The Prisoner of Azkaban by JK Rowling: Inter-generational backstory

Unqualified Analysis / Sunday, April 22nd, 2018

Okay, so I usually try to use this feature of my blog to prod myself into consciously and critically reading a new piece of literature every week or so, but this time I’m going to go with someone tried and true, a book I’ve read perhaps a dozen times since the age of seven. Why didn’t I go for something more eclectic? Well, I owe my local library a shit ton of money. Also, I’ve just delved into the second draft of my fantasy series, so I wanted to focus on books that, to me, exemplify the kind of immersive world building that J.K. Rowling is known for.

(Side note: Did you know there are people that don’t like J.K. Rowling and think she’s a bad writer? It’s true, they exist. They’re people with jobs and cars and loans just like us; they eat, sleep, and breathe, but somehow fail to recognize Rowling’s skill. If you’re one of those people (do those people read this blog?)…I wanted to say, leave me a comment and tell me why you’re such a hater. But don’t, please don’t: it could turn ugly.)

If you’re a JK-hater or you’re new to the planet and haven’t watched or read the Harry Potter series, I urge you to remedy that. For the sake of context for this post, and for the deliverance of your eternal soul (I’m not in a Harry Potter cult, everything’s fine, save me please).

I could fan-girl ad nauseam about what makes Harry Potter the best series of all time (and believe me: I intend to), but honestly I think a lot of it is epitomized in a few chapters at the end of The Prisoner of Azkaban: “Cat, Rat, and Dog,” “Moony, Wormtail, Padfoot, and Prongs,” and “The Servant of Lord Voldemort.” These three chapters have never, after all these years of rewatching and rereading, lost their brilliance and (shut up) magic. They mark a turning point in the Harry Potter franchise. Up until this point, there’s been some evil and some betrayal and a few complications, but it’s all come down to Harry vs. Voldemort.

These chapters broaden the story, widen the world of magic to include a generation before Harry’s. It sets up the later books for Harry’s vital, character-building realizations about his father’s imperfection, Snape’s heroism, and Dumbledore’s foibles; it elevates this children’s story about boy vs. evil into a more complicated story about a boy, some evil guys, and the generations of good but flawed witches and wizards existing concurrently and living in the past that have set the stage for Harry’s drama.

Do you read Stephen King? I really love Stephen King. He generally weaves his backstory into his novels, delving into his character’s motivations as he goes. It makes sense, it’s good storytelling, and it keeps you involved.

JK Rowling’s style in terms of backstory is very different from King’s.  In the context of Harry Potter, it awards a *brilliant* payoff. In The Prisoner of Azkaban, she unveils a hefty chunk of exposition in the form of Harry’s inter-generational backstory, but she sets up that backstory as the climax to a mystery. All throughout the book, Sirius Black is this evil, deranged villain who’s responsible for his parents death. The Grim leers at Harry from tea leaves, clouds, from behind bushes; Black’s rageful visage glowers from the moving pictures on newspapers. But it’s all two -dimensional, all mythological.

By making the details of his parents’ death a mystery, and Sirius’ true identity a climax in itself, JK Rowling delivers an emotional punch that reverberates all throughout the series. Keep in mind, this is the only book in the entire series in which Harry Potter doesn’t even see Voldemort in some form. Aside from the errant Dementor, Harry isn’t even really in any danger. It’s imagined danger, hyped up by the media.

Despite that, I consider one of the most viscerally involving books in the series. We suffer with Harry. We fear stalking with Harry. We feel the Grim peering over our shoulders with Harry. All this suffering, all this fear, and then JK Rowling delivers us the birthday present of grisly godfather Sirius Black in a prison-worn bow and we’re dumbfounded.

“What was there to be gained by fighting the most evil wizard who has ever existed?” said Black, with a terrible fury in his face. “Only innocent lives, Peter!”
“You don’t understand!” whined Pettigrew. “He would have killed me, Sirius!”

Gets me every single time. And I completely approve of her use of all-caps.

Harry’s parents become real characters, taking on a three-dimensional aspect when explored in the context in Moony, Padfoot, Wormtail, and Prongs. It’s a bittersweet ending: Sirius has to go into hiding and Harry has to move back in with the Dursleys, but upon finishing this book for the first time (and every subsequent time) I’m always left with this overwhelming sense of immersion. 

To me, the end of the Prisoner of Azkaban is a turning point in the series. It’s when the story really starts to grow up alongside Harry. I mean, Harry’s always had to relate with his past, and this theme comes up strongly in The Chamber of Secrets when we see tidbits of Hagrid’s youth, the last time the Chamber opened.  But learning this really personal story about Harry’s father and his father’s friends really amps up the emotional immediacy: I can still remember my deeply emotional reaction to that scene in the Shrieking Shack. Twenty. Years. Later.

When I meet people who don’t like Harry Potter (it’s true, it’s true, it’s true), they’ll say things like “Harry Potter’s not unique. There are a billion books about young people with Magic.”  And that’s true, but they’re exactly missing the point. The magic’s not the only reason we love Harry Potter.

I think that our relationship (Idk why I’ve started using plural pronouns, I’m so not in a Harry Potter cult) with JK Rowling’s world is so deep, in part, because of our immersion in lineage. I mean, think about how exciting it is to see Grimmauld Place, Sirius’s family home in Book Five. And how intense it is to look back in time to Tom Riddle’s ancestors in Book Six. And the emotional immediacy of Dumbledore’s backstory, eventually, in Book Seven? I mean, come on. None of Harry’s present-time adventures could possibly be so absorbing without the ever-present current of history weaving its way through the books. That’s what makes it feel so real to so many people.

I’m literally about to cry, so I’ll go ahead and wrap this up.

By setting up the suspense and mystery and weaving backstory in with the book’s dramatic action, JK Rowling produces a wizarding history that is complex, violent, and real. It’s world-building at its absolute finest, where you don’t have to go all hyper-detailed sci-fi and describe the inner workings of a spacecraft to reach verisimilitude. You just have to tell realistic stories with real drama, with high stakes, in magical settings.

And that’s how you build a world.

And that’s just like one millionth of the reasons why Harry Potter is the best ever.

Write Like JK Rowling (just kidding, it’s impossible)

This is kind of a weird prompt because I’m encouraging you not to write something new, necessarily, but to add onto something you’ve already written. I’ve been all about that lately since I’ve been re-reading stuff I’ve written and abandoned. So if you feel like practicing with me:

Sometimes we get so caught up in plot or story that we forget the depth and breadth of our characters’ lives, especially how their parents’ or grandparents’ stories might reverberate through their own.

Look back on something you’ve written, preferably something that’s more fantasy based or at least fictional. And hopefully, something that you feel could use a little something-something to make it more complete. Think about your characters’ backstories. Who are their parents, their grandparents, their cousins, their ancestors?

Maybe you’ve always known their intergenerational story as part of their character chart or whatever fancy mumbo-jumbo you’ve created. Or maybe you haven’t given it a thought. If not, brainstorm all those backstories now.

Then, once you know those characters, incorporate inter generational backstory into your narrative. But don’t do it just as random exposition, sprinkled throughout the narrative. (That’s fine, too, but it’s not the point of this exercise!) Work the backstory into the plot: make it a big reveal that unfolds in a dramatic moment so that there’s an emotional connection to the backstory due to how it was revealed.

It doesn’t have to be the whole point of your story, like it is in The Prisoner of Azkaban. It can be a sentence, a paragraph, a scene in passing that nonetheless helps draw people into your story, making them feel like they’re a part of the world you’ve created.

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