Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Fans, Death Threats and The Question of Ownership


by Janis Patterson
It’s getting scary out there, people.
Fans are turning from appreciative readers into ravening packs of dictators and usurpers.
Is there anyone who hasn’t heard about the outrages perpetrated against Charlaine Harris?
Charlaine – who is one of the nicest people on the planet – finally ended her long-running Sookie Stackhouse series after umpteen books. She ended it a logical and nice way, but it just proved that you can’t please everyone. A portion of her fans erupted into a frenzied storm of verbal violence, sending her hate mail and death threats and fervent wishes that she would be raped and murdered for daring to end the series that way. Just because they didn’t like what happened.
First of all, it’s fiction!
Second of all, it’s her story, her characters, her vision – she and she alone should have the right to decide the ending. The fact that anyone should think otherwise is downright frightening, bringing up the image of a writer chained to a desk in a basement writing to the order of her fans. Sound over-the-top? Remember Stephen King’s MISERY? That too was fiction, but I wonder how close real life might be getting to these scenarios.
Just about the same time this was going on, there was a horror story making the rounds of the writers’ loops about some fans at a conference getting on their high horse and declaring that the writers should stop feeling that they own the characters and the stories – that they really belong to the readers.
Huh?
That makes just about as much sense as some weird political pundit announcing a few weeks ago that “parents have to get over the belief that their children belong to them personally and not to the state.” Crazy talk! Parents have the children and the children are their family and their responsibility. The writers have the vision, the writers do the work, the writers create. Readers read. How in the heck does that make them think that the characters and stories belong to them? What gives readers the right to believe that they make the decisions?
To me, this is an example of today’s all-too-prevalent entitlement mentality run totally amok. They want, so they feel they should have, so they demand – and then they get bent out of shape when they don’t get exactly what they want. Yes, there is a definite resemblance between this and a badly-behaved toddler having a tantrum.
There once was a day when authors were regarded if not with awe, at least with respect. They created living characters and entire worlds out of little more than imagination and caffeine and readers respected them for it. Now, however, things have changed. While there was once a respectful distance between writers and readers, the internet and its resulting social media have thrown the two close together, which is both good and bad.
As writers we are pretty much responsible for our own publicity nowadays, which means a lot of interaction with readers. That has removed a lot of the aura of specialness that writers used to have, and has made the readers more involved on a closer scale, which is not altogether a good thing nor a bad thing, though it has the potential to be either. Readers feel entitled to approach the writer, even feel that the writer has become their friend. All too often, though, for a certain kind of reader, this freedom of association becomes license. They feel the writer is their employee, bound to produce what they want at their order.
That is not altogether untrue. This is a free market, and if a what writer is producing is something a reader dislikes, the reader has the perfect freedom to stop buying it and take his business elsewhere. It does NOT give the reader the right to issue orders or make threats disguised as demands and threats as if they were some wild-eyed Middle-Eastern fanatic. On the other hand, if a reader is unhappy, I don’t know of a writer who would be upset about a civil, rationally phrased letter unemotionally stating their concerns. Hysterics, accusations, threats and ill-wishes are beyond the pale and unacceptable!
Now I like getting to know my readers – to a point. I enjoy chatting with them, hearing their concerns (when  civilly and politely phrased) and most especially their validation of my work when it pleases them.
On the other hand, simply because I am open to communication does not mean that I take orders from them, that the characters and stories which come from my imagination and hard work belong in any way to them, or that they have the right to demand anything of me. I am one of those people who have to write; I do not have to make what I write available to them, and when I do it is on my terms. If they are so unhappy, let them go create a world and the characters to populate it on their own. That they can do anything they want to with.
And I would be sardonically gleeful to see exactly what would happen when some other reader tried to dictate to them. The results just might be memorable.
Like I said, it’s getting scary out there, people. 

38 comments:

Steven J. Wangsness said...

The Internet has unfortunately given voice to every crazy out there. And apparently there are a lot more of them than we thought!

Kevin R. Tipple said...

It does make one wonder. I don't think it is so much entitlement, but an inability to understand where one belongs. As a reader, I can say I did not like a book for whatever reason, but I don't have the right to tell he author what to do and how to do it.

I do blame social media. I also blame authors who constantly barrage readers with cute cartoons and instructions on how to care, feed, and promote said author. By doing such posts, one does give the impression to same folks that they do, in fact, have a say and even ownership in what the author does.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, Janis,

No, I did not know that Charlaine Harris had faced this! You can get crazy readers. So far, mine have liked my novels and not complained about them--and I'm grateful. Of course, I'm not with a big publisher like Ms. Harris, nor have I had my novels serialized on movies or TV. That makes a big difference. I recall a major soap star who described a fan recognizing her on the street and threatening her because she was playing an evil character. It can be scary!

Sandy Cody said...

Well said, Janis. "They want, so they feel they should have, so they demand" sums it up perfectly. I agree; it's outrageous.

Pamela Stone said...

Hi Janis,

It is scary. The social media has made the world seem very small. Our landscape has changed. However, on the positive side, it's flattering that the readers cared that much about her characters. I think this situation is where a lot of fan fiction comes from.

~Sia McKye~ said...

There is a sad lack of personal boundaries and a false sense of entitlement in the world today. It would be scary to face what Harris did over fictional characters, for God's sake. As many mentioned it's outrageous.

Unfortunately, there are a number of fans of the big and small screen and books that can't seem to differentiate between the fictional character and the person. That is scary.

We can't blame social media completely. It's a modern tool. Yes, it puts people instantly in contact. Those same type of lonely, weird fans, can connect and this becomes their world--since they have very few contacts in the real interacting world. We're not responsible for that. But really, we have the ability to put boundaries on what we share and how. We can learn how to use the tool wisely.

Very interesting post Radine!

Sia McKye OVER COFFEE

Ana E Ross said...

Yes, the internet has become a necessary evil, especially to authors like myself who've decided to self-publish. There are a lot of crazies out there who have no parameters in real life and can't see the thick line between real and fiction. We write stories to entertain, not to influence lifestyles and decisions. There are self-help books for that reason. I guess we have to take the bad along with the good--since many authors make a living from writing.

Kevin R. Tipple said...

By the way, I used to get comments on my reviews that supposedly I did not review enough women, ethnic authors, and various other groups.


In the last several weeks I have gotten three or four comments that I review too many murder mysteries and therefore I am encouraging crime. One went so far to say that because of reviewers like me, folks like the creepy idiot in Cleveland that held the women hostage get ideas to do things.

Kind of strange how some minds work.

Susan Lyons/Fox said...

An excellent post, Janis. In general, I don't even feel like I own the characters I create. They take on lives of their own and have been known to go in directions I never planned for them. It's flattering when readers really connect with characters, so the characters come alive for them. But that doesn't mean they own those characters. How many of us wish that "Gone with the Wind" ended differently? I've read numerous books that I wish had a different ending. I can imagine those endings if I want, I can say, "If I'd written that book I'd have done it differently." But I didn't write that book. That book is the vision of its author and the characters inside her or his head. Totally. It's not my book. I didn't put in the hard work, angst, and creativity that brought those characters to life. I totally respect the author's right to end the book - or the series - however the author wants to (or the characters tell him or her to). The idea that readers would threaten an author because they don't like something about a book or series appalls me. If someone doesn't like the way the reader does her/his job (whatever it may be), does that mean they have a right to issue hate messages and threats? I sure don't think so!

Tracy D said...

What Kevin said.

Allison Chase said...

Social media has literally opened up a world of contacts for authors, and anyone else with a product to sell. Unfortunately, the more people you reach, the more "crazies" will end up in the mix.

J. L. Hilton said...

As a former newspaper columnist, I had the unfortunate experience of being threatened and stalked by a reader. This was back in the 1990s, before Facebook and Twitter. So this sort of reaction is nothing new to me. There have always been crazies in the world and there always will be. Death and rape threats are not acceptable under any circumstances. That said, I do think authors (or creators of any type) do have a degree of responsibility to their fans, especially if those fans have made them wildly successful. As a fan, myself, I can say that when I've invested many dollars, countless hours, deep emotion and free promotion for the author (word of mouth, Amazon reviews, social media, etc), I do feel invested in the product and expect the author to put some reasonable effort into a good ending. I've seen way too many TV shows get canceled, movies with lousy endings, book series with lame conclusions. Now I won't even watch a TV show until it's "over" because I don't want to get burned, and I generally don't buy series books until the entire series is out (and reviewed positively).

Marilyn Meredith a.k.a. F. M. Meredith said...

Wow, this is unbelievable! I have never run into this, but probably because I'm not famous. Authors have become more accessible than they ever were-and I guess it's not as good as we all thought.

Eileen said...

Alas, this is nothing new. Charles Dickens was threatened after he killed off Little Nell. A.C. Doyle was hounded by fans until he found a way to bring back Sherlock Holmes after killing him off because he didn't want to write those books anymore. And as I recall, Stephen King got the idea for Misery after some disturbing fan letters.

Not that any of that makes it right and there's no doubt social media makes it easier for people to spit out their crazy in an anonymous way.

The challenge is that characters do belong to writers, until we share them. Then we ask readers (we hope in fact) that they'll feel real emotion about those characters, to become invested in them. While that doesn't give the reader the "right" to dictate what happens in books, it's easy to understand that now you're talking about someone they like/care about/invested time and energy into. They're going to have an opinion. And as long as they have an opinion they're going to share it. 99% of people in an appropriate way, but there is always the crazy fringe.

nora snowdon said...

very scary. but I guess any job where you interact with many people you will get scary feedback. i'd assumed the only dangers associated with writing were alcoholism and back pain from too much sitting. silly me...

Kaye George said...

On the other hand, these people are VERY concerned about what happens in the fiction they're reading. The writer is connecting with the reader. I think I'd rather have a bad reaction from a reader than none at all. I know someone who defends the person who posted Charlaine Harris's ending, but I don't condone that AT ALL. BUT, that ending mattered to the person who got so upset that she posted it. Better than apathy, or not reading it at all.

Vamp Writer said...

I personally enjoy when readers strongly identify with a character or story in my Immortal Relations series. I like to discuss their ideas on where a character or storyline might go in a future book. Maybe I'm setting myself up, but I'll deal with it, if and when it happens.

Jean Henry Mead said...

An excellent article, Janis. I agree about the crazies who feel empowered by criticizing or even threatening a writer. It seems that respect and manners have become outdated in our current society. Do we ignore the less-than-sane messages or do we answer back? I'm still on the fence about this one.

Phyllis said...

Hey, Girlfriend, you make some great points. No I hadn't known about the craziness out there, but then again, I've been a cocoon lately.

Hope you'rew doing well!
Phyllis

Maryann Miller said...



Well said, Susan. Unfortunately we have broken the social agreement to be civil to one another. Too bad.

I had not heard of the threats to Charlaine. How frightening and disappointing.

We can see from some of the reader's boards online that there are a whole bunch of folks who agree with those at the conference that they should control the books and stories. That is scary, too.

Jamie Leigh Hansen said...

Great article, Janis! I agree with the comments here, especially about our social contract. I Google+, FB and Tweeted your blog with this message:

I completely agree with this article. The sense of entitlement and society's general refusal to feel shame no matter how badly they behave is ridiculous. I understand "proper behavior" is considered old-fashioned, but that doesn't make it wrong. Whether it's in the entertainment industry, customer service or otherwise, there needs to be a level of civility, rationality and respect. Contrary to many opinions, respect is not obedience or even agreement. Respect is treating someone with decency and an understanding that they are a human being with the same rights we, ourselves, have.

That said, I do believe an author sets up expectations for how a book or series will end. That in itself is also a contract between the author and the reader. So, Vamp Writer, you might be setting yourself up, or you might just be gauging and polling your audience to see what expectations they have so you know if you're sending them and their investments of angst, time, money and sometimes effort, in the right direction. Good luck!

Mark Baker said...

Obviously, I've been going about things all wrong. Off to start threatening authors.

Oh wait. That wasn't your point. :)

Seriouly, that is crazy, and I don't get it at all. I was upset by the ending of LOST, and I've been vocal about it. But I didn't go around threatening anyone over it either.

Mrs. Mac said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Susan Oleksiw said...

I too have been very surprised at the possessiveness some readers feel for their favorite characters. I do think it's a sign of immaturity or instability, and there is definitely more of it now than in past years, but there has always been some.

I'm not sure how much social media and self-publishing have to do with it, but the world of the writer is certainly different from what it was. Writers are subject to casual familiarity that would never have happened in years past, and some of that is just the times.

A good post, and one that many, many of us can relate to, myself included. A reader once argued with me about something I had one of my characters do. And once, my mother was roundly criticized for something her brother, an actor, had done as a character on a long-running soap opera.

People are bizarre.

Mary Ricksen said...

Unbelievable! People are truly strange, gives us a lot to use...

Kate Douglas said...

Talk about a timely article--this week I've been told that I should use different descriptive words in my books "to make them better," (The ones offered were grammatically incorrect)and I've been sent lists of story lines for upcoming books in my new series with the assumption that I would write them as suggested. Unfortunately, when readers do that, it automatically means I CAN'T use that story idea--even if it's one I'd already come up with--because that same reader would probably sue me for plagiarism. It's an ugly world when the sense of entitlement becomes acceptable among readers, but it's why I'm actually afraid of Goodreads. There are trolls out there who love nothing better than tearing into an author in a public forum. It's taken away a lot of the fun I've had in the past interacting with readers. It doesn't mean I'll stop writing, but it does affect the way I open myself to fans.

Melissa Mayhue said...

Great post, Susan. I happen to be a faithful reader of Charlaine's series and while it didn't end exactly as I had hoped, it did end exactly the way Charlaine's characters needed it to end. What I don't think some readers understand is that authors don't always have a clear path as to what will happen to their characters, so we can't always make it end the way someone wants. As I think Susan Lyons/Fox mentioned above, sometimes the characters just do what they do and all we can do is write their story as it comes to us! :-)

doc said...

I completely agree. If an author thinks it's time to wind up a series, then that's what should happen. If the author thinks it will make a better book to have a continuing character die, then that's what should happen. If the author wants to write in the present imperative tense, then that's what should happen. It's the author's decision, the author's life, not mine.

The only right I have here is not to read something I conclude is not worth my reading. I do not have the right to force yo not to read it (or to read it), and I have no right to tell the author what to do. If I care that much about how something ought to be written, then I should write it myself...

Shalanna said...

When I was a child, I would get upset by the "bad" endings of many classic novels. (You can probably think of a few "bad" endings, especially in animal stories. *shudder*) My mother told me that I could make up a new ending. "No! That wasn't how it ended! It ended this way:" And then I could go on with the story. Of course, I just kept the endings to myself. I didn't write them down, even. But it took away the upset.

Maybe these fans should do this.

I believe that all characters in fiction come from a set of Jungian archetypes accessed through the collective unconscious, and that if you identify with particular characters, it means that YOU need to read/write about or research that archetype in order to learn what you are meant to. For example, if you always love the Little Professor or precocious child character, you should research that archetype instead of going crazy when an author doesn't do what you want them to.

That author does not have a monopoly on the archetype. Rename Charlie Brown to Howard Henry and use the "downtrodden pitiful but well-meaning guy who always gets the football pulled away" archetype to write your own stories or draw your own pictures. Trust me, your Howard will take on a life of his own. I swear by Sheldon Cooper's spot on the sofa!

And people--please don't act weirder on the 'net than you do in real life. . . .

Dee O said...

I agree. Glad that you are have voiced this and others are giving voice. Readers should be more respectful! And if they don't like it, put the book down.

Gina Ardito said...

Thanks for a sobering post. Experts say that the Internet gives people a sense of safe anonymity--that because they're not face-to-face, they feel they can get away with bad behavior. It's Internet Road Rage. Unfortunately, today's social media and marketing requirements propel authors into that whirlwind. And most of us are observers by nature.
While the idea that fans become passionate about our characters is a wonderful dream, sometimes the reality is a bit scarier.

Susan said...

Thanks to everyone who posted here. I think we're all in agreement that authors can't please everyone. If they wish to follow the desires of their fans or their own (or their characters') vision, that is their right. Author's world, author's choice. The fans have the right to civil and respectful comment, and the right to validate or condemn the author's vision with their wallet. Threats and other assorted uglinesses are never acceptable.

Again, thank you all for your comments.

Janis Patterson, also known as Susan...

Cindy Sample said...

Fascinating and scary post, Susan, as are the comments. I'm lucky my readers so far just want to give me story concepts and new DYING FOR A D titles. I'm about 2 pages from typing "the end" of the third book and based on the comments I've received, everyone thinks it's time my protagonist and the hunky detective got together. But I'm not in charge anymore. The characters are.

Beate Boeker said...

Interesting post. You have to develop a thick hide to get through this - not easy! However, as a reader, I feel that the characters belong to me, too. They are my friends. If I don't like what's happening to them, I stop reading. I don't threaten to kill the author!

carl brookins said...

We need to remember that fans have a good deal invested in these series, time, money, emotions, just as do the authors. One should not casually dismiss this work as mere fiction. Are you sure? after all, how much of life cna you be sure is not mere fiction?

Barb Schlichting said...

Very interesting. What's the matter with people nowadays? It's only fiction!

EA said...

I have had similar experiences, and this was when I wrote a story for fanfiction. Some of the readers there got...not nice. But I took the higher road and that settled most, if not all, the critics down a bit. But I have heard stories from some of my other author friends that send chills down my spine.

city said...

thanks for share...