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Who do our characters belong to?

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?


30 day book challenge day 5 – Your “comfort” book.

This was an easy one for me.  I have two comfort books:-

Bridget Jones’ Diary

Bridget Jones’ The Edge of Reason

I love them because they are so funny.  Both of them have moments in that crack me up every single time, and no matter how many times I read them, they never get old.

Bridget is the definition of chaos – she doesn’t seem to be in control of any aspect of her life but she is absolutely endearing with it.  She is so ordinary and relatable – she makes and breaks resolutions, she obsesses with her weight, she puts her foot in her mouth.  Then she gets into scrapes (such as the mix up with the drugs in Thailand) that you hope could never happen in real life, but which are absolutely entertaining.

If I need a pick me up, Bridget Jones’ diaries will provide that every time and so they are the ultimate comfort books for me.

I’m really looking forward to the next instalment.  I read the newspapers columns on which the third book will be based several years ago.  I read them at my desk at work and had to struggle not to laugh out loud, so if that is anything to go by, I’m expecting the next one to be just as good as the previous two.

30 day book challenge – day 4 – Book turned into a movie and completely desecrated.

I recently wrote a post about book to film/TV adaptations, which you can find here.  I think the more I love the book, the less I like the film adaptation and so there are quite a few I could choose.  I hated The Time Traveller’s Wife the first time I saw it – to me the book is a work of art, it is so beautifully and carefully written.  The film version lost all of that beauty for me and was just another weepy romance.  There is Bridget Jones’ Diary – the books are so funny, I wouldn’t have changed a thing if I was adapting them, but the films were only quite loosely based on the books and so they were very different.  If I had never read Bridget Jones then I would have loved the films, but they changed too much for me.

However, the clear winner for me has to be Northern Lights, aka The Golden Compass.


I looked forward to this film coming out with such anticipation, because if it was even a fraction of what I imagined in my head when reading the book, it would be extraordinary.  Needless to say I was bitterly disappointed when it eventually came out.  That was in 2007.  I watched it again this year to see if I was being too harsh.  I wasn’t.  I can now say that it is the worst book to film adaptation that I have ever seen.

I know this is a matter of opinion, but the casting of the characters was just not right for me.  The only one who came close to how I pictured them was Daniel Craig as Lord Asriel.  The daemons were badly animated, and even more badly explained.  If I hadn’t read the books first, I don’t think I would have understood what a daemon is.  There is one scene in which an orderly picks up Lyra’s daemon, Pan.  In the book, this is wonderfully described – my skin was crawling with the absolute violation of the act.  It is these subtle things that were completely lost in translation in the film.

My biggest gripe with the film was the ending.  I don’t want to spoil the plot of the book for anyone who hasn’t read it yet (and if you haven’t yet, then please do – you will be hooked!), but there is an incident at the end which drives Lyra’s actions throughout the next two books.  Without this happening, Lyra doesn’t make sense.  The stories are dark and the films completely shies away from some of the darkness, which ruins the story.