Monday, April 30, 2012

What I Learned From the Worst Harry Potter Book

Okay, before you start throwing stones, I love Harry Potter. I love all the books and all the movies, the theme park, the jelly beans, everything. 

I will say that my least favorite book is #5, The Order of the Phoenix, because I am sort of (okay, not sort of, I am) black and white, and the injustices of the world are quite frustrating to me. So Professor Umbridge really irks me. 

So the books just became available on the Kindle, and my son being a newly converted Kindle snob, only reads on his Kindle. I bought the HP books, and he's been reading them (finally!). He's on The Order of the Phoenix, and he wanted to watch the movie yesterday.

So we did.

The characters are really tortured. Harry feels really alone, abandoned, angry. Things have gotten incredibly bad, for Harry, for those protecting him, for the Order in general. Friendships can be worth something. Good people suffer, lose, die. 

As I watched this movie I strongly dislike, I realized something. I don't like all that bad stuff that happens because I care about Harry. I want good to triumph over evil. I want Ron to stand by Hermione, who stands by Harry.

As authors, we have to be willing to do all of the above, and more. It's what readers want. It's what makes them fans.

So, do you know this? I mean, really know it? Have you really (really, really) taken your characters to the brink of all they can handle--and then thrown something else at them?

51 comments:

Sana said...

And here I was wondering what could have made you dislike the book. You are right. I disliked Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix because it was too long and too painful for Harry.

First there is the unbearable Dolores Umbridge, then the Sirius trap and then the prophecy is finally revealed. It's more about the injustices that Harry goes through than anything which were hard for me to read and inevitably, harder for Rowling to write about.

Sana @ artsy musings of a bibliophile

Lauren said...

It's my least favorite of the books, too, although I did still like it quite a bit. (And I really enjoyed the movie - go figure!) Anyway, it's a good point that you make, and reminds me of one of Kurt Vonnegut's rules of writing. "Be a sadist. Now matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them — in order that the reader may see what they are made of." As mean and sad and awful as it is, I've always liked that rule. Because I want my characters to be made of more than just fluff.

Beth Overmyer said...

Wow. That's something I've been thinking about, throwing more and more at your characters. I'm reading "The Moonstone," and Wilkie Collins seems to do just that!

Reagarding Good versus evil: I think that's why Umbridge is a good villain. She almost *almost* blurs the lines. She is definitely evil, but she believes 100% that she is in the right. She takes things a few steps too far.

The poisoned honey. Yep.

LM Preston said...

Character building is a strong point in any book or series and I'd second you on this. I cared about Harry and it was hard to see him go through this. Therefore, the author did what she was supposed to do, create a character you connected with.

Jemi Fraser said...

Umbridge stressed me out to no end! I just can't read/watch about torture of any kind. Some of the scenes almost made me feel physically ill - and you're so right. It's because I cared SO much about those characters!

Stina Lindenblatt said...

I have. But you also have to be careful that you don't go too far and have readers think your character is an idiot for always getting into bad situation which in real life they should be avoiding. Unfortunately some people have a problem differentiating between fiction and reality.

I love Umbridge because I hated her so much. And she was even better in the movie.

Natalie Aguirre said...

I agree with Stina. Even though I hated Umbridge, I liked this, especially watching Harry and everyone getting rid of her.

Miriam Forster said...

Ahhh!!! Umbrage is SO CREEPY.

SO.
CREEPY.

I don't remember if I liked Order of the Phoenix less than the others, but it is one of the ones I remember most clearly. Which says something, I think. :)

As for my characters, I just realized I have a habit of giving them something that comforts them in trouble and then taking it away from them. Horribly. So there's that...

Luisa Perkins said...

#5 is my least favorite because it is oozing with teenage angst, and I have enough of that in real life. But I totally agree that you have to keep upping the ante when it comes to your characters in peril. It's hard, but it's what makes readers keep reading.

Angela Brown said...

I can honestly say that I've taken some characters far but not as far as JK took Harry and crew.

I sometimes wondered about the darker aspects but then I found HP and crew's triumph that much more exhilarating when they won battles. My excitement intensified in those moments when good actually did have a winning moment because they were few and desperately desired.

Jen Daiker said...

She really did spend a lot of time torturing Harry and it's certainly what made it a brilliant read!!!

It's taken me several books to put one of my characters through hell. What's sad is that I've yet to write that said novel. I'm just mapping it out. Is it fear? You want to toture them because you know it's for the best but do you have to listen to the screams? Sometimes I wish it was easier... then again, everyone would do it.

Jared B. Peterson said...

Wow, u went in a completely different direction than I thought u were going to. #5 happens to be on of my favorites, and I think I just realized why. =D thanks, Elana! Really helpful post!

Carrie Monroe said...

Great advice. I really tried to do this in my last revision because I was on the brink of tossing that book aside. I asked myself "Why would I rather read Divergent or the Hunger Games than work on my MG contemporary?" then I piled some problems on my character and suddenly I cared again. Great post today!

Tasha Seegmiller said...

I'm working on it. I really want to do this better.

Kelley said...

That was something I hated about all the HP books. I mean, I LOVE them, but they kill me and make me so, so sad. Sirius and Snape in particular I felt so miserable for. Their family lives sucked growing up, their adult lives sucked, then--well. Yeah.

It makes me so sad to think about it.

BUT, yes. It attests to the magic of a book (or movie) that can make you feel so strongly for a character(s)!

ilima said...

Yes. I take them to a terrible place of despair, and just when things are looking up, just when there is reason to hope and relax a little....SLAM! Everything hits the fan. Muahahaha.

Sharon Bayliss said...

I agree with you, this one was my least favorite. I also skip a lot of the Professor Umbridge parts when I re-read it. You're right on that it just bothers people when evil is winning, especially when they are as annoying as Umbridge. We all want things to be in their right place, which means the nice guys win.

Sharon Bayliss said...

I agree with you, this one was my least favorite. I also skip a lot of the Professor Umbridge parts when I re-read it. You're right on that it just bothers people when evil is winning, especially when they are as annoying as Umbridge. We all want things to be in their right place, which means the nice guys win.

Julie Daines said...

Umbridge makes me shudder like no other villain. I think because she's so nice in her evilishness. This is a good question that I need to think about carefully for my WIP. Thanks. See you at storymaers?

Bethany Wiggins said...

Another brilliant post!!!

Claire M. Caterer said...

A great post, Elana. It is SO hard--but so necessary--to put our characters through hell and yet not to alienate the readers. Notice that JKR didn't go this far until Book 5 of the series. And we all stuck with her. Suppose she'd done this in Book 2? She might have lost readers. Instead she built up that world and those friendships before tearing them down. And of course the triumph over Umbridge is so delicious at the end!

Elizabeth said...

Also...GRAWP. What was his function again? An entire subplot that could have been/should have been edited away, just like the Weasley cousin in GoF.

Shallee said...

Oh, yes. I love (and hate) when characters suffer. It makes the story matter to me. In my current book, I made things really awful for my character-- and then realized there was one more, final, completely horrific thing I could do.

So I did. And the book is SO much better for it!

Donna K. Weaver said...

Yes though it's a bit of a battle since my hubby is my first beta reader and he just doesn't understand why everyone can't just get along. lol

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I didn't drop him off a cliff or anything but he did suffer!

Jenny Morris said...

I did take the most important thing away from her, then tortured her and then made her think the most important thing betrayed her. So ya, I think I did what your talking about.

This is my least fav HP too. Not sure why.

Shannon O'Donnell said...

The second is my least favorite, but this one is a close second. I hated how angry and alone Harry felt. I guess that means you nailed it! :-)

I am trying, really hard, to be meaner to my characters.

L.T. Elliot said...

I've always enjoyed torturing a character but I recently had this same epiphany. I've dubbed it the "What's the worst thing that can happen? Now do that thing." phenomenon. Oddly, when you do that worst thing, again and again, it is SO MUCH BETTER. And strangely, there are a LOT of "worst things" that can happen to a character at different moments in their story. Such a cool thing!

Alice said...

I love Harry too and this was one of my least favorite books in the series as well, but it's still amazing. I would l love to able to create such likable characters and frustrating plots. I'll have to go back make worse things happen to my characters. Thanks for the tip.

Penelope Lolohea said...

Oddly enough, I just posted my review of this book today (I read the series for the first time this year--gasp!). It's one of my favorites, for the exact reason you mention: Harry is taken to the brink of all he can handle, and then is pushed over the edge. Thanks for putting into words, what I couldn't! :)

Theresa Milstein said...

#5 is my favorite. I know Umbridge is awful, Harry is in Voldemort's head, and so on. But I think it's the most well done. The government uses propaganda for their aim, Umbridge is wonderful as an antagonist, and everything is just so unfair. I can't even articulate why it's so good. Harry's speech when they're forming Dumbledore's army. The veratiserum. Harry learning about his father being a bully. Saving Ron's father. I could go on. So many threads woven in like art.

Theresa Milstein said...

And the Weasley twins at the end--with the best comic relief. Ever. Harry's confrontation with Bellatrix--his flaw using the unforgivable curse. The beauty in the description of the way Sirius died. Dumbledore's epic battle with Voldemort. Harry's utter despair and then triumph because of love. Not knowing if Snape gets Harry's message--and back then we didn't know if Snape was good or evil.

I guess I had more to say.

Sallie Mazzur said...

This is a very interesting post, because as a reader, I take everything happening to the main character personally. If a girl gets raped, I feel just as violated and upset along with her. When Harry loses someone new but close to him in this book, I had a nervous breakdown and could not finish the book for weeks after that scene. I, in a sense, become the reader. Not physically, of course. But mentally. I am the character, and I feel the emotions and the hurt and the love they feel. It becomes a problem when I read a book so overwhelming that I cry for days. I'm sure a lot of other readers have this problem too, but sometimes, I get so angry at the author for doing these things to their characters. But it proves a point: (unless the character eventually dies) it makes them stronger. It shows that they are able to overcome physical and mental issues that are sometimes ordinary and sometimes extravagant and show how they cope and move on, or struggle internally and then break down. It's a reflection on how society handles every problem, on an individual level.

So yes, I understand when authors do terrible things to their characters, but it doesn't mean I like it!

Taffy said...

ohhh! Good post! I need the reminder of taking my characters to the edge. *sigh* Back to the revising.
Also, I HATED Order of the Phoenix. Mostly Umbridge!
See you in a few days! Parrrty!

Jeff King said...

I have not... but hope to remedy it.

I agree with your thoughts on #5

Robin said...

I hurt my characters, but reading this post I'm thinking I need to turn up the pain-after they've been chased by the dog and run up the tree I need to send down the lightening as well.

And Umbridge, I'm still creeped out by that pen and haven't used red ink in a very long time.

E. Arroyo said...

This was actually my favorite because we see Harry raw. They couldn't capture that in film. I'm just dark that way. =)

Botanist said...

#5 was probably my least favorite too, also because of Umbridge. I know I don't torture my characters nearly enough, but I think you can have too much of a good thing. Torment your characters too much and it starts getting painful, rather than enjoyable, to read. You have to reward your readers a little bit or you risk losing them altogether.

Leigh Covington said...

This is my least favorite of the books too, but I totally see your point. You're RIGHT, by golly! And Umbridge really does deserve the worst of the worst. Sometimes I think she's scarier than Voldemort!

Emily S said...

I agree. It's funny because I just read a post where the writer named his favorite YA book as order of the Phoenix. I wanted to ask, "is that the only Harry potter book you read?"
I didn't like the beginning of book 5 because of how long he broods and feels sorry for himself. The second half was better.

RA Jones said...

This is what is so great about writing MG/YA. In a way it's limiting because all those things that weigh so heavily in adult books can be put aside. It gives you a chance to deal with what's psychologically relevant to the pre-adolescent. How many of of us thought that the next soccer/hockey/basketball/rugby/quidditch game we played was THE most important thing in the world? Us grown-ups know that it's small beer, but it isn't to the protagonist. What gives this genre its power is that we recognize the psychological response of the protagonist as an echo of our own. But sympathy and likeability need antipathy and repulsion to shine.

Claire Dawn said...

Apart from one thing that left me numb, Order of the Phoenix was my favourite book. For all the same reasons, you list. I'm drawn to people going through tough times, especially when they don't whine. I also feel like this is the book where the series (and Harry) really grew up.

Kamille Elahi said...

HP5 was the best in my opinion. I know it was long but it was a raw book. It showed the characters making a turn in their life. Before this, most of the conflict was fairly central to Hogwarts and OOTP saw some deviation from that comfort zone. IMO, it was the turning point that took the characters into the gist of the action. After this book, the characters were vulnerable and weak and I guess that's what JKR wanted us to feel.

HP5 is the death of the first father figure that puts Harry in a weak position and for the first time, we feel that he isn't going to make it. HP6 was the death of the other father figure who symbolised comfort, love and power. Without Dumbledore, Harry was thrown into the conflict in HP7 which was a war book.

I don't really hate any of the books though. Like JKR, I don't see the series as a set of 7 books. I see it as one huge book separated into smaller sections for the convenience of the reader. You can't really judge one book since they all fit together. It could be that had Umbridge not been present in HP5, Harry would not have had to make that transition that would enable him to fight up against his enemies later on. Umbridge gave Harry the qualities to fight and keep on going. HP5 gave Harry reasons to hate Umbridge and it ends in the last book where it is this hatred which helps him up against her. Harry wasn't some Godly hero. He was a human and had a thirst for revenge against this evil woman.

And now that I've finished rambling, I'll go.

Valerie Scott said...

Good question! This is definitely something I'm struggling with. I read a quote somewhere that said, 'Never give the reader what they want.' Maybe that's true for the writer, as well. We want the best for our characters, but that's not always what they NEED. Sometimes (all the time?) we must make our characters endure much more than we originally planned for them. That's what makes a great read!

David P. King said...

My sentiments exactly (on this book and its movie adaptation). It was definitely the darkest, most angsty book. For me, a little overdone. I'm glad the following books made up for that and shed a bit more hope. :)

Melanie Conklin said...

I agree. When you think your characters have had all they can take, throw another obstacle at them.

Carolyn V said...

I have a hard time being hard on my characters, but my crit group doesn't. They always tell me when I'm too soft. ;)

Clara said...

I agree 100% with you, and that's actually one of the reasons I don't like the 5th book that much as well.
But I noticed some great books make their characters go through a bunch of Schnitzel and it really works! When you finish them you feel sucker punched, but that's a good thing because it means you're entangled with characters and plots. : ) I hope one day I'll be able to go all Ned Stark to one of my main characters...One day...

Kelly Polark said...

Even though I love the Harry Potter series, that is the least favorite of mine too. It seemed so long to get through and not enough action. And dark!

Liesel K Hill said...

I once heard a very wise YA author say that at any given time, you have to know what the worst thing in the world is that you could do to your character(s). You don't always have to do it, but you have to know what it is. I blogged about this myself very recently. Whatever you think of Rowling, she is very skilled at doing this. Furthermore, if everyone disliked the book because they loved Harry, then she's done her job very well. She's created an emotional attachment that brings people back, even if its with negative comments. Kudos to her for being fearless and making us love her characters and her world so much!

Arti Tart said...

I love HP! but this is my least favorite too. But I've read it mroe than Ive read the other ones