Off the page and into the world: bon voyage, little protag . . .

Who Owns a Fictional Character? (the Answer)

As I mentioned last Friday, the answer isn’t quite as simple as you might think.  My first thought is, of course an author owns her characters, just like she owns the copyright on her books.  Right?

But not so fast . . .

It’s a funny thing about art, whether it’s a fictional, pictorial, theatrical, or musical creation.  Once a work is created, it stops belonging to the creator.  I realized this after reading Dorothy Sayers’ Mind of the Maker years ago: there’s a Trinitarian structure to all art (fancy that!) consisting of the Idea (the original impetus and lurking theme), the Energy (the form and execution of the work itself) and the Power (the effect of the work on the audience).

“The Power” is what surprised me most; I had to think about it for a while.  Why yes: my War and Peace isn’t yours—assuming you’ve read it—any more than an identical outfit will look the same on both of us. Especially if you are male, hairy, and somewhere in the neighborhood of six-foot-five.

A newborn baby is a unique individual, but since he can’t express himself yet (much less have anything to express) a mother has trouble separating herself from him.  He’s always there, even when sleeping in another room; the attachment of nine months isn’t cut with the umbilical cord.  But as he grows up, he becomes less his parents and more himself.

Fictional characters are the same way: while the novel is in progress they are soft, formless story elements who have to make themselves known over time.  The story shapes them, but eventually they’ll begin to shape the story.  That’s the moment authors love to enthuse about: when “the character surprised me!”  The surprise is more mystical than actual.  The author still has control; her characters appear to be taking on lives of their own because she’s coming to love them.  Which is awesome, in the best way.

But no work of art is complete without the ability to provoke a response.  An unpublished manuscript is stillborn, in that it never breathed on its own.  But if the novel finds an audience, those characters the author loved like her own children have left home.  They are living independent lives out in the world, with broad swathes and corners the author knows nothing about.  (And, as with our own children, we don’t necessarily want to know.)  “The Power” has kicked in, and will live as long as there are readers to give it life.

Off the page and into the world: bon voyage, little protag . . .
Off the page and into the world: bon voyage, little protag . . .

So ultimately, the characters don’t belong to the author, but to the readers.  She does not own them (even though I understand S. E. Hinton’s irritation at the idea that a certain interpretation of a character can make a reader “feel safe”).  Like children, They have to make their own way in the world, and it may be a way their creator never suspected.

This doesn’t mean the author is irrelevant.  Several years ago, I wrote a post called “Loving Your Characters Like God.”  The last two paragraphs, I think, bear some relevance to this subject:

Obviously we’re not God, but we can pay even secondary characters the compliment of taking their existence seriously. We don’t have to approve of them, but we can understand their story and not dismiss it as trifling.

And we can grant them their freedom. This also godlike in a way. I won’t say He grants us “free will,” because it’s not that simple. We can’t be totally free of Him, just as a fictional character can never be free of the will, motives, experience, and personality of the author. But God does grant us the integrity to work out the compelling forces in our lives. In my first novel I didn’t do that; I kept them too close; they were too much me. And maybe that’s inevitable in a first novel. But subsequently it’s been easier to get to know Richard Mallory, Starling Shaw, Kit Glover, Hazel Anderson, Veronica Sparks, and others who haven’t yet seen print–and then let them go. Are all my characters are living out their destinies in a parallel universe? If not, at least I tried.

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