Tracy and Penny at Dukes HotelMy blog last week on History Hoydens took off on my blog earlier on this site about The Reader’s role in telling a story. As it’s a topic I find endlessly fascinating, I thought I’d repost it here and hope it stirs some more great discussion.

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 above 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 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 Willig 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 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?