Author Ownership?

Since J.K. Rowling made her controversial announcement that Dumbledore is gay, many people have been arguing over what ‘right’ an author has to determine the facts of his or her world beyond what’s written in their books. I was over at It’s my blog and I’ll say what I want to (may have mildly NSFW language here and there) this morning and came across Can an author ever truly own her characters? In it Karen Scott responds to another blogger’s questions over whether an author truly does have the ‘right’ to do whatever he or she wants to their worlds and characters:

My answer is that although the author creates the characters, I don’t think she solely owns them. Of course she can do with them what she wants, she has the pen after all, but I think she does owe some consideration to the fans.

Now I’m not saying she should write to please her readers because that would just be crazy talk, but I do think she has a duty of care to the people who buy her books, to ensure that she doesn’t irreparably damage her characters, or totally change who they are.

I have a take on this that comes at the issue from a slightly different direction. Here’s the comment I left on that blog post:

Rather than feeling the writer has an obligation to the fans or readers, I tend to feel the writer has an obligation to the work. E.g., you don’t kill off a character ‘just because you can,’ because that isn’t being true to the work. You don’t have the characters act out of character because that isn’t being true to the work.

I don’t think the writer ‘owns’ the characters, but I’m thinking in a slightly different way than perhaps that implies. Each reader brings his or her own impressions to a work—his own interpretations, visualizations, nuances, etc. To my mind, by the time they’re done reading the book, what they’ve experienced isn’t exactly what the author thought they were putting on paper—it’s more of a jointly-created entity that the author could never entirely predict or shape. And that’s where things get tricky.

I wouldn’t mind Rowling clarifying that Dumbledore was gay if the issue came up, for example, as a possible interpretation of material she’d written, but I just don’t see any point in ‘announcing’ it—it isn’t part of the work in that way.

Rather, when most authors want to explore some part of their world that they haven’t yet, they traditionally do it by either writing a new book or publishing a short story somewhere, possibly on their website if they just want to get the story out there. They don’t generally do it by saying, “oh, by the way, that character’s gay.” Just as we need the proper build-up in a story in order to believe and buy into an unexpected character revelation, we need it to be couched in story in the first place in order to buy into it! Simply announcing such a detail is rather like handing us a two-page synopsis instead of a novel and telling us that’s the story, enjoy.

Today, journal about your own take on the complex issue of ‘ownership’ of a work between author and reader.

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2 comments on “Author Ownership?
  1. Hanna says:

    Great oppinions. I came to think about the power of the writer when I read it. Don’t you agree that it is not something you can expect to have, but you win it from the reader and that takes time and trust? When we as readers don’t belive what the writer tells us, they have no power at all over their worlds or characters. The power is given with trust and built up with each book – or teared down….


  2. heather says:

    I tend to think of a book as a collaboration between author and reader. While the reader can’t tell the author what to do with the story, the author also can’t tell the reader what to take away from it. I definitely know I’ve come across an amazing author when I feel that trust you mention, trusting them to take the story in a direction I’ll enjoy without any worry otherwise.

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