J.K. Rowling
photo: Reuters

In writing "Harry Potter," J.K. Rowling gave us a world full of magic, wonder, and friendship that inspired millions of children around the world to love reading and care about each other. The legacy of her creation will certainly withstand the test of time.

But like other genius creators before her, Rowling's standing with fans of her work has begun to slip. You know how people love "Star Wars," but also love to hate on George Lucas for the terrible decisions he made after creating "Star Wars?" It's sort of like that. "Harry Potter" is no less beloved or celebrated, but it's gotten to the point where some fans love it despite Rowling, not because of her. 

Which stinks, because without Rowling we wouldn't have "Harry Potter" — but there's no denying that just like George Lucas, she's made a few mistakes here and there. If you're hoping to follow in her footsteps one day, here's what you should take away from her experiences: 

1

Don’t explain your metaphors decades after they no longer become acceptable.

photo: Warner Bros.

Rowling is currently under fire for confirming a long-held theory in her upcoming book "Short Stories From Hogwarts of Heroism, Hardship, and Dangerous Hobbies” — that Professor Remus Lupin’s struggles with lycanthrophy were a metaphor for the stigma surrounding HIV and AIDS. This should not come as a surprise to fans of the series, of course, because it’s long been assumed that this was the case (in fact it’s often cited as a reason that Lupin could be considered gay or bisexual within fandom). 

But “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Akzaban” was published in 1999, and conceptions about how best to represent oppression and prejudice have changed — for example, many readers who are interested in uplifting and celebrating marginalized identities frown on metaphors that depict those voices as inherently dangerous. (See also, criticism against the LGBT-inspired vampires in “True Blood,” or the race-inspired predators in “Zootopia” — to say nothing of all the various discourse surrounding the X-Men.)

So what are you to do as an author when your metaphor is A) patently obvious and B) not exactly politically correct anymore? Leave interpretation up to the readers and don’t bother yourself with explaining what it is you meant. It's tempting to explain, but isn't it more fun to let people figure it out on their own?

2

Don’t wait until after your book’s been published to explain what your characters are like.

photo: Warner Bros.

Rowling first made headlines for her own post-Potter analysis in 2007 when she admitted in an interview that she considered Dumbledore to be gay, despite there being no concrete textual evidence to suggest his sexual orientation within the series itself (although certainly there’s a lot of subtext in his friendship with Grindlewald).

This annoyed a lot of people who thought that any kind of pro-LGBT rhetoric has no place in “Harry Potter,” which is a good thing because those sorts of people deserve to be annoyed. But it also annoyed LGBT-friendly readers as well, because it felt like a missed opportunity. There are ways to depict LGBT themes in children’s media that are still appropriate for kids, and that Rowling did not even try was disappointing to fans.

So if you envision your character as gay, or any other kind of identity that might go missed by those with poor reading comprehension, be sure to make it a little more obvious! They can still be the same characters you’ve been writing all along and their race or sexuality don’t have to define them, but at the same time, spelling it out could mean that more people are going to read your work and see someone like themselves in it.

3

Don’t use very minor characters as an example of how diverse your world-building is.

When asked recently whether or not there were any Jewish students at Hogwarts, Rowling explained that of course there were — and then named a student that appeared in one book with no lines, Anthony Goldstein. That’s all well and good, but a blink-and-you’ll-miss it example over the course of 7 books maybe isn’t the best way to prove that everyone is represented in your world. 

This falls into the same category as the above Dumbledore, but it bears repeating: if you want to depict an inclusive, diverse environment through which every child can see themselves represented, then don’t be shy! Why not start with your main characters, as a matter of fact? 

4

When writing outside of your own experience, do a lot of research and try to be respectful.

Ilvermorny house sorting
photo: Pottermore

Rowling’s world-building in “Harry Potter” and other books felt fascinatingly real, and with good reason — she knows European history well, having lived there her entire life, and knows how to incorporate fantastical, magical elements into that framework.

But to some readers, her recent exploration of the American wizarding school, Ilvermorny, felt… off, at least to me. It had all the trappings of an American immigrant story, but it felt a bit essentialist in the telling — right down to the assumption that Americans would be inherently less elitest towards non-magical people (trust me, they definitely wouldn’t). For many readers, the way that she both borrowed from and glossed over Native American magic and mythology was also especially frustrating.

Obviously, writers can’t know everything about every facet of the human experience, which makes it difficult when you’re trying to write about other cultures and experiences that you haven't lived. That’s why it’s important to do research and seek out people who know better and can steer you in the right direction. The show “Avatar: The Last Airbender” is a good example of this: Although the showrunners are both white Americans, they worked with martial artists, designers, calligraphers, and other cultural consultants to create a fantasy world that was steeped in many Asian traditions without being disrespectful or inauthentic.

5

Don’t be so accessible on Twitter all the time.

photo: Twitter

Listen, I get it. A nice stranger asks you a harmless question about wand sizes, and you think it would be fun to make her day. But it’s a slippery slope until you’re getting inundated on all sides, and every single thing you tweet is covered by the media for days as a “BRAND NEW HARRY POTTER REVELATION,” and everyone begins to feel a little sick seeing your name in print. 

And then god help you if you make a mistake — like, for example, indirectly denying that a beloved character like Sirius Black is gay — because in addition to the (admittedly fair) criticism you might receive from people who are disappointed at the lack of LGBT characters in "Harry Potter" (although I'd argue that Twitter is not always a particularly good place to make those criticisms, especially when thousands of other people are doing the same), you will also surely get 16-year-olds with Lady Gaga avatars telling you to fuck yourself. That’s never fun for anybody.

So, aspiring writers: Engaging with the fandom about the nuances of your worldbuilding is all well and good, but do it too often and you will develop a bit of an unfortunate reputation that will probably come back to bite you. Take some time away from social media every once in awhile! That’s just a tip for everybody, not just writers. We could all use a break now and then.