.

  4. Anna

    Hi Christopher,

    I’m (or used to be?) a sort of a a hardcore fan, so read my comment knowing that, but I think I can be quite objective about the things I like.

    Saying that, I would also like to emphasize that anything beyond the original HP books are – well, crap. Some of them are enjoyable crap to a certain extent (like HP and the Cursed Child, which is like a good fanfiction, except the end which is a big bullshit), and some are just for making even more money, and don’t even try to be sensible about it (Fantastic Beasts….and co. movies).

    But because your post is about the original books, let me reflect to those statements.

    1. They are not children books. I know, they won a few children prizes, but let’s face it: the only reason they said it’ a child book, because they thought it would be vendible only on that market. I mean, as Rowling once said: the book starts with a double murder – it’s hardly a childen topic. I’ve never taken them as a light-hearted fairytale.

    2. Personally I haven’t found any subplots – or pointless characters. (Again, please don’t mention Fantastic Beasts….) I don’t think you meant to say that only books with 2 characters are good 😀 Because if we take any book with more characters in it, we can see that there are minor characters, minor roles etc etc. It’s natural. If everyone got as many line and plot as the main characters then it would be a 1000k book. As for Dobby: maybe we haven’t read the same books, but he had a major role from the beginning – and while he wasn’t “active” in book 3 or 5 that doesn’t mean he had to be that…. Quidditch? Again, it had a lot of important points, not to mention that it’s not lifelike if there’s no sport/PE in a school.

    3. Now that’s an interesting remark. Since it is a really interesting, magical world, the descriptions were highly enjoyable – for me. But e.g. in The Casual Vacancy I absolutely hated them and they bored me greatly.

    +1: I disagree with you on her writing getting worse. I would rather say you didn’t actually liked the books (which is not a problem at all, that’s fine, not everyone can like everything) and that’s why you felt it. I also suspect it from the fact that you’ve sold the original books. I mean, c’mon! :)))) (I’m 30, too 🙂

  5. Virginia Lee

    From a purely editorial standpoint, Rowling’s writing is irksome in its use of repetitive phraseology and overlong non-essential scenes and plot points. These things make me nutty when I read or listen to the books and I habitually skip over those parts. However, the world Rowling created is entrancing. The tropes she uses are not unique, but her characters are compelling. And hey now, I will fight you over Dobby’s worthiness. Rowr! I concur about the quidditch. Once the first save of the snitch happens, we don’t really need it anymore, beyond the brief foray into the Quidditch World Cup in the fourth book which sets up the return of the Death Eaters and Barty Crouch, Jr., though admittedly the scene in the woods is overlong and thus tiresome. I find the books comforting, especially Fry’s auditory versions, and that means a lot to me as I have a couple of health issues that keep me homebound more often than not. Ah, fwiw, Dobby’s purpose in those four of six books you mention? Demonstration of unconditional love and devotion for Harry, something Harry’s not experienced before. Sure, Ron and Hermione and so forth love Harry and are devoted to him, but they are not beyond questioning and challenging him. Dobby never does that, even when he’s seemingly contradicting Harry’s wishes in CoS. It’s all about saving Harry no matter what.

    I have no idea if any of the above is coherent, but I gave it a go.

    Now then, I’d love to read your thoughts on The Cursed Child. That’s a whole other ball game, that is.

  6. Rob

    As a Harry Potter fan, I am not too critical about what you wrote here. I enjoyed the books, that’s it. I just hope you can write just as well as Rowling to sell just as much books and be worth millions. Oops.

  7. Ana K P

    A few very good points raised regarding the The Cursed Child and other short stories/films that came after the series ended. However, regarding the books, I’d have to disagree.

    Her writing style does not fall flat – an example of a wonderful story going flat would be the Inkheart series, I don’t recommend reading past Book 1 – but every other plot device or description added into the stories gives the plot a substance. There’s mundane things and suspenseful scenes mixed in…a good blend of how real life is, just with a dash of magic thrown in. The good thing of it is that both of them are actually essential to the story and plot of you think about it in detail.

    The usefulness of Dobby…it is weird you bring it up, instead of say Crabbe or Goyle (who are ever present as Malfoy’s lackeys, but have barely any dialogues until book 7 – if you discount book 2 and the polyjuice option fiasco, which might have seemed pointless but proves to be an important bit of info for understanding book 4, 5, 6 and 7 where it is mentioned. But I digress). Dobby did have a few important roles. Apart from book 2, his appearance in book 4 helps Harry out with one of the Trials are tasks. Because it’s less suspicious that an utterly devoted elf hands you the weird weed like substance to breathe underwater, which is expensive and difficult to find, then say a classmate. Book 5 had him introducing the Room of Requirement.

    Having Dobby just show up when needed and not otherwise would have felt extremely hurried and unplanned. Somewhat like “hey, I need this thing to be done but no character seems to fit – oh lets add in the elf from the other book.”
    Minor characters are required, even if present sporadically. It adds substance to a story and makes it more real….how many times do you pass by the bakery near your house, notice it, are aware of it, but never speak to the owner? It’s a minor character in your life, but you do need it. Its presence is necessary .

    Similarly, Quidditch. It’s a sport. What school is complete without a sport? While the multiple descriptions regarding the matches was probably uneeded, they did have their importance – story flow and world building. Some important events also took place during the matches…The dementor attack that first led Harry to hear his Mother’s voice, Dobby’s introduction and the discovery of Colin’s petrification, etc.

    In short, hey, it’s okay if you don’t enjoy the books any longer! Tastes change; I wouldn’t read Enid Blyton’s Famous Five series at my age (20), but to conclude, I found JKR’s writing to be pretty consistent and engaging throughout the series. (Not gonna say a word about Cursed Child or Fantastic Beasts).

  8. Diane Kane

    Thank you! I’ve said this for years, although mostly to myself. I dared to say it to my daughter and she nearly took my head off. Who are you to question J.K. Rowling, her horrified face twisted with disgust. My theory is that Rowling quenched a thirst in a time of drought in magical adventure stories. While her idea was great and the characters charming, her plot meandered like the series Lost. It felt like she was writing what ever came to mind without a real plan. Her three protagonists saved her, them and the big screen. Harry Potter is known by children of all ages yet most have not read the books. They are too scary for young children. My ten year old granddaughter started to read the first book and was too frightened to finish. But go to Universal Studios and every kid, young and old, and adults are wearing capes and carrying wands. The world of Harry Potter has gone far beyond the books of J.K.Rowling. It matters not if they were written well, only that they were written and people drank up the magic potion.

  9. Ashlynn Antrobus

    The reason the books gave longer is because her audience was growing up as she wrote them. The first couple are middle grade gamma then it progresses into YA. And just like Harry is an Adult (by wizarding standards) in the last book, the young children who had read the first book when it came out were also now adults.

    Now, if you had written about Rowling’s atrocious writing (as opppsed to plotting, two different things), I would have been right there with you. Remember the time Ron ejaculated loudly?

  10. Nikki

    I think that in my opinion harry potter is the greatest book series ever. Sure I’m like 13 but what difference does it make. I love dobby and minor characters are required in every book you read. And quiditich(I can’t spell that) is awesome.

  11. c

    Thank you all for your comments.

    I have enjoyed your replies, even the mean ones:)

    I hope it sparked a debate in your mind.

    That’s why I write.
    Always;)

    Christopher

  12. Jens Grabarske

    Diane: I agree, HP is more a phenomenon nowadays. But JKR is bad at another discipline of writing: “Death of the Author”. She keeps on interpreting and reinterpreting her own canon. The worst example for that is when she told a group of children that she always thought Dumbledore to be gay. Read the books and there is not a shred of evidence hinting in the general direction of Dumbledore ever having so much as a flirt. But suddenly these things are gobbled up by her fans as gospel.
    Nowadays, she is a prophet of her created world.
    Remember that after finishing HP she said that the stories were finished? She published a criminal novel and every news outlet went “Oh, she went from HP to writing crime!” I have not yet read that book so I don’t want to give a review – but the critics were remarkably quiet and very soon after that she announced Pottermore – the very anti-thesis to the Death of the Author.

    And to me, that is problematic. In my understanding of our craft, we are not the masters. We are the servants. We serve the story and we serve our readers. We are sherpas who help adventurers to discover and climb mysterious and perilious mountains. The best gift we can give our readers is to be on the sidelines as much as possible. It’s a relationship between him and the story. And the best result is if, in the end, the reader exclaims “Oh! I get it!” and he has gained an insight, be it into the world, psychology, the “human condition” or something else. And the best result for us is if the reader comes back with an interpretation we have never even considered – but which is equally valid.

    Ray Bradbury once gave a lecture at the UCLA on his book “Fahrenheit 451”. He had talked about his motivation for writing the story and that he wanted to show that modern technology in general and TV in particular would turn us all into stupid, controllable masses. But the audience said: “No, the story is about censorship.” He walked out in protest, claiming that he wrote the damn thing and he would well know what he meant when he wrote it. And nowadays I think that he was wrong.

    JKR is like that. She claims that she has interpretational authority over her work. She has the last word on everything. And that is not good.

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