...or...Whose Characters Are They, Anyway?
I had a draft responding to this question in a blog conversation posted over here at Smart Bitches, but I realized that after about six paragraphs, my answer no longer constituted a comment and rather constituted a blog posting in and of itself, so I figured it probably deserved a posting of its own. Not one to turn down post-fodder, especially as some weeks I skirt the edges of having that dreaded "gee, I dunno what to blog about" blog post that only serves to waste the internets, I decided to bring it over here.
Say you've written a series, or even a single book, whose characters have become beloved enough to engender community in your readers? For me, it's a dream of which I hope someday to be worthy. So whose characters are they? Whose characters do they become? By writing the book(s), you've created characters who are part of the implicit contract with the reader--you promise to do your best to entertain them and they promise to suspend their disbelief long enough to be entertained.
So what gives readers the clout to declare a series or a novel has "jumped the shark" so to speak? What gives the author the clout to declare that s/he's the one who created the "shark" in the first place, rendering it thereby un-jump-able by him/her. And WTF do sharks have to do with anything?
Rather than picking a "side" between author and reader, I'm picking the third option. Characters belong neither fully to either author or reader, yet they belong to both--author as midwife, bringing the characters into existence, and reader as the great-wide world in which they grow. But their family--what takes them home, feeds them, cares for them, raises them...it's the Story itself.
The Story is their world, their home. It's where they live, what gives them life and what they in turn give life to. More than the author and the reader, the characters belong to the story they're part of.
As an author, when I write a story, the characters have to fit the story they're in (the story has to fit the characters on the "stage" of the book). Within the story framework, the characters that play there are beholden to the story more than my idea or a reader's idea. When I write a story, my goal is to tell the best story possible. The story that carries the most profound truths about the human condition. It sounds like a lofty ideal best suited for "litrachyure" and too pretentious for something fun and genre and pop-culture-y like erotic romance. But it applies in a very important sense. It has to be a "good" story. And the only way it can be a good story (that nebulous, pornline quality of I-know-it-when-I-see-it) is if the characters, setting, events, emotions, words, all contribute their best to the story.
No matter how much I love a character, or want her to have a happy ending, if the story is made better by her dying, then bitch gotta go. It's like reading story with a deliciously horrible villain, and having the hero at the end turn the other cheek instead of slapping the dogcrap out of the villain. Unless the hero's true test is to control his temper, having the hero refrain from delivering the smackdown deflates the story. My critique partner (the lovely and talented Roxy Harte) and I call it chickenshitting when we're discussing each other's works-in-progress. Overcoming chickenshittin' to really pay attention to the story and its demands on the characters can very easily not only piss off readers, but the author herself as well. But as a very wise writer once said, "It's about the story, stupid."
None of this will preclude reader rage at an unexpected or unwelcome turn for a character, because story itself has a subjective element. Most readers, and authors, instinctively know this, so while they might be upset at the turn taken, it won't engender spittin' rage. Oftentimes, a little time and distance to digest the story as a whole will allow readers to see the story as a whole and appreciate it. But readers also possess the same instinctive feel for the story as the author does. And when the story itself changes in mid-stream, the time and distance don't help.
If anyone remembers the TV show "Moonlighting" (which made Bruce Willis's career, IMNSHO), the series seriously jumped the shark once Dave and Maddie got together. Aside from the Hollywood crap0la that went on behind the scenes and can be blamed for a good portion of the shark-jumping, the series (the story) stopped being what it was and turned into something else.
As an author, your characters are yours. As a reader, those characters speak to you in a voice you can hear and understand, but ultimately, they belong to the story.