Saturday, May 20, 2023

A Life of Their Own, by Lori Roberts Herbst

“All worthy work is open to interpretations the author did not intend. Art isn't your pet — it's your kid. It grows up and talks back to you.” ― Joss Whedon


Remember the Dress Debate a few years back? Some of us saw a gold dress, while others saw blue and black. I fell into the gold dress crowd, and even today, knowing the dress was actually blue and black, I can only see gold.


Then there’s the Old Woman or Young Woman illustration. When I squint and tilt my head just so, I can sort of make out the image of the old woman, but it’s not an easy feat. I’ve seen the sketch dozens of times over the years, and despite the knowledge that both representations exist in one drawing, my brain always gravitates toward the young woman.

 These two examples came to mind because I’ve been thinking lately about perception and interpretation. In addition to English and journalism undergrad degrees, I earned a master’s in counseling, so I’m fascinated by the inner workings of the brain. But it was a recent Facebook sequence that reignited my interest in the subject.


It started when I created a series of Getting to Know You posts spotlighting the cast of characters in my Callie Cassidy Mystery series. Each post included a brief question-and-answer scenario with the character—entertaining tidbits designed to help readers learn more about my characters’ interests.


A funny thing happened. Several loyal readers disagreed with some of the character assessments. For example, one reader mentioned that the Maggie I portrayed didn’t look at all like the Maggie she knew from the books. Another reader messaged me to say I was wrong about a character’s enjoyment of travel. “He’d really rather stay home,” she wrote.


And so it went. I admit I was surprised. I hadn’t anticipated anyone would hold such strong views about the Rock Creek Village characters. Readers seemed to enjoy the series of mini-interviews, but they weren’t shy about letting me know when their perceptions differed from my own.


They did realize these characters were figments of my imagination, right?

Turns out, the characters had blossomed into figments of my readers’ imaginations, too—and what an unexpected gift that is for me. It means characters I created have taken on a life of their own, one that exists outside my brain, my fingers, and my keyboard. It is gratifying to know that readers have become so immersed in my fictional world that they can picture it—and the people in it—so vividly. 


“Every writer can tell you that a book is only truly alive when it finds passionate readers who bring it alive in their imaginations.” —Julia Alvarez


In retrospect, I suppose I should have realized this would happen. I was an English major, for heaven’s sake, so I know how interpretation of fiction works. Readers are influenced by their own context, which means the truth of a book is of necessity subjective. I can’t find evidence to prove this story, but I remember reading that Robert Frost once anonymously wrote in to a literary magazine to explain the meaning of a poem he wrote and was told by the critic that he was dim and clueless. (Side note: if you ever want to engage in a hearty dialogue on poetry, dive into the discussion surrounding Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.”)


My personal version of misalignment with an author’s analysis lies in my own haughty disagreement with Stephen King’s interpretation of Needful Things as portrayed through his personal narration of his audiobook. I submit he just didn’t get it quite right. As if I know more than he does about his book…


But then again, perhaps I do. Perhaps his characters, his stories, live differently in my brain than they do in anyone else’s. That’s a good thing, right? It verifies the notion that fiction can absorb us, stimulate our imaginations, make us think, cause us to feel. And isn’t that the overarching beauty of fiction—of art in any form? In my humble opinion, it’s what we need more of in the world. (Not-so-subliminal messaging: read more fiction and create more art.)


What book’s characters have come alive for you?


Lori Roberts Herbst writes the Callie Cassidy Mysteries, a cozy mystery series set in Rock Creek Village, Colorado. To find out more and to sign up for her newsletter, go to 


Mark Baker said...

I have a definite view of Mrs. Pollifax from the series by Dorothy Gilman. So much so that when I listened to part of an audio book, I had to stop because I knew the character the reader was portraying was wrong. :)

I have also spent so much time with the Trixie Belden characters that I would feel very weird if they were portrayed wrong.

It's why I am usually so mixed when a property I love is going to be turned into a movie or TV show. I mean, unless they are letting me create it, they are going to be completely wrong.

Jim Jackson said...

Jan and I have a disagreement about movie characters based on books. I can enjoy both as long as the movie character isn't too far off the written description (don't get me started on Tom Cruise as Jack Reacher). Jan refuses to watch shows like Bosch or Three Pines because the characters are not the ones she imagines and she doesn't want a confused picture when she picks up the next book in the series.

I long ago gave up the idea that the characters were mine. As you say, I have one view of them as they were born in my head, but ultimately readers get to decide for themselves what a character is really like--for them.

Margaret S. Hamilton said...

I'm careful not to describe my characters head-to-toe, but only with scraps of information (purple hiking socks), and let the reader fill in the details.

On the topic of books to movies, I'm enjoying the lead actor in the new Adam Dalgleish mysteries. He does a credible job, though doesn't "own" the role as Alec Guinness playing George Smiley did, or Brenda Blethyn playing Vera Stanhope.

KM Rockwood said...

Characters are their own selves, and belong no more to the "creator" than to the readers.

Just as we all have differing views of living humans, we will have differing views of characters in books.

When your characters come alive to readers, you've been successful.

Lori Roberts Herbst said...

Mark, you made me laugh out loud! I'd let you create my movie or TV version. I have a feeling you'd get it just right.

Jim, my husband recently told me he'd like to see Jennifer Garner as my protagonist. It made me question our entire marriage. As I told him, she's way too...perky. So he suggested Sandra Bullock. NO! I don't know who would play Callie Cassidy, but it wouldn't be them...(OK, let's be real, if they made a movie version and cast either of them in the role, I think I'd learn to live with it.) Also, I LOVE Titus Welliver as Bosch. He nails it, in my view.

Margaret, I do that, too. I do want readers to get their own picture of the characters. In the Getting to Know You posts, I purposely didn't use pictures of actual people for most...and when I did, it jarred a couple of readers. Lesson learned.

And Kathleen, I agree wholeheartedly. We bring our own context and worldview to everything we read. That's the beauty of it, I think!

Kait said...

I remember many lively debates in English class over The Canterbury Tales. The reading of that story really divided the class and in some cases, the prof was the odd man out. I remember thinking that Chaucer would be proud to be still controversial so long after his death.

Anonymous said...

I have been reading and rereading Rex Stout's books for about 50 years and when I first watched TV'S version with Maury Chaykin and Timothy Hutton I was appalled. Nero Wolfe was perfect but not Archie Goodwin. But Timothy Hutton became Archie and now I visualize him when I read the books.
Chris Wallace