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Harry Potter, POV, and the Philosopher's Head Hopper

Harry Potter, quill, owl, Hedwig, cartoon, bobble head. Illustration by Midjourney AI


Why Does It Matter?

The oversimplification of writing and point of view has led many writers astray, including me. My confusion frequently followed a well-trodden path: I researched POV, found books that were pertained to be written in said POV, and immediately grew confused when all the 'rules' established in my research were immediately broken by well-established, well-respected authors. It reminds me of a particularly harrowing high-school biology class, where my biology teacher informed the class that "everything I'm going to teach you in the next week is wrong, but I don't have the time to teach you the correct version because it's too complicated and it would take all year."

POV, and in particular the way POV is explained to writer's looking to improve their writing is bad. And it matter because it discourages people, make them feel like they just won't ever get it. That's why I've written—what could be described as a rant by the less charitable—on Harry Potter and POV. Trying my best to prove that POV is flexible, and any hard and fast rules are just there to confuse and annoy. As long as it work, then do what you want.

Harry Potter, The Head Hopper, Third Person Limited, Omniscient Narrator... Or All Of The Above

If you look it up, the internet at large will assure you that Harry Potter is written in third person limited (or close third).

  • There is no I, we, or me, so first person perspective can be firmly crossed off the list.

  • There is no you directed at making the reader feel like the main character, so cross off second person POV.

  • We are told the story through he, and the he is Harry Potter. While we don't live inside his mind, we are immersed in his perspective… mostly.

As anyone will tell you, writers should only head hop in close third if that change is heralded through a new chapter or at least a scene cut. To do otherwise is to head hop. With delight, I point out that J.K Rowling, by constructs of the writing rules, head hops. She doesn't switch perspectives; she simply falls into another perspective whenever she feels like it. Breaking every POV rule ever.

And nobody noticed!

J.K Rowling is a Head Hopper

We start chapter eleven of Harry Potter and Philosophers Stone—sorcerer's stone for the Americans, firmly entrenched in Harry Potter, our POV character's point of view. By the time we get to the quidditch match, we are still in Harry's POV, zooming around with him on a broomstick.

"When Angelina had scored. Harry had done a couple of loop-the-loops to let out his feelings. Now he was back to staring around for the Snitch. Once, he caught sight of a flash of gold, but it was just a reflection from one the Weasleys' wristwatches…."

Disaster strikes, and H.P. is being bucked off his broom. And here, J.K Rowling head hops. There is no new chapter. There isn't even a page break. It doesn't follow any of the hard and fast rules. It's good old-fashioned head-hopping.

"Down in the stands, Dean Thomas was yelling, 'Send him off, ref! Red card!'

'This isn't football, Dean.' Ron reminded him. 'You can't send people off in Quidditch— and what's a red card?'

But Hagrid was on Dean's side.

'They oughta change the rules, Flint coulda knocked Harry out of the air.'"

How in all that is good in the world does our POV character, Harry Potter, know about this conversation? He's bucking around miles above the ground on a broomstick. This is textbook head-hopping. Our narrator is suddenly, mid-chapter, able to discern the points of view of other characters.

So How Come J.K Rowling Can Head Hop but You and I Can't?

girl writing, magic, happy, manic, stars, neon. illustration by Midjourney AI

Sadly, it's not as simple as J.K. can head hop, and the rest of us plebians can't. Nor is J.K approach a sign from an established writer, giving us all permission to head hop to our heart's content. J.K. Rowling does break the rules. It's head hopping, but it's not. It's not head hopping because nobody notices it. And it doesn't confuse or bother the reader. J.K Rowling achieved this lack of annoyance by drifting into another perspective, rather than 'hopping,' it's a slow perspective shift.

We don't fall into Ron's head; we aren't all of a sudden out of nowhere privy to the thoughts and feelings of Hermione. We know who is talking, and we understand where they are. The perspective shift is barely noticeable. Only someone on the hunt for head hopping would notice it. It's seamless. So, while you aren't allowed to head hop, you can shift perspective. The trick is: you have to do it well. It's the difference between a comedian being funny or mean, the difference between a genius or a fool.

J.K Rowling Doesn't Always Break The Rules

In other instances, where it might have been more jarring and distracting to the reader, J.K. does change perspectives but follows a more traditional rules-based approach. The first book's opening isn't from Harry Potter's POV but instead from Mr. Dursley. A page break, and we shift Professor McGonagall the cat's POV. Another page break and we shift into what might be a narrator's POV with no insight into any character's thoughts and feelings, except those demonstrated through action and words.

It Could Be Argued That Harry Potter Is Written In Omniscient POV

Omniscient POV is the all-knowing point of view. The POV type where the narrator can dip into anyone's mind, know anyone's feelings and relay them to the reader at their leisure. And it can, and can continue to be argued that the bulk of the internet is wrong, that J.K Rowling wrote her book in omniscient.

"Yet Harry Potter was still there, asleep at the moment but not for long."

Here J.K Rowling informs the reader of something Harry Potter arguably couldn't know. He's asleep and, therefore, unable to know that he will soon be woken by his aunt screeching at him. It's an omniscient POV, where J.K. Rowling fulfills the role of an all-knowing narrator. I argue that J.K Rowling wrote her books in omniscient point of view and then played with narrative distance. Moving the camera lens around at will, rather than sticking firmly to what Harry Potter, the perspective character can see and hear.

It makes for a more exciting read, letting the reader take a break from Harry Potter (who, let's be honest, gets tiresome at points). If J.K Rowling had adhered to strict writing advice so often touted as gospel, we would have been stuck on a broomstick hovering in mid-air rather than enjoying Hermione setting fire to Snape's robes. And we would have had almost zero insight into our primary villain, Voldemort. And we wouldn't have enjoyed the snarky asides about Mr. and Mrs. Mr. and Mrs. Dursley.

"Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you'd expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn't hold with such nonsense."

So How Does a Writer Manage POV?

girl staring at a blank computer screen, neon, thinking. illustration by Midjourney AI

However you want, very few readers were thrown by J.K Rowling's POV switches, and I would argue that those who were are writers or editors who keep an eye out for that kind of stuff. You can do whatever you want, so long as it is clear to the reader.

You can do whatever you want, so long as you do it well.


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