The Strengths of the Harry Potter Series

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This post introduces a 13-part series on the craft & technique of Harry Potter by the insightful Jim Adam. This series includes:

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In the original version of Destiny Unfulfilled: A Critique of the Harry Potter Series, I made no attempt to discuss the strengths of the Potter series in any detail. At the time, I rationalized this by pointing out the success of the series. Its commercial success shows beyond a doubt that Rowling’s magnum opus is a powerful work of fiction that appeals to a wide range of readers, while the critical success has resulted in books, websites, reviews, and articles that address the strengths of the series more thoroughly and with more skill than I could manage.

Though none of this has changed, in the fullness of time I recognized my approach for what it was: laziness. Criticizing will always be easier for me than offering praise. But beyond personality flaw, in failing to analyze and meditate upon the strengths of the Potter series, I had missed half of the equation. A writer, to be successful, has to do more than avoid making mistakes, she must also imbue her work with positive characteristics.

Critics occasionally complain that a particular bestseller is poorly written. Assuming that some of those complaints are valid, this suggests that certain positive qualities in fiction are so powerful that they can cover a multitude of sins. In the case of the Potter series, the positive qualities are such that they overshadow a number of weaknesses—enough, in fact, to fill an entire book, as Destiny Unfulfilled shows.

Is it possible that certain positive qualities are so powerful that a writer dare not leave ignore them? After considering a wide range of bestselling commercial fiction, it seems clear that only one quality can be called an absolute requirement: story.

Control of point of view (POV), clean prose, a solid protagonist: we can find bestselling novels lacking one or more of these qualities. We can find bestselling novels that start with long expositional blocks (e.g., some of James Michener’s epics). But all such books have a story to tell, and they tell it.

Next in series: Telling a story

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