Saturday, March 26, 2011

What’s J.K. Rowling’s Secret to Success?

Why are the Harry Potter books so wildly successful? To quote myself: Story trumps all. If you don’t have a compelling story, no one will want to read what you write. But, if you do not have compelling characters, no one is going to remember what you write. (from Life-changing Books -- Writing) But what makes this story different?

J.K. Rowling’s great imagination spawned a great story, a compelling story. And then she peopled the story with compelling characters. The one that springs to mind for me is Dolores Umbridge, the sadist with a penchant for frolicking kittens and tweed outfits. Even the minor characters are richly drawn, such as, Luna Lovegood, the flakiest of the flaky, Colin Creevey, Harry’s fawning fan, and Hagrid, the half-giant with a giant heart. 009
But, as I said before, story trumps all. Yet the characters are the underpinings of the story. To quote myself:

Movies, TV series and books dealing with the great Biblical themes of characters enduring hardships, learning to love, and willing to lay down one’s life for others will always draw people to them. People are hungering and thirsting to be spiritually satisfied but often do not know what they are hungering for. (from I Once Was "Lost")

God endows us with the desire for bravery. Yet we often feel inadequate for the tasks that lie before us, just as Harry does. Yet Harry, a skinny, average kid transcends his own puny abilities. Rowling gives him the means to test his bravery against a much more powerful foe and we devour the books to discover his fate. Harry is the underdog and most people root for the underdog.

We have seen this in other great movies and books such as Star Wars, Rocky, and Lord of the Rings, all with main characters who are underdogs, yet are able to triumph. Notice also that the hero in these stories always has a mentor. In Harry’s case, it’s Dumbledore, whom I believe symbolizes God. (see Harry Potter--Christian Books?)

And in each of these, the heroes have friends to lean on, Ron and Hermione in Harry’s case, and they usually face disastrous results when trying to go it alone.

In examing these stories we find they follow similar story lines from the Bible. One example: David, a lowly shepherd, is pitted against King Saul just as Harry is pitted against Voldemort. Yet he has guidance from Samuel and friendship with Jonathan.

We even see parallels in the greatest story, the story of God's son. Although Jesus is the son of God, he's an underdog, a lowly carpenter, pitted against the Jewish leaders and the great Roman Empire. He seeks guidance from his mentor (God) and has friends, his disciples, to help him in his work.

I think readers recognize this resemblance to Biblical stories intuitively, whether they are able to give voice to it or not. And people have longings to be like these characters. They may not want to admit they long for a father-like figure, such as Dumbledore, or the ultimate father, God. They may not want to admit they long for steadfast friends, such as Hermione and Ron, or David’s friend, Jonathan. They may not want to admit they long to be brave, even in the face of their puny abilities, as David was when facing Goliath. (They may not want to admit their abilities are puny.) 
They may not want to admit they long to be part of something larger than themselves. They may not want to admit that evil exists in the world and they long to help destroy it. Yet these longings are universal, whether people admit to them or not.
God endows us with all of these longings. When a book, or in this case a series, comes along that speaks to these longings, it becomes a classic.

These, then, are the reasons J. K. Rowling succeeded:

She crafted a compelling story.

She peopled the story with compelling characters.

She explored great themes, themes we see in the story of David and other great Bible stories. Here are a few ways Harry and David are similar:
  • Harry and David both had mentors; Dumbledore for Harry and Samuel for David.
  • Harry has close friends to support and encourage him just as David has Jonathan.
  • Harry is an unlikely hero, an average boy who faces someone vastly stronger than himself. David is a teenage shepherd boy when he faced Goliath. And later David faces the wrath of King Saul. 
  • Harry and David are both ridiculed by their families. (See 1 Samuel 17:28 to see David's brother's opinion of him.) 
  • They both have times of great popularity and times when people turn against them.
  • They both show great courage and give their all for the sake of others
Great Biblical themes pull people into the story, whether readers recognize these themes or not, because we long to be like these characters.

Readers are looking for stories about average people, underdogs, who are facing overwhelming challenges. They are looking for stories of friendship, stories with characters of integrity, stories where people may be consumed with fear, yet still have the courage of their convictions.

J.K. Rowling has an understanding of human character, as well as an understanding of great  themes, coupled with imagination that enabled her to craft a phenomenal story. And this did not spring fully formed from her brain. Much study was needed to bring the story to fruition. We can see by her body of work that she is a conscientious and diligent writer.

As Christian writers, we seek to understand the human condition. We seek to explore the great biblical themes. Most of all we seek to glorify God. How much are we willing to work to accomplish this? J.K. Rowling worked hard to learn story, theme, and character development and implemented what she learned.

The secret to her success.

We would do well to emulate her.


  1. Great blog. It hits all the themes of a good story and what all authors need to realize, even me! Thanks for all the good information and ideas.

  2. Thanks, Jonathan! I'm glad you found it useful.

  3. Good post! I never thought of it in this light. I really enjoyed reading your take on this.


Thanks for sharing your thoughts.