Monday, 15 September 2014


Whose life is it anyway?

I've frequently heard authors complaining that this or that character simply wouldn't do what the author wanted them to do, and it's a phenomenon that's occurred to me a time or two as well.  It's almost as if - having once conjured the characters into existence - they have a mind and a life which is completely independent, and will act according to their own lights regardless of an author's wishes.

This came to mind again recently when I happened to be re-reading one of John Sutherland's works of literary deconstruction, 'Is Heathcliff a Murderer?'  In the chapter where he discusses the 'double-ending' of Villette he explains that Charlotte Bronte modified what was originally intended to be a tragic ending at the urging of her father.  To quote Mrs Gaskell on the subject, "Mr Bronte was anxious that her new tale should end well, as he disliked novels which left a melancholy impression upon the mind; and he requested her to make her hero and heroine (like the heroes and heroines in fairy-tales) 'marry and live happily ever after'."

I can only sympathise with Charlotte Bronte's frustration on the point – being caught between characters who insist on acting in one way and a stern but beloved critic who insists on something completely different is clearly not just a phenomenon of the instant-feedback Internet age.  In fact, Sutherland also quotes Hard Times by Charles Dickens and The Newcomes by W.M. Thackeray as books where reader pressure brought about a change in the author's plans, and these are presumably only the most notable of a number of examples.

In any case where a work appears in instalments – where it is an 'open', rather than a 'closed' canon – there will always be debate about the way the story is likely to turn out.  We've all experienced this with television shows – would Deanna Troi ever get together with Will Riker, for example, or Jean-Luc Picard with Beverly Crusher? - and in a way it's part of the attraction and what keeps us returning week after week, year after year, to see what happens.  Indeed, the unresolved storylines and constant twists of fate are the principal stock in trade of the soap opera genre.  Where it becomes a potential problem, however, is at the interface between the reader (or viewer) and the writer; after all, there will be just as many opinions about the future of the characters as there are readers – but even if, by some miracle, they all happened to agree, would that in itself be sufficient reason for the author to take notice of their wishes?

Clearly, some authors are prepared to be influenced by what their readers want.  Others prefer to stay true to their original conception and ignore howls of protest from those who would rather have something different.  However, the writers and the readers are not the only people to be consulted; the wishes of the characters must also be taken into consideration, and this is where the picture becomes more complicated still.  In fact I can quite categorically say, from personal experience, that it is impossible to get a character to do something he or she doesn't want to do; it's like getting toddlers to eat their vegetables, or cats to march in a parade.

So, any story is going always to end up balancing the requirements of three different sets of individuals – writers, readers and characters.  Just as 'Man proposes, God disposes', an author can set up a situation and guide his or her characters into it - but the way they choose to deal with it from that point forward is really up to them.  I'm convinced that a lot of people consider this fanciful; surely, they must think, a strong-minded author can prevail over their own creation?  But it isn't quite as simple as that.  Having invented the character in the first place, it's important to remain consistent and to have them behave appropriately throughout.  If a mild-mannered academic is going to go mad with a machine-gun and wipe out all his colleagues, for example, he's going to need provocation or the readers will rightly say he's 'acting out of character' – or, worse still, that the author has cheated.  Trust me, neither of these accusations is a good one to have levelled at a book.

Who, then, is in charge of the way the story develops?  Is it the author, with a firm hand on the tiller, steering the characters through a series of perils and bringing them out safely on the other side?  Is it the reader, exercising the economic power of 'demand' over 'supply' and declining to buy any book which doesn't meet their specific requirements?  Well, to a certain extent it's both – but in the end, wherever there is doubt, the characters themselves must always be the ones who make the decisions.

So, where does that leave readers who – like Charlotte Bronte's father – demand a happy ending?  The unfortunate fact is this can never be guaranteed.  After all, even if it is a happy ending, it may not be the precise one the individual reader has in mind – and this in turn is why it's helpful not to prejudge a book and to be open to any one of a number of different possible outcomes for the characters.  Whilst respecting those who – no doubt for good reasons - insist on their 'HEA' or at least an 'HFN', it has to be said that they're limiting their choices and therefore their potential reading experience.  Can it be argued, for example, that Wuthering Heights has a happy ending?  Not exactly, surely.  With some books, after all, it's the journey that's interesting rather than the destination – and, with all due respect to Mr Bronte, sometimes a book is much more enjoyable to read if you don't know precisely how it ends before you start.

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