Why Harry Potter Works
I was thrilled yesterday to finish reading the last installment of Harry Potter (The Deathly Hallows). I got hooked on the series when it first came to the U.S. and have been avidly following it ever since.
I won't post spoilers here, nor will I pick any minor nits. Instead, I'd like to focus - as a writer - on why the series has worked so well for me -- and millions more.
1. Larger than life characters who are nonetheless relatable. Sure they have unimaginable (to most of us Muggles) powers, but Harry's still every child who's felt unloved, just as Hermione is every bright girl who's felt pressured to tamp down her intelligence (that's why we love her for continuing to be a know-it-all), and Ron is every friend who's walked the line between loyalty and doubt. From the most major characters to those playing smaller roles, Rowling takes the time to humanize each one.
2. The Hero's Journey. Joseph Campbell studied powerful myths/stories and wrote of the classic quest tale which is central to so many. There's something innate to humans that makes us respond to the tale of the underdog/last hope who, with the help of friends and mentors, overcomes terrible obstacles (often death itself) to succeed in an impossible quest. Many, many very popular stories adhere to this ancient pattern. FMI, I recommend Christopher Vogler's The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers.
3. Imagination. J.K. Rowling has an incredible imagination. Each of her books delights with the sheer inventiveness of the details of the world she has created. Whimsical humor (Bertie's Every Flavor Beans) leavens the darkest of inventions. Though critics may gripe about some elements of her writing or the length of later tomes, the sheer power of her creativity never fails to impress and entertain, especially in the way she shows lovable characters' reactions to each wonder -- or horror.
I feel blessed to live in an age where, for all its troubles, the power of a story can captivate millions of people all around the world. It's story that unites us, story that provides our souls with sustenance, and story that can, upon occasion, supercede much of the harshness inherent in the human condition.
So thank you, J.K. Rowling, for being so damned good at it.