Organizations in fiction or: Why I Don’t Buy Hogwarts

Most action heroes work freelance.  Some of them have teams, and sometimes the team itself is the hero–an ensemble cast.  Generally, though, fiction tends to concentrate on individuals and small groups.

There are exceptions.  Stephen King comes to mind–in novels like Needful Things he works on a very large canvas and uses the entire town as an ensemble cast.

It is rare, however, for a writer of fiction to spend much time and effort portraying a large organization.  However, for most of us large organizations are an important part of our lives.  We work for big companies, we attend hobbyist groups and conventions, we are members of denominations.  It is difficult to find someone (even a self-described misanthrope such as myself) who has not, at one time or another, been part of a large group.

I have been thinking about this lately because my next book, The Worms Of Heaven, is going to largely concerned with the internal workings and politics of Agony’s corporate empire, Delapour & Associates.  I am beginning to get a feel that the company as a whole will be a character, much in the same way that Stephen King’s fictional towns of ‘salem’s Lot and Castle Rock are characters in his novels.

The Harry Potter novels, of course, take place largely in Hogwarts School For Witchcraft And Wizardry. Despite that, I never had any real feel for the school as a whole (the movies do a better job, mostly from being able to show long shots full of extras in robes.)

Part of the reason is the whole House structure, which other people have also mentioned.  Hogwarts has The Hero House, The Villain House, The Sidekick House, and The Comic Relief House.  (Yes, fans of the books can and do point out that there are exceptions, but in general characters in the Harry Potter world are sorted into house by narrative function.  The scene in the last film where the entire Slytherin house votes as one to turn over Harry to Whats-His-Name comes to mind.)

That’s just doesn’t strike me as realistic.  Even granting that The Sorting Hat has precognitive abilities and sorts students on the basis of how they will turn out at the end of the series, there are always unofficial cliques and factions within the official divisions of an organization.  There would be Sytherins who would support Harry just because they want to oppose Draco’s clique.  There would be children of Death Eaters who would join Dumbledore’s Army just because it would piss off their parents. (Sure, we’ve got Sirius Black, but there would be a lot more of that.)

Then there’s the whole Everything That Happens At Hogwarts Is All About Harry thing.  Yes, I realize that he is the hero of the series, and his name is on the cover of all of the books, but the focus of the books didn’t leave much room for the rest of the school.  I don’t even have a good feel for how big the student body is.  (Again, the movies give a better idea of that.) How many students are in an average Hogwarts graduating class?  How many are in an average lecture class?  An average lab class?  How evenly are they distributed in Houses? For that matter, how many instructors are at Hogwarts?

Now, before I get flamed for dumping on what is, admittedly, one of the most popular series in recent letters, let me state clearly that I am not saying that the Harry Potter books are bad, or that I think I could do better.  What I am saying is that I don’t believe that Rowling developed Hogwarts as an organization as realistically as she could have.  Granted, the whole idea of a Wizard school as a setting is pretty far out there, so she can be forgiven for concentrating on the magical aspects rather than worrying about seating schedules for meals in the great hall.

Still, I find myself wondering about the mechanics of the school (and you’ve got one janitor and one groundskeeper?  Even with magic that seems like poor staffing.)  Too many elements seem to show up just long enough to have some kind of impact on Harry’s life and are never mentioned again.  In Goblet Of Fire we suddenly find out that there are at least two other schools of magic, which then vanish from the scene as abruptly as they appeared. There is no interaction with the other schools except once every five hundred years?  No guest lecturers? No inter-library loans? As far as I can recall, none of the instructors ever mention teaching at another school.  Do students ever transfer?

My point is that writing organizations is tough.  There are huge amounts of backstory and large numbers of characters, many of whom the main characters will know by face and name.  There are individual cliques and unofficial lines of communication, traditions that have no clear antecedents beyond “we’ve always done it this way”.

It’s a challenge, and I am beginning to see just how challenging it is as I make notes for WOH. Still, I am enjoying the process so far, and I think that my next book will be stronger for it.



About MishaBurnett

I am the author of "Catskinner's Book", a science fiction novel available on Amazon Kindle.
This entry was posted in On Writing, Worms Of Heaven and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Organizations in fiction or: Why I Don’t Buy Hogwarts

  1. ABE says:

    1 writer – and a huge organization. Not so easy.

    Fortunately, it’s also one reader at a time – and said reader has room for constructing multitudes in his/her head out of the hints you give – though the organization in the reader’s mind is going to have multiple places where it doesn’t overlap with yours.

    If writers worried too much about this (I always think about the poor orcs in Lord of the Rings), we’d never get anything written.

    It’s a good thing that sometimes organizations think and act as the corporate body they are in law. Or we’d never get anything done.

    • MishaBurnett says:

      I’m not going to try to completely map out the corporate structure, I just want to keep the idea that there is a corporate structure and a corporate culture in mind while I am working.

  2. paws4puzzles says:

    Hmmm . . . Interesting. I’ve spent an awful lot of time pondering Hogwarts schedules, other schools, staffing, subjects and the like. I don’t fault Rowling for not adding these because it allows for a whole world of fanfiction. In fact Rowling’s post Potter reveals about the futures of certain characters bother me a little. I wanted to imagine my own futures for the characters, not have laid out by Rowling.
    But then we come to my own world. In the world of P.A.W.S., I’m creating just, that a world. For sure the first book focuses mainly on the Midwest Institute in St. Louis, but we know already that it’s an international organization and by the time I’m done with all the books we’ll have visited quite a few of its institutes and have learned a lot of its history..

  3. Wh-wh-wha? You DARE question the great J.K? HERESY!!!!!

    Errrr…what I mean is…ahem….

    I think the real strength of Harry Potter is you’ll probably be too wrapped up in the action to notice any holes in the story or world until long after you’ve finished reading. Delving too deeply into the specifics of Hogwarts could easily have bogged down the pacing and/or made readers more likely to notice inconsistencies, of which there are probably many.

  4. I ran into the Hogwarts student population problem many years back. The way I calculated it was 10 kids per house per year … so 40 kids per year times 7 = 280 students. But I’m pretty sure JKR went on record saying there were at least 500 kids at Hogwarts, so … yeah, a few plot holes, lol. I think the problem with organizations is that, for the most part, the characters don’t really care about them — they only care about an organization if they have to interact with it, and even then it’s usually the people from the organization they care about, or the good/bad things the organization has done, not the structure of the organization itself. In conclusion, good luck with your organization creation 🙂

    • MishaBurnett says:

      Characters care about the organizations that they work for. They may not care in the “I will die to protect the mailroom from attack by ninjas from Yoyodyne Propulsion Systems!” sort of way, but they care about making sure that it continues to work well enough to keep forking over paychecks. And most of spend a lot more waking hours with the people we work with than our friends and family.

  5. sknicholls says:

    Good luck Misha. It sounds like a daunting task which will require much research. I wish you well. I also always find your reflective posts both interesting and informative. My crime novel needs a more involved sidekick, perhaps of the opposite sex. There is a comic relief, but this sidekick needs to be more involved. The hero has too much responsibility. I am doing a rewrite. I am just now getting a better handle on how I want this mapped out. The story has been in my head for years, but the details are just coming together.

  6. Pingback: Plotting and World Building | Schevus Osborne

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