Friday, June 24, 2011

Who Really Cares About Harry?

Continuing in our First Chapter Series of posts on the beginning of Harry Potter, today we're talking about stakes.  Who really cares about what happens to this young boy? What's at stake for him in the coming story?  These are questions which must be answered from the beginning.  And they must be presented in such a way as to make your reader identify with and care about what happens to your main character.  Otherwise, why bother to continue?

JK Rowling, from the start, even without going into the POV of her hero, gives the reader three main reasons to care:
  1. He's an orphan, his parents killed by an evil wizard
  2. He's off to live with an aunt an uncle who certainly don't want him, but have also been shown to be snoopy, petty, and intolerant.  They are also the exact opposite of Harry's true family.
  3. What happens to Harry affects a large community around him.  We're shown this from the very beginning with the celebration of the wizarding world because of Harry's survival and Lord Voldemort's departure.
With these three set-ups, JKR gives us some heart-tugging backstory, hints of the upcoming conflict, and the wider view of how Harry's situation will greatly affect a larger community around him -- all components that will entice a reader to pluck down her time and money to invest in the upcoming story.

The heart of grabbing your reader's attention at the beginning of your story is to make them care.  And the catalyst that sparks care is what's at stake.  Something has to be at risk for your hero and his community or who really cares to read more?

Then, in order to increase the stakes, you must have a high level of conflict.  The two are simply inseparable.  If everyone is getting along in blissful utopia, there's nothing at risk and there's no tension.  Conflict is your hero's push to obtain a crucial item and the forces pushing back to keep him from obtaining it.  So this is how the flowchart works:

care <-- stakes <-- conflict

For the reader to care, there must be something urgent at stake to a sympathetic character, and this will be the result of significant conflict.  Or to reverse this for the writer: to make your reader care, you must start with emotionally true conflict that increases the stakes for your hero and those around him.

Now, for Harry in this first chapter, JKR does this via surrogate POVs, since Harry is so tiny.  She mostly uses McGonagall for this, with her grief at what has happened to his parents, with her exclamations of surprise and worry that Dumbledore would leave Harry with the Dursleys.  Hagrid contributes too with his sloppy, whiskery kiss and his howl of pain.  If this big giant of a man cares so much about this young babe, shouldn't we?  And last but not least, we have Dumbledore, at the end, the sparks gone out of his eyes for the pain and loss this child has, and will, suffer.  The fact that these three powerful and interesting characters care so much about this babe helps the reader care too!

Throughout The Boy Who Lived, JKR masterly wove in conflict and stakes through showing action and dialogue:

conflict: between the dark, murdering wizard Voldemort and other wizards
             between Muggles and magicals

stakes: the lives and lifestyles of many people in the wizarding community
            the peace of mind of the Dursley family
            the fate of a young, orphaned boy

The conflicts and stakes together, coupled with intriguing characters and breathtaking worlbuilding, equaled readers who cared -- and lots of them! -- who then turned the page to chapter two.

Stakes do not always have to be on the level of "the entire wizarding world is at risk."  Nor does conflict have to be solely about good versus evils or orphans versus murderers.  Your conflict and stakes should be appropriate for your story and genre, but it is crucial that something beyond your hero's own personal happiness be at risk.  Because readers care more for those who care for, and affect, others.

What have you done recently to increase the conflict and stakes in your own characters' lives?  And Lisa, you get a pass, we know how cruel you are! :-)

Check out the full series of posts in this First Chapter Series:

1) characterization
2) world building
3) mystery
4) stakes/conflict
5) backstory, and
6) voice 


  1. Great post! I thought before that the reader had to care about the character to care about the stakes, but through HP you've pointed out that the opposite can work as well.

  2. I guess there's no one way, Jenna. Bottom line is that we somehow have to get the reader to care!

    Thanks for the comment. :-)

  3. He he he. My reputation proceeds me! Yes I do love to torture my poor characters. :D Btw, the link took me back here.

  4. Ach! So sorry Lisa. It's fixed now! :-)