Monday, June 20, 2011

Harry Potter's World - Rowling's ability to create a huge cast of characters

While we're waiting to find out what the new J.K. Rowling Pottermore website is all about, a group of writers and I have been discussing the Harry Potter books as a fun way to look at writing techniques that work. Going back and rereading had made us aware Rowling’s skill is in her use of character descriptions to fix the characters’ images in the readers’ minds. She has created dozens and dozens of characters in the Harry Potter world. Depending on who and what you count as a character, there are over eighty in the first book alone.

Rowling introduces many characters with a visual clue to help us picture them. For example, in the first few pages Mr. Dursley is described as having had hardly any neck while Mrs. Dursley has twice the usual amount of neck, which Rowling writes is useful because Mrs. Dursley spends so much time spying on neighbors. Not only is it a funny description, but it’s such an unusual pick as a physical characteristic to describe. It makes the writing much more interested. I get bored if I read a character description that just describes hair color, for example, unless there is something about it that would make me remember.

Even in her descriptions of the more fantastical characters, Rowling doesn’t take the easy way out. She could have just described Dumbledore as a wizard with long hair and a long beard, but instead she adds in one tiny detail to make his appearance unique: his hair and his beard were both long enough to tuck into his belt. Hagrid is described as having wild hair, hands the size of trash can lids, and feet in boots so large they were like baby dolphins. I’ve never thought of the juxtaposition of boots and dolphins, so that was a great image for me. And one of her first mentions of Harry post-babyhood tells us about his round glasses held together with tape because they had been broken so many times from Dudley punching him in the nose. Not only is that a clear visual, it also tells us something about Harry’s life.

I’ve been trying to be more conscious of this type of description in my own writing. It doesn’t have to be just physical description. I tend to go more with aspects of personality. In WOLF STORM, the main character likes to do imitations of everyone from Elmo to Gregory Peck, and it’s his way of coping when he’s in an awkward situation. So what do you remember about the characters in the Harry Potter world? Do you use something similar in your writing?

~ Dee Garretson


  1. This is an excellent point, and proves one of the great strengths of the 3rd person narrator.

  2. Rowling is a master at characterization. Not only are her characters memorable but they have some of the best names in kid lit.

  3. Terrific post! This is an area I need to work on - I love those descriptions that catch your eye and help you cement the character in your head. Sounds like it's time to read Harry ... again :)

  4. I always loved the description of Mrs. Dursley having twice the usual amount of neck--great visual!!


Thanks for adding to the mayhem!