Tuesday, December 03, 2019

Believe, Care, Invest: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone

Okay, I’ve been meaning for a long time to do a series on this blog examining “Believe Care Invest” in fifty stories or so and generating my next book in the process. My original publisher going out of business took the pressure off me to do that, but now my new publisher is finally ready for new submissions, so it’s time to get back to it.

But I’ve had some reservations. I’ve been reluctant to start this for various reasons, but they don’t really make any sense:

  • I worry that this will be too familiar from previous stuff on the blog, but I’ve only posted 63 posts this year, so any material is good material, right?
  • I worry that the posts I generate will be too short, but ditto.
  • I worry that this will become too repetitive: I’ll make the same “insights” on example after example. In the finished book, I’ll revise to say unique things about each one, but here on the blog, I won’t be able to work backwards like that.

I had meant to start with chapters defining Believe, Care and Invest, but I think I’d better work backwards on that, generating my raw data before I preview it. So let’s just jump in, shall we? Here’s:

The Two Introductions of Harry Potter

  • Suburban England,1983: Pompous buffoon Vernon Dursely, on his way to his drill factory, keeps trying to ignore that there are lots of wizards around him that are celebrating. That night, unbeknownst to him, a witch and wizard meet outside his door and talk about how a baby named Harry Potter has defeated an evil wizard. A giant brings them the baby and they drop it off to be raised by Vernon. Cut to nine years later: Vernon and his wife and child treat Harry terribly. They reluctantly bring him to a zoo, where he unconsciously uses magic to free a put-upon snake.

The first Harry Potter book starts weird.

First of all, we spend several pages with Uncle Dursely, trying to ignore evidence that wizards are celebrating around him. We are searching for someone to identify with right away, but we just can’t connect with this guy. We do believe in his reality, because of lots of curious details (He makes drills for a living, he has a big mustache but no neck), but we don’t care about him and we certainly don’t invest in him. So why don’t we reject a book that isn’t giving us someone to identify with? Oddly, Vernon Dursley works as a sort-of anti-POV character. Yes, it’s frustrating, because we want to see all the things he doesn’t want to see …but it’s kind of fun to feel that frustration, for just a few pages.

Then, in the second half of the first chapter, we finally meet the character who we know from the title will be the hero of the book …but he’s just a baby. Any writing-advice book will tell you not to do this! It’s impossible to identify with a baby, unless this is the world’s most compelling baby.

But that’s exactly what Rowling gives us. Against all odds, she gets us to believe in, care for, and invest in baby Harry Potter.

  • We believe in his existence for various reasons: Strange physical details are always great for making a character feel unique and real, and this baby has a big, bad-ass scar, in a cool shape! And his life is filled with odd details: He’s brought to his meeting by a giant on a flying motorcycle.
  • And he is, of course, easy to care for, because we learn that his parents have just been killed in front of him: the worst thing that could happen to a baby.
  • That just leaves invest…Surely we can’t invest in a baby? But this is one hardcore baby: He’s just killed wizard-Hitler, and nobody knows how he did it! The entire wizarding world is in awe of his abilities!

So we’re saying, “Hell, yeah, this is an awesome hero!” But of course we’re also thinking, “Uh, I hope he learns how to talk soon, because it’s hard to identify with the character who has no dialogue of any kind.”

Nevertheless, Rowling has certainly compelled us forward to Chapter 2. Thankfully, Harry is now 10-going-on-11, but a 10 year old is basically a totally different person from a 1 year old, so now she has to reintroduce the character all over again and get us to identify with our real hero.

So can we believe in, care for, and invest in 10 year old Harry?

  • He’s believable because of his specific details: Too-big hand-me-down clothes, unkempt black hair, green eyes, and of course he still has that scar. His life is also full of good unique details: His babysitter’s house smells of cabbage (Always good to have a hero smell things that we might have smelled in our own lives, but never heard described in quite that way.)
  • Once again, he’s very easy to care for, because his adoptive parents have only pictures of their biological son, and make Harry sleep in a spider-filled closet under the stairs. His parents and brother denigrate him constantly. The reader deeply identifies with this, because what child with siblings has not feared at some point that their parents preferred the sibling? And of course we’ve all had to watch someone open presents and wish we could get one as well. It’s a good mix of suffering we’ve only feared and suffering we’ve actually experienced.
  • So that brings us to the trickier question: Can we invest in 10 year old Harry? Clearly his wizard-Hitler-killing days are long behind him. He has no idea he’s magic and he has no agency in his life whatsoever. It’s a good general rule that we first identify with kid heroes the first time they sneak out of the house, but Harry doesn’t do anything like that, despite his awful circumstances. He is, in fact, rather passive. But he does just enough. Most importantly, at the end of this chapter, he frees a captive boa constrictor. He does so passively and unconsciously, but he does it, and sort of knows he did it. This is just enough to get us to say, “Well, okay, he’s not exactly bad-ass yet at this age, but I’ll keep reading about this hero until he learns how to use these powers actively and intentionally.”

For many young people, this will be the first novel they’ve had read to them, or maybe the first novel they ever read on their own. And it’ll be a bit of a weird introduction to the world of novels. Neither the book nor 10-year-old Harry are begging to be liked …but maybe that’s why we like them so much.


Harvey Jerkwater said...

Also to get buy-in: it’s not just that Harry’s an orphan, it’s not just that he’s potentially a great wizard, it’s not just the cool setup of the giant on the flying motorbike, it’s that this potentially great wizard baby is going to be deliberately abandoned to our world, which Rowling established in the first chapter that either can’t or won’t see magic. So we worry for him, knowing that this child of vast gifts and love is about to be dropped into a situation where his specialness won’t matter among strangers who won't love him as much as his parents did.

Yeah, tell me that doesn’t resonate with every kid ever.

(If this was something you're going to get into in a later post, my apologies for jumping the gun.)

Matt Bird said...

No, I wasn't, and that's a good point! As I say in my first book, the most universal emotion is feeling misunderstood.