While we're waiting to find out what the new J.K. Rowling Pottermore website is all about, a group of writers and I have been discussing the Harry Potter books as a fun way to look at writing techniques that work. Going back and rereading made us aware Rowling's skill is in her use of character descriptions to fix the characters' images in readers' minds. She has created dozens and dozens of characters in the Harry Potter world. Depending on who and what you count as a character, there are over 80 in the first book alone.
Rowling introduces many characters with a visual clue to help us picture them. For example, in the first few pages Mr. Dursley is described as having had hardly any neck while Mrs. Dursley has twice the usual amount of neck, which Rowling writes is useful because Mrs. Dursley spends so much time spying on neighbors. Not only is this a funny description, but it's such an unusual pick as a physical characteristic to describe. It makes the writing much more interesting. I get bored if I read a character description that just describes hair color, for example, unless there is something about it that would make me remember.
Even in her descriptions of the more fantastical characters, Rowling doesn't take the easy way out. She could have just described Dumbledore as a wizard with long hair and a long beard, but instead she adds in one tiny detail to make his appearance unique: his hair and his beard were both long enough to tuck into his belt. Hagrid is described as having wild hair, hands the size of trash can lids, and feet in boots so large they were like baby dolphins. I've never thought of the juxtaposition of boots and dolphins, so that was a great image for me. And one of her first mentions of Harry post-babyhood tells us about his round glasses held together with tape because they had been broken so many times from Dudley punching him in the nose. Not only is that a clear visual, it also tells us something about Harry's life.
I've been trying to be more conscious of this kind of description in my own writing. It doesn't have to be just physical description. I tend to go more with aspects of personality. In my book WOLF STORM, the main character likes to do imitations of everyone from Elmo to Gregory Peck, which is his way of coping when he's in an awkward situation.
What do you remember about the characters in the Harry Potter world? Do you use something similar in your writing?
Dee Garretson is the author of WILDFIRE RUN and the forthcoming WOLF STORM from HarperCollins Children's Books (Aug. 30, 288 pages, $16.99). This piece was originally posted at the blog Project Mayhem, which you can find at project-middle-grade-mayhem.blogspot.com.
Writers, what do you take away from Rowling's work? Join the conversation below.