One of the struggles with writing Jane Austen fan fiction, in my experience, is balancing the idealized characters created by Austen and realistic characters. Let’s face it, even when considering their flaws, her characters are still idealized versions of the purpose they serve to the plot. It’s easy to either love or hate her characters. Captain Wentworth is perfectly fair, bold, hurt, and observant. It’s hard to know if he is an accurate portrayal of a man in his time or place or if he is simply what Austen needed him to be for her story. This is primarily because that was over 100 years ago and we can only judge people based on what is written about them. If I judge him against other characters from the period, but written in other genres, I find him to be completely unrealistic. This does not diminish my love for the character, but it alters the way I think of him. Today I am going to discuss the struggle of modernizing a classic and beloved character. Side note, I am going to spoil the ending of the Divergent book series… skip this entry if you haven’t read it yet (and still plan to).
I find that fans like a perfect version of a character- a person who makes perfect decisions. At least, far more people than I expect, want a perfect character. That is a character who makes perfect decisions and acts perfectly. I often think back to an episode of Game of Thrones when a minor character, Rickon a 10 year old boy in the show, is told to run to his brother. The journey takes him from one side of a battle to the other. He runs straight for Jon Snow (his brother) and gets shot with an arrow, leading to his death. Fans had mixed reactions to this scene, many angry that he ran straight and didn’t weave. Why? Because running in a straight line made him an easy target. Let’s be honest though, how would a scared, 10 year old boy know to not make himself an easy target?
I can’t write a character who is a perfect version of his/her self. Take my version of Fredrick. He is very flawed. He reacted to rejection with anger and publicly hurt Emma in response. He doesn’t cope well with being on tour with Emma. He is harder on himself than anyone is. He claimed he spent the tour high or drunk, but that’s not what Emma saw (until they were in Los Angeles). It is very likely that he regrets how he coped with the pressure of being around Emma, like most people do when they make and realize the decision was stupid. People don’t make good decisions all the time. Pressure, stress, anxiety, depression, and all the emotions play into our decision making process.
I want to read honest characters too. Yes, I get frustrated when they don’t react the way I would, but as long as they react the way they should then I calm down. In the Divergent series, Tris makes a decision that results in her death. Would I have made the same decision? No, I probably wouldn’t have sacrificed myself, but Tris acted in the way she naturally would have. She routinely sacrificed herself for the greater good, this time just ended up leading to her death. Were readers unhappy? Very much so, but I liked it because it was true to the character.
One of the reasons I do the character profiles for the books is to help create a fuller picture of a character. I don’t want a clear villain. I want complexity because reality is complex. My stories aren’t fairytales with simple happy endings. I want my readers to see my stories grounded in reality. Yes, Emma and Fredrick get a happy ending and a number of the characters do as well, but a few don’t. Even in Phi Alpha Pi, some beloved characters aren’t going to get happy endings and a few of Austen’s villains might get better endings then they deserve.
I hope readers, especially fans of Jane Austen’s original characters, remember that modernizing a story is not just the setting, but the characters. Fredrick is a 30 year old man in 2016. Walter is a widow who has ignored his grief. Karen is fighting to hold on to her career. Mary wants someone to pay attention to her. I hope readers appreciate a fully developed character. I know that I do.