Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Hooking Your Characters

Who could ever forget the line of house-elf heads adorning the walls of Grimmauld Place?  Cut off and mounted on plaques when they could no longer carry a tea tray, these beheaded elves who served the Black family faithfully provide a visceral introduction to Sirius Black's home and family.  Readers will not easily forget this strong image nor the portrait of the screaming woman who insults everyone she considers beneath her.  Sirius' mother, and the long line of Blacks who came before her, have been effectively hooked as people who treat those who serve them as animals fit only to end life as a wall trophy.  And it's all economically done with a couple of phrases.

JK Rowling works with a huge cast of characters.  Even in the first book, the shortest, the reader encounters at least 50 individuals (including ghost, animals, and pictures) to meet and enjoy.  And yet, despite this large cast, readers find each one interesting and memorable.

How did JKR introduce these delightful characters without having turned Sorcerer's/Philosopher's Stone into the length of the later books?

One method is by giving each character a hook.  Hooks serve various purposes, but one is to provide a useful tool to help a reader remember your people when first getting acquainted before character development takes over. 

A hook can be a physical description (Hagrid is a giant of a man), a manner of speaking (Quirrel's stutter), a quirk of personality (Snape's obvious hatred of Harry), a role in the story (Dumbledore as the wise, old, mentor), or, as in the mounted elf heads above, a visual result of an entire family's bigotry.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

St. George's "Holey" Ear

... and More Subtle Religious References in Deathly Hallows

(Forenote -- I had originally planned to post this during Holy Week, when I thought it would be appropriate.  But, alas, my work schedule was so hectic then that I could not do the research and work which I thought this post deserved.)

Throughout the Harry Potter series, JKR alluded to religious themes and imagery so subtly that many fans didn't even recognize she'd done so. I remember clearly reading an argument on a chat loop before the release of Deathly Hallows where a couple of fans were arguing over whether the DH cover had Harry in a Christ-like pose. One fan insisted it could not be because the Potter series was devoid of religious references, which was why he found it so appealing.

I knew that fan was in for a surprise, or a disappointment depending on his POV, because from the beginning, it had seemed to me, JKR had consistently woven in religious ideas and symbols, just in such a subtle way as to be largely unobtrusive and definitely non-preachy. Of course, it helps too that she drew from a wide range of religious ideas, not just Christian, and thus people tended to focus on her Greek, Roman and Norse mythological references (while I preferred the Egyptian). Any resemblance to Christian overtones could have been seen merely because these religions share some common beliefs.

It was obvious, however, that JKR followed the hero's journey with each book and even had an overarching hero's journey for the whole series. Harry's death and resurrection experiences had grown more intense as the series progressed, and nothing but the ultimate death and resurrection would do for the final installment. Once JKR committed this self-sacrifice to Harry, it would instantly be recognizable as Christ-like, even though there are other death and resurrections of other mythological heroes as well.

What makes Harry's death and resurrection more Christ-like in Deathly Hallows is that it is not the only subtextual allusion to Jesus. If you look through the story, you will find numerous references to other Christ-like images (particularly some pertaining to his last few days of life). Starting with a big one -- Harry being the "Chosen One."

But there are others, some quite interesting. Here are some links I've found to show how JKR subtly wove in references from the Christ story to enhance and deepen her own work.

1) St, George and His Holy Ear:

One thing I've noticed with JKR's work is that sometimes upon a first reading, some setting, action, or characterization comes across to me as a bit odd, somewhat forced or strained. Usually, in these cases, when I examine it deeper, I find that it's because she's drawing upon a mythological, literary or historical reference that she wants to use in a new way. George's ear is a perfect example. Maybe it's just me, but having George's ear cursed off seemed a bit odd to me. Usually a writer would go more for something like the loss of a hand, arm or possibly a leg, but an ear? Why?

Well, it turns out that when Jesus was arrested, one of his companions, seeking to offer protection, drew his sword and cut off the ear of the servant of the high priest. Coincidence? Maybe. But considering that even George himself felt "holey" and "saintlike," I tend to think the link is deliberate. It's like she's teasing us, giving us a deliberate early nod in the direction she wants us to go with that "saintlike" and "holey."  She's setting the rules of the game saying, "Now, see how many more of these religious Easter Eggs you can find." She knew her fans well.

2) Pouring Out the Loot of the Money Changers in Gringotts:

We met these goblin money-changers from Harry's first entry into the wizarding world. Viewed with distrust and uncertainty by many witches and wizards, the goblins, like those who exchanged money in the Jewish temples or collected taxes like Zacchaeus, lived on the edge of two worlds.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

New Venture - Personal Workshop Offered

Lookee, lookee!  I've updated my blog with some new pages.  Check out the bio, with 2 handy sizes -- a short one for those with Ron-size attention spans, and a longer for those as studious as Hermione. :-)  I've also set up pages to list my presentations and publications.

Why all this tidying?  Many people have e-mailed me asking if I can present my Writer's Guide to Harry Potter workshop sooner than October or closer than Florida. Alas, as I'm sure you can understand, with juggling work, writing, and family, my travel and workshop time is limited.

However, as I've been teaching the class both in person and online for over 5 years, I've long had the course materials complete in written form. In fact, the total month-long online workshop comprises 370 pages of 13 lessons, including charts, tables, and loads of examples from all the books. It suddenly occurred to me -- why can't I offer this workshop direct to you through this blog?

I can! I may not be able to offer the extensive back-and-forth question-and-answer to each individual that is possible with a full class, but I can provide the exact same written materials and answer a few very specific questions pertaining to your own work.

Because I don't want to clog up the main thrust of my blog with a sales pitch, I'm setting up a separate page to list what I'm offering. If you're interested in a more extensive analysis than blog posts can provide of what we can learn from JK Rowling by studying her craft, then check out the workshop page.

Or, contact me about presenting the workshop at your writers group or conference.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

LeakyCon Presentation

I'm very excited to announce that I will be presenting my workshop, A Writer's Guide to Harry Potter, at this summer's Harry Potter fan and academic conference, LeakyCon 2011, hosted by the Leaky Cauldron (LeakyNews).  The conference will be from July 13 - 17 in Orlando, Florida, just in time for the release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallow, Part 2!

The release of the last movie, Universal's Wizarding World of Harry Potter, and fans from all over the world -- what more could a Potter fanatic ask for?  I can't wait!!

Would love to hear if any of you are going as well.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Upcoming Workshops

I will be presenting a couple of workshops for the online writers group Savvy Authors in the upcoming months. Conflicts of Myth, which delves into conflicts from ancient myths and how to incorporate these enduring themes into your story, will be during the month of September.  Then from mid-October through mid- November, I will present A Writer's Guide to Harry Potter.

You don't have to be a member of Savvy to sign-up for the online classes, but they are a great, supportive group.  I hope some of you can attend one or both of these workshops.  Also, I hope to announce soon another very exciting presentation!

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Dipping Into the Universal Well

Do you remember back to your high school days (or maybe you're still in them!), when your English Lit teacher loved to drone on about the subtextual layers in works from authors such as Faulkner or Shakespeare? Did Shakespeare really intend in Hamlet for the poisoning of the old king through his ear to speak to the veracity of what one hears through them?  I mean really, what author could have intended every single one of those thematic details English teachers like to needle out and torment their students with on tests? ;-)

But honestly, I have to say that the sort of minute analysis I suffered through in English class was a drop in the cauldron compared to the frenzy I whole-heartedly engaged with once Harry Potter hit the scene. Talk about your theories and comparisons to every fable, myth, and work of literature ever created! Surely, JK Rowling couldn't have meant but a small fraction of them.

Or could she?

To better analyze how these subtextual references work for a writer, let me do what all writers do. Let me tell you a story...

This one concerns a young man often called the orphan because his father was murdered by an evil lord, who then tried to kill the young orphan as well. Fortunately, the orphan's magical mother was able to save his life, and so he grew to adulthood with the desire to right the great wrongs the evil lord had committed, avenge his father's murder, and reclaim his father's inheritance, which the evil lord had stolen from him. Numerous times the orphan faced the evil lord, but neither was able to finish off the other. For years, they battled bitterly and often violently to prove themselves in escalating challenges, which caused great trouble in their divided lands.  Finally, the orphan triumphed, and with his success, reunited the people.  The evil lord was banished for eternity.

But wait, you say.  You know this story.  It's Harry Potter!

And yet, the story I was conveying is an Egyptian myth several thousand years old.

Osiris was the wise deity ruler over Egypt with his wife Isis by his side. Together they brought prosperity, peace, and order to Egypt.  However, Seth -- Osiris and Isis' brother -- seeing what they had, decided to steal the throne for himself.  He plotted to kill Osiris and then Isis' son, Horus, as well. Powerfully magical, Isis was able to protect her son from Seth's evil attack.

Horus was destined to avenge his father's murder when he was old enough to reclaim his inheritance. Horus and Seth battled for many years until finally the combatants were called before the Ennead -- a council of nine prevailing gods -- to decide the matter by tribunal. Proving himself the better, Horus was awarded his father's position, reclaimed his birthright, and united the lands of Upper and Lower Egypt forever after. Depending on the version of the myth, Seth was either banished or killed.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Heralds of a New Story

Following in my series on archetypes as started with Threshold Guardians and the Forbidden Door and continued with Those Tricky Twins and That Peevish Peeves, let's look at a storyline archetype that is usually a sign that change is near.

Heralds, quite literally, are messengers.  In a story, they usually bring news about impending change, challenges to overcome, and calls the heroine to adventure. As with most storyline archetypes, the character of the Herald can be presented positively or negatively, an ally of the heroine, or a tool of the antagonist. Or, the Herald role can be fulfilled by an inner call within the heroine and not take on the role of an outside person at all.

Although multiple Heralds can, and do, occur throughout the Harry Potter series, we’ll look at the first Herald in each book who brings the news of the initial challenge, or call to adventure, for that year.

  1. PS/SS--Hagrid serves in the first role of Herald, breaking down the door to bring Harry his letter from Hogwarts. He informs Harry that he is a wizard and is also the one who first tells Harry about Voldemort.
  2. CoS--Dobby arrives in Harry's home at the worst possible time, and in a rather odd manner foretells the doom which awaits Harry if he should return to Hogwarts
  3. PoA--Aunt Marge in her rude abuse of Harry serves as a Herald by forcing him to consider all he does not know about his parents, his identity--the prime theme of the story, and pushing him out of the house
  4. GoF--Mrs. Weasley, through her letter inviting Harry to the Quidditch World Cup, invites Harry to explore the Magical World more fully
  5. OotP--The Dementors, then the letters from the MoM; The Dementors force Harry into the action which precipitates the flurry of letters and his call to the hearing; we also learn later that the Dementors were envoys of Umbridge.
  6. HBP--Dumbledore, through his advance letter and then in person, Dumbledore arrives to take Harry to Slughorn and start him on his new quest to delve below the surface of important Slytherins, such as Slughorn, Voldemort, and even Snape.
  7. DH—I think there are two sets of early heralds in this last book. Both Daily Prophet biographies regarding Dumbledore serve to alert (and alarm) Harry to his need to reconsider his pedestaled opinion of Dumbledore. Then the arrival of the OotP guard, willing to risk their lives for him, call Harry to his need to accept the help of others in his quest to eliminate Voldemort.
Except for Aunt Marge, all these heralds have a recurring role throughout the series.  JKR does not give this role to a mere walk-on character.  Also, she uses a nice variety of heraldic devices -- letters, invitations, newspaper articles, magical manipulation (from Dobby), taunts, even the attempted sucking of souls.

Heralds don't have to always be someone arriving on your hero's doorstep with an invitation.  Be creative.  And if you do have the traditional herald with a message, at least make him fun and different -- like a giant arriving on an island with a magic pink umbrella and sausages in his pocket!

What heralds have you used lately?