I finished reading A Kestrel for a Knave today by Barry Hines (review to follow) and he made a very interesting comment in the afterword when talking about his book being a set examination text at GCSE:-
“I’ve sometimes considered sitting the examinations under an assumed name to see how I would get on. Perhaps my interpretation of the book would differ from that of the examiner and I would fail. Who can tell?”
That really left me thinking: who our characters and stories really belong to once they are in the wide world?
I once attended a writing course and brought along a piece of writing to share. It was not like anything I had ever written before – it was a claustrophobic, intense and disturbing story in which the main character is caught in a delusion. I had not made any reference within the story to the gender of the main character, and that was not deliberate – for me, he was very clearly a man and it didn’t occur to me to check for references to his gender. I was really surprised when I read out this story that more than half of the group had pictured my character as a woman. It got me thinking at the time, did I have any right to tell them that they were wrong? The gender of a character is pretty fundamental to identity, but I had put the story out there without any explicit references to gender, so in that case was the group’s interpretation of my character not just as valid as my own?
When J. K. Rowling said in an interview that Dumbledore was gay, this became headline news. To me, Dumbledore was an intensely asexual character – I couldn’t picture him as having any kind of personal relationship, either with a man or a woman. That impression of Dumbledore didn’t change because J. K. Rowling said something different. My view was and still is that her version of Dumbledore is gay, but my Dumbledore is neither gay nor straight and is simply married to the school.
Recently, I have also been watching Game of Thrones on Sky Atlantic. I think most of the casting is spot on, but the one character that really rankles with me is Lord Varys. It is not just that his appearance is not the way I pictured, but the way that Conleth Hill plays him is totally different to the Varys of my imagination. I always pictured him as being a more muted version of Johnny Depp in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – lanky limbed, soft voiced and constantly smiling, in a rather more dangerous way. George R. R. Martin who is the author of Game of Thrones is also heavily involved with the TV version and so I presume that the TV Varys is an accurate portrayal of how he sees the character.
Many Bridget Jones’ fans were shocked and upset this week when Helen Fielding announced that she is killing off Mark Darcy for the third book. I had intended to blog today in defence of Helen Fielding’s decision on the basis that the characters belong to her and so she can do what she wants with them. But the reaction of the fans just goes to show that Bridget no longer just belongs to Helen Fielding. Yes, it maybe Helen Fielding that makes the decisions but she has created a character that millions of people have fallen in love with and they genuinely care about what happens next.
My own personal view is that as writers, when we share our stories and our characters, we are giving something quite personal to the reader, and as readers, our own imaginations go to work on the characters to form our own unique interpretations. I think that means that the characters will then equally belong to the readers and the writers who have created them. After all, just because I’m told I’m wrong or a character is different to how I have imagined doesn’t mean that I can magically start seeing that character in any other way.
It was really interesting to read Barry Hines thoughts in the afterword about the success of A Kestral for a Knave. He talks about how people look for meanings that he didn’t intend to be there. One example is he is often asked about the names of the horses on which Billy fails to place a bet – his reply is that he couldn’t remember what he had called them and had to look it up for the purposes of writing the afterword. But it is interesting to think how characters and stories grow and evolve once they become public and the writer has lost the control. Who knows, maybe Barry Hines would have failed a GCSE exam in relation to his own book. But then maybe the interpretation of the examiner would be just as valid as Hines’ own.
What do you think? Have you ever adjusted your impressions of a character? Are there any characters you have been “wrong” about?