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How to Write Friends and Influence Readers
Using the famous self-help book as a tool to write realistic relationships and persuasion.
Recently, I decided to read How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie. I did this, not out of interest in winning friends or influencing people but specifically because Charles Manson is reported to have read this book and used what he learned to influence people to kill for him while he was in prison. Although I didn’t find the content exactly ground breaking, it was nice to see a set of principles.
The thought occurred to me that the principles in this book are quite universal. You can use the same principles to tell who your friends are and who is just using you. You can also consider this a self-help book as these same principles can be used to tell if you are your own friend, or how to be a better friend to yourself.
The same train of thought also led me to this conclusion: As a writer, you can use the principles in this book to create realistic interactions between characters, or even show how the characters see themselves.
I’m not going to list the principles as I believe the book is worth a read. The book I will use as an example: Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J. K. Rowling. As it’s one of the best selling books, I’m assuming many people reading this have read it. Just in case, I’ll try to avoid spoilers.
Become Genuinely Interested in Other People
I’ve found this one is great when you meet new people. Ask questions, but be genuine. I’ve personally used this one for years at dinners that involve sitting with random people. The cliché question—What do you do?—is the staple. I’ve since moved on to my two favourites: “What are you passionate about?” and “What brings you joy?”. These are very direct and may not be suitable for a book.
From the Harry Potter perspective, Harry Potter and Ron Weasley seem exceptionally interested in each other: Harry has never met a wizard before his eleventh birthday, never even knew that world existed, and now he’s on a train to a wizard school for a year. Ron on the other hand grew up entirely in the wizard world and has heard much about Potter but still finds himself inclined to ask about things such as Harry’s scar and what Muggles are like.
Inversely, when Draco Malfoy first meets Harry, the questions he asks are rhetorical or satirical. He has no genuine interest in Harry or Ron and in fact, claims to already know Ron from what his father has told him about the Weasleys.
It’s no surprise that Albus Dumbledore exemplifies these principles. When he first meets Harry for a one on one conversation, he quickly puts Harry at ease with a simple smile. One of the first words he says to Harry is, in fact, Dale Carnegie’s “sweetest and most important word”: Harry’s name.
The inverse is true as well. Severus Snape for example, never seems to smile around Harry. Coincidentally, in their first interaction, he repeatedly calls Harry “Potter” to avoid his first name. J. K. Rowling uses this in the narration as well. You might have noticed that Draco Malfoy is only referred to as “Draco” once, by Rubeus Hagrid. Throughout the book, he is either “Malfoy” or “Draco Malfoy”. TK Explain why
Then of course there is the entire He-who-must-not-be-named aspect. No one except Dumbledore and Harry seem to use the name Voldemort. The name itself has a special ability to make people quiver and cringe, and so it is redacted from everyday speech.
How to Win People Over
Dumbledore is arguably one of the most influential people in the Philosopher’s Stone, and an analysis of his interactions with Harry reveals many of Carnegie’s principles in action. The first one on one conversation between Harry and Dumbledore occurs when Dumbledore catches Harry out of bed after curfew. While Professor McGonagal or Argus Filch would likely have admonished Harry, Dumbledore, recognizing that Harry knows full well he has done something wrong, sees no point in chastising him.
Dumbledore begins with a friendly smile. He is sympathetic, claiming that “hundreds” of people before him were just as curious. Dumbledore uses questions to lead Harry, asking him in a gentle and sympathetic way. He proceeds to dramatize in the conversation and appeal to nobler motives. He implies that Harry has learned enough by claiming he is prepared, meaning Harry won’t need to investigate further. The famous quote “It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live” is used here. It worked. “Dumbledore had convinced Harry[…]”.
One of my favourite examples is actually a counter-example. Hermione Granger, in her first real conversation with Harry and Ron, starts by trying to persuade them to not go out wandering the school at night. She fails from the start: Creeping up on them with an “I can’t believe you’re going to do this” message. She asks no questions that are not satirical or rhetorical. She doesn’t allow Harry or Ron to talk, and never attempts to see things from their perspective. She does, however, try to appeal to nobler causes, but this falls flat when she states that she cares only about winning the House Cup from Slytherin.
Even Draco Malfoy was more effective at influencing when he simply challenges Harry to a duel. Challenges are another way of influencing people according to Carnagie.
As someone who is usually quite oblivious to subtle social queues, I found the book How to Win Friends and Influence People fascinating and wondered whether Carnegie’s principles could be used to create compelling, realistic character interactions in my own writing. An analysis of the character encounters in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone through the lens of those principles suggests that this could be the case.