Sunday, 24 August 2014

Do we own our characters?

All writers of fiction create characters. Some we love, some we hate, some we kill off. We do with them whatever we wish but once their stories are read by others, what then? Do we still own our characters or do we give them freely to our readers? 

We know that fiction will be interpreted differently by readers and so our characters will be viewed in a number of ways. No matter how well we have written them, readers will react differently to them depending on a multitude of factors. 

When a chapter of my work was being critiqued, the critique group agreed that the plot needed a shake-up. Someone made a suggestion which horrified me. Because I knew my character would never do that! She just wouldn’t. I had assumed from the way I had crafted her that this would be a given! However whether my writing was poorly executed or my critic’s understanding of people was limited is a separate issue; I was able to make changes to the chapter with my character true to herself. 

But supposing this writer was to write a sequel? (Assuming the original was ever published, of course.) What might my character end up doing?

I have just read Longbourn by Jo Baker. Written from the point of view of the maid in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, I began reading the book with great interest. However by the middle I found it less convincing. The backstory seemed to me somewhat implausible (although I am aware that, without giving any story away, the situation at the centre of the plot often did happen). While I was reading, all I could think was what would Jane Austen think of the story ascribed to one of her main characters? Would she be horrified or would she say, ‘Well, yes, it doesn’t surprise me at all.’ Jane Austen was not unaware of the issues raised – they are mentioned in more than one of her books, but would this particular character have behaved in that way?

I looked up readers’ reviews on a well-known book site. They were mostly positive but one who gave it a one star rating said of this character ‘he would never have done that.’ The reviewer’s indignation flies off the screen and I can’t help but agree. 

There are literally hundreds of spin offs, sequels and re-writes of Pride and Prejudice: the first I read were Emma Tenant’s back in the 90s. I thought they were awful but I can’t really remember why other than I didn’t think this writer really understood the behaviour of people like the Darcys. I also recently read Death Comes to Pemberley and was totally unimpressed. PD James devotes a lot of the book explaining and justifying characters’ behaviour in Pride and Prejudice – if we have read it we know why they behaved in the way they did. Jane Austen made it quite clear. It adds nothing to our understanding of P&P, and in my opinion, the murder story is a very weak plotline.

The Austen Project has commissioned six well-known authors to write updated versions of Jane Austen’s six completed novels. Sense and Sensibility by Joanna Trollope, and Northanger Abbey by Val McDermid have been published so far with Pride and Prejudice by US writer Curtis Sittenfeld coming out shortly and Emma by Alexander McCall Smith soon after. Will characters conceived in the late 18th and early 19th century make successful jumps to the 21st? Will these versions add anything to Austen’s characters or will they diminish them? 

Moving away from Austen, one writer who does give an interesting read is Jean Rhys in Wide Sargasso Sea, her story of Bertha Mason, who became Mrs Rochester and ended her days as the madwoman in the attic at Thornfield Hall. Here Bertha is granted a voice which she is denied in Jane Eyre.

I quite liked Sally Beauman’s Rebecca’s Tale, her story of Daphne du Maurier’s eponymous Rebecca who is also denied her own voice as she is already dead. But I wonder what du Maurier would have made of this assessment? Rather more, I suspect, than of Susan Hill’s sequel, Mrs De Winter, which lacked much insight at all. And let’s say nothing about Alexandra Ripley’s Scarlett, the appalling sequel to Gone With The Wind.

I’d be interested to hear your views on sequels, prequels, re-writes and spin-offs.


Patsy said...

I think later versions and spin offs rarely work. Either things are changed, which leaves lovers of the original work unhappy, or nothing changes in which case there's little point in doing it.

Joanna said...

I agree with Patsy. I haven't ever been able to see the point of dragging out something that is already complete.
Sequels remind me of reunions and I have never attended one of those that left me feeling in any way uplifted. I think the past should be enjoyed as a memory, although the great thing about good books is that they can be re-read and enjoyed all over again exactly as they are, unchanged. xx