I'm a Potter freak and even though I admire literary fiction, I don't apologize for this digression. I'm married to a sci-fi/fantasy geek who read the Harry Potter books as soon as they hit library shelves. In between he plugged his ears and eyes, so previews wouldn't contaminate his experience. I enjoyed the movies with him but I had no interest in reading the books. Until the writing bug bit me and the first novel out of my head was a middle grade fantasy.
Then I studied Rowling's books cover to cover, all 4195 (U.S.) pages. I noted immediately the issues that critics scoffed at: Opening on a scene absent the protaganist or any character near the targeted reader's age (more than a century has passed since Dumbledore was a teen!), swerving point of views and all that telling/not showing. None of that mattered. By the end of page one, I was gripped by the story and remained so to the last page of book seven.
How did Rowling do it? What is it about her story that struck a chord with millions, young and old? For me it starts with her characters. Harry, Ron and Hermione are relatable, likable kids. They're not super good-looking or cool and they use ordinary assets to battle evil: Knowledge, courage, and determination. Rowling infuses their dialogue with wit and humor, even during the darkest moments. After Harry and his buds tackle a troll, Rowling delivers comic relief when a flustered Professor McGonagall awards their school house ten points for "sheer dumb luck."
Hogwarts' staff . . . Dumbledore, Hagrid, McGonagall and Snape are equally charming (yes, I called Snape charming!). Not only did I root for Harry and his pals, but I hoped for Snape's vindication. Because Rowling's characters are not one-sided. Snape is a complicated mixture of loyal Hogwarts' professor and former Deatheater. The wise and powerful Dumbledore puts Harry in danger and often leaves him to deal with it alone. Even the contemptuous Dudley Dursley is redeemed in the end when he shows respect and concern for Harry. Readers recognize themselves in these flawed characters and celebrate their victory over wrong.
Next week: The World Rowling Built