Harry Potter, without a doubt, has become a cultural icon over the years. Generating billions in revenue, an entire theme park, and enchanting millions of fans are just the beginning of the impact of the Potter series. I have been fascinated for some time about the techniques Rowling used, that allowed Potter to become such a fantasy juggernaut. Now that I write fantasy myself, I spent a great deal of time analyzing what techniques work, and why they do so effectively. How did Potter succeed where others failed? After examining several fantasy series, I’ve detected a few reasons Harry Potter succeeded, so I thought I’d write a series of blog posts breaking down the most effective parts of the series. I’ve been in sales and studied persuasion technique and effective wordplay for years, so it fascinates me to watch when it works and when it doesn’t.
I’ve made the argument for some time that Harry Potter bears arguably the most effective world-building in the history of fantasy. Note that I did not say the most in-depth or most comprehensive, I said effective. So today, I’ll talk about just one small piece of the world building puzzle: The House system.
I believe the Hogwarts house system to be one of the most compelling pieces of world-building in fantasy history, and I will attempt to break down why it worked. Generally, people know the four Houses, Gryffindor, Slytherin, Hufflepuff, and Ravenclaw. If you spend five minutes on social media, you will see people placing the house they identify with in their profile, and having elaborate discussions as to why they identify with that particular house. One of the most effective modern literary techniques is to create a character, item, or situation that allows the reader to see themselves and project onto. Harry Potter has a series of well-developed characters, so Rowling used that very same technique but did so with an elaborate House system. Let’s examine why the House system was so effective as a literary tool.
First, let’s lay out the characteristics of each house. Here are the general breakdowns as most people see them.
Gryffindor: Courage, Honor, Bravery, Daring
Ravenclaw: Intelligence, Savvy, Creativity
Hufflepuff: Humble, Benevolence, Friendship
Slytherin: Ambition, Cunning, Resourceful
Those are generic breakdowns as seen on the surface, but let’s delve a little deeper into the genius-level wordplay Rowling used for the House names. If you notice, the very names evoke the qualities present in the House.
Gryffindor evokes the image of a regal Griffon, a fantasy creature that only shows up in the book as a statue. When one thinks of a Griffon, they think of the lion and eagle hybrid. Keep in mind that lions and eagles are already two of the most majestic creatures on Earth, so just evoking those two animals is already a powerful image. Just look at the house sigil, a roaring Griffon atop searing scarlet and gold, two colors that no one has trouble associating with courage and bravery. The name and the image, along with the animals represented in our mind’s eye, conjures up the very qualities the name itself generates.
Ravenclaw automatically generates two images: a stately raven (thanks Poe) and a sharp claw. Ravens have long been associated with omens and intelligence. Note that ravens can make complex decisions, as they have one of the largest “bird brains.” In other words, Rowling intentionally chose one of the smartest birds to be immediately identified with the House most associated with intelligence. Then we have the word claw, which immediately conjures the image of a razor-sharp talon, so in combining the two, we get sharp intelligence, the very characteristics of the house itself.
Hufflepuff, right out of the gate, makes us think of Huff and Puff, which is what dragons and pig-eating wolves do. Not just any dragon though, that specific combination of words conjures the fairy tales of yore. You don’t think of a raging spine covered dragon or wolf, you think of a sort of plump, cutesy, friendly version, which falls right in line with the characteristics present in the house. The house sigil, however, is a badger, a docile creature that fights fiercely when cornered.
Slytherin immediately makes one think of slithering, a characteristic present in snakes, as well as back-alley criminals. Slither is a particularly effective word to build on because it isn’t a word you hear every day, and carries precise connotations. One of the prime lessons of persuasion and wordplay is to pick words that stick in people’s heads as unique, and slither does just that, conjuring up images of slimy snakes, and skulking around.
So now that we’ve broken these down, I hope it’s clear that none of her choices were random or haphazard. She chose these words to build the Houses around because of what they evoke when we read or hear them. Yet, she went even further. Let's look at the founders of the houses:
Notice anything in the construction? It is the same technique Marvel has used for decades:
And that doesn’t even begin to cover them all. This is a technique called alliterative naming, where the initials of a first and last name are the same letter. Why use this? It creates a pattern that makes it easier for our brains to retain the information. As I stated earlier, none of her execution in the world building of Harry Potter was an accident. She specifically engineered these words to not only allow us to project images and thoughts onto but easily remember. As a writer, it helps to learn the techniques used by the most successful, and as we can see here, her success is not an accident of luck. Every fantasy book has various guilds or orders, yet they are usually called a thieves’ guild, or a warriors’ guild, which does nothing for the reader concerning projection, nor do they sound cool or unique. Rowling trumped every other fantasy book by not only incorporating a traditional fantasy trope but elevating it to a far higher level just by changing the wordplay. Now, as a result, millions of people know to what house they’d belong.
If you are a writer, this is the standard you need to apply to yourself. Is your world building causing the reader to see themselves? If not, you may want to go back to the drawing board, as the standard is now incredibly high. In this series, I’ll be exploring other elements of the Potter series and how they managed to combine to build the most iconic modern fantasy series. Let me know what you thought, and if you have ideas for things you’d like me to explore in this series.
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