Nothing can explain how a children’s book series can generate over a billion dollars in sales or rock star reactions on the day of its release. We haven’t seen the reaction surrounding Harry Potter since the days of Charles Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop when Americans lined the docks of New York City for the latest dispatches from London, shouting “is Little Nell dead”. Basically, J.K. Rowling got lucky. There is little rhyme or reason as to why she was able to sell 300 million copies in the span of ten years, but there is rhyme and reason to why the books have their fans.
I’m a fan of the Harry Potter series, and I’ve met other fans of the series and participated in the fandom, so I have some idea of what made the books click with their readers. As jealous as I am, I have to admit that J.K. Rowling earned her success. She is, first and foremost, a savvy storyteller, who has capitalized on a number of her strengths. Here are some of the reasons why Harry Potter clicked:
Using Tried and True Storytelling Elements in Fresh Ways
Picture this: a young boy living with unsympathetic foster parents starts developing magical powers and is bundled off to a boarding school in order to develop his abilities. The plotline of Harry Potter? Nope. Rather, it’s the plotline of Jenny Nimmo’s Children of the Red King sequence, otherwise known as the Charlie Bone books (the sixth tale, Charlie Bone and the Wilderness Beast, debuted earlier this year). This series has been unfairly compared with the Harry Potter epic because they share the same basic summary, but Rowling and Nimmo have taken their two fantasy series in two different directions.
Ms. Rowling has no claim on the idea of a magical child bundled away to a school of wizards and witches (Worst Witch, among others, predates her), but she’s not making such a claim. Rather, Ms. Rowling is reusing classic elements to weave together a rather traditional epic of coming of age and good versus evil. Some of these staples (including the boarding school trope) stretch all the way back to Victorian times, but there is a reason why they’re recycled again and again — they work very well as fictional devices, and Rowling, either consciously or subconsciously, knows this.
Even so, reusing these classical elements would only take her so far, unless she was able to give these elements a fresh twist. And while J.K. Rowling won’t win any stuffy awards for her writing (she uses a number of techniques that would lead writing instructors of mine to slap my head and call it a mistake, and her use of CAPS LOCK RAGE in Order of the Phoenix is quite hard on the eyes), she has a wry style featuring nice touches of humour, and her characters grow and develop. She also has a deft ability to plot, and has planned out much of her seven book series straight from book one (I was most impressed when what I took to be a throwaway event — Harry talking to the boa constrictor at the zoo in book one — became a major plot point in book two).
So, J.K. Rowling knows how to tell a good story, both in terms of what classical elements to touch upon, and in terms of the best way to present it to her readership. As successes go, you can’t get more basic than that.
But this is only part of the picture.
Creating a Universe Rather than Just a Book
Merchandisers, again and again, probably get on their knees and thank Ms. Rowling for populating her Harry Potter stories with fun and rich magical details that they can hook onto. Consider the company which manufactures the real-life version of Bertie Botts every-flavour jellybean. Kids everywhere are paying good money to eat candies that taste of, among other things, dirt, grass, vomit, boogies and ear wax (it’s a kind of Russian Roulette). There are wands and wizard hats aplenty, and disturbingly suggestive flying broomsticks.
This, however, is the tip of the iceberg. The world that J.K. Rowling has invested so much time in creating, with its own shopping districts, pubs, transportation systems, and connections to the British government, not only offers hooks for merchandizers to sell toys, but for readers to get involved in the storyline. It’s not nearly as detailed as Tolkien’s Middle Earth, but the principle is the same. Throughout the stories, there is a sense of a bigger world around Harry, Ron and Hermione, and this is something that readers can participate in, even to the point of exploring it in their own imagination, or through fan fiction.
There is no official map of J.K. Rowling’s Potter universe — not in the same way that Tolkien uses a map. Indeed, the map conceit of the fantasy novel has become such a cliche as lesser authors ape Tolkien that Diane Wynne Jones deftly satirized it in her humorous Guide to Fantasyland. Rowling, however, inserts Harry Potter’s magical world into our own, from Platform 9 3/4rs in Kings Cross station to Diagon Alley opening up in the back room of a typical London pub. Again this has the effect of drawing the readers into Harry’s magical world, encouraging them to believe that the boy wizard is just around the corner, and that with the tap of the right brick, or the use of the right spell, one could step out of our mundane world into the magical one.
And Then There Are the Characters
The universe that J.K. Rowling created wouldn’t resonate with readers if Ms. Rowling herself hadn’t been able to create interesting and varied characters to populate it. Many children’s books focus on a small number of characters. Their stories are stories about a family, or a group of friends, rather than a whole society of people. This is because we simply don’t have the word count to support anything more; there is a drive to keep our stories concise and too many characters would spoil the broth. However, Ms. Rowling managed to find the room for dozens of characters, some more developed than others, but all pretty distinct from each other.
This required a pathological amount of notetaking. We’ve seen sheets of paper with the names of the entire student population of Hogwarts, and which years and which houses each are in. It’s almost certain that half of the names she has written down haven’t made their appearance in Ms. Rowling’s books, but they’re there in her mind. This gives her universe a sense of depth that draws the reader in, encouraging many to add themselves to the Hogwarts student body, and allowing readers to focus or speculate on the lives of characters other than Harry Potter.
I didn’t realize that there was such a thing as “shipping” until I encountered Harry Potter fan fiction (and I was shocked enough that fan fiction could exist for a book series). Up to that point, my experience in fan fiction was limited to Doctor Who, Star Trek and other television shows, and these stories either aped the productions they were paying homage to, or exploring elements of the program that the media could not.
A sizable portion of Harry Potter fans are romantics at heart, and many fan fiction writers have written stories which develop relationships between a number of the characters as they enter their late teens — egged on by the fact that Ms. Rowling dropped several hints in this area herself. Some of these “shipper” (short for “relationshipper”) debates were as furious as you’d expect some debates to be when a few individuals lose all sense of perspective, but there were hundreds of short stories pursuing the idea that Harry was destined to fall in love with Hermione, and hundreds more where Harry was destined to fall in love with Ginny Weasley. As of book six, though, it was clear that J.K. Rowling shipped Ron and Hermione.
All of these hooks have given fans more to care about than just whether Harry can defeat Voldemort and save the world. This has helped attract a considerable number of individuals who now call themselves Harry Potter fans.
Challenging Herself and Her Boundaries
I’ve already said that a lot of the elements that Ms. Rowling uses in the Harry Potter series aren’t original to her, but there is one area where Ms. Rowling has entered uncharted territory. Her series takes follows Harry and his friends as they age from innocent children of eleven to war-tempered young adults of seventeen.
These days, children and young adult literature are split up and kept in small boxes sorted by age group. You have early chapter books for readers up to age nine, middle grade novels for those aged nine to twelve, and “teen fiction” for those twelve and older, with certain books within “teen fiction” aimed more at those who are thirteen while others are aimed at those who are sixteen. Each of these categories have a general style. Middle grade fiction, for instance, is episodic in nature, and romance does not come into play until we’re in the realm of teen fiction. it is almost unheard of for a fiction series to cross these boundaries, as publishers believe that each age group has a different approach to reading, and they’d rather their readers buy all of a series’ books at once, rather than wait to age to a point where a particular book in a series is more appropriate. J.K. Rowling has knocked these boundaries over.
Plenty of series have protagonists who come of age, and many books follow their characters’ actions from childhood from adulthood, but I cannot think of any whose tone changes year-to-year as the protagonists get older. Tamora Pierce is a case in point. Many of her books have her female protagonists ageing through their teenage years, but the style of the story and the outlook of the character doesn’t change much beyond what you’d expect from a standard hero quest. Plenty of Pierce’s young ladies calmly pick out birth control spells and charms around the age of seventeen without a substantial change in their character when, of course, such a thing would be unthinkable to the same character at fourteen. Think for a moment how an eleven year old thinks and how a seventeen year old thinks. Ms. Rowling does not shy away from the developing issues of young adulthood.
There has been nothing quite like J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, but at the same time there have been a lot of things like it in little pieces. Rowling uses many classical elements and uses them well, she rolls up her sleeves and populates her books with interesting characters and detailed surroundings. These are all recipes for success, though not the runaway success that she was able to achieve. That came through promotions, including an early campaign by Rosie O’Donnell which gave the book nationwide attention on American network television. So, pure luck and a lot of publicity cash. And for this reason, I think Rowling can take a little professional jealousy from her peers. But the books would not have maintained their rabid following if there hadn’t been something worthwhile to follow.