Genre Talk

Fans, Superfans, Fanatics–and Charlaine Harris

harris

First, let me say that I don’t know how Dead Ever After, the thirteenth and final book in Charlaine Harris’s Southern Vampires series, ends. I don’t know who Sookie ends up with but, gauging by the negative reactions flying around, I have a guess about who it isn’t. I fizzled a bit on the series a few books back and haven’t caught up yet, although I have bought them all.

What does the current hoo-ha over this series have to do with our Monday genre discussion? It’s not so much that Charlaine Harris writes paranormal, but that genre fiction fans are the most rabid readers, the most dedicated readers and fans, out there. As authors of paranormal, we have the absolute best readers, bar none. They’re loyal and passionate and enthusiastic. We love their sense of ownership in our books. I’m amazed and delighted when someone takes time to email and tell me why my character DJ should end up with Jake instead of Alex, or why the undead pirate Jean Lafitte would be the best suitor.

But I don’t know how I’d react if readers—thousands and thousands of them (oh but that I HAD thousands)—hated how I’d ended my series. Hated that I’d ended it at all. Threatened to kill themselves because of how I ended it. Threatened to kill ME because of how I ended it. I suspect I wouldn’t  take it well at all.

And that’s what has happened to Charlaine Harris. If you’ve been locked in a Siberian cave somewhere, you can read how it all began in this Wall Street Journal article. She’s canceled promotional appearances for the book. She’s staying at home when she should be basking in the celebration of this series that took paranormal adult fiction as mainstream as Twilight did for the teen crowd.

So here’s the question. To what extent do books and our characters, once they go out into the world, still belong to the authors, and to what extent do they belong to the readers who’ve talked about them, read them, loved them, and promoted them? Do the characters still belong to the authors when they get so big that they transcend the books that birthed them? I mean, there are millions of people who watch the HBO “True Blood” series who’ve never cracked open one of the novels (which is a pity, because as good as the TV show is—and believe me, I wouldn’t kick Alexander Skaarsgard out of bed for crying red tears—it has very, very little to do with the plots of the books).

Charlaine Harris created these characters. Doesn’t she have the right to end the series when she gets tired of writing it? When it feels stale to her? And when she decides to end the series,  knowing how fans feel and that they’re jonesing to see Sookie end up with a certain someone, does Charlaine Harris (or any author ending an uber-popular series) have some obligation to provide an ending that she knows will give the majority of people what they want? Or does she doggedly stay true to her original vision because it’s HER vision?

I think a lot of Kim Harrison’s longtime Hollows readers, including myself, want to see Rachel Morgan end up with Trent Kalamack at the end of her final book year after next. But does Kim Harrison have any obligation to do that? She’s said in interviews that she’s known from the beginning where that series will end, just as Charlaine Harris said she always knew who Sookie would end up with. Should fans influence that?

It’s an interesting dilemma for an author. Tomorrow ends a new sort of venture for me—a Kindle Serial novel.  Subscribers to the serial get about 10,000 words a week for nine weeks automatically downloaded to their readers, and the first “episode” of the novel came out while I was writing episode four.  My publisher’s idea was that it would be a “living novel,” with discussion boards where people could perhaps influence the ending of the book because it was still being written. As an author, it was fun to write in this different way (albeit scary), and I did get interesting feedback as far as what characters were resonating with readers. I didn’t change the ending I knew I’d have all along, but I have reconsidered who would be the starring player in the second book because the secondary character I find most interesting as a writer doesn’t seem to be the one that’s resonated with most readers. Do I write the one that most interests me, or the one that seems to most interest my readers? I haven’t yet made that call.

I have no answers to all these questions. The writer in me says if I create the characters and their stories, it’s my decision as to who lives, who dies, and when the story ends. The reader in me who has been bitterly disappointed by the endings to books in the past doesn’t understand the fanaticism of the reaction to Dead Ever After, but does understand the disappointment. It’s like thirteen years of foreplay with the sex-on-a-stick guy, and then ending up with a two-minute quickie in the the back storeroom with sexy’s socially awkward stepbrother. Or something like that.

But interesting questions to ponder, whether you’re an author or a reader. What have you thought about the Sookie Maelstrom?

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42 thoughts on “Fans, Superfans, Fanatics–and Charlaine Harris

  1. I haven’t read this series yet ^^;; but i think that as long as the character stays true to themself of course the author can stop her series wxhen and how she wants….i want something stable when a character makes a 180° without any reason i lost interest…

    for example i really can’t understand why Hermione went with Ron at teh ends….. it doesn’t make sense… she wants a carreer, she wants to do what she want and she marry the only one who doesn’t accept competition and who think women should stay at home and care for their man while having babies like his mom ( i don’t mean i’m against mon at home at all just that’s not at all the personality of hermione)
    that really disappointed me but i haven’t written to the author to tell her i hated her or anything she just lost some consideration from me. She did create Hermione like she is so at teh ends just crushing all her efforts it looked stupid to me

      • Thanks, Miki! Wish I had my birthday off….

        I think the Ron/Hermione pairing was probably JK Rowling’s way to twist the expectations that Hermione and Harry would end up together and maybe a bit of the “opposites attract” thing. I think the neatly wrapped up “ten years later” part is what probably was the most disappointing about Hermione–for all her smarts and strength, she ended up having passels of red-haired Weasleys. 🙂

  2. I have not read the Sookie Stackhouse series, only the first book and I did not like that one. I can understand being disappointed in the ending of a book, but to harrass an author over that is beyond me. I only contact an author when I have really enjoyed and loved a book, and want to tell her that. But I will never ever tell her I did not like it.

    I think an author should end a series when she feels it is time, or else you get those Stephanie Plum discussions that the series should have ended long ago, the books are all the same, etc. etc. And how she ends it, is totally up to her, as the characters are her creations and live in her head.

    And Suzanne, I would so hate for Rachel to end up with Trent, I really dislike him …

    • LOL–I think you’re probably in the majority on Trent, and he has done some despicable things to Rachel. I always liked his moral ambiguity (not something I admire in real life at all, by the way), but he’s mellowing and learning from Rachel as the series progresses. Re: Sookie. I had to start the first book three times before I ever struggled through it, but the series really kicks in gear with the second or third book. By book 10 or 11, I’d gotten the feeling it was fizzling, and I actually admire Charlaine Harris for being willing to end it even though it has to be making her tons of money.

  3. I am behind in reading the series, but have purchased the books.I think the characters and story belong to the author and we just get the privilege of reading about them. To share their story. As much as we may not like the ending of a series, it was well worth the ride. As with Kim’s series, she can and will end it as she has seen from the beginning. She has shocked us before.

  4. I love Charlaine Harris’ books and have read them all except the final. Without naming names, I was disappointed as hell when Sookie switched love interests after the first handsome vampire lover, and have always hoped she would end up back with him. I think a lot of people hoped that, and based on all the negative feedback, I’m guessing that is not the case.
    I have 4 alternate endings in mind, and I’m getting the vibe that it will certainly not be #1 or #2, but in the end what really matters is that Charlaine stay true to herself and that Sookie stay true to herself.
    This was NOT a romance, and so we can’t expect heroine & hero to have a happy ever after – especially if your hero is not the same as mine. And while it is great to have devoted fans, it is truly unfortunate that Charlaine has met with the negativity and threats at a time that should be bittersweet and yet utterly awesome.

    • Like you, I have a guess at who Sookie ends up with, but I actually want to re-read the whole series instead of just the last couple that I fell behind on…I thought the Wall Street Journal story was interesting in saying that Charlaine Harris wanted to kill off the Bill Compton character in book 9 and her publishers talked her out of it because it might damage the success of the “True Blood” franchise.

    • I’m with you Charlotte and the way Bill was nudged to the curb annoyed me, and then Eric’s amnesia did me in… I stopped reading them for a while and jumped back in a few books later.

      That said, I’ve always believed it’s Charlaine’s series and she can write it the way she wants to! LOL I’ve been stunned by the backlash for sure… It’s sad…

      Lisa

  5. I have read the last Sookie book. I don’t understand all the negativity. An author has the right to wite the story she wants. It might not be the story I wanted to see conclude a series, but it is my choice to read it. Why anyone would threaten someone else over a piece of fiction is beyond my understanding. I have met Charlaine Harris twice at book signings and she is the sweetest person. I can’t imagine how painful this reaction must be for her. All I can say is she must be a great author to evoke such dramatic responses to her characters!

    • Yes, by all accounts, Charlaine Harris is just one of the nicest people you could ever meet. I was doing a book signing/event in Houston last year and the bookstore manager asked me to sign a book for Charlaine Harris, who was going to be there the following week. It was one of those “OMG what do I say?” moments 🙂

      I also don’t understand going so far as to threaten the author–or one’s self–over fictional characters. I personally do not like fan fiction, but a lot of folks do, and I can’t imagine they fanfic writers are not already penning alternative endings.

  6. The whole point of being an author is so that YOU are in charge of your characters (well, they may be in charge…but not the fans). Personally, I think if an author changed their vision to meet the expectations of certain fans they will be failing themselves and the fans. That may sound a bit harsh, but we’re fans for a reason. We didn’t have the vision to create these worlds. I love the way authors create stories, even if I don’t necessarily agree with the outcome. I don’t like who my sister is dating, but that’s the way of life. Why should books be any different?

    • I think that’s a great point, Karin! I might be rethinking who I want my next Susannah Sandlin book to feature based on fan reaction, but I can’t imagine changing the nature of my characters or my concept for my story.

  7. This is a very interesting topic to me. I think as a reader I do fall in love with the characters in a series. If I didn’t care, I probably wouldn’t keep reading. Of course the characters and their world belong to the author who created them. We readers have emotional investments and we probably all want to see things turn out the way we want them to. In the end though the only thing we can do is keep reading, or in my case STOP reading if the story takes a direction we hate. You mentioned Kim Harrison’s Hollows series and I once eagerly awaited the release of a new book in that series. Unlike you, I absolutely hate that it appears Rachel will end up with Trent. Why? In the earlier books he physically abused Rachel in horrible ways. I spent many semesters in college volunteering at women’s shelters and saw so many women get their noses broken and their teeth knocked out by abusive men who “didn’t really mean to hurt me” In fantasy land maybe they change, in real life they often kill you. Nope. Not for me. Just an illustration of how much books can affect us readers.

    • Thanks for the comment, Marsha–I realize I’m in the vast minority on the Rachel-Trent thing. I hadn’t thought about him in terms of being abusive so much as morally ambiguous. Well, okay, the whole rat-fighting thing was a bit over the top and cruel. But however she ends the series, I will love the hours I’ve spent with it and these amazing characters I’ve come to care about.

  8. I can’t weigh in on the Sookie debate, as I’m not up on the series. Since I write vampires I don’t as often read them anymore. I will heartily agree with you that paranormal fans are the best hands-down, and even as an author who knows that authors make decisions for many reasons known only to them and their characters, I get attached to certain things as a reader and find myself emotionally invested in certain outcomes so I can absolutely understand those kinds of debates. Still, I know that as an author letting too much worry about what everyone else wants can block you six ways to Sunday. In the end you have to go with what feels right.

    • Absolutely right, Elisabeth–I go into a book knowing how I want it to end. I usually know the end before the beginning. So I think it would be hard to change midstream. But I will say I’ve been influenced by reader reactions. There was a nifty little love triangle in my first Sentinels book…I had NO IDEA people despised them so heartily! And I didn’t want DJ to end up in a Stephanie Plum situation (or Sookie, for that matter) where she hops from guy to guy and back again. Based on that feedback, I started in the second book to back her out of the triangle (actually a quadrangle). So in that sense, the readers did influence how I directed subsequent books. Not the ultimate outcome, though.

  9. This might not be a popular stance, but I didn’t have a problem with the ending of Dead Ever After. I had other problems with the book, but not that. When it came down to it, it was the only thing that made sense. I think as a reader we get caught up with the heroes of a story and the heroines are sometimes reduced to the vehicle or tool we use to experience the hero. The Sookie Stackhouse books were first and foremost about Sookie, a woman searching for acceptance and a place to belong. The thirteen books were her journey to find it. I believe Charlene Harris was true to her characters. As a reader and writer, I respect that immensely.

    I feel horrible when I think about what Ms. Harris is going through. I hope this doesn’t prevent her from writing in the future. I can’t wait to see what she comes up with next.

    • I don’t know who Sookie ends up with, but from a writer standpoint I know who I’d put her with–and it’s not the one my horny little heart wants her with. Ultimately, the author has to be true to the character she’s created and, as you astutely point out, the logical conclusion to her emotional journey. I don’t think this will slow Charlaine Harris down; she’s already scheduled to begin a new series, and I think there’s a short planned with Sookie and the hero/heroine of the new series to kind of provide a segue.

  10. Suzanne, like you I haven’t finished the series, but I cheated and I know how it ends. (No, not telling) Sookie didn’t end up with whom I wanted, but I’m not going to go ape about it. I wonder if Janet Evanovich has taken note of this kerfluffle? No matter how she ends the Stephanie Plum series (if she does) she’s going to have half her fans mad at her.

    Team Ranger here, all the way, FYI, although I expect she’ll end up with Joe.

    I remember reading Little Women in the fifth grade, and throwing the book across the room when Amy ended up with Laurie. Looking back at it with adult eyes, I think Jo made the right choice.

    I do think a writer has a responsibility to her readers to write the best story she can. But, ultimately, the writer has to be true to the story. As readers, we have a right to disagree with the writer’s vision and even be wildly unhappy about it and kvetch to our heart’s content. Death threats and verbal abuse? Not cool.

    I’ve never met Ms. Harris, but from all reports she is one of the loveliest people out there, unfailingly kind and generous to her fans. I know she is grief stricken by all of this, and I feel so bad for her. A time that should be one of joy and pride of achievement has, instead, become a nightmare.

  11. Great post Suzanne!!! 🙂

    And I agree, paranormal and Urban Fantasy readers are the BEST fans in the world!!!

    But it is also a double-edged sword, because fans have spent years loving your series and characters… I know a few readers who have re-read Night Walker more times than I did editing it… That’s love!

    And that kind of devotion in readers brings responsibility too… I think Charlaine’s editors were right about not killing Bill solely because a huge part of her fan base is “Team Bill” and have been for years. That would be a slap to all of them to kill him off without a SUPER good reason…

    I knew from attending Charlaine Harris book signings that Sookie wouldn’t end with a vampire. Every signing someone asked “Will Sookie end up with Bill or Eric?” and CHarlaine’s answer was always, “Why does everyone think Sookie will end up with a vampire?”

    SO maybe I was more prepared for the ending? Either way, it’s been SUPER sad to see fans turning on her, but she definitely created characters that these readers LOVE and CARE about and as an author that’s the best we can hope for, come what may, right? 🙂

    Lisa

    • It is a double-edged sword, Lisa, but I’d still rather have the passionate fans than the “safe” (i.e., uninvested) readers! And I have no doubt that most of the people moaning over the ending will show up again when her next series begins.

    • It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, and I’ll admit it took a determination on my part to really get into it (I was told it was a paranormal Louisiana series similar to mine so I ran out and read it in a panic….and of course found they were nothing alike!). Wish I had a fraction of that fan base, though!

  12. Interesting post. I haven’t read Ms. Harris’ books, but I do think it’s her decision to end the books when and how she pleases. We all have to write OUR story; that’s what makes us unique as writers, and why readers bought the books in the first place.

    That said, I’m a little surprised at the vehemence of the backlash with the last book, but not that there was a backlash. As writers, the goal is to get readers invested in the characters. If the job was done really well – as it obviously was by Ms. Harris – then it’s natural they’ll have created their own fantasy endings. Look at Charles Dickens and his serialized novels; he had to bring back characters (like Little Dorit) following public backlash to killing her off. BUT, that was his choice as an author, and not necessarily the right choice for every author. If fans really want an alternate ending, perhaps they should / could turn to fan-fiction … or just not buy the book and imagine their own ending. Like the alternate endings / books written for “Gone with the Wind” or slash-fiction imagining romances between characters like Spock and Captain Kirk. Turning on the creator of these beloved characters is a bit strange, but perhaps no stranger than being mad with the deity of your choice.

    Just my two cents. 🙂

    • I agree — the fanfic world is where people will write their own endings…without even getting into the fanfic discussion (that might be another day’s topic!). And I’m not surprised that there was a backlash, either; what did surprise me is how personal it got, and what Ms. Harris has had to deal with.

  13. Great post, Suzanne. I, too, feel bad for Ms. Harris. What an accomplishment to have written a lengthy series and one that is so wildly popular. I confess I haven’t read the it, but I do watch and *love* the show. It’s Eric all the way for me, btw. 🙂

  14. As Neil Gaiman once famously said to a fan who was complaining about the lengthy wait between A Song of Ice and Fire books, “George R.R. Martin is not your bitch.” And I completely agree. The author doesn’t have a whole lot of say over what fandom does to or feels about books/characters after they’re published and out in the world (such as the fanfic communities that crop up, or fanart, or what-have-you, as long as the fans aren’t making money on what they’re creating as derivative works. Unless of course you’re EL James, but that’s a whole other messed-up story), but they sure as hell have control over the characters as they’re writing them. Rabid fans get a liiiiiiiiiittle too invested in books and think they have a say over what happens, but they DON’T. If they want to have a say, they should sit down and write their own stories and then deal with their own rabid fans who come in and try to control their creative babies. Few things in fandom annoy me more than entitled jerk fans who think they have the right to dictate to authors what they should write or how fast they should write it.

  15. Yes, that’s the one. One of the lines is “You aren’t our bitch and you’re not a machine and we don’t mean to tell you how to spend your days…” So, yeah, I’ve listened to it too many times and it still makes me laugh.

  16. I was really sad about all the story. I didn’t really follow it but I confess I asked a friend to tell me. Well even if I like or don’t, it’s like that and I think I need to read it to really have an opinion. But as you say I think the author has the right to do what they want with their characters. There is always a good reason because it’s never for nothing. But well I don’t reall understand why it took this turn… as I said, really sad…

    • I have inadvertently learned how the book ends, and it was as I’d suspected. Certainly not my choice either–I’d rather it end with a bang than a whimper. But it’s still her book, as you say, and it’s still a fun series!

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