Blog .:. March 2006 3 Entries
Ages ago I was asked what I think about character theft, which some of you know is a lot like asking a botanist what she thinks about chlorophyll. Which is to say: the answer you’re likely to get will be long, rambling, and of interest only to other botanists, who are already convinced of the beauty of chlorophyll and eager to discuss its intricacies in a level of detail that will cause most people to assume expressions more glazed than a Krispy Kreme donut.
So, to answer the question briefly: I [heart] character theft. The rest of this post will be devoted to explaining why I [heart] character theft, possibly in more detail than you care to read. You have been warned. But for those who want to escape into a corner with me where we can whisper cattily about all the other people at this reception who aren’t talking about anything half so cool as what we are.
Let’s assume the basic form of character theft is allusion. For example, in Terry Pratchett’s Witches Abroad, while, erm, three witches are traveling, well, abroad, they come across an unusual character:
Above the noise of the river and the occasional drip of water from the ceiling they could all hear, now, the steady slosh-slosh of another creature heading toward them.
“Someone’s following us!” hissed Magrat.
Two pale glows appeared at the edge of the lamplight. Eventually they turned out to be the eyes of a small gray creature, vaguely froglike, paddling toward them on a log.
It reached the boat. Long clammy fingers grabbed the side, and a lugubrious face rose level with Nanny Ogg’s.
“‘ullo,” it said. “It’sss my birthday.”
All three of them stared at it for a while. Then Granny Weatherwax picked up an oar and hit it firmly over the head. There was a splash, and a distant cursing.
“Horrible little bugger,” said Granny, as they rowed on. “Looked like a troublemaker to me.”
“Yeah,” said Nanny Ogg. “It’s the slimy ones you have to watch out for.”
“I wonder what he wanted?” said Magrat.
The humor in Pratchett’s books is often built on the way he handles allusions—the iconic or archetypal stories and characters he picks out and, so to speak, smacks on the head. Here it’s Tolkien’s Gollum; in Pyramids he confounds the Sphinx. In one of the early Rincewind tales he rakes a claw across Anne McCaffrey’s Pern series. The humor works because the reader knows how the story is supposed to go, but Pratchett takes it somewhere else.
While Pratchett has invented his own original characters, a large part of his success is his ability to steal and subvert the characters of others. It’s the subversion that makes it ok—he is not writing a story in which Gollum is stolen whole-cloth from Tolkien, or McCaffrey’s Pern is acting as the only framework for his novel.
But that’s the nature of allusion, anyway: the theft is always brief, whether the alluded text is subverted or simply inserted into the new text. I don’t think anyone really has a problem with the idea of allusion. It’s generally a compliment to the original author—or at least an acknowledgment that what the original author has done is well-known enough that it needs no further explanation and can, instead, help to explain or expand other peoples’ ideas.
I just wanted to take a look at allusion so I could type out the Pratchett quote. Honestly.
The character theft I was actually asked to pontificate on is the more extended type—specifically, when an author creates an entire book around someone else’s character. Here, still, I have no problems… assuming the theft is subversive.
If someone were to sit down and write Harry Potter Seven in a serious and considered manner—that is, if they were trying to create an actual conclusion to the series—and they were not J.K. Rowling, I would… actually, I wouldn’t have to do anything, because her fandom would have torn them to pieces already, assuming her lawyers didn’t get there first. Stealing a character and attempting to pass it off as the original character, without alteration—without subversion, in some form—doesn’t work. There’s no originality in it, no presence of the thieving author, no acknowledgment of why the original character is being stolen (aside, I would assume, from the obvious profit motive).
If you steal a character with the intent to subvert, and through that subversion to say something about life, the universe, the original author or original author’s “meaning,” and everything else—by all means, go for it. Let me help. There’s not enough of that type of theft in the world.
For example, what I know about Gone with the Wind: Rhett Butler is involved, although I don’t know if he’s a character or an actor, and the last (or most famous?) line in the movie is “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.” Coincidentally, that’s exactly how I feel about Gone with the Wind. I don’t hate it, but I certainly don’t want to know more about it, see the movie, or read the book. And no, you don’t need to tell me more, because I really, really don’t give a damn.
But—and here’s the thing—it’s an iconic text. If you pressed me enough, I could probably cough up more details. Scarlet O’Hara. Civil War. Etc. If someone told me the storyline (don’t!), I’d probably nod and say “I knew that.” Then I’d yawn and forget it again. The point, though, is that even the most disinterested person on the planet still knows the gist of it. Probably. If I thought about it hard enough. Which I’m not going to do.
This is why Alice Randall can get away with writing The Wind Done Gone, which I haven’t read either. I would guess it is either a parody or satire of Gone with the Wind, and/or it tells Gone with the Wind from the perspective of different characters. I would hedge a guess and say… but why hedge?
Consider, instead, John Gardnar’s Grendal, which I have read. He takes the Old English poem Beowulf and retells the story from the point of view of the much-maligned monster. In doing so, he’s making a point about how history is written and the often single-sided nature of stories, which fail to consider how the maligned and evil characters might have felt about everything going on. More recently, Stan Nicholls did something similar in his Orcs books, although I personally think he went too far on the humanizing side of the equation, to the point where it is easy to forget he’s writing about orcs. You lose the effectiveness of your subversion when the bad guys appear too much like the good guys.
To return to the point: Gardnar takes the Beowulf story fairly whole-cloth, sticking pretty closely to the events in the poem (if I recall correctly; it’s been years since I read this). Nicholls doesn’t steal plot so much, but there’s no question he’s stealing the orc character from fantasy’s bag of tricks—most obviously, but not exclusively, from Tolkien. But the intent isn’t to mirror an existing character so much as it is to subvert it and suggest there may be another, previously unconsidered, facet to the story. The authors are questioning what readers know about the characters, the characters’ worlds, the original authors, the readers’ own worlds and views, and so on. The theft is subversive and uses the original text not so much as a framework but more as a foil.
The same, I would argue, is true of Gregory McGuire’s fairy tale books, including Wicked. He’s doing more than “stealing” known fairy tales: he’s rewriting in a way that questions what we know and understand about those tales.
There’s a difference between this and, say, historical fiction, I think. In most historical fiction, the authors are taking people and events that existed and attempting to bring them to life in a way that is fairly true to the actual facts. It’s a fleshing out of what we already know. But in the sort of theft I’m talking about here, the key is subversion—what we know is challenged. And the part that makes it seem like theft is the way the text gets changed; it can feel and appear to be a trampling over the creativity of the original author, who worked so hard to create the characters and story lines that others are blithely twisting about any way they like.
Put that way, character theft is really a horrible thing.
But the other half of this theft is the nature of the characters that are being stolen. They are iconographic. What I know about Gone with the Wind takes less than three sentences to write, but the point is I know it without ever having read the book or seen the movie or actively engaged in any conversation that might have lead to more details being stored in my head. Gone with the Wind has become, in short, something much greater than a single text written by a single author. It’s entered the public imagination and grown. The same with Beowulf and Grendal, although their public is, perhaps, smaller than that of GWTW.
There’s a point, I think, where story lines and characters reach this iconographic or archetypal or mythological status. There’s a point where we accept that a certain character means a certain thing, to such an extent that I could trite a story and refer to one of my characters as a “Wicked Witch of the West” and most people would get what that meant, even if they’d never seen or read The Wizard of Oz.
That’s the point where I think character theft is actually useful, so long as it’s subversive. We need to rethink the archetypal and iconographic characters in our world. We need to ask if they are still relevant and why. We need to wonder if the story can be considered from another point of view and how that view might look. We need to shift away from a complacent understanding of how things are, and subverting known characters is an excellent way to do so.
What I’m saying, in a roundabout way, is that I’m all for character theft when it is used in a revisionist fashion. It’s a tool: a way of holding up a mirror to what we know and seeing what we can still learn.
Tagged: Alice Randall, Anne McCaffrey, Beowulf - Text, Books & Reading, Gollum, Granny Weatherwax, Gregory McGuire, Grendal by Gardnar, Harry Potter series by Rowling, J K Rowling, John Gardnar, Lord of the Rings by Tolkien, Magrat, Movies - Gone with the Wind, Nanny Og, Orcs series by Nicholls, Pern series by McCaffrey, Pyramids by Pratchett, Rhett Butler, Rincewind, Scarlet O’Hara, Stan Nicholls, Terry Pratchett, Wicked by McGuire, Wind Done Gone by Randall, Witches Abroad by Pratchett, Wizard of Oz
Ah, good ‘ol Interstate Rivalries. How would Minnesota and Wisconsin get through the winter if they couldn’t make fun of each others’ accents, football teams, and weather—despite the fact that, to everyone else, they appear to be the exact same state?
Unfortunately, Alaska doesn’t have that sort of rivalry with any individual state.
Once in a while a Texan will try to stir something up by going on about the “Lone Star” state and how “huge” their state is and how everything is “bigger” and “better” in Texas but… Alaska could hog-tie Texas with its coastline and still have enough left over to make a tire swing, you know. We aren’t impressed by those little horns Texans keep tossing around at us. Did I say little? I totally meant “huge.” Really, they’re very big. Well done, Texas. Wake us up when you’re a threat.
Scrapping with any single state is just boring. Instead, we like to take on the entire continental U.S., which we call “Outside.” That’s right: y’all are Outsiders. We are Insiders and uber cool because of it. Sometimes we are also freezing, but that’s geography for you. (And we limit this to the continental U.S. because we happen to like Hawaii, which is out winter vacation getaway.)
We might feel more neighborly to y’all if you’d stop referring to us as another country, asking if you need to bring your passports when you visit, and trying to change U.S. dollars for our “local” currency, but since you seem determined to treat us as another country, we’re going to marginalize all 48 states.
Actually, I’d be inclined to give you a break if you’d just mention us on your weather reports. I mean, we show a map of you on our weather report. Ok, granted, the weather reports are something like “And on this half of the country, there will be weather. On the other half of the country, there will also be weather. And in Wisconsin, there will be [detailed weather report, because half of Alaska has ties to Wisconsin].” It’s not the best national weather report, but at least it’s a true national weather report: we cover all fifty states. Y’all stop at 48.
But the greatest part of this rivalry is the way we don’t even need your participation to sustain it. We carry this grudge match on all by ourselves. I mean, if Minnesota invited Wisconsin over for a barbecue and maybe admitted the Packers can play football (well, not in 2005 they couldn’t), Wisconsin would, like, implode. Wisconsin relies on Minnesota to uphold their end of the rivalry. Imagine a football game in which only one team was boo-ing the other. It just wouldn’t work. But we don’t care if you come to our grudge match; we’re happy just the way we are.
Leave us off the weather maps, will ya?
We’ve got glaciers—in a couple thousand years, you’ll be sorry!
Let’s get metaphorical for a minute.
You are standing on a cliff. Across a deep abyss there is another cliff, with an Author on it. The deep abyss, we’ll say, is “Author Intention.” Say it with me, now: We Can Never Know An Author’s Intention. It’s a gorge that just can’t be crossed.
On the other hand, we have the Author’s book, which, metaphorically speaking, is a bridge between us.
Is it really so impossible to believe that the author’s book could tell us something about what the author was up to, wanted—dare I say it?—intended?
Sure, it’s an imperfect bridge. Writers don’t always realize the significance of what they’re doing, and readers can come up with interpretations for themes the writer didn’t consciously write.
But, if we assume a good author, with good control over the language in which they are writing, and a good reader/critic, able to analyze and consider the nuances of the language… can’t we believe that some ideas can cross that bridge from author to reader?
Sure, the author might be trying to build a bridge that would allow a car to travel and the reader might end up on a motorcycle, but that’s not the end of the world. That’s the inevitable problem of individual connotations and experiences that can’t be controlled by any author or reader, no matter how hard we try.
It just irks me to listen to people talk about “the book says this” and “the text says that.” Sure. Let’s take a bridge and examine its pylons and never, ever, ever mention why the bridge is there. The fact of pylons is enough, eh? Let’s just be happy we have a bridge, and stop wondering why someone would bother to build it in the first place.
If I’m writing, it’s for a reason, not just to build a pretty little bridge that we can all admire and then store teapots on. I’m quite happy for you to mistake my four-lane superhighway for a wooden bike bridge so long as there are wheels involved, if you see what I mean. And if you decide to drive a semi-truck over my railroad trestle, well, as long as we don’t all crash and burn in a fiery explosion, that’s ok too.
Reader-response theorists can’t argue that “some readings are better than others” and then turn around and deny that the reason some readings are better than others is that the author wrote the text in such a way as to suggest (to alert readers) that ‘this’ meaning is true.
Well, they can argue that, because they do, but I don’t have to like them for it.
They’re called “authors.” They wrote that text you’re reading for a reason. I’m not saying we’re ever going to be 100% certain what that reason was—I do realize how impossible that is—but I am saying it would be nice, once in a while, to acknowledge that authors do exist and they are trying to communicate something.
Tagged: Books & Reading
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