Sunday, August 2, 2009

These Guys Can't Die

Here's the problem with books of licensed fiction, such as any novels set in the Star Wars universe: Authors are often limited by what they can do with the characters. That's not always the case (remember Chewbacca), but it is especially true if the book in question is set before a movie starring one of the characters. Once you take away the notion a character cannot altered in any major way, it takes a bit of the bite out of the conflict.

Competent authors can work around this. Excellent authors can make you forget it. Hacks make it very clear they are trying to trick you. It's not the most of ideal playgrounds for a writer to operate in, but it can have its rewards (namely in having your name attached to something like the Star Wars or Star Trek universe). There's a built-in fan base, all kinds of exposure, and all kinds of hatred that can be thrown a writer's way if he or she screws up.

Quite frankly, I'm not sure I'd ever want to deal with any such problem (not that that looks likely).

When a reader encounters a character that can't be changed in any notable way, it puts a lot of pressure on the other characters in the story, and those characters had better be able to hold the reader's attention or the writer is screwed. That's why I think a writer faces an almost no-win situation when it comes to the craft (but not exactly to the writer's status). Most people who read stories that are licensed are reading them for the characters they know and love. Most of the focus should be on those characters ... but not much can happen to them because everything must be status quo at the end (the same problem exists in comic books). If the story bombs, it bombs hard. If it succeeds it's just another good story. The writer may gain infamy or fame, but he or she is so constricted that in the end the art of writing has to suffer somewhat.

This is obviously not every situation, but I've read enough licensed fiction that I know it is a problem. Anyone can see it. Writers want to write stories where characters change. Franchise owners want their characters untouched so that they don't drive fans away. It's why Superman can never stay dead or James Bond can't suddenly turn gay. It won't work, even if it would serve the story.

I don't blame authors for taking these jobs. They pay well, and often the writer is already a fan of the franchise in contention. Hell, there's a part of me that would love to write a Daredevil story or Batman (and I have a really good idea for that) or even Star Wars, but I know my ideas wouldn't fly because I believe what makes these franchises great are the characters and any story that is driven by characters better have some sort of character pay off. Incidentally, that's why most licensed fiction is situational based. Often you could plug any characters in there, but readers want to see those characters they know and love. The Star Wars films have dealt with the character changes (and to be fair the licensed fiction set after the movies has had the characters progress, which is fine, but the stuff set prior to the films has its limitations).

I wouldn't want to see these stories end, because I'm guilty of enjoying them. I just feel a bit bad for the writer. Say what you will, but it is almost a thankless job, but one that has some great ego rewards ... as well as monetary.

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