Sunday, July 06, 2008

Success = Pwned

Call me crazy, but I believe that when a writer creates a character, they're allowed to decide what that character says and does.

But, strangely enough, when a writer reaches a certain level of success, they have less control rather than more.

A few weeks ago I was at a local restaurant-slash-arcade watching some people play the new Rambo video game, which involved shooting large plastic assault weapons at a giant screen. When David Morrell created the character more than thirty years ago, he probably couldn't have conceived of it some day being a coin-operated attraction. But when David sold the rights to that novel, and that character, others were able to decide what Rambo did.

Rights, however, don't matter much to fans. I've noticed a growing trend on Amazon.com where fans somehow feel justified in saying authors aren't being true to the characters they've created.

I'm guilty of this myself. My very first (and only negative) Amazon review was of Hannibal written by Thomas Harris. I was hugely disappointed in how Harris had turned the ultimate evil serial killer into a hero who only kills rude people.

Apparently I helped to spearhead a disturbing trend, because in recent years there have been thousands of fans heaping such criticism at Anne Rice, Patricia Cornwell, Janet Evanovich, Karin Slaughter, Lee Child, and many others, claiming these authors have disrespected their own protagonists.

What a fascinating social phenomenon this is.

It's one thing liking or disliking a book. But it is something else entirely for a reader to take ownership of a character, and to chastise the creator of that character for causing said character to do things the reader doesn't believe that character should do. Can you imagine painting a picture of a duck and then having other people tell you that it isn't a duck at all?

Expectation plays a huge part in this. When we're entertained by things we've read, we expect more of the same. But when the writer does something that we don't agree with, then our expectations aren't met, and we're disappointed and perhaps even angry.

Consider how odd this is. Characters are no longer confined to the page, or to the imagination of the writer. They exist in the minds of the readers. And if something on the page doesn't mesh with what is going on in the reader's head, the author is to blame.

But the author really can't be untrue to a character they created. It's impossible. As the creator, the author can chose to do whatever they want with the character. There is no intrinsic right or wrong, true or untrue, fair or unfair.

Yet readers can become attached to characters to the point where they take ownership of them, and then they decide for the writer what is allowed and what isn't. If they believe that the writer wasn't true to their own creation, the 1 star scathing reviews begin to accrue.

Does this affect the writer? It has to, to some degree. All opinions are valid, even if you disagree with them. The artistic part of the writer can't help but be hurt by the negative comments, and the business part of the writer can't help but think that haters can't really be good for the bottom line.

So does that mean, when you reach a certain level of success, creativity is more about placation than invention?

I haven't reached a level where I get scads of emails from people who don't like what I've done with my characters. But I can foresee it happening. Books are like children, and once they're out in public the writer/parent has little control over what they do and how they effect others. Success means you will invariably disappoint a segment of your audience.

Strangely, though, our expectations and opinions can change. We've all seen movies that we disliked, then saw them again and liked them, and vice versa. Art needs an audience, and is only endowed with the attributes we ascribe to it. In other words, what you bring to the table may be more important than what's being served.

So now I look back on my review of Hannibal and I think I was wrong. Not in disliking the book, but in blaming Harris for my disappointment. Hannibal Lector belongs to Thomas Harris, and only he can dictate what his character does. He saw his character differently than I did, and he's allowed to do that because he created him. I'm allowed to dislike the choices that Harris made, but I have to realize that biases and expectations aren't on the page; they're in my head.

Because we're such an opinionated species, and because the Internet allows for the anonymity to say things we'd never say in public, we're quick to voice our disappointment in public forums.

But maybe instead of rushing to post that 1 star review we should try to figure out who is truly to blame...