Writing Lessons J.K. Rowling Taught Me
One of the first pieces of advice I read when I decided to pursue writing was to study the writers I admire most. Immediately I thought of J.K. Rowling. Rowling created a magical world that readers want to live in. She shaped from words characters which we want to be our best friends, our families, our teachers. I’m about to share with you how being a Harry Potter fan made me a better writer and how becoming a writer made me into an even more dedicated Harry Potter fan. Read on to discover a few of the writing lessons J.K. Rowling taught me.
The Prequel: Becoming A Harry Potter Fan
I was almost nine when Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone released in the US. I don’t remember when I picked up the book to read it for the first time, but I think it was about two years later when I was eleven. Discovering Harry’s world at the same age as the main characters turned out to be sheer luck. Even so, I can’t thank the stars enough for aligning so perfectly. I instantly became a Harry Potter fan.
My peers and I grew up alongside Harry, Ron, Hermione, and the rest of the Hogwarts gang. I’m not sure if any current eleven-year-olds discovering Harry Potter for the first time will have the same experience I had, but I hope they do. Magic comes in many forms. For me, it appeared as seven books, which spanned my transition from child to awkward teen to older and still awkward adolescent. J.K. Rowling didn’t just create an empire—she wrote me through my most formative years, and for that, I will Always be grateful.
The more I study Harry Potter, the more I love it. I discover more ways to improve my own writing, to use Rowling’s example as a guide for creating something beautiful and magical.
**This post contains spoilers about the whole series. If you haven’t read Harry Potter, please for the love of all things literary, bookmark this post and Go. Read. All. Seven. Books. Yes, all of them. Come back when you’re done and we’ll discuss over tea.**
Without further ado, some writing lessons J.K. Rowling taught me.
When I’m reading a book and can’t connect with the characters, I lose interest. Harry Potter is brimming with interesting, flawed characters. As a kid, I was—and still am—a bookworm who loved school. Having Hermione to relate to made me feel more normal. She’s smart, reliable, logical, headstrong—attributes not stereotypical of girls, especially young ones. It was empowering as a young lover of learning to have a character like Hermione to look up to.
Ron is the perfect sidekick. A goofy, somewhat aloof boy who’s used to competition. Despite his sibling rivalry and famous best friend, Ron remains a loyal friend willing to sacrifice himself someone else can have the glory.
Every major character and many of the supporting cast in the Harry Potter series are so well-rounded that I can’t help imagine them as real people. Despite knowing exactly what’s going to happen, I still laugh, cry, and cringe with them.
How This Changed Me As A Writer And A Reader
J.K. Rowling truly knew her characters before and while she was writing. I thought I’d be able to craft complete characters by just filling out a questionnaire. After studying Harry Potter it’s clear that a lot more time and thought goes into creating relatable characters.
Since beginning this journey I’ve sought out more resources to help me follow Rowling’s example, like Creating Character Arcs by K.M. Weiland, as well as her archive of character development articles on her website www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com. Another collection of character-building articles I love comes from Writing Geekery’s MJ Bush. The Four Pillars and Four Cornerstones elevated the way I think about character development and my characters are all the more real because of them.
Recognizing the detail and care Rowling used to breathe life into her cast inspires me to do more than pick hair and eye color. Storytelling is all about the characters, and ones that pop off the page engage with readers and make them want to keep reading.
As a young Harry Potter reader, I enjoyed connecting with characters who were my age. Even now when I read the series I picture myself as the characters’ ages. Had their personalities not been as vibrant, my interest and ability to connect with them may have faded by this point. Almost twenty years later, I love them just the same.
A World Is More Than Weather
When I think about world-building, I often think of the settings my characters will inhabit—the climate and geographical features. Rarely do I think about the kind of candy my characters might enjoy.
J.K. Rowling crafted a world so real that readers can picture themselves living in it. (Hence the success of the Wizarding Worlds of Harry Potter.)
What I find most praiseworthy is that Rowling managed to make every element of the magical world important and necessary to the plot. Here are just a few examples:
Traveling by Floo Network, portkey, and broomsticks are all integral to the plots in the Harry Potter series.
In Chamber of Secrets, Harry travels by Floo powder for the first time and ends up in Borgin and Burkes in Knockturn Alley. Because of this, he witnesses the Malfoys speaking to Mr. Borgin and later believes (incorrectly) that Malfoy is the Heir of Slytherin.
Portkeys are important in Goblet of Fire since that’s how the group gets to the Quidditch World Cup. This first trip also foreshadows Harry and Cedric’s trip to the graveyard via the Triwizard Cup, which Barty Crouch Jr. turns into a portkey.
In Deathly Hallows, Aurors and friends must travel by broomstick, because Voldermort’s supporters are monitoring the Floo Network. Harry is still underage and therefore isn’t allowed to apparate. The bad guys controlling the transportation channels is a unique roadblock for Harry and helps drive the plot forward. Without that complication, Voldermort wouldn’t have gotten close enough to Harry’s wand for it to act of its own accord. This scene emphasizes the connection between Harry and Voldermort’s wands and leads to Voldermort’s pursuit of the Elder Wand, one of the Deathly Hallows. Had the group been able to travel any way other than broomstick that encounter never would have happened.
On their own, the magical methods of transportation are interesting and unique. But the fact that Rowling uses them purposefully to move the plot adds another layer of depth.
Another major element Rowling perfected was the Ministry of Magic. The governance of the magical world plays a huge part in the series. Rather than just mention government corruption or politics outright, Rowling weaves the threads through the entire series. Just a few examples:
Chamber of Secrets hints at the power and failings of the Ministry when Harry receives a letter warning him he’ll be expelled if he uses magic again outside Hogwarts—even though it’s Dobby who performs the spell. We also meet Arthur Weasley and Lucius Malfoy, two Ministry employees on opposite sides of the political and social conflict.
Prisoner of Azkaban brings us the wizard prison and the dementors—magical law enforcement—which is tied the plot of POA but also the rest of the books from here on out.
The Ministry is most involved in the plot of Order of the Phoenix. The first four books build to the moment in OotP when Voldermort and his supporters infiltrate the Ministry and interfere at Hogwarts. Since the prophecy is hidden in the Department of Mysteries inside the Ministry, the plot heavily revolves around the Ministry location and employees.
The Department of Magical Games and Sports and Quidditch aren’t just included to round out the world. In Sorcerer’s Stone, Harry discovers his flying ability, which allows him to grab the winged key on his way to defeat Quirrell and Voldemort. Goblet of Fire revolves around the Department of Magical Games and Sports because of the Quidditch World Cup and the Triwizard Tournament, both of which directly tie into the main plot of Voldermort’s plan to return.
Chocolate Frogs, the candy Ron and Harry eat on the Hogwarts Express in Sorcerer’s Stone, include a huge hint about the Sorcerer’s Stone. Albus Dumbledore is on the card inside the Chocolate Frog package, which introduces the Mentor character before we meet him. It also discusses Nicholas Flamel, the maker of the Sorcerer’s Stone. When Harry remembers this later, readers do a face-palm with him, because why on Earth didn’t we realize it before? It was woven so expertly into the folds of the world that it’s only while looking back we realize its importance.
I could go on for hours about the minuscule world-building details that Rowling perfected. From the few examples I’ve given, you can glean how important world-building is in creating believable settings for a story. More importantly, using these seemingly mundane facets of life can elevate a story to a whole new level. This is one of the most important writing lessons J.K. Rowling taught me.
Thoughts As A Writer And As A Reader
As a writer, I’m trying to find ways to incorporate more of these types of details into my own world-building. It’s fun to think of all the different ways silly things like clothes or plants can influence a plot.
As a reader, these details increase the realism of the world, but also provide more ways to think about the story on a deeper level. How would the story be different if Quidditch didn’t exist? Would it work at all? The threads of the mundane in the Harry Potter world weave a glittering tapestry that I’m excited to get lost in for hours at a time.
A Well-Thought Plan and the Art of Foreshadowing
Have you ever finished reading a series and asked yourself how the author managed to keep everything straight? And how the books all seemed to connect effortlessly? The more times I read the Harry Potter series, the more I appreciate how much effort and planning it took to weave the subplots together throughout the whole series.
I had a major “aha!” moment the first time I realized the “very old vanishing cabinet” Peeves smashes in Chamber of Secrets is the same one Draco Malfoy repairs in Half-Blood Prince. In Order of the Phoenix, Harry, Ron, and Hermione come across the Slytherin locket Horcrux and toss it out without realizing what it is. It’s not until two books later that they realize their mistake and readers take a collective gasp.
I could spend hours typing out all of these subtle details that tie the story together in perfect fashion. But we don’t have hours.
How J.K. Rowling Kept It All Straight
J.K. Rowling either planned everything to a ’T’ ahead of time, or she picked out small details from previous books and turned them into something important. I bet it was a combination of the two, but heavily leaning toward the former. Mastery of this kind is enviable, but it’s also possible.
Knowing my characters and plot backward and forward is key to planting strategic clues and details my readers may not discover until the fifth time they’ve read the book. The thrill of discovering something I missed is one reason I keep coming back to Harry Potter. The series is so layered with foreshadowing and hints that each time I read it I challenge myself to notice something new. Books that inspire rereads are hard to come by, but I think J.K. Rowling’s mastery of plot and foreshadowing are two components of her success.
If you’ve spent any time reading about Harry Potter, you’ve probably seen this photo:
It’s a handwritten book grid Rowling used when planning Order of the Phoenix, though I doubt this is the only tool she used. This is something any writer can do. In fact, I created my own book grid based on the one above to help me keep track of my subplots. Here’s mine:
I’ve found this so useful I decided to create a clean, better-looking template for you all to try for free! Here’s a sneak-peek:
My favorite part of the template is the drop-down where you can mark the function of your chapter or section of chapters. This helps with pacing and to make sure you don’t forget anything important. Tons of tools like this exist, but I find basic works best for me, and I love how flexible and customizable Excel is.
Download the Book Grid Template for free.
By creating this tool and others like it, I hope to be able to drop hints which will keep readers coming back to figure out what else I’ve hidden. At the very least, I’ll be able to keep track of all the juicy subplots without losing my mind.
Good Things Take Time, Great Things Take Years
It took J.K. Rowling around five years to finish Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s (Philosopher’s) Stone. Five years! From what I’ve read, many traditionally published books take about eighteen months to hit shelves once an agent/publisher says “Yes.” This doesn’t include however much time the author spends writing the thing in the first place. Even still, authors typically have deadlines, so I’d guess a long cycle for a book would be two-and-a-half years from start to finish. This means that in the time it took J.K. Rowling to write Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, an established author could have written and published two, maybe three, full books.
And then I think about Rowling’s success compared to most authors.
Maybe rushing isn’t such a good thing after all.
When I get down on myself for not meeting my goals, or I think about how long it’s taken to get my work-in-progress to its current state, I think about J.K. Rowling. She was a normal person working a normal job and writing in her spare time. It took her five years to finish writing Sorcerer’s Stone and another two years passed while she was trying to get it published. Writing is a long game. It’s not for the impatient. And J.K. Rowling’s patience, dedication, and determination were ultimately rewarded.
The Myth of Overnight Success
Often authors seem to rise out of thin air, achievers of instant success. What we as readers don’t see are the years they spent toiling in their offices after dinner or before sunrise. Long before a book gets sold, someone puts in the time to write it. And more often than not, it’s written during stolen moments which eventually add up.
I once heard someone say it takes ten years to become an overnight success. That planning pays off is one of the most important writing lessons J.K. Rowling taught me.
As a reader, knowing the time and effort that goes into my favorite books makes me love them even more. Time is valuable. I want to read books whose authors care enough to work on the story until it’s right. If it takes years, that’s okay. Because when stories are as magical as Harry Potter, they’re worth the wait.
To Be Continued…
I can never say enough about how much Harry Potter and J.K. Rowling have influenced me as a person and as a writer. Above I’ve given you a taste of my experience. More than anything, I hope this post informs about the importance and power of literature and the responsibility and honor we as writers have. Readers open their minds and hearts and lives to writers, and our duty to gift them with something worth reading. I strive to provide my readers the same joyous and curious experience Harry Potter gave me. If I learn from those who came before me, maybe, just maybe, readers will stick with me for the long-term.
Despite the struggles, I still think this gif—which may or may not represent something J.K. Rowling actually said—says it all:
I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about some of the writing lessons J.K. Rowling taught me. Leave me a comment about the best lessons you’ve learned from writers you love!