The Burden of Artistic License
T his latest blog muses about writing sequels (and this applies to alternate endings and alternate viewpoints just as much) to stories already established by other authors and the problems writers sometimes face with readers.
In particular, this blog is a response to a not uncommon criticism from readers who take umbrage to the plot lines the sequel writer has chosen. This response perhaps comes about because the reader may not understand the sequel writing process, or they just plain don’t like it. I guess I could advise any reader who doesn’t like writers being creative, is not to read sequels and alternates, but besides that obvious admonition, I thought I would broach the point in order to address a not very common (thank goodness) reader belief. This is the strange and unreasonable assumption by some readers, that a writer must not alter in any the surrounding back stories or characters or existing framework of the original novel to create a new story line. Can I immediately point out the obvious here? Great—Sorry, angry reader, but if that was the ‘rule’, you wouldn’t have a sequel. Or alternate ending, or alternate view. You would not, in fact, have fan fiction at all.
I don’t think this happens a lot, but some writers I am sure will have from time to time experienced a bad review from an irate reader who thought they took too many liberties. So this blog is in defence of that. Also, it happened to me and this is my response to readers who feel that we writers take too many liberties with established narratives.
My recent novel, The Value of an Anne Elliot, was a sequel to Jane Austen’s Persuasion, and as such, it continued the narrative begun by Austen. Of course, as artists and creatives, writers call upon their creativity to come up with a plot they like and find interesting, and one which they think most of their readers will enjoy. Necessarily, this takes the story to new dimensions. This is what is called ‘artistic licence’ which means that the artist/writer makes use of his freedom to choose any damn story he likes, if he sees fit. This is legal, if anyone is wondering, as you are creating something new, you are not plagiarizing an old work. However, I have discovered that this sometimes gets some readers’ knickers in a knot, as I discovered from an angry review I had (among lots of lovely and supportive ones) for The Value of an Anne Elliot.
Here are some of the comments from that reader (who shall remain nameless, but it’s all there on the Amazon site for any anyone who is curious):
This book displayed a grave misunderstanding of Jane Austen's characters, such that I was unable to finish reading it, so I skipped to the last chapters.
Okay, fair enough, that’s up to the reader if they like the way the characters have been represented. But bear in mind, each writer represents the original characters the way they see fit. This is why fiction is called ‘creative’ writing. It’s okay, of course, for a reader to dislike the characters or storyline, and they should be able to freely say so. But it goes on:
Mary Crawford is not evil, she's a young woman who isn't sure what she wants and probably learned from her experience on Mansfield Park. She did not poison Edmund when she left! That was so insane.
This is just a great example of the misunderstanding that readers sometimes have of what fan fiction actually is. The definition of fan fiction, according to Wictionary, is this: ‘Fiction incorporating the characters and concepts of a commercial media property, created by its admirers, typically without permission from the author or owner.’
Notably, Wikipedia explains it this way: ‘Fan fiction is written in an amateur capacity as fans, unauthorized by, but based on an existing work of fiction. The author uses copyrighted characters, settings, or other intellectual properties from the original creator(s) as a basis for their writing. Fan fiction ranges from a couple of sentences to an entire novel […] and fans can both keep the creator's characters and settings and/or add their own.’
When I plotted out a new story line for Anne, Wentworth and the peripheral characters, I decided to do a bit of a mash-up with Mansfield Park characters Mary and Henry Crawford, and yes, I created a new story line (see definition of fan fiction) in which I envisioned Mary and Henry as a little bit darker in character than Austen had hinted…and that is my prerogative as the creator of the narrative. I am under no compunction to create a storyline which conforms to a reader’s ideas of what could or could not have been the case. Actually, Mary did try to poison Henry when she left Mansfield. How do I know? Because I decided that she did.
There was more from this reader, like ‘The hint that her and Henry are in some weird incestuous relationship was just gross and unrealistic.’
And so on. Another sequel might have taken different liberties with the original text, and that would be just as valid. I might point out that The Value of an Anne Elliot is not the only sequel to Persuasion on the market! All fan fiction takes liberties with existing plot lines, for that is the nature of fan fiction.
The point is, dear reader, that writers are allowed to be creative, and you don’t have to like it. If you want to write a better/different story, you have just as much right to go right ahead and do that, and make it as outlandish or unbelievable as you like, and publish it too!