Horcrux. Deluminator. Howler. Marauder’s Map. Deathly Hallows. Remembrall. And my favorite, the Monster Book of Monsters.
These are just a tiny sampling of the magical items and artifacts scattered throughout the wizarding world of Harry Potter. In the first article in this series, I explored how the Houses were an incredibly effective piece of the world building puzzle, and for this article I will look at why the artifacts and items worked as effectively as they did. As any fantasy reader knows, magical artifacts are commonplace in every fantasy novel. Whether it be the One Ring in Lord of the Rings, or the Wardrobe in Chronicles of Narnia, magic items have always been a backbone of the fantasy genre. One of the most used fantasy tropes is that the hero must find artifact X to prevent catastrophe A or villain Y from taking over or destroying the world. What then, separates the Harry Potter artifacts from all the others? Let’s have a look at how Rowling used these items to perhaps greater effect than any other fantasy author.
Let me establish a premise at the outset: magic items generally produce an impressive, fantastical effect. What Rowling understood is that we as readers like to experience awesome things that aren’t possible in our world, so those fantastical elements needed to be ramped up to a higher level. So, if we accept the premise that magic items are cool, and readers like to experience them, what is an aspiring fantasy writer to do with that information?
Rowling’s answer to that question: Shower the reader with them and make each memorable and unique.
What Rowling teaches us is a master lesson in pacing and leading the reader. When we, as a reader, experience something we think is marvelous or interesting, we want more. She knew this, and from the beginning all the way to the end, led us by the nose from one wonderful item to the next. Notice that there is ALWAYS an insignificant amount of time that elapses between the discovery of magical items. In the very first chapters of the series, lets look at how she paced us from one nifty item to the next:
1. Flying Motorcycle
3. Flying letters from Hogwarts
4. Diagon Alley Shopping (numerous)
5. Magic train station (9 and 3/4)
6. Sorting Hat
Note I did not include magical occurrences such as shape shifting, disappearing glass, etc. If you ever wondered why the Harry Potter series had such a “one more chapter” feel to it, one of the multitude of reasons was that Rowling had interesting magical things happening constantly. There was, even in later books, virtually no down time from showing off some new form of magic or artifact. Even something as simple as a Remembrall showing up, effectively leads us from one interesting item to another. By doing so, she establishes such a trend of showing us interesting things, that we assume another is bound to show up within the next few pages.
As a reader, I have the attention span of a toddler in a room full of toys. I tend to read in short bursts, and I usually effortlessly find a stopping point to pick up later. I never read through books in a short number of sittings, even books I love such as Mistborn usually take me quite some time. Potter, however, was different. I plowed through those books as though a million dollar prize waited at the last page, and a big reason was that there was so little downtime between interesting things happening, making it difficult to find a stopping point. Even if the characters were doing something mundane, there was always some neat item or magical effect to handle the “cool factor” load. Thus, she established a pattern of always wanting to see the next interesting item or effect, and forcing the reader to assume there would be another coming up, which there invariably was.
From a technique standpoint, the staggering of magic effects was already brilliant. She further upped the ante by not only having magical items but also giving them actual names that fit like a glove. As I outlined in the previous article, naming can be a highly effective technique of persuasion to immerse a reader. I’m not sure Rowling ever studied persuasion technique, but her items are filled with master level persuasion and naming conventions. She did not just insert a magical map; she created the Marauder’s Map, a brilliant name design because of the use of a unique word: marauding. Everyone knows the word, but it isn’t one you hear every day, thus when you hear it, it sticks in your mind better than say, words like move or mobile. Marauding vs. Moving or Mobile is a world of difference in both cool factor and connotation. Someone using the Marauder’s Map is likely sneaking around, so the name implies what the map is used for.
Then there is possibly the alpha and omega of brilliant naming: Quidditch. With Quidditch we see another effecting naming technique: inventive uniqueness. It’s one thing to use a relatively unique word like marauding, but to invent multiple new words is another matter entirely. Quidditch, Quaffle, Bludger, and Snitch. All four highly unique words that bear the sort “sticky” quality that almost forces them to stand out in your head. I once read in an article she had five pages of names that began with Q before settling on Quidditch. First, names that begin with Q are automatically relatively unique, but then she leveled up even further by settling on a name easy to pronounce, yet not something you’d ever read before. In terms of world building, it does not get much nigher level than this, and the amount of effort and attention that went into even ancillary items shows it was not an accident that Potter became so iconic.
There is yet another element: the creation of insignificant, yet awesome items. Example A: the Howler. This is an item that is, for all intents and purposes, is irrelevant. It bears virtually no significance to the plot, except to establish how the Weasley family operates. And yet, the Howler is one of the more memorable items. The ability to take a mundane thing such as a letter from parents, and turn it into a compelling world building object that also serves to develop characters, is a master stroke in creating audience investment and interest.
What is your favorite magical item in the series? Let me know on Twitter!
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