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So, what's Harry Potter about, anyway? - The Phantom Librarian
Spewing out too many words since November 2003
So, what's Harry Potter about, anyway?
Chapter 32 of Shifts ("Charms") just went up at SQ.

Okay, more from the Card books. In both How to Write SF/Fantasy and Characters and Viewpoint, he talks about the so-called "MICE quotient," dealing with where the focus of a story is and what kind of implicit contract it has with reader expectations. It made me curious, because how we perceive the HP books may have a lot to do with how we're speculating about the ending--the type of story determines what sort of ending we find satisfying. I think Harry could fit all four, from various points of view, and I'm curious as to what other people think.

To break it down, Card says that there are four basic ways to focus a story. Is it a Milieu story, an Idea story, a Charcter story, or an Event story? All of the elements are there in every story, of course, but one or the other tends to be the focus. The same thing could start all of them. For the sake of examples, let's say that a story opens with a young woman finding a dead body. This is my gloss on what Card says:

Milieu stories are based on exploring a setting--physically, culturally, whatever. Our young woman finding the dead body calls the police, and is so fascinated by what they do that she decides she wants to go to the police academy, and the story focuses on her adventures in learning the ins and outs of the department, finally ending when she finishes her training and goes back to her neighborhood as a beat cop. She's pretty ordinary; she mostly just sees the world of the police academy for us. It will change her, but that's not the point.

Idea stories pose a question. In the case of our girl, the obvious question is "Whodunnit?" and the story ends pretty much when the question is answered. She'll probably be the one to solve the case, but she could just be an incidental before the detective arrives. In any case, the story is a puzzle to solve, and when it's solved, the story is over.

Character stories are about changes in people. Of course, all stories have characters who learn and grow a bit, but character stories are skewed completely to it. Our girl finds the body, and it's her beloved father, who died of natural causes. She now has to adjust to life alone, and the story ends when she comes to terms with her life and is able to face it.

Event stories deal with, unsurprisingly, events, and how they change everything. There's an imbalance, a force of chaos in the world, and the story ends when balance is restored. She finds the body... and he's the crown prince, and his death leaves the kingdom with a power vacuum. Feuding factions vie for the throne. The story ends when either one side or the other wins, or when the kingdom lies in ruins, chaos triumphant.

I think that HP can be looked at in each of these ways.

Milieu: Harry is everyman, and he goes into a world with all kinds of funky little details. Rowling gives him a chance to see more and more of them in each book as he gets older and gets access to more parts of the magical world. If it's a milieu story, then the story ends with the end of Harry in the milieu--he returns to the Muggle world, leaving the magical world behind, or maybe the magical world is irretrievably changed, even destroyed, by the war, and what we've seen is a last cataloguing of it. Once it's done, the story is over.

Idea: JKR herself has talked in terms of an idea story ("What you should be asking is, 'Why did Voldemort live?'"). We open with a mystery--what happened in Harry's house, and how does one defeat Voldemort? We learn a bit more in each book, and ultimately, Harry will solve the mystery and use the answer he finds to put an end to Voldemort.

Character: These books are definitely focused on Harry growing up and learning, making a new place for himself in the world, learning who he is, and so on. Each year, he learns something about himself that he didn't previously know, and he has to learn to interact with the world in a different way. The proper way to end it is to have Harry ready and able to start a new life, with a new understanding of the people around him.

Event: The world is out of balance--we opened with a double murder, and a dark wizard who can't die. This sets in motion the conflict of the series, one battle after another, and it will end when balance is restored to the world. So...

From the above descriptions, I would say Harry Potter is:

A Milieu story, and the most satisfying ending would be Harry returning from his exploration of the wizarding world, or audience knowledge that the wizarding world as we have seen it is now something that's in the past.
An Idea story, and the most satisfying ending would be when Harry learns the answers to the questions raised.
A Character story, and the most satisfying ending would be seeing Harry learn what he needs to learn about himself and others, so he can go on with a new path.
An Event story, and the most satisfying ending would be the restoration of balance and order to the wizarding world.
45 comments or Leave a comment
mistralcat From: mistralcat Date: May 4th, 2005 10:54 pm (UTC) (Link)
I chose Character, but they're my favorite type of story. They're the type I write, mostly, and the ones I like best to read. But I also don't want Harry "returning from his exploration of the wizarding world" - I want him to finally feel truly comfortable in it - so I don't want it to be a Milieu story. Other than that, I think it's really all three of the others, which might be part of why they're such satisfying books.
bluemeanies4 From: bluemeanies4 Date: May 4th, 2005 11:00 pm (UTC) (Link)
I chose an Event story because thats what I think it is at the core, but when I'm engaging in analysis I usually approach it from a character perspective. Maybe because I see that the character substory is more interesting to me?
persephone_kore From: persephone_kore Date: May 4th, 2005 11:21 pm (UTC) (Link)
Well, when JKR described how she first got the idea, didn't she say that the first and central thing was Harry himself? Granted, the "point" of the story could have changed as she plotted -- I've had "starter" ideas that were less what the story ended up being about than that, I think -- but I would personally be inclined to say that it seems to me to run nearly even between Character and Event, in this division.

I'm not entirely clear on why "Milieu" requires the Wizarding world to be left or destroyed at the end -- I mean, in the police academy example, the girl would presumably finish school at the end, but she wouldn't leave the world it had been preparing her for. (On the other hand, I suppose it would be really hard to make a case for Harry exploring Hogwarts rather than the WW.) But I do think the story is far more about Harry himself and the conflict and his role in it than about the world anyway.

(The world, on the other hand, does attract a lot of fanficcers. Some say it's because there's so much more suggested than fleshed out in the wizarding world -- room to play. Perhaps if it were really a Milieu story, that wouldn't be the case?)
bluemeanies4 From: bluemeanies4 Date: May 4th, 2005 11:35 pm (UTC) (Link)
I'm trying to think of books that I would consider Milieu and the ones I come up with are 'Gulliver's Travels', Alice in Wonderland', 'Wizard of Oz' and, a little incongruosly 'Earthsea', when taken as a whole series.

The first three are really driven by their place, they are an out of world experience where the new world is really more important than anything else. "Narnia" would also fit.

Earthsea is really the only self-contained world that really strikes me as Milieu off the top of my head, given how the majic comes across more important (to me at least ) than the people and it completely changes at the end of the fifth book. But its an iffy call there.

All of these have a dramatic shift in the milieu or a return to normalcy at the end in addition to the establishment of the milieu. A case could be made that Harry Potter has the beginnings of a milieu with a foreign world just beyond our grasp that is being explored, but I don't think it can really be clasified as a Milieu story as opposed to a story with good world building falling into one of the other categories is when it becomes about the world so the world must be said goodbye to or wrapped up instead of the idea or the character or the event. Come to think of it, 'Lord of the Rings' could easily be Milieu under this understanding (if its right)
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: May 4th, 2005 11:43 pm (UTC) (Link)
Card uses LotR as an example (though one with a strong Event element as well)--Tolkien moves his characters through the world, and the story ends when Middle Earth is changed and Frodo leaves it.
dudley_doright From: dudley_doright Date: May 5th, 2005 01:39 am (UTC) (Link)
Phantom Tollbooth? Certainly the main character is intended to have learned from his journey, but...I think part of the return to normalcy in children's stories is just an extension of "this is what happens when we finish playing and put our toys away," if that makes sense.
gehayi From: gehayi Date: May 4th, 2005 11:02 pm (UTC) (Link)
I see it as primarily a character story, with milieu and events being important secondary traits that cause character to be further explored and developed.

I don't see HP as an idea story at all--it's not really much of a puzzle, why Voldemort lived. Voldemort was immortal at that stage. When the Killing Curse reverberated off of Harry, who was protected by his mother's sacrifice, it hit Voldemort. After that it was a case of an irresistible force meeting an immovable object. It should have killed him, but it couldn't kill him because he was immortal. Hence the disembodiment without death. And we found all this out in the first book. So not really an idea story.
bluemeanies4 From: bluemeanies4 Date: May 4th, 2005 11:04 pm (UTC) (Link)
The only explanation I've really seen that would make it an idea story for me is if the 'Change-ling Hypothesis' were true. But I'm not all that sure on that one.
parallactic From: parallactic Date: May 5th, 2005 12:00 am (UTC) (Link)
I chose the Milieu option, but I think it's a combination of Milieu and Character. The earlier books had Harry starting out as an Everyman character, and our viewpoint into the Wizarding world. The book covers the Hogwarts milieu, and the reader gets to go to classes, experience school hijinxes, and have cool stuff happen to them. However, I also think that JKR either consciously, or unconsciously, is following a coming of age arc, as evidenced by OotP's onset of teen angst, and the greying of the world.
sreya From: sreya Date: May 5th, 2005 12:28 am (UTC) (Link)
I chose "Character", although I suppose "Event" could come in as a second choice if you look at Voldemort as an Event instead of a Character.

I've seen a lot of talk about milieu, but I see a lot of the world building that's going on as reflecting the changes in Harry, rather than the character reflecting the changes in the world.

As for Idea story... seems like the answers Harry needs are still related to his character growth -- "Where did I come from? Who am I? Who do I need to be? What's my place in the world? Am I capable of doing what is necessary?" He may learn those answers by learning about those around him, but they're still quite personal to him.
tunxeh From: tunxeh Date: May 5th, 2005 01:06 am (UTC) (Link)
I think the series as a whole is a bildungsroman — I guess that makes it a character story in the classification you're using here — so that's what I answered. But the answer for individual books may be different, e.g. Philosopher's Stone is a milieu story and I expect the seventh book to be more of an event story.
danel4d From: danel4d Date: May 5th, 2005 11:30 am (UTC) (Link)
Hmm... I haven't answered the poll because I have no idea as to what the answer should be. I agree with OSC as to how the MICE quotient is interesting, tho I know that some would disagree. There is an alternate kind of Event/Milieu which you didn't mention, and which I've seen in quite a few fanfics... namely, that although Voldemort initially appeared to be the disorder which threatened the world, it gradually becomes clear that he is merely a symptom of a far deeper problem extending to the wizarding world's heart. In this sense the books are both a catalogue of the 'Old' Wizarding World and the tale of its destruction due to Harry's actions. IMO, there is a reading of OotP that bears this out - there seems to be a strong focus on the bigotry and inequalities lying at the heart of the WW, such as the Fountain. I'm not sure whether such a tale would be an Event or a Milieu story... or even just a subplot to the Character story of Harry. I'm fairly sure that it's not primarily an Idea story. But I could be wrong - I'm probably am, at that.
olympe_maxime From: olympe_maxime Date: May 5th, 2005 01:51 pm (UTC) (Link)
HP has all four bits, of course, but I think it's primarily an Event story. It starts off with the Big Event: Voldemort offs Harry's parents. That event is the central mystery... the thing around which the whole plot is built. Harry goes to school and does cool stuff and grows as a person, but the main *plot* is always something to do with, or that sheds more light on, the Big Event.

The series is going to end with Harry offing Voldemort and restoring order to the WW. The main point of every book is to get Harry closer to what he needs to be in order to do that. Harry's role is that of the prophecied child who will come and defeat the Dark Lord... and how many times have we been told that the WW is 'in the lull between two great wars'? It all points to HP being an Event series, primarily.

Of course, from a fangirl POV, I find the characters most fascinating - they are who I dwell on most of the time. But .. if Book 7 concentrated more on characters than the main event of defeating Voldemort... if somehow, Voldemort took a back seat in the one book I need to see him take centerstage in Harry's life, I would feel cheated. Even if Voldemort was taking centerstage, but the focus was on how Harry grows and changes much more than how Harry defeats Voldemort, I would feel cheated. (Of course he has to grow and change and come to some sort of realisation or conquer something within himself to defeat V, but that theme is a major secondary theme, not the primary one.)

Anyway. My $0.02.
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fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: May 5th, 2005 09:03 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: Three of Four

Hmm. Of course all good stories have all four--that's a given. I didn't even think that was necessary to point out.

The question is, what sort of story is it primarily, and the reason for asking has to do with speculating on the ending. What kind of "contract" is there with the reader? What kind of ending "fulfills" the beginning? For instance, if it's a mystery--an Idea story--then the story ends when Harry figures out the mystery of how Voldemort lived. If it's a character story, it ends when Harry's character change is complete (regardless of the Voldemort situation, which could end before or after the end of the series). If it's an event story, it ends (with the possibility of an epilogue) when Voldemort is defeated, regardless of the point at which Harry's character arc is resolved. If it's a milieu story, it ends when Harry leaves the milieu or the milieu is destroyed (again, regardless of Voldemort).
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fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: May 6th, 2005 04:10 am (UTC) (Link)

Re: Three of Four

I did understand what you meant, but I didn't think you understood what I meant. The whole question is of what is most prominent and what kind of speculation there is. If it's an event story, but Harry defeats Voldemort three hundred pages before the end of it, there's a problem that wouldn't be there if it were a character story and those three hundred pages worked out how the event of Voldemort's defeat changes Harry's character.
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fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: May 6th, 2005 11:57 am (UTC) (Link)

Re: Three of Four

Outside the box, think you must.

It's not a question of thinking inside or outside the box. No book is a perfect example of anything--like the Myers-Briggs types, it's just a sort of fun way to sort, a different paradigm to look at it under. I might look at it by MBTI sometime as well, or separate it out by Campbellian elements, or any number of other things. Sorting and resorting and looking at it from different angles on different days gives a more dynamic viewpoint than refusing to consider new ways of looking at it.

That said, I disagree that any story won't be primarily one or the other. A good story will work the other threads into the primary form more strongly, but it's still going to be what it is. In the case of HP, which imho is very much an Event story with strong character undertones, bringing balance back to the wizarding world will be intimately bound up with solving the mystery of what happened the night Voldemort attacked, seeing all of the created milieu, and of course Harry's growth from boy to man. But those things happen in the context of beating Voldemort; beating Voldemort doesn't happen in the context of them. I think most of them will happen close to the end, but once Voldemort is defeated one way or the other, the story is over, while the same isn't true for when the other things wrap up. Whatever else is resolved, the story can't end without restoring balance to the wizarding world after the intrusion of Voldemort. All of the other threads contribute to that. In a Character story, the defeat of Voldemort might be an important event in the shaping of Harry, but the story would go on until he'd resolved a character issue. (Oddly, an epilogue showing him happy and complete would mitigate against this, since an epilogue by its nature is separated from the main body of the story, and happens after the story.)
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fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: May 6th, 2005 07:18 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: Three of Four

Voldemort himself didn't figure, but the idea of Voldemort certainly did; he was introduced in the very first chapter, then introduced again when Harry was brought into the wizworld. It's very clear that he represents the disorder in the magical world throughout, and that Harry is destined to face off against him.

A perfectly legitimate character story could have been written in which Harry was a boy who people believed was marked by destiny, who bought into it at first, but year by year came to believe that he was meant to do something else, until ultimately he left both the Dursleys and Hogwarts behind and, taking the things he'd learned with him, set off to study basket weaving as a therapeutic technique for orphans suffering from neglect. In that story, people might want to find out what happened with Voldemort, but there would be an underlying sense that this wasn't really what was important, and until Harry understood that his true destiny was elsewhere, it wouldn't be finished, even if Voldemort had been defeated in book 4. An Idea story would center around him solving the mystery of what happened, and who did it.

The problem with your idea is that good stories have focus. Something like HP (or Star Wars or Gone With the Wind or whatnot) can afford to do a lot of work on the other elements not because they're all equal, but because the focus (or throughline) is so strong that people are willing to tolerate a lot of digressions on the way to where they know they're going. In HP, you know that he's going to face off against Voldemort--it's inexorable, because in an Event story, that's the way it has to happen--so there's no rush to get there, and you can look at questions about his family and what he needs as a person, because you have reader trust. In GWTW, a character story, you know that Scarlett will eventually come to understand that she needs to be with someone who is like her, and--though she doesn't ultimately learn much--Mitchell's approach is strong enough that her voice is trustworthy, and she can spend a lot of time on the Event of the Civil War and exploring the milieu of the south... not because she can't decide what's most important to her text, but because it's very clear what is.
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fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: May 6th, 2005 08:53 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: Three of Four

But I would argue that that event already happened
That's what makes it an event story--it's a story of what happens because of the event.
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fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: May 6th, 2005 10:45 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: Three of Four

I would argue the exact opposite--the longer the piece, the more things you're trying to develop within it, the stronger and clearer the throughline needs to be in order to maintain interest and avoid devolving fully into chaos.

Imagine that you have a doorway with a beautifully carved screen of mahogany scrollwork stretched across the top. It's pretty on its own, but the way the sun hits it, you think it would be great to hang a bit of crystal in one of the carved-through places. It catches the sun, it's pretty. It's not very big.

Now imagine a ballroom, and the same kind of mahogany scrollwork screen runs down the center. You loved the effect of crystal, but there's so much more room now... it needs more. So you hang three heavy crystal chandeliers.

The chandeliers crash down and the scrollwork gets shattered. Because the more you're hanging on something, the stronger it has to be.
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fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: May 7th, 2005 07:06 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: Three of Four

A path to the Dark Side, J-ness is. You must let go your judging--open yourself to a new model, you must.

You see, the problem (or glory) of the MBTI abbreviations is that you Perceiver types open yourselves right up to a J mentioning which "ness" the problem could be... ;)

I don't see J-ness as a problem at all--in fact, I find this fun, and the point is, I am open to new models. I try new models all the time. Today it's this one; tomorrow it might be Presentation vs. Representation.

That's one of the things about P's--we're quite happy to alter models, expand the margins, etc... :)

Actually, this is where you're confusing me as a P--I'm offering you a different model, and you're refusing to consider it and see what it's about, what makes it tick. I thought P's were supposed to be into looking at things in different ways, rather than insisting on a single one.

That's where theme(s) comes in. And imagery, and symbolism, and symbolic motifs... I know you tend to be down on building those things consciously, but that's how you tie something like this together, not just by plot.

But these things are all about theme--theme as expressed by plot, tone, and every other aspect of the story--the question is, "What's the story about? Where will it end up? What is the author promising the audience by the opening?" B5 is a good example of something that adds a lot, but keeps to its throughline, at least as you've explained it to me.

Music is a better metaphor, IMHO (and also, coincidentally, how GL looks at SW...) In music, you can have multiple melodies and motifs interacting and switching off with each other. You can have a bright melody line, a strongly rhythmic motif, and parts based strongly on block chords, all in the same piece, all switching off and playing off each other, and all in equal proportions.

Yes, but you do have to choose a key, and while it might change focus from time to time, you still have to follow it through to a logical conclusion. Music is actually a great example--SW has many themes in it, but it would be very jarring if it ended with the Chordettes singing "Lollypop"--that's not its genre, and it wouldn't fit. Now, you can work in a rock number (they do in RotJ), but it's perfectly clear that this isn't the leitmotif of the movie.
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forked From: forked Date: May 5th, 2005 06:00 pm (UTC) (Link)
Interesting way to look at the stories. I agree with others above that I think it somewhat varies from book to book. For me, I'd say SS/PS was a combo of Milieu/Character, with more emphasis on character. I think it was a coming of age story in the beginning, but much of the appeal was in the depiction of the wizarding world, as discovered through Harry's eyes. I think later books have put even more emphasis on the 'coming of age' bits (character), but also increased the Idea bits. I think the final book will focus on Idea/Event even more.

I also think that some of the weaknesses in the series stem from the focus and how it shifts. Many have pointed out that Voldemort's 'plan' in GoF was kind of stupid and unnecessarily complicated. I agree- and that sort of contrivance is the kiss of death for an 'idea' story, where the heart of the story is unraveling the puzzle. Heck, even in SS I thought it was a bit of a stretch for three 11 year olds to solve a series of puzzles meant to confound even the most skilled of wizards. But to the extent the focus is on character, such flaws are less critical.

Likewise, I always found it puzzling that Sirius was sentenced without a trial, without the use of Veritaserum, without anyone seemingly stepping in and trying to defend him or discover the truth- odd in a world where there's polyjuice and imperius. For a milieu story, you'd think there would be more discovery of the wizarding justice system in this; for an idea story, you'd expect these dangling plot points to be tied into the larger story. But for a character story that emphasizes Harry's growth to manhood, it's less of an issue.

Anyway, I do think the focus shifts a bit over time and I think that one way of understanding the story JKR is trying to tell is to look at the weaknesses. In general, I think it reads best as a character study, but much of my enjoyment stems from the incorporation of milieu, idea and to a lesser extent event. But some of my (minor) frustration stems from that too!
thewhiteowl From: thewhiteowl Date: May 5th, 2005 08:40 pm (UTC) (Link)
I voted event, but I'm split between that and Character. Character's my favourite type of stories, anyway.
gabrielladusult From: gabrielladusult Date: May 5th, 2005 09:18 pm (UTC) (Link)

You made me think!

How dare you! OK, I put "Idea" because I think each individual book is an "Idea/X" book. For example, PS/SS it is "Idea/Milieu" -- but I wouldn't say that the overall series is going to be Milieu because I don't think Harry will die or otherwise leave the WW. OotP could be seen as "Idea/Character" based on the definitions. The more I think about it, and read other comments -- I wonder if each book is an Idea/X book -- but the series overall is going to be Event/Character. I'm not just switching to the majority. The books are obviously building to a major "Event" scenario -- I don't think that can be back seated to anything else -- but it is also clearly a "coming of age" series, which feels more Character driven. Harry has to come to terms with a power inside himself before he is able to defeat Voldemort...

OK -- I'm still thinking. I guess I'm glad I'm not completely brain dead -- but really, can't a girl vegetate in front of the computer in peace?
ter369 From: ter369 Date: May 6th, 2005 03:20 am (UTC) (Link)
Your poll is intriguing, but I can't make an analysis until the series is completely in print.

It's possible that the individual books will each fall into one of the four categories you offer, while the overall arc has a template of its own.

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From: (Anonymous) Date: May 6th, 2005 03:33 am (UTC) (Link)
OK, why would a milieu story be one where the wizarding world has to be destroyed or where Harry leaves it for the mortal world? There are two basic fantasy subsets where the magic goes away. There are stories like Peter Pan which are built around the idea that magic belongs to children and that growing up means losing access to that world. I always disliked that one.

There's also the fading in books like Tolkien's. His makes a bit more sense (although it's the one thing I don't like about his books, it makes sense). The beginning of a new age means the end of an old one. Many good things can be saved but there's a cost. The powers of evil don't win but they still wound. In Tolkien's books, that's the way the world is made. Change is a constant and change takes even as it gives. LIke is about learning to deal with this.

The world Harry enters is a world much like ours except for the way magic turns things on their ear. This isn't Peter Pan where magic means the eternal playground of Never-Never Land where the adventures don't really mirror real life and have to be given up when you have to become part of "real life." It also isn't a world of fading, like Tolkien's (although people like Malfoy and Voldemort may see it as having faded from its Pureblood roots).

Why, then, should the magic go away? I cite your example of the woman who goes to the police academy. She may leave the academy at the end - and Harry will move on from Hogwarts one day (alive or dead, that's the question) - but the academy still exists. Also, she leaves as a _cop_. Why shouldn't Harry leave the wizarding school as a full fledged wizard?
erised1810 From: erised1810 Date: May 6th, 2005 11:32 am (UTC) (Link)
I can hardly label it into just one concept. i was doubting them ost between idea and character. and te nevent....these are the most importent three and I'm not sure which one jumps outhe mos (sicne wee talking auot seven books adn it evolvs/transforms every time.) It's abit like le petit prince whic has six thosuand differentthemes in it's stor yand is readable for kids asa simple fairy tale and als for adults asa 'literary' (undefinedterm for me) story.
erised1810 From: erised1810 Date: May 6th, 2005 11:38 am (UTC) (Link)
also .i ncombined half-baked?) literary analysis.
can a neven story be characte-rdriven? can a character story be plot-driven?
ther is much oerlappign stuf in hp.
psychic_serpent From: psychic_serpent Date: May 6th, 2005 01:04 pm (UTC) (Link)

What's the big idea?

Idea: JKR herself has talked in terms of an idea story ("What you should be asking is, 'Why did Voldemort live?'"). We open with a mystery--what happened in Harry's house, and how does one defeat Voldemort? We learn a bit more in each book, and ultimately, Harry will solve the mystery and use the answer he finds to put an end to Voldemort.

While I believe that the HP series is first and foremost an Idea story, I don't agree with your assessment of WHAT the idea is. It's not a mystery story. It's not a milieu story or an event story or a character story (although character is very important). The question of why Voldemort lived isn't the idea itself but it POINTS to the idea. All of these things--the wizarding world (milieu), the characters, the events, are being used to illuminate the IDEA and therefore are not ends themselves but means to an end. I believe that the idea, ultimately, concerns the big issues of Life and Death: the morals/ethics by which we should live our lives and the way that we should view our deaths.

She has not actually revealed the full extent of her central idea yet, but I believe the major clues are in OotP. One is in this exchange between Voldemort and Dumbledore during their battle in the Ministry:

‘There is nothing worse than death, Dumbledore ' snarled Voldemort.
'You are quite wrong,' said Dumbledore....'Indeed, your failure to understand that there are things much worse than death has always been your greatest weakness — '

Another is in the exchange between Harry and Nick:

'He will not come back,' repeated Nick. 'He will have . . . gone on.'
'What d'you mean, gone on ?' said Harry quickly. 'Gone on where? Listen — what happens when you die, anyway? Where do you go? Why doesn't everyone come back? Why isn't this place full of ghosts? Why — ?'
'I cannot answer,' said Nick.
'You're dead, aren't you?' said Harry exasperatedly. 'Who can answer better than you?'
'I was afraid of death,' said Nick softly. 'I chose to remain behind. I sometimes wonder whether I oughtn't to have . . . well, that is neither here nor there . . . in fact, I am neither here nor there . . .' He gave a small sad chuckle. 'I know nothing of the secrets of death, Harry, for I chose my feeble imitation of life instead.'

In the end I believe that the big "event" and most important development for Harry's "character" will be his understanding the IDEA that he should not make the fear of death the central controlling idea in his life. (To Dumbledore death is "the next great adventure.") This doesn't necessarily mean that Harry will die, or if he does that he will stay dead. (I personally don't see the point to teaching a character a lesson about something this important and then not allowing him to apply it to his life.) I believe it does, however, mean that he needs to be willing to risk dying for something he believes in very strongly--that there ARE things it is worth dying for. Everything else about the series--the wizarding world she created, the various events described, and the character of Harry--are all designed to serve the communication of this idea, not the other way around. Without this idea the other elements are empty and pointless.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: May 6th, 2005 01:20 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: What's the big idea?

I actually disagree with Card's use of the word "idea" to describe what he's talking about, which is actually a "puzzle" story (all stories are "idea" stories in the way you're talking about, after all). I think he just used "Idea" because "Puzzle" wouldn't fit the acronym, and MPCE doesn't sound like anything. ;)
psychic_serpent From: psychic_serpent Date: May 6th, 2005 01:48 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: What's the big idea?

In that case I think that Card is out to lunch and an earlier commenter had it on the nose--a "puzzle" story and an "event" story are one and the same. One could also call the central idea in a story the "message," but that would give him two M's, and, as you pointed out, ruin his neat little acronym.

I'm not certain that ALL stories are "idea" driven. I think that is in fact why I've come away from reading some things feeling rather empty--there's no big idea driving the creation of an elaborate universe, characters I'm supposed to care about, a mystery I'm supposed to want sussed out, etc. Stuff just--happens.

Argh. Frustrating. Card was so close but missed the boat. Evidently he was only talking about story FORMS and then screwed up by describing one form (event) in two different ways. :: sigh ::
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: May 6th, 2005 04:42 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: What's the big idea?

Actually, an event story and a puzzle story are different things, with different emotional expectations and a different reader contract--it's the difference between Agatha Christie and Stephen King. An Event story might require one to solve a mystery, but the mystery isn't the point of it.

To go to my hypothetical example of the woman finding the body, we'll make it always be the crown prince. In an Idea/Puzzle story, the story would be devoted to learning who had killed him and for what motive, and would end when the puzzle was solved (possible with a little flotsam and jetsam about what happens to the kingdom reeled in in the epilogue). In an event story, the mystery might occupy the first few chapters, as they figure out that it was done by the leader of the anti-royalist opposition, and he is duly jailed... and then there are four hundred pages left, because the story is about the power vacuum caused by the assassination. There might be a character arc in there as well, as the prince's widow goes from being a ditzy trophy bride to a viable political figure, and a milieu angle as we meet the various parts of the culture vying for control, but it's an event story because it opens by positing a disorder in the cosmos and closes when the disorder is cured--not when the mystery is solved.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: May 6th, 2005 04:58 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: What's the big idea?

(Hmmm. I almost like that story and dig the prince's wife. I should write that.)

In HP terms, Harry can learn why Voldemort lived in HBP, and he's already learned how his parents died. The mysteries can all be solved, but he's still going to have to take on Voldemort, and the fight itself can take up huge amounts of page space.

The point is, when a reader opens the book, what kind of story is she legitimately expecting to hear? I would say the fact that there's argument about who Harry should be paired with, if he he should be paired, etc, mitigates against it being a character story, since the major character question posed at the beginning deals with whether or not he will be able to re-create his family now that it's been taken from him. If any of a number of pairing situations seems viable and would be satisfying as an end, then chances are, we're not dealing with a character story at its base. On the other hand, if he fails to confront the disorder in the world (Voldemort)--say, he gets sidetrack by his wild affair with Firenze, and realizes his life would be better spent by running for Parliament and pushing for legislation supporting non-human sentients--then the reader would be quite right to be annoyed, because that's not the story that was promised. On the other hand, if the situation with Voldemort is resolved, but the other questions can still have multiple answers, the books' job has been done, and we can keep talking about the other stuff happily for years to come.

I think even the simplest stories are idea-driven on some level, though I'll grant that a lot of ideas are simplistic and trite and probably don't need whole books on them. (Then again, some of the simplest ideas make for the best stories.)
viveleroi From: viveleroi Date: May 6th, 2005 04:53 pm (UTC) (Link)

here from the daily snitch...

I feel that it started as a Milieu story -- "let's build this fantastic, magical world and then see it through the eyes of an eleven-year old", and then as the story got longer and longer, JKR realized that she needed some actual Ideas beyond the original plot to keep things moving through thousands of pages. Also at that length, the Characters need to be better than one-dimensional puppets (currently being addressed with varying levels of success, it seems).
ldybastet From: ldybastet Date: May 6th, 2005 08:22 pm (UTC) (Link)

*Here via d_s*

Very interesting post. These things make for good speculation. I chose Idea, not because that is necessarily my favourite, but because I think most hints lean that way.

I would like to see restoration of balance and order in the WW, but that makes me fear that JKR would kill off all my favourite characters, so I hope it will end with Harry understanding stuff and killing Voldemort and go happily on his way to live a full life outside the pages. *hem-hem*

The comments are very interesting as well, and your idea about Harry having a wild affair with Firenze sounds rather nice. Like beastiality and yet not. *grins* I'd like to read that.

I know I have read other interesting posts by you before (probably via d_s as well), is it ok to friend you?
smaragdgrun From: smaragdgrun Date: May 7th, 2005 02:59 am (UTC) (Link)
Great question; I answered it as I imagine that JKR is thinking (vs how I'm hoping). I think she'll start and end it as a milieu story == because it's about the wizarding world.

How it ends, though -- I think the *world* will change (vs Harry will leave the world). JK has spent an amazing amount of energy showing us the flaws of the wizarding world, and the precarious way it holds together. In some ways, these are clues to the "big mystery", and they are also paths to both advance and reveal the characters. But as much as JK is a world builder, I think she's also a utopian, and there will be some resolution of all this in the end -- an overlapping of wizard and muggle worlds, perhaps.

But I don't see this as an event story, because this milieu as it is was created long before even the four founders came on the scene.

It's definitely got me thinking -- thanks!
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