On Out of Character Characters

This is probably not the post you’re expecting it to be – at least not if you’re anticipating a rant about how badly some writer or other screwed up. You see, I don’t think characters written by someone else can be out of character.

*waits for howls of protest*

But in the last week or so, I’ve seen three comments where someone’s made that charge against a writer, and in all three cases, I had the same internal response: “not your call, dude.”

The first was someone trying to stir up controversy for J.D. Robb by accusing her of using a ghostwriter for the In Death novels, because they find Eve’s character in the past few to be OOC; the second was a random comment someone made about a character in a Marvel film, where they were just assuming that everyone would see the same OOC behavior they do (I don’t), and the third was a comment about someone’s fanfic. (Again, not an assessment I agreed with.)

Here’s the bottom line: the creator of a character can not, to me, write them wrong. It’s their creative work and the character lives first in their imagination. To pluck that story person out of their head and say, ‘thanks for inventing them, but I’ll take it from here’ is on the level of covering up part of someone else’s painting because you didn’t like the color in the lower left corner.

But what if you hate the direction they’ve taken the character in? What if you can’t follow what they did or why they did it?

Totally your right to respectfully say so. That’s what writers risk when they put their characters out there – that people won’t like what they do, or may not understand it. (Or worse, may just give up on the story altogether.)

When I largely lost interest in Stargate: SG-1, it was for just that reason. I couldn’t make sense of the direction they were going with Jack’s character. I didn’t like it, and I no longer liked him. But even then, I don’t think it would have occurred to me to proclaim that they were writing their character wrong. He was theirs. They could do whatever they wanted with him, could go wherever they wanted to with him. And I could choose to watch, or not.

More than once, Bones has thrown me a curve ball where something I thought was true about a character turned out not to be, though it’s never been a deal-breaker in terms of my love for the show, and discussing those differing views with other fans has often opened up new says of seeing the story. But rather than proclaiming they don’t know their own vision, I’ve stepped back and said, ‘oh, so that’s true of the character as well as this other thing? But how does that fit with this?’

I may not like what they do, but saying that I know better than those who created the characters how they should act doesn’t make any sense to me. They’re not my creations.

Ah, but what if …the writer screwed up? No one’s perfect, so maybe they made a mistake, had the character do or say something they shouldn’t have done or said.

It happens, absolutely. Writers are as capable of making mistakes as anyone. But they’re the only ones who can say for sure whether that’s what happened. My interpretation not matching the writer’s doesn’t mean the story’s badly written. It just means that if there are a million people following the story, there are a million and one different interpretations of the character – and the writer can only write what’s in his or her head, not mine.

Ah, but what about the third scenario, with the fanfic? Fanfic writers didn’t create the characters, so they don’t have the same ownership rights!

True. But still…neither do fanfic readers.

When I watch TV or read a book, certain things take on greater importance to me than other things. A character acts in a certain way, and I interpret it to mean something, and then judge everything that follows by whether it supports that view or not.

We all do this. I regularly have conversations with people who give weight to things said by a character that I don’t interpret the same way. In that vein, I once had a two-hour conversation with a good friend about a single line of dialogue in a TV show. It meant something completely different to me than it did to her, and we never did see eye-to-eye on it.

And that’s fine. That’s the way it should be, because …art.

All art is interpretative, but whereas we look at an abstract painting and know our response is subjective, we somehow think that fiction has only one meaning, the one we give it.

I’ve read fanfic where the characters were unrecognizable to me apart from their names, where I’ve backed away going, ‘no, she would never do that,’ when what I really meant is that the character I see in my head, my interpretation of her, wouldn’t do it. But I’m not the lone authority on the matter.

What is it about fandom that brings out our need to be ‘right’ about things that, if we thought about it, we’d know don’t really have a right and wrong? What does ‘being right’ even mean when you’re passing judgment about a story created in someone else’s head? Fictitious characters and situations dreamed up not by us, and yet we wage verbal war when someone, anyone, disagrees with us about their meaning?

I think you can make an argument for there not being an authority on story and characters. (I especially like what’s been attributed to Joss Whedon in this respect: “All worthy work is open to interpretations the author did not intend. Art isn’t your pet — it’s your kid. It grows up and talks back to you.”) But if there is an authority, someone who has the right to say, ‘this is what it means,’ or ‘this is who this character is,’ it’s the writer, not us.

That doesn’t mean we have no power, though. As readers/viewers we have the most power of all because we can say, “I don’t like this any longer, and I’m not going to spend more time on it.”

You’re entitled to your opinion, whatever it is. No one can take it from you, and its value isn’t lessened if others don’t agree with you. You don’t have to be The Authority on whether a character is in character or not, or whether a story makes sense or not. You only have to speak for yourself. Isn’t that grand?








2 thoughts on “On Out of Character Characters

  1. I don’t know if you’re familiar with John Green or his work, but one of my favorite things about him as an author is that he insists that the characters don’t belong to him once he’s published a book. His philosophy is that the characters, the story, and the book itself belong to the reader, and it’s one that I wholeheartedly agree with.
    Granted, this mostly applies to fanfiction and not to much beyond that, but I still stand by it. As readers/watchers/consumers, our interpretation of the characters belongs to us alone and even if it’s not what the original creator intended, that doesn’t make it wrong. That’s why the phrase head-cannon exists.

    • I can see both points of view on this – that once we put a story out there, the characters no longer belong to us, but to those who interpret them; or that the final authority for the story remains with the author.

      But in either case, I think the charge of OOC is still a problem. In the first case, there can’t be OOC if everyone’s interpretation is equally legit; in the second, the author is the only one who can say whether or not the character is (or is out of) character.

      In any respect, I think the real issue is the need to respect that our interpretation is never the only one out there.

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