Harry Potter shaped my entire generation. It is literally no exaggeration to say that. When I was growing up, the book releases were, I kid you not, actual events. Our local Barnes & Noble in town would decorate its interior and then at midnight, once the release embargo lifted, dozens of us Potterheads would stream into the store to buy the new book. Kids were dressed like witches and wizards with the robes, scarfs, and everything. It was truly a sight to behold. This day and age, I can’t conceive of a book, any book, inspiring such a turnout.
When I reflect on HP and what it made it so special to me (it was literally released right when I was in junior high school so I was smack middle in its intended audience), I have to point to its worldbuilding more than anything else. In an interview, Rowling once remarked that she felt “the foremost responsibility of an author is to give the reader a full security and confidence that someone’s hand is unwaveringly at the rudder.” This quote has always stuck with me. When you read HP, it always felt like there was a firm hand at the rudder, effortlessly guiding the ship. The world was so rich and fully realized that it felt real. Not only to middle-graders, but to adults too. Rowling had a talent for moving the action at a good clip while including just enough mise en scène to make the whole enterprise believable. It was a tremendous accomplishment.
I have found writers to generally fall into three camps: “Character-driven” (RCW’s Spin); “Plot-driven” (Da Vinci Code); or “Worldbuilding-driven” (HP). Personally, I don’t really read for characters. I like Plot and Worldbuilding. To me, characters are largely a vehicle for the worldbuilding and whatever “message” or “experience” the author is trying to impart. For instance, in HP, Harry’s essentially a vessel. Sure, he experiences pangs of lust for Cho Chang, affections for his friends and family, and ambition for Quidditch, etc. But the guy doesn’t really have a personality. He’s a cardboard cutout– the generic middle-schooler that turns into a high-schooler. There are set pieces like The Big Sports Tournament (The Tri-Wizard Cup) and The Big Dance (The Yule Ball), but mostly –to me at least– Harry’s a paint-by-numbers kinda character. Which I think is Rowling’s intention. Because what is fascinating about the HP books is the worldbuilding. You’ve got Hogwarts and Diagon Ally, the Wizarding High Court, minister, government, and currency. Etc, etc. Harry’s just basically there to be an empty seat to take you to Gringotts and everything else.
Harry Potter possesses a kinda bland universality. Meaning, I don’t really know where Harry would stand on policies like universal basic income, abortion, or reparations. Again, I think this is Rowling’s intention; that is, Harry doesn’t have very specific politics (other than general banalities like “believing in courage and loyalty”) so he doesn’t run the risk of alienating any potential readers (or their parents!) who may not share his values. It’s a good strategy to sell as many books as possible!