Reflections on Harry Potter, A History of Magic and Fantasy

The British Library created an exhibition on Harry Potter (with focus on the books, not the movies) called A History of Magic, but for those of us who won’t be going to London anytime soon, they also produced two books about the exhibition: Harry Potter, A History of Magic and Harry Potter, A Journey Through a History of Magic, with the latter being shorter than the former. A History of Magic is a deeper look at the exhibition, and everything in the Journey Through version is in the longer version (at least as far as I could tell).

The exhibition isn’t just of Harry Potter books or items directly related to the series. Instead, the exhibition has a broader scope that focuses on various historical artifacts that fit into the mythology behind the series. For example, there are artifacts about witches and basilisks and the like. It provides an interesting look at the mythology that has existed over centuries in Europe and which influenced J.K. Rowling while writing Harry Potter.

As someone who loves Harry Potter, history, and literature, I found these books fascinating. (I’m sure I’d find the exhibition itself even more fascinating if I was able to go.) Everyone knows that the Harry Potter series has a firm footing in stories that had already been told for centuries, and it wouldn’t exist without that history. These books and, I’m sure, the exhibition itself highlight that in a wonderful way by showing these real historical artifacts and connecting them back to the series.

I particularly loved how both books were divided into chapters based on Hogwarts subjects, such as Transfiguration and Potions, as this showed how deeply ingrained each subject is in European mythology despite being fantasy.

This rich connection to older stories shows the most magical part of Harry Potter, I think. I love fantasy. It will always be my favorite genre, and this deep connection to previous fantasy stories is what makes fantasy so rich. That connection doesn’t need to be to European mythology like Harry Potter is. Every part of the world has its own stories that fantasy can draw upon and be just as rich. But that connection to the past is something unique to fantasy I believe. Even with historical fiction (which I also love), it’s not exactly the same. That genre has a direct connection with the hard facts of the past, while fantasy has a direct connection with the stories we’ve been telling for centuries.

Harry Potter will always be special when it comes to literature, but every fantasy world I create and write about is an attempt to forge the same rich connection to the past that Harry Potter achieved. There’s always room for new ideas and innovation in fantasy, but I want to create stories that are just as richly connected to past stories as Harry Potter is.

My past attempts at fantasy were nowhere close, something that I couldn’t help but ruminate on as I flipped through these books and something that’s been on my mind since. It’s not an easy task, creating a world like Harry Potter, but one day, I hope to come somewhere close.

The Struggles of Creating an Entire World

When I first started this blog, I talked about The Society (a fantasy story I’m working on) quite frequently, and then I slowed down.  A quick search tells me that the last time I brought it up was in November 2016 (which is, admittedly, more recently than I first believed) when I discussed how the election had made me rethink the story. The last time before that was June 2016 when I discussed feeling like my own magical world would never measure up to those others had created. Ironically, that latter topic is very similar to what I wanted to discuss today without me realizing I’d already discussed it. I think I have a bit more to add though, so we’re doing this again.

Here’s the complete and honest truth: I’ve been struggling writing The Society.

This has been true for pretty much the entire five years or so that I’ve been working on this series. (Wow, actually saying that it’s been five years makes it feel even longer. In truth, I work on it on and off with more frequent “off” periods over the last several years, which is another big reason why it hasn’t been brought up recently.)

The entire basis of The Society was a short story I wrote in eighth grade, which I’ve written about before, so if we consider that the starting point, I’ve been developing this story for nearly a decade. However, absolutely nothing about that short story is in the current story except a couple absolute basics. There were three characters in that short story who all technically remain in the current version, but I can’t consider them the same characters. They don’t have the same names or personalities or anything else really. They are, however, the same types of magical beings (two witches and a werewolf). A “society” also existed in that story but is unrecognizable as the current one.

There was a roughly four year gap between writing that short story and starting The Society, and even in that first draft, very little of the short story remained. Over those four years, the short story had turned around in my head and morphed into something else.

It was when I started writing The Society that the basics of the world cemented for me, but it was only the basics. I had lots of ideas about how this world operated, but not all of it has remained the same over time.

Ultimately, it’s the world building that’s causing me so much trouble with this story.

This is why experienced authors recommend not writing a fantasy (and, while I typically see the advice directed towards fantasy, I’d say scifi as well) as your first novel. There’s so much involved in world building that you don’t have to worry about in other genres.

The Society isn’t the first novel I’ve written. When I began it five years ago, it was after I’d completed what was actually my first novel. (Okay. I had written a “novel” before that, which was a fanfiction that I wrote throughout middle and high school. Technically, that counts too.) By now, I’ve also written several others in between bouts of working on The Society. I can’t really consider it my first novel, but I am a young novelist who wouldn’t call herself experienced. I’m struggling with fantasy.

I see the advice about beginning novelists not writing fantasy, and trust me, I get it.

I still can’t bring myself to give up on The Society, especially when I see the progress I’ve made over the years.

That isn’t to say that I’ve just struggled with The Society and not accomplished anything else, though much of what else I’ve written has been fanfiction. As I’ve said, I’ve put it away repeatedly because I do recognize when I’m not getting anywhere at a particular time. But when I do that, the world continues to take up space in my brain. Eventually, I feel the need to come back to it.

Recently, I was working on The Society again. I wasn’t writing the novel itself. Instead, I was creating a list of possible subplots to add. It’s a step removed from all of the world building that was otherwise occupying my time over the past two years or so. It was nice and allowed me to return to a lot of the side characters who I hadn’t given much thought to recently.

That being said, I still view the world building as my biggest problem, and my biggest hang up might be the great fantasy worlds I’ve experienced over the years. I have a particular soft spot for the world of The Society as I created it, but I don’t expect others to have that bias. I am very much aware that I have to sell the world as much as I do anything else.

This isn’t a world where I expect people to want to escape to; it’s quite flawed, which is an important aspect of the novel. Still, it needs to be believable and hold a certain type of wonder for the book to be successful. I think of it somewhat like The Hunger Games or Brave New World. I don’t want to escape to either of those worlds, but I’m endlessly fascinated with why those societies are the way they are and how they work.

I don’t believe that I’ll be satisfied with The Society until I feel like its world is all that it can be. I have high expectations for fantasy worlds, after all I grew up with Harry Potter, so who knows if I’ll ever feel like my own world can stack up.

I’ll keep trying though. Some would probably say that I’ve reached a point where I should push it aside, if not trash it, but I have this strong aversion to giving up on writing projects. (The entirely abandoned ones I have still haunt me to be honest.) I don’t want to do so unless I truly have no hope for it, and I can’t say I’ve reached that point with The Society.

Maybe someday I will; maybe I won’t. I can’t tell you at this point. All I know is that I’m still trying.

The Society and the 2016 Election

It’s been a while since I’ve said much of anything about The Society, which was the writing project that was my primary focus for such a long time. The silence about it on my part hasn’t been because I quit working on it. Rather, I have just shifted focus and, recently, haven’t been devoting as much time to it as I was.

(Lately, I have been writing more fanfiction than anything else. I recently finished the first draft of a Harry Potter fanfiction that is the longest thing I’ve ever written, and I’m quite proud of it so far.)

The Society has taken the back burner, though I am still committed to it. Now, however, I feel a new hesitancy about writing it that wasn’t there before when my lack of focus on it had more to do with Cursed Child feelings needing to be fully explored so that I could get over that disappointment.

Now the political nature of The Society is on my mind more than ever. I’m not sure how apparent this has been in what I’ve said about The Society in the past, but I’m writing a fantasy story that hinges around a fictional political system. My main character has been caught up in this political system since birth (having been born into an important family), and her relationship with the system is key to the entire plot. The story would not exist without it.

While this is very much a fictional political system that has magic as a key component, it would be foolish to suggest that it was not influenced by real life political systems. My goal is to write about a worldwide political system of the magical world, and this has meant painstakingly exploring the ways the real world politics of various regions of the world would influence a magical government in that same area and doing so in a way that’s accurate and respectful. Needless to say, that has been a lot of work, and it’s the biggest reason why this project is still in an infancy stage of sorts. While I have rough drafts of multiple stories in the series, none of them are anywhere near what I expect the finished projects to be because I have so much work to do fleshing them out and reworking them.

I have operated under the belief that the series would be set over a number of years, with the first of those years being the same year when I first began working on the series. My timeline for the series placed some of what I have planned into the current future, meaning the story I have would overlap with a Trump presidency, but that was the case long before I had any idea Trump would be running for president.

This has put me face to face with a situation I never expected. While I’m writing about fictional politics, I don’t feel like the world I am writing can be disconnecting from this election completely. With much of the story set in the United States, my characters would surely feel the impact of this election despite being magical beings.

Of course, I could set my fantasy world in some alternate reality where this election, with all of its partisan glory, never happened. I could set the world up to ignore non-magical (or “real world”) politics completely. But I can’t help but feel that that would be doing a disservice to what has happened, is currently happening, and will soon happen in the United States. It’s not how I have thus far dealt with real politics in the story, and changing that now would feel disingenuous at best.

So now I will begin the process of reworking the story in a way that I didn’t expect at the start of this process. Truth be told, even during the election I wasn’t thinking much about the impact it would have on The Society. (To be fair, I was a bit more preoccupied with its effect on the real world.) I was really only struck by it today. I’m not sure, exactly, what the ultimate influence it will exert on the story will be. Only time will tell.

And that may be quite a bit of time. While I have had this realization and know it will have an affect on the story, I don’t think I’m at the point where I can begin working on The Society again. That time will come, hopefully not in the distant future, but I cannot say when that will be. We shall see.

A Magical World Inferiority Complex

When it comes to the magical world I’m creating for my fantasy novel, I have a bit of an inferiority complex. You see, I can’t not compare my created world to the wizarding world within Harry Potter. In my mind, Hogwarts, Diagon Alley, etc. are the quintessential fantasy world. That’s not to say I haven’t read about many other fantastic literary worlds over the years. It’s just that Harry Potter has always stood out as the paradigm.

Comparing my own creation to Harry Potter isn’t the smartest thing I could do, but it’s difficult to not sit back and find what I’ve created as inadequate in comparison.

My world is going to be different. There’s the fact that Harry Potter is considered a children’s book (despite the later books getting darker) in comparison to the young adult story I’m writing. There’s the fact that Harry Potter, while not high fantasy, is also not quite urban fantasy like what I’m writing.

They’re different. As they should be. I wouldn’t want to write something that was merely an imitation of Harry Potter. That would fail miserably. I don’t want to write Harry Potter 2.0, yet I can’t help but feel like there’s some magical essence to Harry Potter that my own world will never have its own version of.

Whether that’s due to insecurities or because my world is actually lacking in something, I doubt I could tell you without feeling biased.