Monday, 11 July 2011

What JK Rowling Teaches Us About Writing

To celebrate the release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Pt 2, I’m dubbing this week HARRY POTTER WEEK! All week I’ll be posting about Harry Potter. I’ve read and reread all the Harry Potter books, so I know how the series ends. But if you haven’t read the books, and therefore don’t know how the final film ends, be aware that there may be spoilers in this post.


JK Rowling is a literary genius. No, even better than that. She’s a writing goddess in human form. We can learn several things from reading her work:

Death is Powerful: Several people die throughout the course of the series, particularly in the final book. Dumbledore, Sirius, Tonks and Lupin, Fred (or was it George?), Dobby, even Hedwig. After Deathly Hallows pt 1 was released as a movie, fans grieved on Facebook for Dobby. I was sad, but even more so when Hedwig died. An owl. A minor character (if you’d even call her that). To me, Hedwig’s death was absolutely pointless. But when I reread the books, I realised that Hedwig’s death showed that no one was safe, even Harry himself. Hedwig’s death showed to me that each death shocked and impacted on me. It was powerful. Other writers kill of characters, but none as powerfully as Rowling. Each character, from Dumbledore and Snape to Hedwig and Dobby, were so lifelike, it was a personal loss each time Rowling killed one of them off.

Planning is Important: In Philosopher’s Stone (or Sorcerer’s Stone for the North American readers), Harry’s first Quidditch match ends with Harry catching the Snitch with his mouth and swallows it. While it may seem like a humorous end to the match for readers, it later becomes a key plot point, with Harry needing to touch the Snitch with his mouth to open it. Tiny details released in passing become plot points in later books: the bezoar mentioned in Philosopher’s Stone saves Ron in Half-Blood Prince; the reason for Dumbledore having James Potter’s invisibility cloak in Philosopher’s Stone is revealed in Deathly Hallows; and Sirius Black is only mentioned in passing in Philosopher’s Stone, but becomes a major character from Prisoner of Azkaban onwards. None of this could have been achieved with such success without the use of planning. I’m not saying that planning is for everyone, but if you want major success in a closely linked series then you need a detailed plan.

Complex Characters: All of Rowling’s characters were extremely complex and as such were very lifelike. Each character had flaws, strengths, motivations. For example: Snape. In my opinion, Snape was one of the most detailed and complex characters in the entire series. While he seems to be “just a background character who hates Harry” in the early novels, he is given a larger role in later books, and is subsequently fleshed out. But it’s not until the final scenes of Deathly Hallows that it is revealed that Snape is truly a good character, and readers get to see so much more of who he really is.

For the comments: what have you learnt from reading JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series?


  1. This is a great post. I agree with you about the death especially-- it's true! I've read few books where death impacted me like in Harry Potter.

    I disagree with the planning bit though. It's all true that it's awesome how it all works out, but I don't think Rowling planned it out like that. I think part of it was just brilliant spur-of-the-moment ideas. I mean how many writers do you know already have in mind book 7 when they're writing book 1? It's just inhuman. I think it's important to keep your eyes open for opportunities to use what happened in the past (like Harry swallowing the Snitch) in later books. So yes, she's a great example, but I don't think she planned it all that way. (Snape being the wonderful exception!)

    And I totally agree about character complexity. It's something I really want to work on and strengthen in my own writing. My characters are very real to ME. I just want to make sure they shine through in my writing the same way.

    And I've learned a lot from her about world building, motivation, characters, etc. I've read the whole series at least twice, including starting at book 7 down to 1. (Backwards, to observe her plot).

    Nice post! Looking forward to a HP week. :)

  2. When I read the title, I thought, 'What DOESN'T JK Rowling teach us about writing?' But you've successfully managed to sum up the basic lessons in a relatively small amount of space, which is pretty amazing, btw. Great post! I think Death is Powerful and Complex Characters could kind of be thought of as the same thing, really. Her use of death was generally only powerful because she'd so well developed her characters. Snape is/was my favorite character. I don't think I ever really accepted his death, because I keep forgetting he died, haha.

    @Lizzy--Heh...inhuman, you say? Hmm...I'll just not mention my thoughts on Book 7 while I finish up my Book 1 over here...*coughs* But I do agree that I think she may have just conveniently, brilliantly use some of the details from her first book to tie up plot points without planning them that way from the beginning. The world may never know.

  3. Lizzy: I have to disagree, because I'm sure that Rowling stated in an interview that she *did* plan the entire series at the very beginning. Still, perhaps some of the little things in the book, such as the importance of Harry nearly swallowing the Snitch, weren't planned until Rowling reached Book 7.

    Thanks for your comment :)

    Amanda: I think I could of gone into a lot more detail with this post, but I felt it was going to end up too long. Like you said, what DOESN'T JK Rowling teach us?

    Thanks for reading!

  4. @Amanda LOL!! Well, I said that to make myself feel better. I have trouble even plotting book 2. Anyone who goes beyond ascends to some kind of writing god/ess status. XD

    @Matt Oh no, I agree with you. I think she did plan a lot. Much more than I can wrap my head around. But I meant the small stuff. People give JK a lot of credit (which is very well deserved!!), including myself. But after reading them back to front I decided she didn't plot every detail, that some was definitely just brilliant moments. I'd certainly love to know. *dreams of meeting JK one day*

    I watched the red carpet premiere of HP7 pt 2 on YouTube and I think I was actually more excited to see JK than any of the actors/actresses. XD