Being Harry Potter

By Julie Wu

I was pretty sure Harry would survive his encounter with the Hungarian Horntail; I was on book four of seven.  But as I lay next to my then first grader and read aloud Harry Potter: The Goblet of Fire, my arms trembled and I could feel my heart racing.  I was amazed that a book—a children’s fantasy!—could have this physiological effect on me.

In my own writing, I want to move people just that way: I want to make them gasp, tremble, and weep.  To this end, I think of emotion as another sense to immerse the reader in.  It is my job to convey a character’s emotion in every scene, at least as much as what that character sees or hears.  But I have found moving a reader to feel fear or sadness to be far more complex and difficult than helping him or her imagine the shininess of a waxed apple or the smell of diesel exhaust.  Writing, “He felt scared,” or, “She was elated,” just doesn’t do it.  How exactly is it done? 

There are psychologists who study the interplay of fiction and emotion.  They believe that in fiction the writer provides a recognizable pattern of cues—events, descriptions, sensations, to evoke empathy with a character and trigger emotional responses in the reader.  In this paradigm, the novel or story acts as a kind of program set to run on the reader’s brain, and the protagonist’s goals, desires, and emotions temporarily supplant the reader’s own.*

Rowling creates such empathy for Harry that my heart pounds along with his and that millions of people to fly to Orlando to live for a day in Harry’s world, to be Harry.  She must be a master programmer.  Rowling, whose writing seems so natural, so guileless.  How could a writer so fond of adverbs achieve something so complex and powerful?  Could it be an accident?

No way.  A close look at the Hungarian Horntail scene shows Rowling conveying Harry’s fear with every tool she has—with metaphor, with Harry’s words, his actions, his thoughts, and especially his body’s physiologic response to panic.  Not only that, but she takes a huge amount of time and care to do so; the description of Harry’s escalating panic, including his feeling of disembodiment and altered perception, his difficulty speaking, and his dismay at the other, more experienced contestants’ trembling, frantic pacing, and near death, extends for a full seven pages before his turn with the dragon.  When Harry’s turn finally comes, the description of panic intensifies:

Applause shattered the wintery air like breaking glass; Krum had finished—

He felt much more aware of his body than usual; very aware of the way his heart was pumping fast, and his fingers tingling with fear. . . yet at the same time, he seemed to be outside himself . . .

He stood up, noticing dimly that his legs seemed to be made of marshmallow.  He waited.  And then he heard the whistle blow.  He walked out through the entrance of the tent, the panic rising into a crescendo inside him. . .

He saw everything in front of him as though it was a very highly colored dream. . . and there was the Horntail . . . crouched low over her clutch of eggs, her wings half-furled, her evil, yellow eyes upon him, a monstrous, scaly, black lizard, thrashing her spiked tail, leaving yard-long gouge marks in the hard ground.  The crowd was making a great deal of noise, but whether friendly or not, Harry didn’t know or care. . .

He raised his wand.

“Accio Firebolt!” he shouted.

Harry waited, every fiber of him hoping, praying. . . If it hadn’t worked . . . if it wasn’t coming . . . He seemed to be looking at everything around him through some sort of shimmering, transparent barrier, like a heat haze, which made the enclosure and the hundreds of faces around him swim strangely. . . (pp. 352-3)

As I read this passage, already primed by the previous seven pages, my brain recognizes the cascade of events as dangerous, and it recognizes Harry’s physical and psychic sensations as those of panic, so I feel panicked along with Harry.  I know that Harry will survive, but Harry does not know that. And Rowling’s program runs so well on my brain that it is Harry’s uncertainty and fear that I feel, not my own comfort as I lie in my bed with books five, six, and seven at hand.

I also feel Harry’s subsequent relief and elation on the broom:

As he soared upward, as the wind rushed through his hair, as the crowd’s faces became mere flesh-colored pinpricks below, and the Horntail shrank to the size of a dog, he realized that he had left not only the ground behind, but also his fear. . . He was back where he belonged. (p. 354)

I’d be a fool not to learn from Rowling.  Did I really stay up so many nights reading the Harry Potter series because I wanted to find out whether he defeats Voldemort? Or did I, as in this example, turn pages because I was swept up with the thrill of Harry’s emotional experience?

I’ll have to go through my own writing to see whether I put as much care and time into emotional cues as Rowling does in this scene, that I am giving readers enough to generate their own delight, joy, or panic.

Because what greater power is there in words, than to bring tears to a reader’s eyes, or to make a reader’s heart race?

And, yes, a theme park would be nice, too.


*Raymond A. Mar, Keith Oatley, Maja Djikic & Justin Mullin (2011): Emotion and narrative fiction: Interactive influences before, during, and after reading, Cognition & Emotion, 25:5, 818-833


  1. Amy Sue says:

    Excellent insights and advice, Julie. We should all learn from writers who make us feel the way we want to make our own readers feel, regardless of genre or story.

    And, as someone who read your book — twice — I’d say you have nothing to worry about at all. Your novel will capture the hearts, minds and emotions of your readers. Although I see more of an epic movie than a theme park! ;-)

  2. Julie Wu says:

    Thanks, Amy! You are awesome. And I’ll take an epic movie, anytime!

  3. Diana Renn says:

    Thanks for the great discussion of emotional cues, Julie. I agree with Amy; I think your book is quite an emotional ride. But I’m glad you brought this up; it’s a great exercise to read through your own work or published work and just raise your awareness of emotional triggers and sensations. I vote for epic movie for your book too — theme park a little too scary! (The bombs! The snake!)

    • Julie Wu says:

      Thanks so much, Diana! Though I’m starting to think if I throw in a couple Nationalist agents, too, I could get a good thrill ride in there . . .

  4. Erin Cashman says:

    I loved this article! It is so easy to rely on cliches, and so hard to find a fresh way to describe something that’s been described thousands of times! It’s a good reminder to me to take my time setting the scene – 7 pages! – and not rush to the climax. I can’t wait to read your book, Julie!

  5. Anna Solomon says:

    Great post, Julie! So much of what brings readers in is sensory, I think – universal sensory responses we all know (like a shared code). Rowling is a master at this, as you describe so well. I think it’s also a reminder to stop while writing, close your eyes, and just deeply imagine what your character feels, physically, in a given moment – “deeply imagine” sounds corny, but I think it’s essential for us to go there if we’re expecting our readers to follow, and be moved.

    • Julie Wu says:

      Thanks, Anna! I so agree with you, and that kind of sensory richness is partly what I love about The Little Bride! For me, studying this passage of Rowling’s was a reminder to turn the sensory focus inward in addition to describing the interaction between the character and his/her world.

  6. Priscille Marcille Sibley says:

    Julie, Great insights. I thoroughly enjoyed your post.

  7. Juliana says:

    Great article! Everytime I think about actually studying Rowling’s writing I get uber nervous because of how incredible HP is.

    And yes, a theme park would be nice ;)

    • Julie Wu says:

      Thanks, Juliana! Glad you enjoyed the post. There are so many things that make the Harry Potter books magical, and this is just one.

      I’ll let you know when my theme park opens!

  8. Jen Magar says:

    Great post, Julie – I believe, as writers, we can learn a little something from everything we read!


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