Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Alexander McCall Smith and the Case of the Helpful Reader

by G.M. Malliet

Alexander McCall Smith has written an article for the WSJ that's as engaging as any of his novels. In the article, he talks about how readers can get so caught up in an author's characters they start wanting to dictate "What happens next." I was amazed to learn that one of Smith's characters, Isabel Dalhousie, formed a relationship with a younger character in reaction to a complaint the author received from a journalist. It was this journalist's opinion that it was wrong to deny these characters a romantic attachment, despite the difference in their ages, so this attachment got written into the series.

I was saddened to hear that Mr Smith succumbed, but the pressure on such a popular author must be intense. Everybody "owns" Precious Ramotswe; everybody "owns" Isabel. It is part of Smith's great achievement that he made them seem so real, and endeared them to us. We care what happens to them, in the same way we care what happens to a friend.

I posted a link to the WSJ article on Facebook and someone commented that this was why they couldn't bring themselves to read The Remorseful Day, in which Inspector Morse dies. That is exactly it--Morse (and John Thaw) had become so real to us throughout the series we couldn't bear to say goodbye.

Both Colin Dexter and Alexander McCall Smith have more than earned the right to let their characters do as they choose--or rather, as their authors choose. And surely, that is any author's right. What else are we here for but to either keep our characters in line or let them run wild, only to be reined in later? Someone has to be in charge, and I think it has to be the author. (If anything, I would have preferred that Isabel remain single, but I wouldn't have dreamed of trying to bend the author to my will.)

Have you ever altered the direction of a series because of input from a fan? (And have you lived to regret it?)

Photo from www.telegraph.co.uk


Cricket McRae said...

Interesting post! I like to think I'd stick to my guns under pressure, but it's never come up.

As a corollary, I admire when a series author takes a leap and does something big and brave that his character then has to live with for the rest of the series -- for example, killing off a major character. Reader reaction is generally mixed in these situations, but if the author feels it serves the story and overall character arc, then I applaud the bold move.

Keith Raffel said...

Those whom I ask to read the manuscript, yes. Fans, not so far.

Terri Thayer said...

There's a solution for that and it's called fan fiction.

Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

I am always interested in what readers say about my books and if I see the same theme over and over in their comments, I will pay attention. Doesn't mean I will make changes based on their input, but I will at least consider what they are saying. In the end though, I do what the characters tell me.

The one time I did follow readers' suggestions was after book #1 when they wrote to say they wanted to see more of Mike Steele (he was only supposed to be a minor character). I complied and was glad I did. He has become one of the most popular characters in the series and a source of great comedy.

One thing I hold firm on is Odelia's weight. I receive a lot of comments about her size. Some think she should become a role model for losing weight and others are thrilled she's a big lady. Odelia will never diet. That's a promise I made to myself and to her.

Jess Lourey said...

Thoughtful post, Gin! I hope I wouldn't bend to the whim of others in allowing my characters their own path, but I do know that with May Day, the first book in my series, I reined in my characters' natural flow and made the book less interesting as a result. I was worried about offending "people," and so the book lacks the even tone of the rest in the series. Never again, I hope.

Keep me updated on the No #1 Ladies' series. I don't get HBO, but if the series stays strong, I will absolutely buy it when it becomes available. I love those books.

Anonymous said...

Morse and John Thaw became inseparable in people's minds. Losing both of them so close together, the character and the actor, was a double blow.