|Looks like Jamie to me!|
Diana Gabaldon, author of the mega-bestselling Outlander series, raised some eyebrows recently when she defended the choice of actor Sam Heughan to play Jamie MacKenzie in the Starz! Television version of the book. Seems some fans weren’t happy with the way young Heughan looked. He didn’t fit their vision of a character they had grown to know and love.
Gabaldon set them straight in her Facebook post. She argued that, as the author, she ought to know what Jamie looked like, and, more importantly, acted like. And an actor’s looks were less important than the skills he brought to the role.
She watched the audition tapes and summed it up: “[T]he bottom line is simply this: He showed up and he _was_ Jamie. (You know something? I don’t really _care_ if you, personally, have been imagining Chris Hemsworth as Jamie. You’re wrong; he doesn’t look like that at all.
Now, Gabaldon, who single-handedly created the time-travel romance phenomenon and the Scottish Highlander romance craze with Outlander, despite the well-known facts that it is too long, takes too long to get to the romance, has too much history and too many odd details about flora and fauna and a hundred other things, and strings out the story over nine volumes, has never been known for her tact. And she’s right, up to a point, that Jamie is her creation and she knows him from the inside out.
But she’s wrong if she thinks she can control what her readers think of him. How they see him is entirely up to them.
In truth we lose control of our characters before the story is even finished, if we allow our intuition free rein. Every writer has had the experience of characters “speaking” to her, of demanding to be heard, even of taking over a story. My African-American friend Linda had slave characters from the time of the Civil War who demanded to have their stories told in her book, Out from Egyptland. I’ve had secondary characters literally take over and turn a story in a new direction, hijacking a book. Backstory reveals itself, relationships turn out to have a history, even villains develop a conscience (or at least an explanation).
But once the story is locked down and presented to the world, then the real mutation occurs. Because every reader has his own imagination, her own interpretation to bring to the world you have created. It would be a miracle if all your readers saw your world and your characters just as you saw them, no matter how well you painted the picture for them. Of course, the idea is to communicate with your readers and you want to pass on your vision to them. But if you’ve described your hero as tall and muscular, and your reader prefers her guys with the build of long-distance runners, so she envisions him like that, who’s going to care? As long as she continues to buy my books, I won’t object!
For that reason, the characters’ physical characteristics are their least important aspects. Most readers will just skim right over a block of physical description and supply their own, based on tiny details of action or dialogue. Not so long ago, however, the “rules” of romance required that you supply a catalog of physical details right away for your hero and heroine—eye color, hair color, “broad shoulders”, “trim waist” and the like. Some contest judges will still harp on this point, but I think they’re a dying breed (or interested only in category romance). There are much subtler ways of getting the essence of your character across, to show people who your characters are, rather than telling them what they look like.
Who your characters are will always be a matter of debate once they enter the wide world. I admit it’s rather odd to be on the other side of the literature class analysis. What was the author thinking when she created this character? What did he intend with this heroine’s story? A lot of it, at least in the first draft, is unintentional. The characters tell their own stories. It’s only when you get to the revisions that you begin to consciously of goals, motivations and conflict. Of whether your heroine is acting consistently throughout the book or whether your hero is too emotional here and not emotional enough there.
That’s when you truly get to know your characters, and, if you do your job, your readers can truly feel they know your characters, because they act consistently from scene to scene, from chapter to chapter, and, if it’s a series, from book to book. Gabaldon could confidently say she “saw” Jamie in Sam Heughan because, after nine books, she’s created a consistent, recognizable character, that Heughan could recreate. Her readers will have to trust her that they’ll have the same experience, but they’re uneasy, because they feel the same sort of ownership now.
It’s no wonder, however, that films have such a poor success rate in re-creating the magic of books. There is usually no match for our own imaginations working in concert with the author’s. I’ll never forget my first reaction to seeing Peter Jackson’s THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING. As a lifelong Lord of the Rings fan, I couldn’t believe the way Jackson had captured my vision of Middle Earth and all its characters. It was just the way I had imagined it as I read it. His vision, Tolkien’s and mine (and, apparently, millions of others’) had all coincided in a miraculous way. I’ve never had that experience, before or since. I certainly don’t expect to have it if any of my books are ever adapted for the screen (Yeah, I like to dream big!)
--Congratulations to Laurie (as Editor-at-Large) and Pippa (as a selected author) for all your hard work in producing the first annual anthology Tales from the SFR Brigade. The content is outstanding, the authors are stellar and the production work is fantastic. This was a first-rate job all around, and I’m sure will be catching much attention for all involved.
--Whew, Pippa! Just hearing about your schedule last month makes me tired! Take a break and relax—you deserve it!