That my intentions might not be misunderstood, it is important I state at the very beginning of this post that my ambition is not to discredit J.K. Rowling as a writer. Like so many others, as a child I was a voracious reader of the Harry Potter series and I have always considered J.K. to be a wonderful story teller who has produced a funny and inspiring universe.
But this is not to say she does not have her weaknesses. Most documented are the various loop holes, which range from minor plot issues to near catastrophic oversights. I will not be addressing how the books stand plot-wise. In my opinion, too much has been made of what is essentially an unavoidable consequence of a successful children’s book being required to evolve into something more. There are mistakes, yes, and there shouldn’t be, but there are more important things afoot.
My discussion will focus on J.K.’s writing – more specifically on her writing of the character Harry. Again, I am not aiming to reveal some gross incompetence, but rather to try and tease out an element of the writing that I do not think works.
Harry Potter is written in what is sometimes called the fixed third person. This means that, unlike say Vanity Fair or the French Lieutenant’s Woman, which feature omniscient narrators who are directly telling the reader a story, it is narrated from one character’s view point. Apart from a few exceptions, noticeably those few chapters that follow Snape, we see the world through Harry’s eyes and ears and his eyes and ears alone. We know only what he knows, and if there is something he is unaware of, we are unaware of it too.
Simply put, the magical world is revealed to the reader at the same pace that it is revealed to Harry. In the first few books, this works like a charm (get it?). But as the story progresses it becomes less and less effective. And here’s why.
The problem is two fold. Firstly Harry is too disinterested in what is going on around him to serve as a proper point of contact. Secondly he is too slippery to get an emotional hold of.
In the first place we might expect Harry, with all a child’s curiosity, to try to learn as much as he can about his new universe as quickly as possible. But J.K. isn’t stupid, she knows that she needs to hold a few things back in order to maintain her audience’s interest. The details must be released to the reader steadily and not all at once. This means that they must be released steadily and not all at once to Harry. The problem is that J.K. has not struck the balance quite right and as a result of this failing, Harry comes across a little moronic.
For example, Harry does not make even the merest of enquiries about the Dementors or Azkabam until his third year of school in spite of the fact that the latter has been mentioned in front of him. Likewise, he does not ask anything about St Mungos until he has been surrounded by Wizards for five years. Surely any 14/15 year old kid would have long ago asked somebody something about the Wizarding hospital. After all, Neville has been banging on about his parents for a while now. Weren’t you listening, Harry?
This is just it. Harry is an idiot. Or rather he is intellectually uninterested. He does not seem to bother about the things we might think he would care about. For instance, having found out that the most powerful Dark Lord of all time is after him, why doesn’t he pay more attention in class, rather than sharing another joke with simple Ron? Why doesn’t he spend all of his spare time learning useful fighting/healing spells, or else those strange enchantments that Hermione knows all about? Without Hermione, Harry and Ron wouldn’t last one second. They are well aware of this, and yet still they do nothing about it! Hermione acts like I would imagine any at least semi-intelligent person in Harry’s position would act, and yet throughout the books her behaviour is not seen as appropriate, but rather it is considered to be geeky and is treated as an object of great ridicule.
In the second place, emotionally, Harry is all over the place. An advantage of the fixed third person perspective is that it makes the story easy to follow. We know what we are supposed to be feeling because it is what Harry is feeling too. But, although this may be true in the beginning, the link between the reader and Harry becomes more and more tenuous, until by the sixth book, nothing he says or does makes any sense at all. At least it didn’t to me. Indeed, were it not for the helpful but woefully unsubtle hints like ‘Harry was angry’ one might be completely lost at sea. The fact that J.K. believes she needs to tell us what to feel surely demonstrates that she does not believe enough in her character to let him show us instead.
It started so well. Through books one to four we started to get a hold on the sort of boy Harry is growing up to be. Then in book five it all changes. Suddenly the past catches up with him. I know teenagers can be cranky, but really, he needs to chill out! Harry – it’s not Ron or Hermione’s fault that your parents died. You knew that last year, why don’t you know it now?
Fortunately for us all, within a year he has settled down a lot – who knows why, because if anything his life has got a lot worse – and now he is into girls. Big time. Again it is a little unclear where the emotion is sprouting from. The fact that Harry is an elusive character is even more of an issue for J.K. as it would normally be because her characters have aged along with their readers. The majority of her readers literally grew up with Harry Potter, this means that they should not be strangers to the sorts of things a young man would be thinking / feeling, even if they have not been subjected to the same hardships as he has. Given that she had seven long books in which to put her reader in the mind of Harry, it can only be regarded as a dismal failure that she has not managed – at least in some cases – to do so.
Pretty much everything I have just said takes nothing away from the standing of the Harry Potter series. J.K.’s talent lies in story telling, not character building. She has produced an thoroughly entertaining and sellable world and should be praised for her success. But I think that what frustrates writers about the seemingly limitless plaudits the series has won is that, to the extent that writing at its best is arguably above all about character, the books are not terribly well written at all. And what really frustrates them is that, on this score, her fans are completely unaware.