I believe most if not all storytellers will agree that characters are important to them. They also will probably agree that characters are important to their audience too. But when it comes to the interpretation of a character, who’s input is more valuable?
Authors are the creators of characters. They often know more about a character’s history, motivations, relationships, and morals than what appears within the pages of a story, and some details they intentionally keep hidden so as not to spoil the plot. Other details are deemed unimportant to the progression of the story and are left up to the imagination of the audience. This is where a reader’s interpretation comes to play.
Writers want their audience to connect with their characters on some level. This can often result in differences in how each interprets things such as appearance or morality. Many authors keep physical descriptions of characters to a minimum, highlighting only the things that are important to building background, personality, and/or circumstance. Attractiveness or lack thereof is best left to the imagination of the reader.
Matters of morality or ethics can be trickier. Readers may try to determine how a character would react to various situations that don’t appear in a given story, but if they don’t fully understand a character’s motivations, they are guessing blind. Usually this would not have much impact on a writer/reader relationship if the story is a one-off with no chance of the character appearing again in later writings. If dealing with a series, however, then readers may find themselves disappointed with the author’s continuing interpretation of the character. If a reader finds a character particularly relatable, their interpretation may lean towards that character being a “better person” than what the author intended. Good writers create flawed characters, and those flaws will demonstrate themselves in actions and opinions as well as circumstances and habits.
If a writer is writing for him/herself, then issues of character interpretation don’t exist except perhaps where a story diverges from the original vision the author had. However, the larger the audience, then the larger the chance for interpretive problems. And in today’s atmosphere where readers are demanding greater diversity of characters, this can put a great deal of pressure on authors.
When I am writing characters, I want to write what I know, especially if my story takes place in a contemporary setting. Unfortunately, what I know is not diverse by today’s mainline standards, and I’m not all that willing to try and tell another subculture’s stories even if they’re cushioned in the packaging of a supporting character in a fantasy story. This, however, does not mean that I am incapable of creating diverse characters… they’re just diverse in a different manner than what many people think of as diversity.
If readers of my stories wish to interpret my characters as being of different backgrounds than I intend, then that’s their business. However, I feel that they will find a certain amount of depth and complexity missing from these characters if they choose to interpret them as such. I cannot write what I don’t know and expect it to be believable. Readers should not expect other writers to create believable diverse characters either if such people go beyond their life experiences. With subcultures often come differences in how the world is interpreted. Even if the basic morals are the same, various groups will value some things more than others, such as family, neighbors, loyalty, respect, and/or customs. If readers want to see quality storytelling, then they should not expect writers to create characters just to please them. A reader’s interpretation of a character is important, but writers are the creators. And they can only create that which is within their abilities and imagination.