Blog 73: Where is the next Harry Potter?

September 4, 2018

Sick of Harry Potter yet? No, me neither, but since Harry Potter exploded into our lives in 1997, there hasn’t really been a major book series since that has captured the minds of teenagers and adults alike in the same way. Sure there has been The Hunger Games, Maze Runner,  Twilight, Percy Jackson and The Olympians, and The Mortal Instruments, to name a few, but none of them have stuck in our hearts and mind like Harry Potter. So the question is, why? Well I believe the answer lies in examining the Harry Potter series itself, and finding out what made it so popular in the first place.

Publishers are apparently crying out for the next new book series that can rival Harry Potter, and it’s no surprise. It has been over 20 years since the first Harry Potter book was published and it’s hard to find a single person who hasn’t sorted themselves into a Hogwarts house on Pottermore. People still talk about Harry Potter as being their favourite book series ever, and avid collectors collect all the Harry Potter merchandise and showcase it to their hundreds of thousands of followers on YouTube. It’s even got to the point where comedians are joking about their ‘adult’ friends still being in love with the Harry Potter series as though it is the only book series in existence. And to be honest, it’s hard to fault them for it. Harry Potter is a written masterpiece, it’s got well thought out characters, a great plot and storyline, an incredible world, and it’s clever, but before I go into the details, let’s think about it from a new, potential, author’s perspective.

I’m going to be giving away spoilers so if you haven’t read Harry Potter yet then go and read it first before reading the rest of this blog. 

I’m by no means an expert, but imagine you want to be an author and you want to write something new that will hopefully rival Harry Potter. It’s got to be a series, and it’s got to capture the attention of boys and girls aged 11-18. So you think to yourself, what is important and what is relatable for both boys and girls aged 11-18? The answer appears, of course, it’s starting secondary school, everyone starts at secondary school but alas, you realise Harry Potter already does this, in fact, the whole story centres around Harry going to a magical secondary school called Hogwarts.

So you set that idea aside and start to think about the different genres. Romance? probably not, it lends itself primarily to the female gender and current romance is a bit old for 11 year olds.

What about fantasy? but you realise Harry Potter is a fantasy and the only things which spring to mind are; elves, dwarves and hobbits, Tolkien-style fantasy or witches and wizards. Tolkien-style probably won’t work as it’s not relatable enough and, Harry Potter has already got witches and wizards covered. You could potentially try and dig into folklore, fairy tales and mythology, but how would you do it without inventing some sort of magical school? You run the risk of being called the fairy version of Harry Potter, or the Greek mythology version of Harry Potter, etc, etc.

So what else is there? Modern fiction? But won’t that be a little boring and too close to reality? How will that engage young readers?

Crime? But isn’t that usually a bit too gory and again, aimed at older readers?

Mystery? Yes, but Harry Potter is essentially a mystery disguised as a fantasy.

Sci-fi? Could work, but it’s potentially complicated and how do you make it into a series? How do you make it relatable?

Historical fiction? Well, good luck trying to make that relatable for a young, modern audience.

The thing about Harry Potter is, it takes the mundane ordinary and makes them into something magical. The world it is set in is unreal, but it is easy to imagine it secretly hidden amongst our world today. Anyone can get a letter through the post and everyone has walked past a brick wall and wondered if there is anything behind it, and every child in the U.K. starts at a secondary school.

It ‘s so cleverly done and so massive that it is hard to replicate without being called out for straight out copying, and here’s why…

J. K. Rowling hit a real gem with focussing on starting secondary school, because every child goes through it. Every child experiences the anxiety and excitement of starting secondary school, it’s a rite of passage, and every person usually remembers school as being dull and boring. Very few people ever say they want to go back and relive their secondary school experience. J. K. Rowling doesn’t only take the one thing that everyone has to go through, but she makes it new and exciting. You know you will never receive a letter in the post from Hogwarts, but it doesn’t stop you from hoping and imagining that it could happen, and that’s the genius of it all. It is so easy to imagine, and every child who reads about Hogwarts wants to go there. It might be difficult to get your kids to wake up and go to school in the real world but imagine if you told them they were going to Hogwarts? Every child would be up at the crack of dawn to go to school there.

The fact that the series focusses mainly on mystery and fantasy is another strength. It means that it doesn’t get bogged down with the usual tropes that go along with say, the romance genre. Yes, you probably did think Harry and Hermione would end up together eventually upon reading the first book (they don’t by the way), but it’s not the main focus of the story, in fact, romantic relationships don’t really become a part of the story until a lot later in the series. I would argue the Goblet of Fire (book 4) when Harry has a major crush on Cho Chang. Yes, Ginny was a little smitten with Harry in book 2, but Harry found it awkward and embarrassing, as any 12/13 year old boy would. By book 4, Harry is 14/15. This is again, a genius move, because the stories are centred around each school year and progress through the years, it means your readership can grow older with the series. By the time romantic relationships come in, guess what? Your 11 year old is now a 14/15 year old, and the dreaded boyfriends/girlfriends are more of a reality at secondary school. Your readers can relate to it, because they themselves are discovering the messy world of relationships properly for the first time too.

I digressed slightly, back to mystery. Yes mystery is a great choice. It doesn’t fall into the pitfalls and tropes of the other genres and it is interesting in the same way Enid Blyton’s Secret Seven and Famous Five were. Add in a good dose of fantasy to that mystery and you can write pretty much anything. You want a cave troll in the dungeon, guess what? You can have a cave troll in the dungeon. You want a massive game of magical chess? You can have it. You want a tournament where you meet mermaids and fight dragons? You can have that too. I could go on but you get the picture. A lot of straight up mystery has to be somewhat realistic, but with fantasy and with J. K. Rowling’s world of witchcraft and wizardry, anything is possible.

Harry Potter is episodic. You follow Harry, Ron and Hermione as they go through each year at Hogwarts. The books end with the end of the school year and begin with the beginning of the school year. As I’ve mentioned before, this is genius because it means your readers can grow with the series. The overarching story is of course, Voldermort wanting to kill Harry, but within each book there is a sub-story, or multiple sub-stories where the real mystery takes place. In The Philosopher’s/Sorcerer’s Stone (Book 1) the mystery surrounds; what is the three headed dog hiding in the dungeon? Who or what is killing Unicorn’s and drinking their blood in the Forbidden Forest? And where is the stone? In The Chamber of Secrets (Book 2) the mystery surrounds; why are students becoming petrified? What or who is doing it? What is the Chamber of Secrets and where is it? What is the strange voice that only Harry can hear? Who attacks Harry with a Bludger? The list goes on but take my word for it, every book has a strong mystery element.

The hero protagonist and the evil antagonist are not the main focus of the story, which again is another strength. It can get a bit tiresome to read a book series where it doesn’t really do anything other than constantly build to an end battle between the hero and the evil villain. It is hard to keep this interesting, by book two readers are often thinking ‘hurry up and get on with it’ along with ‘we know the hero is going to win’. There’s very little to keep readers entertained. Harry Potter manages to have so many questions and so much mystery without the whole ‘end of the world’ vibe you get with the evil antagonist trying to kill the hero, that as a reader you’re actually more interested in what is going on in the story outside of Voldemort. Yes, Voldemort is still a constant threat and ultimately the sub-stories do link to him in one way or another, but they are also not reliant on Voldemort alone. They hold their own, if you cut Voldemort out of say, The Goblet Of Fire, the Tri-Wizard tournament would probably still be interesting enough by itself to hook readers, and this is true for most of the series. Yes it would cause continuity problems if you cut Voldemort out of the earlier books in the series, but the point is, the stories outside of Voldemort are interesting and engaging without him.

The characters are really the golden trio. I will probably get some angry comments for saying this but the fact that Harry is a boy is again, a clever move. It’s not that boys don’t ever read books with female leads as the protagonist, but they are less likely to read a book with a female lead (this is primarily based on my own observations and what others have told me inside and outside of the publishing industry). Girls on the other hand, are quite happy to pick up a book with a male lead. Harry as the leading protagonist appeals to both boys and girls, and because Hermione is such a strong, female character, she adds extra appeal for female readers. Ron and his family are more there for comedic relief, as both Harry and Hermione are quite serious in comparison. But making Ron a male character instead of a female character is again, a smart move. You effectively avoid the traditional love-triangle situation where the main leading character has to choose between two other characters of the opposite sex. For instance, if Ron was a girl called Rhona, you would probably find that readers would wonder who Harry will eventually end up with, Rhona or Hermione? The same could be said if Harry was a girl called Harriet and Hermione was a boy called Herman, readers would probably wonder who Harriet would end up with, Ron or Herman? This situation doesn’t get much better if you add another female character to the trio, it then becomes two boys and two girls and you have the same problem of readers wondering who will end up with who. This isn’t any fault of the Harry Potter series, more a fault of society and other book series which feature these overdone love-triangles. You could replace Harry alone with a female version called Harriet, but then, unfortunately, you risk losing male readers. Thankfully, J. K. Rowling doesn’t focus on any love-triangle situation and the Harry Potter series centres around friendship and family.

So you’ve made it this far, you’ve taken everything into account and you still want to go ahead and write a book series which will rival Harry Potter. The question isn’t really what do you do? But more, what can you do?

If you pick the most relatable thing in an 11 year old’s life, starting secondary school, you’re already treading the same path as the Harry Potter series. You could try to do something centred around the weekends or the summer holidays, but it doesn’t have quite the same appeal and you have just restricted the timeframe of your story. You could try and think of something else that is relatable in an 11 year old’s life, but outside of school, weekends, summer holidays and friends, there isn’t much to choose from.

As for genre, fantasy or mystery seem like the most sensible options, but if you go for mystery alone then you’re tied somewhat into making it realistic, and how can that ever match up to Harry Potter? And if you go for pure fantasy then you’re unlikely to have any connection to the real world, unless you do something like Narnia, but then you really are removing your characters completely from the real world. Sci-fi alone has the same problem as pure fantasy, it’s too far removed from reality and it would make it hard for it to be relatable. You could try to do another fantasy/mystery but then how do you make it different, yet as exciting and relatable as Harry Potter without copying Harry Potter?

So perhaps a sci-fi/mystery would work? It is the one option that I’m considering, but I think it would be tricky to pull off, let alone write a series out of it.

Characters are a problem again, because ideally you would probably choose a male protagonist, but by doing that you’re already copying Harry Potter. Your character will probably have to have friends too and if you don’t want to fall into the love-triangle problem and still represent all the genders, there is only the one boy and one girl option, or perhaps two boys and one girl. Or if you think, to hell with it, I’m going to have a female protagonist, then again her friends would probably need to be one boy and one girl. Don’t forget, the more characters you have the more difficult it is to fully flesh them out.

There is another potential problem, Harry Potter is an orphan. This works perfectly for the series because it means you as the reader discover the wizarding world as Harry discovers it. However, if you have decided that there is no way you can write a series like Harry Potter without having some sort of school then it becomes a problem. Although thousands of books have the same orphan scenario or parents who are M.I.A. or A.W.O.L., if you opt for a series centred around a school, with each book starting with a new year at that school, and then you also take on an orphan scenario, then you’re wracking up the similarity points between your idea and Harry Potter. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t write your books this way, because you still may be able to pull off a different and compelling storyline, but it is another thing to carefully consider before you start writing your series.

You also need to keep in mind your target audience. Harry Potter starts off by targeting 11 year olds, each book grows and becomes increasingly more difficult and mature, keeping in-line with its readers and each year Harry attends Hogwarts. By the last book in the series, it feels like it is written for older teenagers too, the themes and elements in the series go from fairly light-hearted to downright dark and heart-breaking. It is all handled in a tactful way, but there is a definite shift from book to book as J. K. Rowling writes each book for each year group. To try and replicate that with a new book series without involving a school would, in my opinion, be difficult to do. Writing for an 11 year old is very different from writing for a 17/18 year old and trying to write books which appeal to all ages between 11-18 is not going to be easy. This is why I think book series like Twilight, The Hunger Games, Maze Runner, etc, generally seem to appeal to mid-older teens, and I think it is part of the reason why they don’t have the same lasting impact.

So to conclude this epic blog, why isn’t there a new book series to rival Harry Potter? Because it is a bloody difficult thing to write. It would be an enormous task and undertaking to try and write anything that could rival Harry Potter, without it being too similar to Harry Potter, and in the end, there is still no guarantee that people would actually love it in the same was as Harry Potter, or even remotely like it. J. K. Rowling really did find a massive hole in the market and she filled it with Harry Potter, so much so, that all new ideas seem to pale in comparison or run the risk of being called weak imitations that could never truly match up. But perhaps I’m wrong, perhaps someone out there will read this blog and go ‘no, I have an idea that might work.’ If so, then please, write those books and see what happens. I wish you all the best of luck with it, and if it does well, I think the world and publishers will thank you for it.