The downside of reader investment in characters

by Sunita

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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