I am pleased to share the following guest essay written by Edward Lazellari, author of Awakenings.
A young boy lives in a hostile home environment with uncaring step parents, but unbeknownst to himself, is actually a pivotal figure in a magical universe that’s waiting to reclaim him. Sound familiar? No, it’s not Harry Potter… rather it’s Daniel Hauer, the MacGuffin in the ensemble cast in Awakenings. That’s where the similarities end.
Daniel is, simply put, the anti-Harry Potter. In the first J.K. Rowling book, The Sorcerer’s Stone (Philosopher’s Stone for you Brits) he had pretty much everything handed to him from the start. He was accepted to an exclusive school on legacy, instead of taking tests and working for it; When his step parents refuse to let him go, a giant comes to retrieve him; he learns that his parents left him a vault full of money and magical items; and he’s already a legend in wizard society. People are already in awe of him before he’s accomplished anything of note on his own. This works perfectly well for children’s fantasy, and I’ve enjoyed Ms. Rowling’s creation immensely. But in Awakenings I took the opposite route.
Daniel Hauer is also a teenage savior figure, someone that many people he has not yet met are depending on to bring order to their world. But no one’s given him an iota of help. He’s put through the proverbial muck, living in foster care, tragically abused, all while struggling with the normal trials and tribulations of being a teenager in public school. Despite this, he holds onto his notions of what is right and good, even when it would be easier for him to do the wrong, or expected, thing. His noble actions bring more hardship and it’s in these moments that I feel he comes alive as a hero figure. What is a hero if not someone who takes on burdens and risks for the benefit of the less powerful, less fortunate. Such people are rare in real life, which is why they shine in comparison to all others when we find them. It’s why we read about them.
We all hope that we have that quality in us, that when push comes to shove, we can make the right decisions regardless of the consequences. This is what makes heroes attractive in our stories. Take super heroes for example… Superman’s powers are not what make him a hero. He could rent himself out to the highest bidder, or just crush coal into diamonds with his hands and retire to the Caribbean a rich man. He could play quarterback for the NY Jets and win 20 Super bowls in a row. He could’ve taken over the world. What makes him a hero are his choices — how he chooses to apply his abilities. In that respect, a hero does not need to be a powerful person. It could be anyone; it just depends on the choices a person makes and the circumstances they find themselves in. In that respect Daniel and Harry are similar.
Harry was not the best or smartest wizard in his series (that would be Hermione), but you could always count on him to make the right choice for the greater good, even when his own life or reputation was at risk. Daniel is the same in that respect, but where as Harry was introduced to his new found fantasy world early in the story, acquiring a wealth of magical abilities and money, Daniel remains in the real world for the entire novel, addressing his trials and tribulations with nothing more than his own wits, and totally unaware that there is a much more fantastic future awaiting him. In fact, there are almost no fantasy elements in his story arc in the first book, which was a big risk for a fantasy novel, but worked out very well when juxtaposed with the other characters who are either trying to save him or kill him. The way his chapters interweave with the other characters increases the stakes. As the story progresses, and you’re introduced to Daniel’s courage and fierce loyalty to his friends, the more you want the protagonists to claim him first and take him away from the lousy life he inherited.
Many of Harry Potter’s character-building trials came in the later books of his series. I chose to frontload them and give my savior all his lumps early on because I think adult readers will relate to that better. What I love about Daniel is that he could have been raised in a palace, spoiled rotten by his station in society, and would probably have made at best a mediocre prince. But instead he’s learned humility and gratitude, and because of his first-hand experience with injustice, has the potential to become a fair ruler and a great leader — if he survives.