Monday, May 21, 2012

Who 'owns' the story?

...and its characters; the future of said characters, as well as their past, with events possibly untold in the original; the world the story is set in; any 'creatures' that may be inhabiting it; the architecture; the clouds and stars in that world's skies for that matter?

Are storytellers at liberty—or should they be? ethically, existentially, legally—to tweak as they see fit even a 'published' story (i.e. a story that has actually been presented to a non-negligibly-sized audience) should they feel so inclined or have reasons to think that it needs to be done?

I'm bringing this up because it was just one of these things that came up, prompted by confluences of this, that and the other.

'This' was a discussion (lost the URL) about whether writers should not only pay attention, but adjust their stories, based on 'feedback', as they call it, from their audience.

'That' were a bunch of TV series 'based on' novels by famous authors; like Pillars of the Earth and Game of Thrones. (Both were based on voluminous novels. Both made significant changes in the adaptation. Both did so with the assent of the author of the novels.) I haven't yet seen the film adaptation of Hunger Games, though I've seen and heard scathing reviews and personal comment by armchair critics. (At this point I'm withholding my own views of these three adaptations. Might get back to them in another blog.)

'The other' were George Lucas's tweaks to this Star Wars movies, and especially 'Episode 4' (the very first ever). These qualify as 'story modifications'; received by many with livid anger, dismay and often vitriol. "How dare he?!"

There are other instances of course. One could argue that the sanitizing and bowdlerization of fairy tales falls into the domain of who-owns-the-story. On the flip-side of this, the fairy tale and mythological characters in the Fables series also represent significant deviations from the originals, and one might ask whether we're talking about some kind of narrative offense.

Let me be clear about this: I'm not talking about IP or copyright or anything that has 'commercial' or even 'cultural' written all over it, but of the existential aspects of this; connecting with the topic of my previous post. And I think it's time we took this, somewhat lofty I suppose, point of view, because there has to be a serious counter-initiative to the trivialisation implicit in the crass materialism of 'business' and lawmongering. Stories are not about making money, though they are used to make money, and this confuses people.

As to who owns a story 'existentially', well, when it comes to mine, I have a profound sense that I do and nobody else in the world. My stories and characters are mine, and the rest of the world can follow their lives, but there's line here that they are not entitled to cross. Not in my world anyway.

By the same token, I find it almost impossible (I've tried and given up on it) to write stories involving characters and worlds I haven't created. I'll never end up wasting my time (that's just me, mind you, and I'm not denigrating those who do and who are not wasting their time doing so) writing stories set in Star Wars or Star Trek universes, or even less episodes for TV series already in existence, no matter how much I love watching them or appreciate and occasionally admire the the stories. From a purely technical point of view I could, of course, but that would just be another job using a skill I have, not a passion. Just the same as what I do now for a day job, which is 'technical' writing and general document development.

This attitude, which isn't commercially very useful, probably also explains why I don't work well with what you might call 'invasive editors', who feel the need to micromanage the story and want to change the characters to what they think they ought to be, all in the name of 'improving' the story, for whatever purpose. Many (I suspect 'most') haven't written a truly 'creative' (in the original sense of the word, not as it's used in fashionable parlance these days) story in their lives. For there is an existential abyss between the craft of writing and the process of creation of a story that actually lives inside the storyteller.

If there's a serious plot deficiency somewhere, I'm perfectly fine with having an editor point it put. But plot is incidental. I know that doesn't sound right, but what I am saying is that in most cases there are many ways to journey from A to B, and one MacGuffin is usually just as useful as another. What really matters though is what the journey does to the characters (plus that it holds the audience's interest) and how whatever happens reveals what their characters are. And that part of the story is mine and no damn editor has the right to screw around with it. And they will try to and they believe, with the patronising certainty of the zealot, that do indeed know better. And I'm unwilling to let them. Because the story and characters came from my head (are still in there) and editors definitely do not have access to my internal life beyond the clues provided by my stories.

I guess that, like so many things, the answer to the question posed in the title is personal and doesn't allow a general answer. Which is fine with me, but I thought a quickie rant about my position regarding this would do me good.

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