Discussion: Do you change your world to fit fan demands?

22 Sep

My husband sent me this article from Vox. It talks about the homosexual undertones in the newest Harry Potter installment and the subtextual content of the previous seven books. It’s an interesting argument to be sure, but it got me thinking.

Rowling originally wrote the series for young children (I believe I was in 4th grade when I read the first one). Now, some of you might argue with me here, but my experience was that I wasn’t introduced to homosexuality outright until I was in the 7th or 8th grade. This isn’t to say that my experience is normal or that this is right, it’s just my experience. I grew up with no gay relatives or close family friends that necessitated it being explained to me that not every house was like mine, the assumption I believe many of us make growing up. Now, I’m going to extrapolate here that I’m not the only one who grew up this way though obviously, not everyone did. Breaching the topic of homosexuality can be more delicate in some homes than others and, like ‘the talk,’ I think many parents want to talk to their children about these topics before they come up in social situations. The age at which parents do this, I believe, depends on the culture the child is raised in and the social context of that childhood.

Feel free to argue, this is a set of assumptions based on my (American Midwestern) upbringing. It allows me to make this next assumption.

Because homosexuality can be introduced to children at different ages through adolescence depending on upbringing, I don’t believe it’s common in books aimed at middle-grade reading levels. I’ve seen a surge in YA books with homosexual protagonists or main themes, but I haven’t seen many middle-grade books. I think this is for the reasons I outlined above.

Going back to Harry.

If the first book is aimed at a middle-grade audience, I don’t think it’s unreasonable for Rowling to have excluded homosexual characters from her book. Sexuality in general was not stressed in the novel. Besides parents, there are no references to romantic relationships among the core group of characters and because we looked through Harry’s eyes, any on the periphery didn’t play a main role. Looking at the first book alone, I don’t think many would argue that Rowling stuck to the expected content of a book aimed at that age group.

But there are seven books, not one. And as the characters grew up, so did the reading level and intended audience. 19 years later, we’re reading a book where the 11-year-old who lived under the stairs is the father of an angry 13-year-old. Harry grew up. Should the world have ‘grown up’ too?

The article criticizes Rowling for writing a highly white heteronormative series. With a few exceptions (Dean, the Patil twins, Cho), this is a fairly accurate assumption. Dumbledore was never explicitly gay in the books and fans only know of this because of interviews Rowling later gave.

Here’s my question: Should Rowling have added more explicit descriptions of some characters homosexuality in later books?

PRO: Her audience matured and would have been able to deal with the changing characters as their own worldview was changing as they aged. By the time Cursed Child came out this year, many of us who remember reading the books as they were released are old enough to have children of our own (though some have turtles and that’s totally fine). A lack of homosexual characters is not reflective of reality and we’re to believe that wizards are born the same way as Muggles and would, therefore, have similar instances of homosexuality in their culture. Rowling’s world is not representative of modern Britain.

CON: Rowling started the book series to appeal to a young audience. Adding explicit references to homosexual characters could deter parents from having children enjoy the series at a young age. After the world was established as heteronormative, adding homosexual references would have been forced and might have led to inconsistencies in Rowling’s characterization of many main characters.

I’m unsure what to think about the instance of Harry Potter. As for myself, it’s making me look at my writing and wonder if I’ve included the diversity fans would expect from my stories in terms of sexual preference. Do I have the diversity of characters in terms of race, educational background, religion, etc. that my story deserves or would be expected to have? Should I look at my characters in terms of what (possible) fans might expect from my world or are they my characters to form as I originally saw them? Has being a white heterosexual Catholic tinged my character selection to a point where it’s arguably skewed? What steps should I/would I be asked to take to correct this? Would I be getting too far away from ‘write what you know?’

I think this topic can be applied to all kinds of diversity in a huge number of books. I’m curious how you all feel about this and I love using Harry as a common launching point for discussion. Please be kind and realize we all come from strongly different backgrounds.

Until next time, write on.

You can follow me on Goodreads, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at SamAStevensWriter@gmail.com. And as always, feel free to leave a comment!

8 Responses to “Discussion: Do you change your world to fit fan demands?”

  1. beckylindroos September 22, 2016 at 2:32 PM #

    I grew up like you did – except I’m older – midwestern Americana of the 1950s and very early ’60s when we moved to Central California. I was 16 then. But when I was 18 (1966) my mother asked ME what the word “lesbian” meant.

    And when my sister finally “came out” in about 1990 – at the age of 34 or something – my parents were horrified, shocked, etc. But my siblings and I, having been raised in a different era, had guessed quite a long time prior. lol

    Meanwhile my granddaughter wrote a “persuasive essay” on why gay marriage should be acceptable – she was about 16 years old. My younger granddaughter probably knows what “gay” means in general but not specifically – she’s 9.

    It’s fine with me if Rowling wants to put homosexuality into her books as long as there are no graphic sex scenes for 8th graders – although … From what I hear she’s been working up to it with other little romances amongst her characters. (I’ve only read the first one and really wished I were 10 years old again – I would have been her biggest fan.) But I think times have changed.

    YAs and kids have a lot more awareness of ethnicities than they used to from TV and other media if not in their own lives where they see it at school and in stores and businesses. I suppose I would consider the setting – would no varying ethnicities be realistic for a young girl in Detroit, 2016? How about in Buckley (MI)?

    Good luck!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sam September 22, 2016 at 5:29 PM #

      Thanks for sharing your story! The HP books take place between 1991 and 1997. I don’t think Rowling can argue not including homosexuality for that reason! I’m completely in agreement that she would never include anything graphic, the books are YA after all. The latest book hinted at a gay relationship and many wonder why she didn’t go forward with it.
      I think it’s good you mentioned ethnic and sexual orientation breakdown. I looked up articles that say between 1-6% of Britons are gay and 87% are white. It would make sense that the majority of Rowling’s characters are straight whites, but there should have been some kind of diversity. The story would be different in Detroit or any other city. However, Rowling is saying the population of Hogwarts represents all of the UK so we can’t draw from a single city.
      Thanks again for chiming in! I love hearing everyone’s opinion.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Kourtni @ Kourtni Reads September 23, 2016 at 8:55 AM #

    I do think she should have included more diversity (not just LGBT characters, but people of different religious backgrounds, more POC, etc.) but my disappointment comes more from what she’s done after the books were all published rather than the books themselves.
    It seems like she’s tried to earn credit for diversity where there isn’t any (ok there’s some, but not that much) by years later saying “oh!! This character was really gay!” or things like that. She’s done it multiple times, Dumbledore’s homosexuality being the most popular instance. This really annoys me because if she wanted to include diverse characters… she could have. Especially as the series went on because the series got so incredibly popular that it would have sold no matter what. So if she or her agent or the publisher were afraid that including X type of character would make sales drop… well, that doesn’t seem like a good enough excuse to me. And as you mentioned, as the series matured, so did the readers and at that point, even for people who feel that certain themes or types of characters shouldn’t be introduced at a young age (I personally disagree, but that’s not my point at the moment), the readers got more mature and would have been able to handle it. It could have even helped readers who were struggling with accepting their own identities.
    I’ve kind of started to ramble so I’ll just say this: it would have been nice to see more diversity, but the lack of diversity has just become more annoying as Rowling tries to make up for it years later by retroactively asserting that there is diversity in the series, but it wasn’t explicitly stated and readers were supposed to pick up on it on their own.


    • Sam September 23, 2016 at 1:20 PM #

      I agree about Dumbledore. It has always irked me that his homosexuality was only something that went ‘beyond the pages.’ The same with Hermione recently. Rowling said originally that she never stated Hermione was white but readers have found reference to her coloring (it’s mentioned in the article).
      I’m not sure if we can reply drive religious diversity from the novels. Other than Christmas, there aren’t many religious references. I never got the impression they celebrated Christmas as a religious holiday, more so as a reason to celebrate with family and exchange gifts. Arguably, boat religions have a holiday with similar goals. I think calling it Christmas in the books was likely a mistake.
      Thanks for chiming in! It’s great to hear other opinions here. Happy reading!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. siderealday September 23, 2016 at 3:29 PM #

    I think, for the first seven books, at least, she probably would have been under pressure from publishing houses to not include certain things. Part of that is the age demographic the books are aimed at and part of that is ‘but it won’t sell’ (arguments you hear for TV shows and films not diversifying). So for the main seven books, I’m willing to be a bit more understanding (even if I wish she had been more aware of the queer-coding she was doing for certain characters).

    On the other hand, I would’ve liked to see more ethnic and religious diversity as Hogwarts is the ONLY wizarding school in the U.K. and therefore has to be better representative of the U.K.’s diversity. I realize the demographics are different now than they would have been in the 90’s, but that’s something that could’ve and should’ve been addressed in Cursed Child and any other sequels moving forward.

    And while I’ve heard that Rowling has, especially in recent years, said ‘and this character was X’ and ‘this character was Y’, not everyone has access to those interviews, transcripts, etc. Now I don’t MIND her saying such things, but it feels to me like she’s trying to placate people without making any real changes (vis a vis the other official material that more people have access to: the new movies, Cursed Child, etc.). And, yes, being fair those properties aren’t solely hers. But she does have some say in them.

    For other authors – and speaking as someone who would like to one day be a published writer myself – be aware of what diversity there SHOULD BE in where and when you’re writing. And if you’re not comfortable writing from a certain perspective, find someone who is that perspective and ask them, while being aware that their opinion is not the be-all end-all because everyone’s experience is different. And, of course, be respectful, but hopefully that goes without saying.

    (Thank you for sharing the article, by the way – one of the lines in it stood out to me in a different way and inspired a discussion post over on my blog, to be published tomorrow)


    • Sam September 23, 2016 at 11:47 PM #

      I hadn’t realized the queer coding in the main series, it was the relationship between Scorpius and Albus that really struck me in Cursed Child. Reading the article, I see what they mean about some of the original series characters and I can see why what Rowling ended up writing for them seemed at odds with what was presented.
      I said this in another comment, but other than Christmas, which wasn’t originally celebrated, there didn’t seem to be much religion in the books at all. I don’t think we would have known very well if characters practiced another religion from the context of the original series.
      There’s been a lot of criticism about Rowling’s characterization after the books were released. On the on side, I understand frustration that Dumbledore being gay wasn’t in the original series. But at the same time, did we need to hear him say, “I’m gay?” Would that have changed his character in any way? He never said he was straight.
      I agree with your opinions about writers including a diversity in their writing that agrees with what population they’re writing about. I know for my novel, 1920s Chicago, there was a lot of racial segregation and I’ve thought of ways to address that without having done it yet. I’ll have to look into that again. Glad you liked the article, happy writing!


  4. RibbonReviews September 25, 2016 at 3:19 PM #

    I agree that this is something probably most authors, especially YA, have to think about. I honestly don’t know if anything would have been different if Ronald’s parents would have been two women or two men.
    I have read quite a few posts this month about people wanting more diversity in romance and YA novels, just as lots of fantasy lovers would like to see more strong female characters in high fantasy. The thing is, you can’t please everybody. And though I think it is important, if that is your aim as author, to creat a realistic world which includes religion, sexuality and gender themes. I think it is important to ask yourself if all these things are important to YOUR story. There is nothing wrong with including a hindu trans girl in your novel, I just think authors should consider if it is at all important for the story to state these things. Otherwise you’re just confusing your audience. Don’t change your style for people you don’t know. But that’s just my humble opinion 😉


    • Sam September 29, 2016 at 5:37 PM #

      Very true! I think many times, these tidbits aren’t important to the plot or the main characters. Who knows if every character we come across is straight or Christian. As you say, there’s nothing wrong with saying there’s a transgendered Hindu character in the story. But does the author have to say that the character is Hindu and transgendered? Is that important to the story? I don’t think so in many cases. Thanks for commenting and happy writing!

      Liked by 1 person

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