The problem with Harry Potter and why it doesn’t matter

Given his upbringing, Harry Potter wouldn’t have been a nice, well-adjusted kid. He would have been a nightmare. But that would have made a very different story.

Let me see if I’ve got this right.

We have Harry Potter, a kid who between the ages of 1 and 11 lived in a house with parental figures who hated, neglected, and emotionally abused him, and a sibling figure who bullied him.

I’m pretty sure he never got any love or affection at home.

He slept locked in a cupboard, for goodness sake.

We see no evidence he had any friends at school*, and, knowing kids, he probably got bullied for always wearing cast-off clothes that were too big for him.

* Okay, I haven’t read the books in years, so I’m mostly going by the movies. That still counts.

Yet as soon as he arrives at school we find he’s well-adjusted, respectful of authority, has no trouble making friends, and seems to be a stand-up guy.

Sure, anything is possible. But I’m going to say it’s freaking unlikely.

More likely Harry would be a little horror. A brat everyone would despise, possibly a bully himself, and certainly not the hero of seven books, eight movies, several games, and a forthcoming TV series.

J.K. Rowling seems like a smart lady who would have realised how unlikely the psychology she gave Harry was. So why didn’t she write this more realistic version of him?

My guess is because that story would have sucked. Or at least had much more niche appeal.

Sometimes realistic psychology doesn’t make a good story.

As to whether J.K. Rowling made the right call, I think it’s hard to argue with her results.

What does this have to do with us writing mortals?

I think the lesson is that realistic isn’t always better–in character psychology and more generally.

The main character in my WIP had what we might call a rough childhood. I did a lot of background reading about the psychology most people with her upbringing would have, and I had to wash so hard after reading it I nearly scrubbed my skin off.

I wouldn’t want to live for a page with a character like that, let alone for a whole book.

So I threw out the idea of realism and went with idealism. It’s my book and I want my readers to love my main character despite her rough edges, not want to dangle her by her toenails over a very high cliff with hungry T-Rexes circling below.

I’m not denying there are some great stories about some very damaged characters. Damaged characters can make for brilliant literature. But making your character so damaged they’re dislikeable is a big call. Do it only if it fits the story.

And before I go, I have to rant about one other thing that’s unrealistic about the Harry Potter universe. Have you ever noticed none of the wizard kids take classes in English or maths after the age of 10? Ancient runes are great, but a little algebra can go a long way…

Do you buy Harry’s personality given his upbringing? How important do you think realism is in fiction, and how do you treat such issues in your writing?

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Author: A.S. Akkalon

By day, A.S. Akkalon works in an office where the computers outnumber the suits of armour more than two-to-one. By night, she puts dreams of medieval castles, swords, and dragons onto paper.

4 thoughts on “The problem with Harry Potter and why it doesn’t matter”

  1. Good point, OTOH, as an educator I did meet a few kids who’d had awful starts in life but who mysteriously managed to be delightful people. Usually they had at least one person in their life who made all the difference. Maybe, for Harry, that’s Hogarth (or whoever the character is who shows up in the first book to tell him he’s really a wizard).

    1. I’ve heard that same thing about some kids. But Hagrid didn’t turn up until Harry was eleven, so that ‘s a big gap of years when he probably didn’t have anyone on his side. Still, he was the Chosen One (kind of), so maybe he was just that special.

  2. I’m a bit behind with my reading of blog posts, but here I am. 😀 … Harry was indeed a ‘good’un’, but JK snuck in quite a few classic traits of abused/neglected kids, subtle though they were. (as luck would have it, I’m currently doing a reread of the books 😀 I’m at the point in The Goblet of Fire where the third and final task is about to begin)
    One of which was Harry’s obsessive ‘need to know’ – a brilliant piece of writing that moved the plot along nicely, however it’s also what survivors of suckitudinous childhoods develop early on so they can avoid, where possible, confrontations with their abuser.
    There’s a few others, but my point is that the quality of the storytelling is what makes Harry look well adjusted, on the surface, as well as using subtext to tell a more complex story.

    1. Lovely to have you here, as always!

      That’s fascinating, thanks for sharing! I’m not super well-informed on the psychology of… well, anything, so it’s cool to hear a more informed reader has picked up these subtle signs in the books. It also makes me think I really need to read them again. 🙂

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