Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Wide-Angle View of World Building

Most readers cite JKR's world-building as the lure that drew them into the Harry Potter series to begin with. JKR riddled the text with so much fabulously imaginative, fun, and complete detail that readers fully believed, for the few hours they were engrossed in the books, that they were indeed living in a world among wizards and witches, goblins and house-elves, giants and ghosts, and basilisks and hippogriffs.

JKR uses many layers to create her world. Her rich details come into focus through both a wide-angle and zoom lens. The reader experiences these angles simultaneously, but in this post, we'll look at the wide.

I find it highly significant that Harry’s introduction to the Wizarding World was not at Hogwarts but at Diagon Alley. Think about it--JKR could have had Harry’s books and supplies provided by the school once he arrived. But she wanted Harry, and the reader, to experience from the start that the Special World Harry was entering was full and complete and only diagonally set apart from our own.

At Diagon Alley, in that first visit with Hagrid, Harry encounters:

  • The Leaky Cauldron, Tom the barman, all the customers who are thrilled to finally meet him ... Doris Crockford several times

  • Gringotts, the wizarding world bank, where he meets goblins and hurtles hundreds of miles below London on a wild amusement park ride, past an underground lake and dragons, to his own vault of gold

  • A snotty rich kid trying on robes at Madam Malkin’s who asks if his parents were “our kind”

  • Flourish and Blotts, the Apothecary, and Eeylops Owl Emporium as he acquires his books, quills, parchment, a cauldron, potion supplies, and a birthday gift from Hagrid--Hedwig

  • Ollivanders, where his wand chooses him and he learns the special connection he has, through his wand’s phoenix core, to He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named
All of that in one chapter. As the book and the series progress, Harry's Special World, like Perkins’ tent or the trunk of the Ford Anglia, magically enlarges even more. Throughout the series, the reader experiences: Setting -- (Muggle Equivalent) Hogsmeade -- (an entirely magical village)
St. Mungo’s -- (Hospital)
Ministry of Magic -- (Government)
Department of Mysteries -- (Research Facility)
Beauxbatons and Durmstrang -- (Foreign Schools)
Azkaban -- (Prison)
The Burrow -- (the Weasley home)
Grimmauld Place -- (Sirius Black’s home and Order headquarters)
Godric’s Hollow -- (Lily and James’ home village)
Quidditch World Cup -- (The World Soccer Cup)
The Daily Prophet -- (Newspaper)
The Quibbler -- (like the National Enquirer)
Little Hangleton -- (Riddle and Gaunt hometown)
Tom Riddle’s orphanage -- (Riddle’s “home”)
Tom Riddle’s cave -- (Riddle’s hiding place)
Slughorn’s home -- (Muggle dwelling)
Malfoy Manor -- (Rich "gated" mansion)

This list is by no means exhaustive. The reader, and Harry, experience a vibrant world thriving and performing on a daily basis. A world full of people who are going to be affected by Harry’s choices. Some of these people would live or die as a direct result of Harry’s actions.  And if the reader is going to be affected by their fate later on, they need to experience them and their world personally beforehand.

Have you fully realized the world your hero or heroine inhabits? Have you built the bank, the prison, the government, the newspapers, the books, the schools, the playgrounds, the hospitals, the homes, the shops ... even if your reader may not ever go there? A variety of settings not only provides the feel of a fully developed world, but helps prevent the reader from getting bored.

What other wide-angle settings from Harry Potter can you remember?

Be sure to check out JKR's Zoom Angle of Worldbuilding as well.

** Credit to Neville at for the Diagon Alley picture.


  1. So weird. I just did a post on my blog about world building and I used Rowling as an example. LOL! Great post.

  2. Well, great minds think alike! I'll go check it out. :-)