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20 October 2008

The reader as story-teller


A couple of years ago, I saw a great production of the play Bus Stop at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. The play ends with the seemingly mismatched showgirl heroine and the cowboy hero going off into the sunset to his Montana ranch. The actors played it affectingly. I was quite prepared to believe in their hard-won happy ending. My friend (and fellow writer) Penny Williamson on the other hand said with certainty as we walked out of the theater onto the sun-splashed bricks, "It won't last. Chèrie won't make it through a Montana winter." (That's Penny and me at Dukes Hotel in London, because I didn't have a scanned picture of us in Ashland. But we were on our way to the theater when this one was taken). Later on our trip we had dinner with our friend Elaine, who agreed. I should add that both Penny and Elaine have been married (very happily) for well over twenty years, while I've never been married (yet :-). Interestingly, both their husbands were more inclined to believe in the possibility of a happy ending for Chèrie and Bo. So was another guy friend. But I think all of us saw somewhat different versions of what happened after the end of the play. Because I think that when we watched the play, we were each watching a somewhat different story.

I think that to a certain extent every time we watch a play or a movie or tv show or read a book we collaborate with the author. We bring our past experiences, own likes and dislikes to the story, our own preconceptions, our own historical knowledge. We may hear lines inflected differently from the way the author hears them, imagine different expressions of the character’s faces as they speak, even fill in bits of back story differently in our imaginations. Our sympathies may not lie precisely where the author’s do. The words on the page may be the same, but every book is slightly different depending on who is reading it.

In a discussion on my own website following a blog I wrote about Anti-heroines a few months, Sarah commented, “An anti-heroine isn’t, in my eyes, necessarily a good girl gone bad, or even a better person trapped by circumstances, but a character fighting against the hero, for whatever reason - opposing interests, whether personal or political - who inspires the reader to follow their story just as much as that of the protagonist.” Sarah was talking specifically about Milady de Winter in The Three Musketeers. Both Sarah and I found ourselves sympathizing with Milady when we read The Three Musketeers, seeing the story from her perspective, wanting to follow Milady’s story as much as the story of the four musketeer protagonists. Interestingly, I remembered my mother talking to me about The Three Musketeers before I read it and saying, "It has a wonderful heroine--I mean, villianess."

A great deal of fan fiction is based on retelling television show episodes, books, or movies from the POV of a character who isn’t the protagonist in the original story. I've never written fan fiction, but I spent a considerable amount of time imagine Alias episodes from Irina Derevko's perspective. Lately in particular there seems to be a trend of re-telling classics from a different POV from that in the original story, which books such as Geraldine Brooks’s March (which I’ve heard wonderful things about but haven’t read yet), Sally Beauman’s Rebecca’s Tale, a number of retellings of Jane Austen. As I've mentioned before, I always sympathize with Mary Crawford when I read Mansfield Park. I wonder if there's been a retelling from her POV.

My fellow Hoyden Lauren in a sense re-examined one of her own stories from a different character's pov when she turned Mary, the heroine's seemingly cold, difficult older sister in The Deception of the Emerald Ring into the heroine in The Seduction of the Crimson Rose. In the latter book, we see some of the events of the first book through Mary's eyes and get a different take on them. But I have to say even reading The Deception of the Emerald Ring, I find myself sympathizing with Mary or at least intrigued by her side of the story. Part of that was that I knew she was the heroine of the next book. But part was also that I tend to like characters like Mary--clever, cynical, sharp-tongued, unapolgetically scheming. So I was reading the book my way.

As a writer, I find the thought that readers are reading a somewhat different book from the one I wrote totally fascinating. I’ve heard from readers who have sharply differing views of my charaters Charles and Mélanie. One reader, Perla commented, “I have not had much sympathy for Melanie, I hadn’t forgiven her even if Charles had. And Cate said, “I’ll echo Perla in saying that I didn’t precisely ‘like’ Melanie on my first reading of the books. I found her fascinating and wanted to know more about her.” On the other hand, a good friend of mine said on reading Secrets of a Lady, “Why is Charles being so stubborn, she was only doing her job?” and some have gone so far as to suggest Mélanie should take the children and leave since Charles is being so unforgiving. ”

And as I've mentioned, another important character, Raoul O’Roarke, inspires such conflicting feelings that some see him as a villain, some as a potential hero. I’ve heard from readers who find him a fascinating character and want me to write a book about him (one of my friends, also a writer, said that while Charles is the most “marriageable” guy in the book, Raoul would be fun to have a fling with :-). On the other hand Perla wrote, “I intensely dislike Raoul. And not because of Melanie, but because of what Raoul did.” You could retell Secrets of a Lady from Raoul’s POV. An intriguing thought...

Have you ever read a book and then discussed it with a friend or in a book club and been surprised by how differently others viewed the story and characters (so that it almost felt as if you’d read different books)? Have you ever found yourself more engaged by the story of an antagonist or a secondary character than by the story of the protagonist? Have you found yourself wanting to retell the story from that character’s perspective? Writers, have you been surprised by how readers view your characters and story?

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34 Comments:

Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Wonderful post, Tracy! I've actually played Milady DeWinter (yes, I got a fight scene, with cloak and dagger!) and I used to joke with my fellow actors that she was "just misunderstood." In fact, she is. Milady DeWinter is a battered wife. Athos is her estranged husband, as things transpire (sorry for the spoiler for those who have never read the masterpiece) and he did not treat her very well. In my mind, as the actress playing the role, his brutal treatment of her was the catalyst for her downward ethical spiral.

I'm fascinated by the points you raise about perspective. When the characters walk off into the sunset or you read the words "and they lived happily ever after," sometimes the reader or audience member's reaction is indeed "or not."

Stephen Sondheim musically riffed on this idea in INTO THE WOODS. How many Brothers Grimm tales have you read (or Disney versions viewed) where you come away thinking "But they barely know each other!"

One of the reasons I loved writing about Emma Hamilton and Mary Robinson was that they made several life choices that were not exactly "vanilla." And yet I found much of what they did to be justifiable or at least understandable under the specific circumstances of these women's individual lives and wanted to present their stories from their POVs.

MARCH is terrific, by the way. One of the best books I have ever read.

5:08 AM  
Blogger Lauren Willig said...

What an insightful and interesting post! To a certain extent, I think it's a testament to an author's ability when readers find themselves sympathizing with the "unsympathetic" characters, or experiencing mixed feelings about the main characters-- it shows that the world is realistically enough drawn to allow for alternative viewpoints and imagined backstories.

As a side note, I would LOVE to see a book about Raoul.

6:26 AM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

***Our sympathies may not lie precisely where the author’s do.***

THIS! I often find myself not "in sympathy" with characters in books, film, and TV. What some may find charming, I find highly annoying. For example, I couldn't STAND Carrie Bradshaw on SEX IN THE CITY. I didn't want her to have a happy ending. I didn't think she deserved one. She was whiny, self-absorbed, and treated her boyfriends horribly. So an entire movie about her getting just her HEA with Big turned my stomach. Clearly I'm out of step . . .

My favorite retelling of all time is Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. It’s brilliant (and the movie version stars Tim Roth and Gary Oldman *sigh*). I also was lucky enough to catch Red Shirt off Broadway. It was a wonderful take on Star Trek from the POV of two crewmen who knew they were doomed to die if they were ever sent on a mission.

***Have you ever found yourself more engaged by the story of an antagonist or a secondary character than by the story of the protagonist? Have you found yourself wanting to retell the story from that character’s perspective? Writers, have you been surprised by how readers view your characters and story?***

Yes, yes, and yes! I’d LOVE to see The Three Musketeers from Lady de Winter’s POV (and to get the full background of her marriage to Athos). Perhaps that’s what I should be proposing to my agent . . .

Gregory Maguire has made an entire career out of this (he’s brilliant at it too!).

7:26 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Very interesting topic Tracy. One of my favorite new musicals is Wicked which tells the story through the eyes of the Wicked Witch from the Wizard of Oz. Who would have thought that a sympathetic story would have been told about the woman who terrorized Dorothy, the Tin Man, and the Scarecrow?

I've been struck while doing my research, how different the lives of the women I write about might have been if they had made the safe choice, and stayed in their horrible marriages or in the case of Evita, never went to Buenos Aires!

I agree with you Kalen, about Carrie Bradshaw, especially in the last season of Sex & the City. And I have never been a fan of Meredith in Grey's Anatomy. I also found myself rooting for Sir Guy of Gisbourne in the latest version of Robin Hood, which may have just as much do with how sexy Richard Armitage looks in his leather, and is does the fact that the character is better written and acted than Robin Hood.

7:34 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Amanda, I would have loved to see you play Milady. I think your take on her relationship with Athos makes a lot of sense. And "Into the Woods" is one of my favorite musicals.

Lauren, excellent point about it being a testimony to the writer's ability when readers sympathize with "unsympathetic" characters or find the main characters not totally sympathetic. It does mean it's a real world into which the reader can enter fully. One wouldn't sympathize with a cardboard villain after all. And hopefully I will get to do a book about Raoul!

Kalen, "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern" is a fabulous play--great example. I have to say that I liked Carrie, though I didn't always agree with her choices. Did you keep watching the series despite not liking her?

Elizabeth (and Kalen), "Wicked" (book and musical) are great examples (as are Gregory Maguire's other books). I saw "Wicked" in San Francisco on its pre-Broadway run (actually with my friend Penny who was so skeptical about the ending of "Bus Stop"). We went in not expecting much, and we both loved it--we got amazingly caught up in the characters and story.

8:32 AM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

***Did you keep watching the series despite not liking her?***

Nope. I did not enjoy the few episodes I saw enough to keep watching.

10:09 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

"Yes, yes, and yes! I’d LOVE to see The Three Musketeers from Lady de Winter’s POV (and to get the full background of her marriage to Athos). Perhaps that’s what I should be proposing to my agent . . . "

Yes, Kalen do! I'm surprised that no one has thought of this before. I think it would be an amazing book, to tell the story from Milady's POV, perhaps correct the lies in Monsieur Dumas history.

10:55 AM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

I am still amazed, Tracy, by the number of people I meet who thought the death of the "hero" in The Horse Whisperer was an accident. ;-(

So, as for being surprised by people having a different perception of the outcome of the novel than mine---nah. I'm enrolled in a "literary" fiction writing course right now...and man, the things we
(my classmates) take away from a story are sooooo different. I'm always looking to the happy ending, and since most of the works we read don't have them--I create them. ;-)

11:10 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

I too would love to read a version of the story from Milady's pov--you should totally write it, Kalen!

11:17 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Kathrynn, I haven't read "The Horse Whisperer," but I've had book discussion (notably over Dorothy Dunnett books) where I've been amazed at the different opinions, not just about things that are ambiguous in the text, but which I thought were plainly spelled out (and others didn't). As a writer I find it totally fascinating. I find myself wishing I could read my own books from someone else's POV. I think it would be a somewhat different story than the one I thought I'd written.

11:21 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What a fun subject Tracy. Lois McMaster Bujold wrote a wonderful piece (an essay I think) in which she praised the reader as collaborator and from that I grasped the concept that a book is not really finished until it is read and discussed -- that's when, as you said, our own life experience colors the story.

Reviews do that to some extent but the reader is at a disadvantage because they generally know so little about the reviewer.

11:28 AM  
Anonymous Mary Blayney said...

Hey that previous post was me -- Mary Blayney -- do not know what I did to get annonymous....sorry

11:29 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Mary, I'd love to read the Bujold essay. I almost titled this blog "The reader as collaborator." :-). I do think reading and discussing are important parts of bringing a book to life (one of the frustrating things about books that languish on hard drives or in boxes under the bed :-). Reading is far more active (and interactive) than we give it credit for, I think.

11:48 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

I like visiting book clubs because then I get, firsthand, the readers' experience of the book. It's always fascinating to hear what our readers have to say and what their perceptions are of what we've written.

I'm all for idea of a novel written from Milady deWinter's POV, though I wonder how many general readers (hoydens and beaumonders don't count) even know the original source material. Lately I've been amazed by how many avid readers I hear about who have zero background in history and literature.

P.S. Tracy, years ago I had a drink in Duke's Hotel, too. I just had to visit the place!

12:14 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I love books that are rich enough to contain stories besides the ones the author tells. Which is why I love Mike Leigh's movies, where every actor develops a whole life for their character before getting together to scope out the interactions. Happy-Go-Lucky is wonderful. I wept in a whole new way of weeping at movies -- but I don't want to give anything away. Go see it, though.

12:22 PM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

I was going to say perhaps they saw the last horrible movie version they made with Karev from Grey's Anatomy, but it looks like they cut out Milady deWinter. Which makes no sense. Sigh!

12:41 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Amanda, I feel the same way about book clubs, though I haven't had to mention chances to sit in on book club discussions. I still remember two very different discussions of "To the Lighthouse" in high school and college. The professors had very different takes on the central character, framed I think by generational differences and differences in their life experiences.

I'm often amazed by people's lack of historical and literary background too, but "The Three Musketeers" has been filmed enough I think a fair number of people have some familiarity with it.

Isn't the bar at Dukes fun?

Pam, I haven't seen Happy-Go-Lucky yet, but I heard a great interview with the main actress and also with Mike Leigh about the movie. I think the process he uses to develop his characters (or have the actor develop them) and stories is fascinating.

12:43 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

I don't know anything about "Happy- Go-Lucky". I'll have to look it up. I did love Mike Leigh's "Topsy Turvy" and love the way he has his actors work, by researching their characters so thoroughly that they can nail an essentially unscripted scene just by improv-ing, given the subject of the scene and the points they need to hit.

The bar at Duke's is indeed fun!

12:50 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Totally offtopic, but when I was at Dukes, I had to have one of their special martinis (they wheel a cart over, let you pick gin or vodka, olives or lemon). It was a tribute to my dad. When we were in England when I was a child, my father would order a martini and end up with a glass of vermouth. He would have loved the bar at Dukes.

1:14 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

I was with someone who was a big martini drinker (actually, he was a big everything drinker!) so that's why we had to go to Dukes' for their renowned martinis. I think I had a gin and bitter lemon.

1:25 PM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

It is funny to see the different reactions. I remember back in high school I wrote an essay about why I didn't sympathize with Hester from The Scarlet Letter. I think it was titled, WHY DON'T YOU JUST MOVE?

2:19 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

I remember getting something like a C on a college paper on Racine's character Phèdre. I found her, as written by Racine, utterly unsympathetic at the time and felt I'd justified my opinion in the paper. But my French professor thought Phèdre was just wonderful and utterly vindicated in everything she did and therefore I deserved a crappy grade for daring to disagree with his opinion.

2:29 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Kalen, from what I remember of "The Scarlet Letter" in high school, I found it very hard to get a sense of Hester. She's the central character, but we never really get into her POV. You almost want a retelling of the book from her perspetive.

Amanda, I read Phedre in French and had a hard time sympathizing with her too.

3:41 PM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

I felt the same way about Madame Bovary in high school. I didn't understand being trapped in a loveless marriage, and just found her unbearably tedious.

5:00 AM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

Kalen, I laughed out loud at your teen reaction to Hester. It says so much about YOU and your youthful perspective.

Pam, thanks for the reminder re Happy-Go-Lukcy. Read a great review and will now remember to put it on my Netflix list.

Tracy, I will check on the what collection that Bujold essay is in and let you know.

I am one of those readers who had huge gaps in their reading experience. Have never read Madame Bovary or Moby Dick for example. I've always wanted to start a book club to "fill in the gaps" --

6:23 AM  
Blogger Joanna Waugh said...

I'm glad to read I am not the only author who reads a book or watches a movie and rewrites it. One of my tried and true methods for falling asleep at night is to do exactly what you and Penny did -- carry another author's plot beyond the end of their book/movie. It's often served as inspiration for one of my own!!

7:02 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Mary, do let me know about the Bujold essay--I'd love to read it!

Joanna, I'm so glad to know you do the same thing imagining "what happens next" or rewriting. It's a great creative exercise and so often gives me plot ideas of my own. I think some of the basis of my Charles & Mélanie books came from playing "what if" with 1982 adaptation of "The Scarlet Pimpernel," years before I actually started writing the books.

9:43 AM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

"What if" is a game I think we all play. LORD SCANDAL is a riff on What if the infamous Madame X portrait had been painted in the 1780s?

10:52 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

I had a high school English teacher who gave us a "what if" assignment when we read Hemingway's "The Sun Also Rises." We had to imagine that the book didn't really end at the last chapter, and so we each had to write the next one. It was so much fun. I tried to adopt Hemingway's writing style so the transition would be seamless. I wonder what ever happened to that paper; it would be fun to dig it up today and see if it was any good by my standards nowadays.

5:43 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

What a fabulous assignment, Amanda! Did you write it like an epilogue or as though the story would continue on further after the chapter you wrote?

8:39 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Good question, Tracy; I don't fully recall but I think it was an epilogue, a sort of "this is how the story really ended.

11:25 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Cool. I've never read "The Sun Also Rises"--is the ending of the actual book ambiguous? It would be such a fun exercise to have a bunch of writers all do that with the same book.

11:52 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

It's a novel I try to read again every year; it ends on an ambiguous enough note with one of the most famous last lines in literature ("Isn't it pretty to think so?") which certainly could lend itself to the "what if it were..." sort of writing assignment.

1:05 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

What a wonderful last line. Without knowing the context, it reminds me of the last line of "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof"--"Wouldn't it be funny if that were true?"--which can mean a lot of different things depending on how it's played. Speaking of a story one could continue..

2:08 PM  

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