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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.
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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?)
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.
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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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.

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.
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