Who “Owns” a Fictional Character?

Every few months, it seems, some controversy erupts over YA literature.  Why is that? An interesting question in itself; the major eruptions over adult literature usually have to do with authorship or whether a memoirist is exaggerating her memories or making them up altogether.  Children’s books evoke passion, and YA most of all.  This may be because nobody feels stuff like a teen.outsiders

Anyway, the current controversy has to do with S. E. Hinton’s The Outsiders, a novel published in 1967 and widely considered to be a progenitor, if not the progenitor, of YA literature. The novel is about disaffected teens, members of rival gangs, growing up rough in an unnamed western city based on the author’s home town of Tulsa.  Protagonist Ponyboy Curtis is the youngest member of the Greasers; also the youngest of three brothers who are essentially raising themselves after their parents were killed in an auto accident.  Johnny Cade is Ponyboy’s best friend, and Dallas “Dally” Winston is a gang brother who brushed up his tough-guy creds on the streets of NYC.  Throughout the novel, Greasers clash with Socials, or Socs, escalating eye for eye until two kids are dead.

You’d think it would be as outdated as West Side Story, but The Outsiders, like that toe-tappin’ Bernstein musical of roughly the same age, is still affecting audiences deeply.  (I saw a reference to it just last week, in a recently-published YA novel.)  The author, only 18 when the book was originally published, regularly tweets with fans who want to let her know how deeply the story affected them or how much they love/relate to/dream about the characters.    On October 17, “VVAnn” tweeted, “I have a question . . . . were there any romantic feelings between Johnny and Dally?”

S. E. Hinton: “No.  Where is the text supporting this?”

VVAnn: j-just asking.  I think it’s cute.

S.E.Hinton: ask anyone in the 60s how “cute” it was to be gay.  I have many friends I love & do not want to sleep with.

After a further exchange of gathering heat, VVAnn called the author disrespectful and asked for an apology (not forthcoming), but soon the author had other fires to put out.  Some readers thought she was being disrespectful, not to the original tweeter but to gays in general.  “Shauna of the Dead” asked, “Why would you reject young gay kids interpreting your characters in a way that makes them feel safe?  This is trash.”  To which Hinton replied, Young gay kids can identify with the book without me saying the characters are gay.  I never ever set out to make anyone feel safe.”  And so on.

The “twitter storm” reported by some news outlets didn’t amount to much, in my opinion, but it raises an interesting question.  Once a novel is published, and inhabits the minds of readers, does the author still “own” it?  Does the one who created the characters have the right to dictate their inmost thoughts and inclinations? Or does the act of publishing release fictional characters to roam at large through the audience, taking on the dreams, tastes, longings, and fantasies of those readers who develop a spiritual attachment to them?  (Related question: have you ever developed a spiritual attachment to a fictional character?  Are you willing to say who?)

I know what I think, but I’d like to know what you think.  Anyone?

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