Kernels of Nonsense, #34: Can Characters Be Bigger Than Their Creators?

Kernels of Nonsense (2)Kernels of Nonsense is a bimonthly discussion feature where I tackle various book and blogging related topics. I had to skip this feature earlier this month because I didn’t have time to get to it, but this topic has been bouncing around in my brain for a while and is finally demanding I give it proper attention.

The first time I started questioning whether an author could be wrong about their own character is when J.K. Rowling and Emma Watson had a joint discussion early last year where they both indicated that Harry was more compatible with Hermione and questioned whether Ron could make Hermione happy. You can read the interview here if you want it in full context. My immediate reaction was defensive because Ron has always been one of my favorite Harry Potter characters. I’ve always felt he was highly underrated and really got the short end of the stick in the movies. And to be perfectly honest, I happen to think J.K. Rowling is wrong, which brings up the following questions:

Can a character be bigger than their creator? Can an author be distracted or influenced by different story lines or a movie’s portrayal of their work and forget who their characters are? Are an author’s thoughts about his or her characters the finally word? Can you argue that readers sometimes know better than the authors when it comes to certain characters?

The Harry Potter series is arguably the most popular fictional books in history. Everybody knows HP even if they’ve never read or seen the movies. This fantasy series has had a profound effect on readers around the world (this one included). I’m convinced that in fifty years, Harry Potter will continue to influence young readers. For all these reason, I believe the series has become greater than its creator. I’m one of those readers who chooses not to read those interviews with J.K. Rowling where she drops a bombshell about certain characters. Once upon a time I might have craved these little tidbits of information, but now I feel that these revelations can sometimes spoil the way I feel about certain characters, or I feel there isn’t any real reason to “reveal” these things if Rowling never found it pertinent to do so in the seven books she wrote. I respect her right to say what she wants about the series she created, but I also have the right to respectfully turn the other way when she does.

Recently, I read a book in a series and found it difficult to swallow how the author portrayed a certain character because it was incongruent with their previous behavior and personality. I’ve gone from accepting that this is how the author would like to write this character from now on and it’s not for me to say differently to being extremely upset that this character (who happens to be a favorite of mine) was butchered and cast aside, not because their arc called for it but because the author would rather focus on a different character instead! I won’t say who I’m talking about or what series they are from because of spoilers, but if you are super curious, feel free to DM on Twitter and I’ll let you know to whom I am referring.

It’s hard to know whether or not I’m overreacting. I know some people believe that an author has absolute authority over their creations and I, as a reader, must accept how they choose to depict certain characters as an accurate account of who these characters are. Logically this makes perfect sense (maybe), but the emotional part of me, the part of me that feels too much for fictional characters says that if you write a character correctly their personalities will at the very least be consistent throughout the book or series and if you choose to explore a different route, you should actually take the time to tell their story rather than play puppet master. And after all, authors are only human, they can make mistakes, be influenced by outside (or inside) forces and fumble occasionally when it comes to their characters. And maybe, just maybe, in cases like these readers sometimes know these characters better than the authors.

I also understand that this may be opening a can of worms. If an author isn’t allowed to write their characters the way they want to without being criticized by their readers for everything they deem “out of character”, then what is the point of them writing at all? Then again, as a reader and especially as a blogger, we are supposed to look at books critically. Just because we didn’t write the novel, doesn’t mean we aren’t entitled to our own opinions.

What do you think? Do you believe an author has complete authority or can characters become bigger than their creators? What do you do when you don’t like the way an author writes one of your favorite characters? Let’s discuss in the comments!

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11 thoughts on “Kernels of Nonsense, #34: Can Characters Be Bigger Than Their Creators?

  1. Short answer: yes.

    Much, much longer answer (sorry): yes and no. Once a story is out in the world, whether it has one reader or one million, the author no longer has full control of how a character will be received. There are as many interpretations as there are readers, and hence there is no one, single “correct” reading of any character. There may be ways to perceive a character that are more correct than others. (For instance, if I were to insist that Ron Weasley was in reality a zombie, that would presumably be based on a flawed reading) But by the very act of putting a piece out into the world, the author is opening it up to interpretation and change.

    Now, my personal feelings are that the author’s words in the text are the most “privileged” information on any given character. Not that they are necessarily any more “correct” than any individual reader’s interpretation, but because the author is the creator, their stated opinions carry more weight. Hence what Rowling says about a character carries more weight than what anyone else does–BUT, anything she says now carries LESS weight than the original text does, because it comes after the passage of time and after the works have been reinterpreted six ways to Sunday.

    I think this is totally subjective, though. As long as a reader isn’t presuming to claim authorial intention where none has been stated before, as long as they’re not presuming to speak for the author themselves, I think any character is open to interpretation by any reader. That’s where the space for things like fanfic come in if the reader isn’t satisfied, or even if they just think there’s more to say.

    From the point of view of critical reviews (by which I don’t necessarily mean negative reviews), I think it is absolutely valid to call out a creator if you think that they have changed a character without warning or in a way you don’t like. That means they failed in their execution of that character–at least where you, as the reader, are concerned–and there is definitely a place and a point to that in critical discussion of a work. Again, as long as you don’t presume to speak towards the author’s intent, you are totally allowed to call someone out if they fail to live up to consistency of a character.

    [I’ll give an example. One of my favorite characters in the history of ever is Spike in season two of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But, it turns out, pretty much only in season two. Because when they brought him back later, they changed him and degraded him in so many ways that, even when I could see the point of the arc they were going for, I totally hated seeing his beautiful face. He just wasn’t the same character at all. And I COMPLETELY blamed the writers for that because I still think they fucked with him irrevocably, and I wrote many mean things on the internet when I was in high school because it totally pissed me off. But, if I ever claimed to know how he was “supposed” to be (which I probably did), I shouldn’t have. Because my reading was my own, and I did not have authorial authority.]

    So anyway. By their very nature, characters are bigger than their text as soon as they are read by an audience, but at the same time there’s a reason why “author” and “authority” come from the same root. It’s absolutely valid to feel different than an author about a certain character or issue, but I think it all comes down to how you are presenting it.

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    • Thank you so much for your thoughtful comment. I agree with you, once authors publish a work, it’s out in the world and therefore subject to criticism. And I also think the passage of time affects how much weight authors have over a work especially when it comes to subjects they chose not to explore in the original text.

      I find the writing for T.V. shows to be a little more tricky than a novel because it takes place over an extended amount of time and many shows alternate between writers or even lose some along the way. Lost, for example, went through a lot of behind the scene changes and fell flat in the end when compared to its strong beginning. I find myself giving these writers more leeway when it comes to favorite television characters and even if I become frustrated with an arc I don’t like, one that doesn’t seem to makes sense, or does little to add to character development, if they can find a way to right the ship, it’s forgivable.

      I think I end up expecting more from authors and expect the characters they create to be consistent in personality. This doesn’t mean characters can’t change, but if it feels like there has been some kind of personality transplant between books, there’s a problem.

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      • I have this bad habit of analyzing TV shows exactly the same way I do books, even though they are different art forms created in very different ways and the characterization often has very different purposes. I have trouble turning off my English major side sometimes 🙂

        Anyway, I swear I didn’t mean to give you a whole book on the subject but I found your question quite interesting and clearly I’ve been building a hankering to get on a soap box about something…

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  2. I totally believe that characters are so much bigger than their authors. (I actually had to write an essay on this in one of my classes- Philosophy of Art.) I feel that since characters, like fictional worlds, are so intangible, they really can’t be pinned down by anyone. They’re fiction, so they only exist in the mind anyway, and because of that, they exist differently to the different people that interpret them. I mean, how well does an author really know their character anyway? If someone were to ask an author what their main character’s favorite pie flavor was, or whether they preferred snakes or guinea pigs, chances are the author would either make something up on the spot or have to look through their notes to see if one answer would make more sense over the other. Basically, a reader could do that as well as the author could.
    On all other points, I agree with hlmorris85 in that fantastic essay-like comment above.

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    • I like that, characters and their worlds are intangible and like other intangible ideas they are in a way infinite. I think this is one of the greatest things about books, that they exist differently for different people. Because they exist in the minds of authors as well as readers, they become bigger the moment they are set free into the world.

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  5. Well, I’m a freelance editor and I tell my clients all the time that they’ve had their character do something that’s out of character or “wrong” – so I guess I believe authors can make mistakes when it comes to their own characters. Of course, the author has the final say (at least in the work I do), but most of the time I find that the author realizes that what I’ve said makes sense. Now, when it comes to extra information that the author gives in interviews, etc. I guess I’d think that the author’s thoughts definitely have validity – but you can certainly choose to ignore them! 🙂

    Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction

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