Thursday, September 30, 2010

Mad-Eye's Mad Eye

I want you to look at the three images I have on this post and see if you recognize any similarities.

Let's start with the first image, the ancient Egyptian Eye of Horus.

The Eye of Horus was an amulet of healing and resurrection. One of the most revered and powerful amulets in ancient Egypt, the Eye provided protection from evil. It was a symbol of royal strength and assisted in the rebirth of the deceased.

As the granddaddy of apotropaic amulets, meaning a talisman that turns back harm or evil, the eye amulet was so popular that it spread throughout the region and the centuries, morphing and adapting to various cultures, but always retaining the staring single eye. It is truly very old magic.

nazar boncugu

The Eye still exists in various incarnations even today. It is very popular throughout the Middle East, especially in Turkey where it is known as nazar boncugu. In Turkey you will still see this amulet nailed over doors to homes, decorating the hulls of ships, and pinned to the clothing of young children, placed there protectively by their loving mothers. (Actually, you see it EVERYWHERE! :-)

Now let's look at Mad-Eye's mad eye.

From Goblet of Fire:
But it was the man's eyes that made him frightening.

One of them was small, dark, and beady.  The other was large, round as a coin, and a vivid, electric blue.  The blue eye was moving ceaselessly, without blinking, and was rolling up, down, and from side to side, quite independently of the normal eye -- and then it rolled right over, pointing into the back of the man's head, so that all they could see was whiteness.  (p. 184-185)

Hmm. An all-seeing round eye with the colors of black, blue, and white... Ya think there's a connection?

A few years ago, when E.L. Fossa of Wizarding World Press pointed out to me the similarities between JKR's creation and the Turkish nazar boncugu, I felt a bit dimwitted.  Here I was, married to a Turk, having lived in Turkey many years, with many boncuks hanging in my house, on my keychain, or pinned to my children's clothes when they were babies, and I'd not made that connection.  Yet, I was only then learning how to look below the surface in a Harry Potter novel.

If I'd had any remaining doubts that JKR intended for the reader to make these connections, it was  was when she had Umbridge nail Mad-Eye's glass eye to her office door that cinched it for me.  On the surface, that was just a bit odd.  And you can bet, whenever JKR is doing something that seems odd or slightly out of place, that she's getting at a deeper meaning, most likely using a mythological reference.

But ... why would JKR pin a benevolent amulet onto a character who in the first book is a Death Eater and fraud?  I think there's an initial reason, and then a deeper one that leads to the underlying mystery of the series.

First the initial reason -- the Eye of Horus, as well as its descendant, the nazar boncugu, are amulets that represent protection from an all-seeing divinity.  In Goblet of Fire, pseudo Mad-Eye (aka Barty Crouch, Jr.) fills this role.  He sees all, knows much more than any other character what is truly going on, and is bent on protecting Harry and getting him through as champion in the Tri-Wizard Tournament.  Unfortunately, all this protection is aimed at providing Harry as a sacrifice to his lord and master, Voldemort.

However, in the end, despite himself, Crouch's protection works effectively.  It is Barty Crouch as Mad-Eye who taught Harry how to throw off the Imperius curse, an ability that helps Harry survive his encounter with the Dark Lord and return safely to Hogwarts.

As writers, we have the option of working sub-textual meaning into our stories.  If we do so with skill and resonance, as JKR has done with Moody's eye, then we've provided a whole new layer for the reader to engage within our pages, time and time again.

So, why would JKR draw so much attention to this ancient Eygptian amulet?  I have a theory and it points to the Horcruxes.  But that's a huge 'nother post.  I'll try to do it this weekend, so check back.

Photo credits:
Eye of Horus
Nazar Boncugu
Mad-Eye Moody 
Door with Boncuk, Turkey

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Getting Your Themes Across - The Unforgivable Curses

If you want to know what JKR thinks the worst thing one human can do to another is, the answer is right there on the page in Goblet of Fire, chapter 14, "The Unforgivable Curses."  JKR uses a school lesson to give the reader insight into what is to come in the remaining books, as well as a hint toward the deeper meaning underpinning her stories.

Pseudo Mad-Eye Moody, in his first Defense Against the Dark Arts class in Harry's fourth year, uses spiders to teach the students what they need to be on guard against:

1) the Imperius Curse -- Ron mentions this one.  It is cast with "Imperio," and gives the witch or wizard total control over the other person.  Mad-Eye says it takes real strength of character to throw off this curse.

2) the Cruciatus Curse -- Neville names this one, and we later learn that this was the curse which drove his parents insane.  Indeed Barty Crouch, Jr., aka Pseudo Mad-Eye, was one of the Death Eaters who is responsible for leaving Neville essentially an orphan.  Uttering "Crucio" causes total and devastating pain.

3) Avada Kedavra -- As Hermione informs us, is the Killing Curse.  There is no defense against it, and only one person is known to have survived it.  Harry.

Before the end of the series, we will see these curses used by both Death Eaters and good guys.  Harry himself will use the Imperius Curse when he, Ron, and Hermione break into Gringotts in Deathly Hallows.  And at the end of Order of the Phoenix, after Bellatrix kills Sirius, Harry tries to cast the Cruciatus Curse at her, but discovers he really doesn't have what it takes to cause another person serious pain.  Later, he attempts to use it against Snape after he killed Dumbledore at the end of Half-Blood Prince, then succeeds in using it briefly against Amycus Carrow in Deathly Hallows in defense of Prof. McGonagall.

Presented in ascending order of greater offense, JKR thus informs her reader that, in her opinion, the worst things one person can do to another is to control them against their will, cause them devastating pain, and kill them.  She has stated in interviews that she takes death seriously, and that is why you do not see random and casual killing in her stories.  Until the final battle of Hogwarts, each death is presented in such a way as to make the reader truly feel the utter and senseless loss.

JKR has also let her reader know throughout the series what she believes about choice:  "It is our choices, Harry, that show us what we truly are, far more than our abilities." (PS/SS)  That's why taking away one's free will is including on a list with pain and death.

So, with this bit of creative worldbuilding, JKR has created an effective tool for summarizing some of her own key beliefs, crucial themes to the story, and giving clues as to what is to come.  By studying her technique, we see that not only is it truly great to work with themes as a writer, but what's even more cool is when these themes can be inserted openly into the story in a creative, interesting, and most importantly, non-preachy manner.

As a writer, if you were to create your own list of 3 Unforgivable Curses, what would they be?  Would you include the same ones as JKR, or would yours have a different construction?  How would they fit into your current WIP?

Have you created your own piece of worldbuilding to insert into your story that gives your reader insight into your themes and foretell what is yet to come?  And having created such a tool, who will use it?  How will it look different from use by your hero to your antagonist?

Picture credit.

Friday, September 24, 2010

JK Rowling - Oprah TweetParty!

Are you as excited as I am about the possibilities coming out of next week's (Friday, Oct. 1) JK Rowling interview on Oprah?  Could the announcement of her next novel be forthcoming?  Don't you want to squee together with a bunch of like-minded fans?

Let's all Tweet together and share the excitement of this rare interview.  Use the hashtag #JKROprah on Twitter when the program airs Friday, October 1! (as well as leading up to next Friday!)

Spread the word.

Does anybody get the show sooner than 4 pm EST? Let me know!

I'll keep you up to date here and on Twitter:
@HP4Writers on Twitter

Watch new clip on last words of Deathly Hallows here:

And an earlier clip posted at JKR Fan's blog:

See these posts for more details on the announcement:

The Daily Snitcher
The Leaky Cauldron

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The minutes snailed by.

JK Rowling has a way with words.  She can capture descriptions of setting, mystery, and character in a manner that is both vivid and delightful.

I'll use this post to start a collection of favorite tidbits from her work, chosen for reasons of craft above story, but any type of excerpt that I find special in some way shall be included.  These are just short sentences or phrases that don't require a lot of study, but are worth noting all the same.  I'll update this post frequently.

The minutes snailed by. (CoS, p. 151) - when Harry had detention with Lockhart. This little snippet almost sailed right by me.

"It's a dragon!" shrieked one of the first years, losing her head completely.
"Don't be's a flying house!" said Dennis Creevey. (GoF, p. 242) - because seeing a flying house makes so much more sense than seeing a dragon!

Stupefied, painted gold, stuffed into a miniature tutu and with small wings glued to its back, it glowered down at them all, the ugliest angel Harry had ever seen, with a large bald head like a potato and rather hairy feet. (HBP p. 309 Bloomsbury) -- I love those hairy feet.  Because a stupefied Christmas tree gnome is just not funny enough without those hairy feet.

Madam Hooch, the Quidditch teacher, asked Flint and Wood to shake hands... (CoS, p. 213) -- Flint and Wood?  I wonder if they strike sparks off each other.

Wands are only as powerful as the wizards who use them. (DH, p. 337 Bloomsbury) -- We are talking about wands, right?

They hurried along the corridor to the place Dobby had described to Harry, a stretch of blank wall opposite an enormous tapestry depicting Barnabas the Barmy's foolish attempt to train trolls for the ballet. (OotP, p. 389) -- I mean really; what kind of warped mind conjures up trolls in pointe shoes doing a plie?!? Obviously, no simple tapestry of a knights and ladies would do!

Snape's sallow skin had gone the color of sour milk. (PoA, p. 285) -- That's kinda nasty.  I'd never have thought to compare skin to milk.

A loud ripping noise rent the air; two of the Monster Books had seized a third and were pulling it apart...
"I thought we'd seen the worst when we bought two hundred copies of the Invisible Book of Invisibility--cost a fortune, and we never found them." (PoA, p. 53) -- I want to shop at this bookstore!

If you find any remarkable snippets, please send them my way!

Picture credit.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Dumbledore's Theme Song

"Ah, music...A magic far beyond all we do here!" (PS p. 95)

Music and Dumbledore. The two just seem to go together, don't they? We know from his chocolate frog card that he "enjoys chamber music" as well as tenpin bowling. But the music vibes deeper than that. Music, for Dumbledore, touches his very soul.

Dumbledore, like his namesake the bumblebee, seems to always be humming about the castle. And then there's his pet, Fawkes, the phoenix. Fawkes not only represents Dumbledore's Patronus, but his anima, a projection of his soul, which restores Harry, not once, not twice, but three times with the power of music.

It is with "eerie, spine-tingling, unearthly" music that Fawkes appears in the Chamber of Secrets and drops the Sorting Hat to Harry, thus giving him the sword of Gryffindor and his means to defeat the Basilisk.

Then, in Goblet of Fire: unearthly and beautiful sound filled the air. ... It was coming from every thread of the light-spun web vibrating around Harry and Voldemort. It was a sound Harry recognized, though he had heard it only once before in his life: phoenix song. It was the sound of hope to Harry. . . the most beautiful and welcome thing he had ever heard in his life. . . . He felt as though the song were inside him instead of just around him. ... It was the sound he connected with Dumbledore, and it was almost as though a friend were speaking in his ear. . . .

Don't break the connection.

When Harry passes along to Dumbledore how he'd answered Scrimgeour's accusation of his being Dumbledore's man through and through with a proud affirmative:
Dumbledore opened his mouth to speak and then closed it again. Behind Harry, Fawkes the phoenix let out a low, soft, musical cry. To Harry’s intense embarrassment, he suddenly realized that Dumbledore's bright blue eyes looked rather watery, and stared hastily at his own knees. (Bloomsbury, 334-35)

At Dumbledore's death in HBP:
And Harry felt, as he had felt about phoenix song before, that the music was inside him, not without: It was his own grief turned magically to song that echoed across the grounds and through the castle windows.

How long they all stood there, listening, he did not know, nor why it seemed to ease their pain a little to listen to the sound of their mourning...

Why would JKR make these connections between Dumbledore and Fawkes and music? Maybe she's playing on a character theme here, on the essence of Dumbledore.

Most writers are familiar with story themes--the central idea, or meaning, of a story. But you can have themes centered on a character as well. Knowing your character's theme helps you as a writer to convey consistently the essence of that character. And if your essence is Bellatrix, according to Hermione when tasting her Polyjuice, that is quite disgusting.

A character theme is not necessarily a main personality trait, though it can be.  Character themes can also focus on a core belief (such as Draco's privileged disdain for mudbloods), a physical feature if it has a profound impact on that character (such as Mad-Eye's mad eye), or something more esoteric (like in Harry's association with the alchemical Philosopher's Stone and Dumbledore's affinity with music and the resurrecting Fawkes).

For an example of how a character theme can play out in the story, let's look at Ron.  Ron is Harry's loyal friend, and the reader sees this in the many words and images JKR writes for Ron -- his constant support and companionship, his defense of Harry when the rest of the school considered him to be the Heir of Slytherin, his welcoming Harry into his home and family, and his willingness to risk his life to save his best friend's.  Even though Ron's loyalty is put to the test once or twice, it is precisely because loyalty is what Ron is all about that he's tested in this manner.

Other character themes which JKR plays with:

  • Hermione -- the Brain (Is that why Ron was attacked by a brain in the DoM? :-) The reader is given numerous references to Hermione's intelligence and love of books.
  • Neville -- yes, Neville is forgetful, but I think his deeper theme would be something like "untapped potential."
  • Uncle Vernon -- Have you ever noticed how often angry words and a purple face are used to describe Harry's "loving" uncle? I think his theme would be raging intolerance.
  • Aunt Petunia -- rigid clean freak--numerous refs to her cleaning, or her spotless home, and think of her reaction to Marge's visit with her dog
  • Hagrid -- monster-loving, almost like muggle-loving, but way more dangerous
  • Snape -- vitriol--as in repressed anger, resentment, and self-blame eating him out from the inside

And finally, again, Dumbledore -- Dumbledore's theme is not simply music, but Phoenix song, music that restores the soul, that resurrects life. It's Dumbledore's theme song which plays deeply into the heart of the Harry Potter saga and which carries Harry through in his final confrontation with Voldemort.

JKR applied her Polyjuice potion to brew out the essence of her main characters, as well as the secondaries.  She knew intimately what they were all about and wove these tidbits into her story to portray them three dimensionally on two-dimensional paper. If you know the heart of your character, then you can breathe life into their being. JKR used these themes through consistent references describing that character's manner of being, words, and actions.

As a writer, have you thought of the essence of your characters?  If you had to describe the look and taste of their Polyjuice potion, would it be disgusting like Bellatrix's,  "the khaki color of a booger" like Goyle's, or a "clear, bright gold" like Harry's?

What other character themes can you see within the Potterverse?  Or, what is one of your own creation?

** Picture credit for Fawkes.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

All the Kreacher's Men

One excellent way to demonstrate character in a story is to show how your hero or secondary treats other people.  Or, in the words of the immortal Sirius Black, "If you want to know what a man's like, take a good look at how he treats his inferiors, not his equals." (GoF, p. 525)  Through the course of the last three books, JKR gives the reader insight into the character of three men based on how they treat one considered an inferior, a house-elf named Kreacher.

Sirius Black -- In Order of the Phoenix, Sirius hates the sight of Kreacher and treats him terribly. But it is not Kreacher himself whom Sirius hates as much as it is what Kreacher stands for. Kreacher is the last surviving remnant (aside from Sirius) of the pureblood, aristocratic, and extremely bigoted Black family. Sirius seems to hate everything about his family and what they stood for, which resulted in him running away at sixteen to go live with Harry's father, James. Sirius' mother subsequently blasted her son from the Black family tree tapestry.

Unfortunately, this very understandable feeling Sirius harbors towards his family's prejudices results in him treating one beneath him with an attitude bordering on his family's bigotry. And in the end, is what causes Kreacher to fatally betray Sirius to his Death Eater cousin Bellatrix.

Lord Voldemort -- In the "Kreacher's Tale" chapter of Deathly Hallows, Kreacher reveals to Harry, Ron, and Hermione how his master, Sirius' brother Regulus, a Death Eater, had requested that Kreacher go with Lord Voldemort on a secret mission. This mission involved Kreacher accompanying Voldemort to hide his Horcrux locket in the cavern. Voldemort wished for a house-elf to accompany him because he considered the elf's magic less important and the elf himself expendable. Voldemort forced Kreacher to drink the basin of poison and then left the elf alone to die at the hands of his zombie-like Inferi.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Charting Your Character's Obstacle Course

A very specific technique of character development related to plotting is to give your characters an important obstacle to overcome. This obstacle can be either external or internal. The antagonist blocking their way is external. Overcoming their low self-esteem in order to believe in their own powers is internal.

Many times obstacles are both. The example of the maze in the Triwizard Tournament in Goblet of Fire is a good example. The maze was a physical impediment to the goal of winning the cup. Harry overcoming his jealousy of Cedric was an internal accomplishment.

As in real life, when characters overcome obstacles, they grow. This is the crux of character development. Character development is not what you, the author, write out as descriptions of your character. Character development occurs when your character, through the plot of your story, makes choices, right or wrong, and changes because of it. When you look at a character from the beginning to the end of a story and see this change, it should be dramatic and noticeable and is called a character arc or growth arc.

We're all familiar with Harry's overall series growth arc. He goes from being an unloved orphan stuffed away in a closet to the celebrated savior of the magical world. Along the way, he must overcome many obstacles to obtain the maturity, skill, and wisdom to defeat the darkest wizard of all time.

Each book presents its own set of obstacles and challenges that Harry must face. Some of these obstacles are external--such as Snape's hatred, Dumbledore's slowness to reveal crucial information, and Voldemort's increasing shenanigans to do Harry off. Other obstacles are internal--Harry's lack of belief in his own powers coupled with his lack of knowledge of the wizarding world and what happened in Godric's Hollow. Internal conflicts also include his inability to trust in the manner of Dumbledore and his disbelief that love is more powerful than hatred.

Most writers understand the importance of carefully plotting their protagonist's growth arc. They'll spend much time and energy charting their hero's GMC, torturing their heroine, and assuring that the turning points are strong and powerful. However, the strength of a truly good novel often rests in how much energy the author puts into developing their secondaries as well.

For example:

Beginning Situation
Obstacle to Overcome
Ending Triumph
Enslaved to the Malfoys
Cannot act on his own against Malfoys without punishing self
Due to his loyalty to Harry, wins his freedom when Harry slips Mr. Malfoy the sock.
Crush on Harry, though he doesn't notice her
Tongue-tied around Harry
Increased strength and self-confidence through other relationships.  Dates/marries Harry.
Youngest son with five older brothers
In shadows of brothers, in shadow of Harry
Overcame his fears of living in shadows and returned to his best friends.  Achieved greater fame than any of his brothers by helping to defeat Voldemort.
Living with grandmother, who belittles him. Unpopular at school.
Poor memory, inept, lack of confidence
Showed the power of his magic in killing the last Horcrux, the one closest to Voldemort, his snake.
Hates Harry.  Not the most trusted professor.
Poor decisions in past, hurt the one he most loved
Helped to save the life of Lily's son and restore the Wizarding World.

Throw obstacles into the path of your characters. Challenge them to new heights with the problems they must overcome. Don't ever let their way be too easy. Otherwise, who does the reader have to cheer for?

Remember the power of the underdog. Everyone cheers when the underdog wins out against tremendous odds. But when even an underdog is not challenged, or fails, he remains an underdog that no one cares about or remembers.

Monday, September 6, 2010

A Taste of Magic

When working with an element unfamiliar to your reader, such as a certain magical spell or fantastical beast, it is important to introduce how that element works before using it in an important situation, especially a situation that involves a twist or mystery.  You have to play fair with your reader by exposing the magic before the magical result is important to the story.

JKR was really good about this.  For example, we saw McGonagall transforming as an animagus long before the Padfoot, Wormtail, Prongs, and Mooney thread of Prisoner of Azkaban.  Likewise, JKR introduced the Polyjuice potion as a relatively minor plot point in Chamber of Secrets before it became a major potion of concealment two books later.

In looking at Goblet of Fire, I found two magical elements that JKR deliberately introduced to her reader at the beginning of the story which played a crucial role in its climax: the Portkey and Prior Incantato.  Portkeys, according to Mr. Weasley are "objects that are used to transport wizards from one spot to another at a prearranged time.  You can do large groups at a time if you need to."  And when Harry asks what type of objects they are, he replies, "Well, they can be anything...Unobtrusive things, obviously, so Muggles don't go picking them up and playing with them." (p. 70, GoF).

Portkeys can be a TriWizard Tournament Cup! And just like at the beginning of the book, Cedric takes hold of the Portkey along with Harry to a meeting that involves Death Eaters.  Here at the dark moment, however, the Portkey transports Harry and Cedric into a much more deadly encounter where Cedric loses his life and Prior Incantato unleashes "the ghost of a spell" (p. 136) that reveals Harry's deceased mother and father.

When working with elements, magical or otherwise, that play a crucial role in the climax or mystery of your story, make sure you have introduced your reader to them, and the way they should work, beforehand.  Give your reader a taste of magic early on so they have a fighting chance at playing along with your world and guessing your secrets.  Foreshadow major elements that are yet to come.  Introduce creations of your own imagination in such a way that your reader can be an active participant in your story.  Don't just spring a crucial surprise on them that they could not have guessed.  They'll feel cheated.

What magical or fantastical elements have you introduced into your story and how have you foreshadowed them?

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Missing Letters to Imagination

Did many of you see a common thread passing around Twitterverse yesterday, September 1?  From agents to HP character impersonators, to Wizard Rockers, to regular fans--loads of people were talking about either catching the Hogwarts Express, or lamenting their missed letters.

Why all this hoopla over a pretend starting day for a fictional school?

Because Hogwarts seems totally awesome to so many people.  And, most importantly, incredibly real.  As one Tweeter put it, Hogwarts is way more fun than his real school.  Who wouldn't want to go there?

Fans love JKR's wizarding world so much that they can't let it go, even though the series is complete.  They must find ways to keep Hogwarts and Hogsmeade, the Burrow and Grimmauld Place alive, playing in its rich imaginary corridors and dungeons constantly.

How real is your world?  How vividly have you imagined your shops and streets, your hospitals and homes?  How strongly have you captured your imagination in black and white on paper or monitor?  Have you put all your effort into giving your reader more than they expect?  Have you provided such richness and authenticity of detail that your fans, too, one day will play in your universe as if it were better than real life?

World building is one of the most important elements that JKR did so right.  It's impossible to cover all her world building techniques in one post, but follow the World Building label below, and I'll keep coming back to it again and again, trying to learn, hoping to unmask her magical secrets.

Because while my Hogwarts letter must have gotten lost in the mail too, :-( , I've got a ticket to an imaginary world of my own creation that thrills me just as well...if not better.

What about you?  Where's your imagination taking you today?