Sunday, December 13, 2015

I Think It's Okay to Like Harry Potter Now



Sure, I liked Harry Potter when I was young. I was at the right age group in which many of my friends were able to wait up until midnight on their eleventh birthday and hope that they would have their owl come. The books were read to me, I enjoyed them as they came, but a part of me, a small but loud part, braced against it.

I hate to admit that I am the sort of person who, upon finding out other people like something, have a hard time ever getting too enthusiastic about it. I like my tastes to be my thing, taking possession over whatever I love and feeling territorial when it comes to other people liking at as well. Whenever I find out about something after it’s become household name, I’m not likely to go out and buy all its crap.

Also, from my limited fifth-grader perspective, fantasy and magic was only for us outsiders until Potter ruined it. While I do believe that prior to the popularity of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Harry Potter, and Twilight the supernatural was genuinely a “nerd’s” thing, and that I did “like it before it was cool,” I also recognize that I had five kids in my elementary school grade and my belief that magic was my unique interest might have been to do with the little sampling pool I had. But, to my eye, the sudden popularity of the Harry Potter series not only brought the magical world to the mainstream, it also made everyone tie all things fantasy back to it. Right when everyone started talking about it, I happened to go as a wizard for Halloween.

“Like Harry Potter?” they all said.

No. Not all wizards are from Hogwarts. Philistines.

It was, somewhat, like they had taken my love from me. I could no longer like what I liked without fear of acting like a trend follower.

But I never hated the Potterverse. I actually enjoyed it pretty well. I just never loved it.

Before leaving America, the boyfriend and I went to Universal Studios. I had been there before when I had lived in L.A., and most of it was the same. Yet, they were building something new, something not yet available to the public. We were taunted by a large wall that said, “Harry Potter, opening soon!” Over the tops you could see the little village roofs, a magical world just beyond our grasps. Of course they were selling Harry crap already, and we went through the bustling gift shop that featured beautiful wands and cloaks and books. I felt like crying. It was exciting, beautiful, and dismaying in a way. I was overcome with a shocking emotion.

I realized how much I longed to have something like that. Not a ridiculously vast franchise (primarily), but this real, tangible and beautiful world filled with whimsy and darkness, one that excited me, seemed so real, so wondrous.

J.K. Rowling is a master of setting. I have not read her other books and can’t necessarily say the same for anything outside of Harry Potter, but the world of Hogwarts, the visual of the characters, the fashion, the government, the candy is seeping with a complex depth and tangibility unlike I’ve seen in any other book. Not even Tolkien, who crafted the foundation for the genre for eighty some years, made a world that I found so vivid and striking as Hogwarts.

Don’t get me wrong, I like Tolkien. And part of the problem has obviously to do with the aftermath of his creation—the over exposure of elves and dwarves now make them more mundane and less foreign. But even still, while he likes to go on about his meals, they tend to be about bread and honey, not Fizzing Whizzbees and chocolate frogs. And even though the fashion of both worlds are based on historical British garments, Rowling tweaks the robes and hats, adds personal meaning to colors and symbols. If you walked into a room of people dressed in Potter fashion, you would know it without even a word.

It’s not that Rowling is incredibly original, but that’s part of why she’s so appealing. She doesn’t constantly break and change the rules, not ruining what we know and love about the mythology, yet adding to it. Yes, in some cases there are creatures that are very different than what we’d learned (Dobby the house elf’s appearance, as an example), but because, not despite, you can see the origins clearly there, it isn’t so abrasive. He’s a smaller person, though not as humanoid as I would expect. Elves aren’t subjected to slavery—they fixed the shoes out of kindness. But they do do work for people, and brownies (another form of small humanoid) were known for having to disappear if you gave them anything you owned. For someone who wants to read about the lore that I already know and love, but still want some novel, new input, this was the right approach.

But, back to me.

The interesting thing about authors is how ambiance and setting tend to be opposite ends of a writer’s skillset. Beginners who have a natural ability for setting tend to struggle with atmosphere and vice-versa, despite you would think they’d be one in the same. Being able to write a moment with tension, beauty, horror, awe, sorrow, or any sort of feeling is different than being able to create a great wide world with epic structures and histories. The reason, I think, is obvious; one involved details and one is about the big picture.

People who are good with setting tend to be (emphasis on tend) better with plot and poorer with characters. When you read a lot of unpolished fiction, you note that those with epic storylines, worlds, and ideas are more likely to have flat characters and struggle with grounding the universe, making people feel it. They summarize and do info dumps. They sound like text books. You are less likely to see yourself walking around, but rather just understand the depth of that setting.

On the other hand, people who are good with atmosphere and characters will often struggle with having any plot at all. They have real people with real emotions doing nothing. Their setting tends to be vague, based flimsily on how they see the actual world around them.

As a fantasy writer, I’ve never been one to go off into detail about the long history of the world. I only went into description about the broader scope of their reality when necessary, and even then it was often like pulling teeth to convince me/myself that I did need to discuss where people got their milk from on this other planet. There are obvious benefits to this, such as better pacing, a more exploratory feel, and not being party to that common criticism of fantasy writers’ tendency to editorialize. It also had its downside. Some of my beta-readers would, in the beginning, feel overwhelmed, confused, and not immersed, at times believing (sometimes accurately) that I was avoiding answering some fundamental functions of the reality.

A part of this tendency comes from a natural understanding and vision of the world I’m writing about. I see it before me and it makes sense. But, as I stated, writing a scene is very different than writing the universe, and sometimes you get a gray void outside of your sight, similar to when a video game glitches and you jam your head through the wall to see that nothing has been designed outside of that room. Writers want readers to feel the world is going on outside of just what is being shown.

Besides, creating a visual banks on my subconscious to make decisions. I’ve mentioned before how the subconscious wants everything to be “normal” and tends to draw from stock characters and assumed connections to enable us to write quickly and organically. This isn’t all a bad thing. Not only do you not need to be completely original all the time, you don’t want to be. Writing about things you like, being relatable, exposing how you see normal, being true to your thoughts, and even using “normal” and expected for contrast are important parts of a good story.

But, it makes for more choices that seem everyday to you, always expected. I have never felt the same way about my worlds as I do about Harry Potter’s. Despite all the qualities that come from my ambiance, my worlds have lacked something, something J.K. Rowling could give me that I’ve never been able to give myself. The reason I wanted to cry in that store came from my desire to feel that same way about my work. What was missing? I had been asking myself that for a while. I had been creating for so long, I’d hit a wall, and I didn’t know what to do about it. How could I breach that gap?

As I stood in the Harry Potter store, looking at all of the beautiful objects, being transported into another reality, I started to understand what I had desired, what my work was missing for me. I needed a real world, more than just the scene, but an entire universe that elicited the same excitement that I felt that day.

But how do I do it?

Some time back I had an idea for a mythology story, a beginning of a world, a novel that would start the history of others. I wrote probably 20,000 words into it and then hit a fork in the road, other ideas happened, and you know the rest.

In it, a supernatural figure kidnapped great artists from “our” world to implant them into a barren wasteland. There they found the ability to shape and change it, create a new reality, and eventually, learned how to even make life. They would become the first gods of the world, never to return home, but to remain in power over that new existence.

The project itself would be a long one. I’m not going to try and force my already written manuscripts into this world, and while I have a few works in progress not fleshed out, it would still mean that I would have several books to go before I really got to the point that I wanted. And even then, I’m not positive the natural evolution will help me. I believe I have to sit down and really push myself to think outside of the box for my mind to be surprised.

I kind of want to start from scratch and do more outlining, preplanning, sketch actual designs, and so on.

But, I don’t really want to rewrite Harry Potter. I don’t want necessarily a wizarding world, a magical world, but just something unique, detailed, grounded and vast. The only thing I really want similar to the Potterverse is Rowling’s bright and fun reality with the dark and terrifying undertone. So, as I’m trying to think of where to start, I am avoiding the magical world I love, avoiding the folklore, and attempting to disengage myself from the Potter mentality so I can craft something entirely different without fixating on that difference.

I’ve been fiddling around with this other manuscript on the side, trashing it and starting it over and over and over (which is unlike me). It is a science-fiction novel, and part of my issue with it is that I don’t typically like science-fiction cultures. There is that stereotype of what I call lawful science-fiction which originates from Star Trek. You see clean cut government officials walking around in white rooms before using superior technology to interact with other species.

There are exceptions, of course. Firefly and the anime Outlaw Star are some of my favorite televisions shows, and they feature spaceships traveling to different planets. So does Lilo and Stitch, one of my most loved movies of all time. I find Treasure Planet completely underrated. I am enamored with Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Enders’ Game, and Ringworld.

But many of these, you’ll note, are what I would call chaotic science-fiction, sci-fi that features people on the run, working against the law, or in desolate parts of space. Star Wars is, in many ways, a chaotic sci-fi, too, and you can see its influence in many sci-fi books today. However, most of these examples still have that lawful feel in certain areas, at certain moments or locations, some residual sense of “captain on the bridge,” even if they are about pirates, outlaws, and people dealing with the dirty, dusty unknown.

And, while I like some of these settings, I love the stories because of the characters. It’s not the places or images that really pull me in; they’re just a nice bonus. I find it hard to understand what it is about Harry Potter that is uniquely alluring that no science-fiction book has yet to achieve for me. (Though it should be noted that I read a far wider variety of fantasy novels than I do science-fiction, so simple exposure might have something to do with it.)

As a writer, I try to combine ideas as much as I can, mostly because my thought graveyard, or thought orphanage in many cases, is too large otherwise. It also fleshes them out more. Before I get knee-deep into a manuscript, it is usually just a vague notion of characters and events I’d like to happen. As I said, the scenes are usually vivid, or, if they’re not, by answering questions about that scene to make it more real, the story unfurls itself. Writing from the gut creates a genuine world, but it is limited.

So using this science-fiction story, especially as I believe there is something missing from the sci-fi that I read, is a good idea. Or, at least, even if it’s not this one, I do want to take a story that I’ve already started and hope to make it more than just about those characters. I want to create a world that is, just like Harry Potter, both whimsical and dark, that has interesting and beautiful fashion, architecture, food, sports, and an entire lifestyle, a story that is not just about the people, but that is truly exploratory of a new and rich culture.

I just don’t know where to start. I don’t want my inspiration to be obvious. While it can follow lore or expectation in places, I don’t want the evolution of my candies to be easily traceable. I want them to seem real on their own accord, not obviously based on Pop Rocks or something. I definitely don’t want to go off on details no one cares about, though I doubt that will be too much of a problem for me. I’ve never had the compulsion to say something just because I know it—I’m much more likely to gloss over it and leave people confused.

I realize that one of the things Harry Potter does is limit its scenes. Rather than trekking across an entire country or world, you stay in the same place, the same building even. The locations seem so familiar because the characters stay and visit only a few areas. You spend a lot of time in Hogwarts, and then return to Diagon Alley or Hogsmeade on some occasions. They become as familiar as your own school and grocery store. Just a much better one.

It should be also noted that the series is decidedly British. Many elements that are normal for Rowling are foreign for me. I can’t say exactly what, being that I haven’t lived in Britain, but as I walk around Australia (which is told to have many British influences), it too has a lot of “Hogs” in the name of things here. It seems Hogwarts and Hogsmeade are about as natural as Hogs Breath and hogweed. And, I believe, the entire concept of boarding school is much more common in England while in America it’s only for the really rich or really horrible. So it’s possible that the reason why her world can seem so new and yet organic is because she is reflecting aspects of her own culture that are new and exciting to me, where as I obviously can’t do that to myself.

Problematically, I’m not sure I want to do a series, or, rather, a story that is contingent on being a series. I have a lot of standalone ideas that I am working on, as well as my online serial, and I see this as being a large project that I will be planning on the side. It will take longer than most, and if I were to write it as a trilogy, it might be far too daunting for me to take on. So, I realize it becomes even more important that I stay within a very tight area within the storyline of one book.

It would be new for me, I’ve just realized, to have characters live out a plot in one building, which might be exactly what I need.

In either case, I am going to reread the series. Ever since the last book and a certain death (no spoilers), I have had no desire to pick it back up again, I was so devastated. But now, I’ve come to terms with it, and I’m beginning to forget the details. I need to refresh myself and remember exactly what it was she does.


In the meantime, I’m going to start playing around, and I think the first step is to examine my own life and start noticing all the little things I’ve never thought to pay attention to.