The downside of reader investment in characters

I am not much of a comics/graphic novel reader, but even I can tell that Alan Moore is a brilliant, creative artist. So whenever I see an interview with him I read it, especially since they are infrequent. The Guardian has one today in which Moore talks about a new League of Gentlemen comic. Almost in passing, he made a couple of comments which really resonated with me as a romance reader and a lover of connected books and series.

[Guardian]: You have some of the most dedicated fans. How do you react to them?

AM: I genuinely like the people I meet at signings or the bits of public talking that I do. I don’t go to conventions because I didn’t like the relationship. I don’t like being the object of adoration because it distances you from people. I believe I’ve got some genuinely intelligent fans. It’s nice when people come up in the street and want to shake your hand or tell you your work’s affected them. Of course. My only problem with fans is when they turn pro. For example, when all the professional writers were fired by DC in the 60s, they brought in a generation of comic book fans who would have paid to have written these stories. When I started out I was writing for 9-13-year-olds with maybe a few 18-year-olds. These days, the majority of the comic book audience is 40-somethings who are not necessarily interested in comic books as a medium or panel progression or sequential narrative. They are probably interested in Wolverine. There is a large nostalgic component in there and there’s nothing wrong with it. But if those people then begin to influence the books themselves or increasingly the movies or the television series then they will want their story to refer to stories that they remember. It becomes very incestuous and over a few decades you get a very limited dwindling gene pool. And you get stories that have become weak through inbreeding. (emphasis added)

Moore was talking about comic book artists and writers, but I see these phenomena at work all the time in the romance genre. There are several topics worth thinking about in this answer, and the issue of adoring fans deserves its own discussion, but I was immediately struck by his point about how fans can change the focus and direction of an ongoing story. Knowledgeable comics fans undoubtedly know this all too well. But I’m not sure how aware we are of an analogous influence in romance writing.

The close relationship between romance authors and their readers comes up all the time in online discussions. Robin’s excellent review-rant last week and the great discussion that followed touched on a lot of these points, and I’ll have more to say about the blurring of the author-persona divide next week. But what about the effect on the books themselves? Readers regularly ask for sequels on comment boards (for example, the never-ending wish for Cat’s story), and authors have been known to change story and character arcs in response to reader interest. I can’t believe these choices always make the books better.

In particular, I find Moore’s point about the effect on the stories themselves very powerful. The author writes from a particular perspective, the reader-fan reads from another. Like Moore, I think that falling in love with a character (or a particularly aspect of a larger story) is likely to make the novel less interesting in the end, not more so. I don’t read fan fiction, but I wonder if this is a tendency in some of that writing as well, i.e., the story becomes about the wonderfulness of the character rather than about her human complexity.

Americans are especially used to open-ended television series, where beloved characters and settings go on for years and unpopular ones bite the dust if the ratings are low. In soap operas, characters who were intended for temporary storylines have received ongoing arcs because viewers responded to enthusiastically to them, and there are numerous examples of redeemed villains and back-from-the-dead heroes and heroines. With these choices occurring regularly, it is frequently the case that series which are conceived as finite leave viewers and readers hanging and asking for more. And it can definitely change the nature of the story: compare the British version of the The Office to the American one. The latter is widely praised, but it’s a very different animal.

I really respect writers who refuse to give in to demands for more, especially if doing so would violate their conception of the characters and story. Novels and television shows may not always be high art, but that doesn’t negate the right of the author to tell the story s/he wants. I know that fans can get really invested in characters (I certainly have), but that doesn’t mean we’re right that more equals better.

I don’t usually end my posts with a question (thus going against a raft of Blogging 101 tips & tricks), but I’m curious what you think about this issue.  Where do you come down on author response to reader interests? Do you have examples where more did not mean better? Examples where it did?

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12 thoughts on “The downside of reader investment in characters

  1. Uhm, highly divided? I wrote The Locker Room as a stand alone work– the ending didn’t settle the question of Xander’s career–but, hopefully, it made it clear that Xander’s career wasn’t at issue here, his personal life was, and his personal life would definitely be HEA. People have been asking for a sequel since the first day it came out. Now, I’ve watched some shows where the writers have given us more of one character or another–and I’ve usually liked where that’s taken the show. And personally, I’ve given in to some fan pressure and given a character more play when I hadn’t planned to. And some of the suggestions fans make are creative and fun and interesting–and I have no problem with that. But you can’t please EVERYONE. Ever. And trying to please everyone will only make writing more difficult when it’s already difficult enough sometimes. Recently I put out a third book in a series. For the most part, feedback has been pretty good–but some people REALLY hated that I included the pov of people from previous books. And some people REALLY wanted more of it. Essentially I had to be the final judge of whether or not I had told the story I wanted to with the balance I felt was necessary–and I had to do that without fan participation or I would have been a quivering mess of psychopathic pudding hiding under the kitchen table. There really does come a time when the artistic process has to be a solo act of creative vision, or it’s not art anymore, it’s a mass re-fleshing of an old archetype. Sometimes that’s a good thing, but not if it’s your name on the book.

    • In a genre like m/m, where readers and authors interact so much, it’s especially difficult for authors, I think. I find myself censoring comments like “please write faster” or “I’d love to read about xxxx’s story” just because I don’t *want* to be telling authors what to do. But the conversational style leads me to forget I’m talking to a creator, not just another reader.

  2. It has affected me, in a small way.
    I write the Richard and Rose series, about a couple in Georgian England. Readers latched on to these, much to my delight, and a character in that story, Richard’s cousin Freddy, became popular. They wanted his story.
    My response is twofold. I want that series to be successful. I’ve invested a lot of time and effort in it, and I love the characters. On the other hand, I didn’t intend to write Freddy’s story, he was only ever intended as a foil for Richard. If I hadn’t thought of a worthwhile story I wouldn’t have done it.
    But amplify that, say that Richard and Rose took off astronomically, and I was under a great deal of pressure. Say that I didn’t “get” a story for him, but had to make something up fast, and make it dramatic and sexy. Would I do it? Sadly, probably, because I need to pay the rent. And also because, I can’t lie, it is wonderful to get a response from readers and fans.
    And I think readers and fans can be very different. I have both, and I appreciate them both.

    • That’s a really honest response and one that a lot of authors share. And there’s nothing wrong with following readers’ suggestions, as Amy says above, *if* they coincide with what you’d like to do. I just think readers need to be conscious of the kind of potential pressure they are exerting. Some authors won’t care and go on and do what they want, but others will pay attention.

      I use reader and fan interchangeably because I think I have attributes of both, but I take your point. :-)

  3. I tend to think that with very few exceptions, the longer a work gets, the weaker it gets. A single story, a single universe, and a single set of characters only have so much mileage in them, and modern fiction is really starting to stretch those boundaries.

    Fans wanting more is a problem easily solved by a gentle push towards fanfiction, which is a good thing. It gives a work more publicity and keeps generating interest with zero further effort. It’s the ideal solution.

    Oddly, though, I don’t think comics suffer from the same problem. I’ve never picked up a Wolverine comic and thought ‘well, that was boring’ (and I’ve picked up a lot of them). Because there is a huge writer turnover, at Marvel at least, and they all bring new ideas. (I am discounting the movies from my assessment purely because I could watch Hugh Jackman watching paint dry and be happy). I think Alan Moore is misunderstanding his audience in the weird way that romance publishers have been doing the same (which is what makes them push for more of the same, I assume) – they’re not actually researching, they’re just glancing over the masses and noticing the loud ones.

    • Great points. I talk with other online readers as well as authors about the quiet book-buying audience that either only lurks online or isn’t online at all. The loud ones definitely take up a lot of the oxygen. But I still think Moore has a point in that if you come in as a writer who was a fan and you don’t change your perspective toward the characters, that is going to limit what you do with them.

      I admit I’m also influenced by the emphasis placed on the gorgeousness of the actors who play the roles (which of course originated on the page). I know much of it is tongue in cheek, but think about the way Colin Firth has shaped so many readers’ perceptions of who Darcy is. That has some real disadvantages to it.

      I like your take on fan fiction as a potential solution. :-)

  4. The push/pull of authorial response to reader feedback interests me in an objective way, mostly in the balancing of the art/muse and commerce. I don’t think the author as artist should feel obliged to respond, but the author as seller of a commodity does need to be in touch with his/her fan/consumers. When an author gets a lot of negative feedback feels compelled to educate or explain her books to readers (Eloisa James, JR Ward), then I wonder if the artist was given too much control and the practical/economics side was left out of the editing process.

    As a reader, there are minor characters who interest me…but I don’t assume that an author will necessarily write a sequel just because it’s something I’d like to read. The only book I’ve ever read and assumed would have a sequel is Robin McKinley’s Sunshine, because it stopped so abruptly and left so many questions unanswered. But the book was planned as a stand-alone, so as a reader, I’ll have to be satisfied with the answers provided in the text. Of course, being unwilling to accept those answers is what leads to fan fiction. ;)

    Have you read The Adoring Audience? Or Henry Jenkins on fandom?

  5. No, I haven’t, so now I have more books in my TBR! I really need to learn more about fandom; the only ones I know much about are SFF fandoms. But m/m in particular seems shaped by fan fiction in ways I don’t fully grasp.

    The balance is so hard to achieve, especially today when publishing is changing so much. I really respect authors who have a good handle on it (and sympathize with many who don’t). I could never pull it off.

  6. I totally agree. I started writing fanfiction at least 25 years ago, as a teenager, before I knew it had a name and before I knew anyone else did it. It was dire. And mostly I realised that after a page and a half. When I fall in love with characters, of course I want to spend more time with them, but if their story has already been written, there’s no point trying to eke it out. I would say, however, that not all fanfiction falls into this category. Some is extremely well written with terrific plots and original characters and so on.

    But I think that when authors start writing ‘on demand’ for their fans, there is almost certain to be a diminishing creativity and innovation to the work. The spark of originality that made readers first fall in love with characters is hard to sustain across multiple works. I will admit to being a huge fan of Diana Gabaldon’s books, but it’s pretty clear to me that her later works are not nearly as good as her earlier ones. I don’t think that’s just fan demand (though it is partly) but just the consequence of writing so many thousands and thousands of words about the same people. I’d like to see what she could do with something new.

  7. Excellent post. Cite examples….Janet Evanovich and LKH’s Anita Blake series. I think the authors listened too much to their fans and thus ruined the series. I am firmly behind the writer sticking to h/her perspective and storyline. Period. Either I’ll like it or I won’t but I have more respect for the author who stick with their desired plan(s) before they hit it big (or not) and don’t respond to readers when it comes story, characters, etc. Rarely if I am ever pining after a particular minor character in a book and demand that they have their own book. I fall in love with characters all the time but never do I demand more. I’m satisfied with “the end.”

  8. @Ros: Gabaldon seems to me to have the JK Rowling problem, where the books get longer and more unwieldy and in dire need of editing but no one can or will do anything about it because they still sell.

    @Keishon: I read one Anita Blake and didn’t love it enough to continue to the point where they totally blow up, for which I consider myself very fortunate!

    One thing that readers don’t always think about is that while the character’s arc ends, the author who created her is still writing. So there’s a very good chance you can get another character to fall in love with. And with supporting characters in particular, what made you fall in love with it in a partial presentation may not be what dominates when the character becomes front and center. So asking for another book may not get you the outcome you want.

    • And with supporting characters in particular, what made you fall in love with it in a partial presentation may not be what dominates when the character becomes front and center. So asking for another book may not get you the outcome you want

      I remember Jennifer Crusie’s FAKING IT featuring a character who started off as a secondary in WELCOME TO TEMPTATION and readers complained and complained about how the character lacked continuance from one book to the other. I never bothered to read it but not because of that though. You do hear about this sometimes happening so yeah you’re right. I know people often talk about wanting a sequel for that Curtis book, The Windflower.

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